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New to retinol? Start with these gentle formulas

January 1 | 4 minute read

Best Beginner Retinol Products Hero 16x9

Words by Kerri Gordon, Francesca Hyde and Christie Sinclair

Originally published on | April 2

To help kickstart start your journey into retinol-hood, we’ve curated a list of our most gentle (and least daunting) retinol-powered formulas that we’ve tried, tested and know you can rely on.

We go on (and on) about the fine line, breakout, texture and tone-defying powers of retinol (aka vitamin A) in its many forms – but we also recognise that for many, the side effects (like redness, flaking and sensitivity) can deter you from even giving this wonder ingredient a shot.

But with the rapid progress in skincare formulations over recent years, overlooking retinol would be (in our opinion) a travesty! From plant-derived alternatives to micro-doses and encapsulated versions, there are now so many options that greatly reduce the risk of irritation – while still providing all the incredible benefits. Plus, there’s a veritable cinematic universe of supporting ingredients that help to create a more soothing experience, such as niacinamide, ceramides, peptides, oils and hyaluronic acid.

But wait: before you go lathering yourself in the stuff, for the love of your skin barrier, stop! There are some things you need to know, says MECCA’s customer education lead Francesca Hyde. First: “Start slow - acclimatise your skin to retinol by applying every third day for the first week, then build up to alternating days until you understand your skin’s ability to tolerate retinol products,” she explains. She adds, “If your skin starts to peel or show irritation – back off and nourish it with rich treatments and moisturisers.” And above all, always (always!) wear SPF – but that’s a given, right?

Elevate, never irritate—that's the aim of these active yet gentle peel pads. And you can always rely on Dr. Dennis Gross to handle your skin with care. The dermatologist carefully blends a retinol, bakuchiol, and rambutan cocktail to achieve the coveted skin-refining results. Natural skincare allies like squalane and hyaluronic acid ensure your moisture barrier remains replenished. Additionally, ferulic acid enhances effectiveness while counteracting any potential irritation.

Pro tip: Begin with the 0.2% concentration pads and gradually increase for optimal results as your skin adjusts.

“This rich cream formula is for those that want rejuvenation fast,” says Hyde of Allies of Skin’s intensive treatment. “It’s the closest form of retinol to prescription strength retinoic acid, yet without any of the irritation typically associated with high-strength retinol.” In other words, it’s a great option for sensitive skin! Argan oil, hyaluronic acid and multiple peptides work away in the background to bring on plump and juicy skin while you sleep.

Pro tip: After cleansing, apply four pumps to a completely dry face in the evening.

Sunday Riley’s famously blue oil is the ultimate starter retinol according to Hyde. “It features a gentle retinol derivative (trans retinol ester) alongside calming blue tansy, which helps you avoid common starter mishaps like irritation and over application.” With consistent use, it tackles the appearance of fine lines and damage to leave skin smoother, with more even tone and texture.

Pro tip: Pop a drop or two on clean dry skin in the evening. If your face is blue, you’ve overdone it!
Retinol works from below, encouraging cellular turnover
Francesca Hyde

When it comes to skincare, Kiehl's is the trusted O.G. (if you know, you know). And with their reliable formulas, venturing into the world of retinol feels like a safe bet. This serum treats your face to a micro-dose of pure retinol. Thanks to the controlled dosage, it's gentle enough to reserve a space in your daily routine. Plus, with strengthening peptides and nourishing ceramides in the mix, your skin's barrier gets some serious TLC while you bask in all those skin-refining rewards.

Pro tip: Let this serum work its magic all over your freshly cleansed and dry face, tackling even crow's feet and under-eye areas (just steer clear of the eyes and lids themselves!).

Augustinus Bader's cult, celebrity-loved status owes itself to the brand's transformative skin results. Their retinol serum is no exception, targeting blemishes, acne scarring, and fine lines and enhancing skin texture and tone. The formula fuses gentle therapeutic retinol with Professor Bader's notorious TFC8® technology. Behind the science jargon, the two create a dynamic duo to gently yet effectively accelerate cell turnover while boosting the skin's natural repair system. The result? Red-carpet-ready skin sans discomfort or redness.

Pro tip: After cleansing, massage the face with the serum. Use upward sweeping motions from neck to chin, across the jawline, nose to ears, and cheeks to temples. Rub any excess over the décolleté.

Plant-derived retinol alternatives have grown in popularity over the past few years due to their ability to mimic the effects of traditional retinols, without the risk of sensitisation. “This formula is powered by bakuchiol, a Vitamin A derivative that improves the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles while helping to strengthen the skin barrier,” explains Hyde. Bolstered by nourishing oils, it is the perfect option for those hesitant to try retinol or if you have dry, sensitive skin.

Pro tip: This formula can be used both morning and night. But remember your SPF if used in the day!

Time-poor or can’t commit to a 10-step skincare routine, yet still searching for a product that will help your skin become smoother, glowier and stronger? This moisturising formula is for you, reveals Hyde. “You can give your layers of skincare a miss with this do-it-all form of retinol,” she says. “Retinol 8, the active ingredient in Verso’s Night Cream, is eight times more effective than traditional retinol at helping to stimulate collagen production.” Combined with calming antioxidants and hyaluronic acid, it’s an excellent all-in-one option for the uninitiated.

Pro tip: Designed to be slept in, ensure you apply to completely dry, cleansed skin.

Consider this serum an inclusive gathering for retinol enthusiasts of all levels—whether you're a beginner, a regular user, or a die-hard fan. Formulated with an optimum 0.25% retinol concentration, it finds the sweet spot between delivering noticeable results (think clear and balanced skin with minimised pores) and catering to sensitive skin types. Microencapsulated retinol guarantees the ingredient's stability, so it is less likely to trigger a reaction, while added amino acids soothe and hydrate, preventing potential skin sensitivities.

Pro tip: Incorporate this serum into your nightly skincare ritual, gently massaging 1-2 pumps onto freshly cleansed skin. Always remember to use SPF, try MECCA COSMETICA's To Save Face SPF50+ Superscreen.

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