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Retinol 101: A beginner's guide to choosing and using retinol

January 1 | 6 minute read

Meccapedia Retinol Thumbnail Landscape 16x9 1

Words by Kerri Gordon

Originally published on | September 2

If you haven’t snuck this expert-loved ingredient into your routine yet, consider this the educated nudge you needed for brighter, smoother, firmer skin.

First, what is retinol?

Retinol is the most common derivative of vitamin A, and is famed as skincare’s most hard-working ingredient. It’s beloved by skincare experts and clinically proven to help treat acne and wrinkles – reaching both ends of the skin issue spectrum – as well as all the texture and dullness in between. How? By speeding up epidermal (aka skin cell) turnover and encouraging collagen production. Basically, it tricks your skin into thinking it’s a younger, more youthful version of itself!

The retinol boom first came with a warning of potential side effects such as redness, dryness and sun-sensitivity which were a hangover from prescription retinol treatments. Then came products with ‘gentler’ retinoids that could be worn in the day, and then plant-based alternatives.

Vitamin A is an ingredient with nuances, so if you really want to know the nitty gritty – and how to choose the right retinol for you – then get ready, because class is in session.

What are the benefits of retinol?

Retinol addresses every skin concern from fine lines to acne, pigmentation to sun damage. It works by accelerating cellular turnover, triggering collagen production, and evening out your complexion. Bingo: younger-looking skin.

“Retinol can strengthen your skin and regenerate collagen, as well as assist with breakouts,” says Melbourne dermatologist Dr. Alice Rudd.

It clears out blocked pores and blackheads, making it a godsend if you’re dealing with breakouts. Choosing the right type of retinol for your skin will help you get the best results.

“Retinol can strengthen your skin and regenerate collagen, as well as assist with breakouts”
Dr. Alice Rudd

Are there different types of retinol?

Retinol is a retinoid – the name for all vitamin A derivatives. Think of retinoid as the parent and retinol as the child; but this isn’t a single-child household. There are also retinol esters, retinaldehyde, retinoic acid, adapalene, tretinoin, tazarotene, trifarotene and isotretinoin.

No matter which member of the retinoid family is in your product, your skin can only use the active form of vitamin A, which is retinoic acid. All retinoids convert to retinoic acid when they combine with the enzymes in our skin, in either one, two or three steps.

Retinol esters convert to retinol, then from retinol to retinaldehyde, then finally from retinaldehyde to retinoic acid. The closer the compound in your skincare is to retinoic acid, the more readily it converts and can take effect. However, other factors can play a part in the effectiveness, too.

Let’s talk retinol

Retinol is the most common retinoid in non-prescription skincare. It converts to retinoic acid in two steps. Clinical tests have shown retinol to provide similar results to retinoic acid, just with a little more time. Retinol is present in different product types for different purposes. Available in serums, oils, creams & eye treatments, retinol can be incorporated into every step of your skin care routine.

What is tretinoin?

A prescription form of vitamin A – often known by the brand name Retin-A – tretinoin is pure retinoic acid, meaning it gets to work pronto!

It’s 20 times stronger than retinol and has shown a significant ability to help reduce wrinkles and fine lines and restore collagen, as well as discouraging acne by slowing keratinisation and preventing the clogging of sebum.

Wonderous abilities, yes! But, the downsides of tretinoin if not used with caution and following medical advice, are the potential side effects of dryness, redness, inflammation and even hyperpigmentation

What are retinol esters?

Often seen on ingredient lists as retinyls, retinol esters are the gentlest of the vitamin A derivatives and best used in conjunction with other retinoids for effective results

Are there plant-based retinol alternatives?

Oat milk isn’t the only plant-based alternative enjoying a burst of popularity! Retinoids (which are often derived from animal, milk, or egg enzymes) have some growing (vegan-friendly) competition too.

Bakuchiol – an extract from the babchi plant found in India – is making a name for itself as the natural retinol alternative. It helps to increase the turnover of collagen and skin cells, but with a very low chance of irritation.

Meccapedia Retinol 11x4 1

Which type of retinol is right for you?

The right type of retinol for you depends on your skin type and whether you have used retinoids before.

Retinol is available in several different strengths; if you are a complete retinol beginner or have sensitive skin, choose a product with a lower retinol concentration of 0.2 percent. If your skin shows little sign of irritation, you can gradually switch to higher concentration products.

If you do notice excessive redness or flaking, try swapping your retinol for bakuchiol. For those with more robust or oily skin, a medium-strength 0.5 percent concentration product may be suitable, while regular retinol users may be able to tolerate products with up to 1 percent retinol concentration.

No matter what you choose, start slow and let your skin get used to the application. If you’re introducing retinol for the first time, experts suggest using it gradually, increasing frequency as you build up your tolerance. Most experienced retinol users still only apply it every other night.

When should you start using retinol?

Though countless beauty fans are tapping into anti-ageing products earlier, inspired by trends like glass skin, the consensus is that your late 20s or early 30s is the moment to embrace retinol. Collagen begins to break down from around the age of 26 onwards, making it a good time to incorporate retinol-type ingredients that encourage cellular turnover and keep the skin firm. Undoing the damage to your skin in later decades is much more difficult.

How to use retinol in your routine?

Retinol is a powerful skincare ingredient. However, it can cause irritation, particularly on sensitive skin or when combined with some other actives, which makes it important to start with a low concentration.

The most common way to incorporate retinol into your skincare routine is through the use of a dedicated serum or retinol cream. If you’re looking for all-over benefits, these products are formulated with complementary ingredients depending on your skin type. For a more targeted approach, a retinol eye cream will zero in results on the eye area.

A general rule of thumb is to apply your products in the order of thinnest to thickest, practicing prevention and protection during the daytime (with the likes of vitamin C, ceramides and, of course, SPF) and correction and restoration in the evenings. Retinol is an integral part of the latter approach, best applied after cleansing and before a restorative night cream every consecutive or alternative day, depending on your tolerance levels.

Sensitive? Switch the order

Those with sensitive skin should tread carefully. Buffering retinol products between layers of moisturiser is one way to mitigate the irritation that can occur. Even if you’re not sensitive, layering on a rich hydrator will help prevent flaking skin, especially in winter.

Go beyond your face

The benefits of retinol aren’t just reserved for your face. Kate Somerville advises applying retinol to the tops of your hands and on your chest. “This is where the most visible signs of sun damage and ageing tend to show up first,” she says.

There are also retinol products designed specifically for the delicate (and prone to crepiness) skin of the neck and chest, retinol-enhanced hand serums designed to banish dark spots and wrinkles, and retinol-infused lip products to perfect your pout. As with all retinol wonders, introduce them gradually into your routine until your skin has adjusted.

Meccapedia Retinol 16x9 2

Consider the other ingredients in your routine

Which ingredients can you mix with retinol?

Some experts argue that the two skincare heavyweights – retinol and vitamin C – counteract each other when applied simultaneously, reserving vitamin C for the morning and retinol for the evening. However, some formulas do mix the two, by incorporating stabilising ingredients that help them to play nicely together. Your best bet? Keep vitamin C and retinol separate (morning and night, respectively) if you’re applying them via different products. If you’re using a product that contains both, then rest assured that they’re expertly blended and won’t cancel each other out!

Which ingredients can’t you mix with retinol?

Ingredients you should avoid mixing with retinol: acne treatments including salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide. Combining them may cause irritation or even cancel out their benefits – they’re beauty frenemies!

Can you add retinol to your daytime regimen?

In short, yes! Some specific types of retinol are crafted using encapsulated formulas that resist breaking down in sunlight, making them suitable for use during the day.

Drunk Elephant founder Tiffany Masterson told us that her A-Passioni™ Retinol Cream can be applied during your waking hours. Just make sure to layer your favourite SPF on top. “As long as you are diligent about wearing SPF,” she says, “retinol, worn underneath broad-spectrum sunscreen, can help to defend skin against environmental damage.”

Related topics and brand tags

RetinolVitamin CSkin careGo-ToDrunk Elephant

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