Is Retinol Really the Secret to Beautiful Skin?

Is Retinol Really the Secret to Beautiful Skin?

We've all heard of it, but what does it actually do? Gemma Watts breaks down everything you need to know about retinol - how to introduce it into your skincare routine, the difference between retinoid, retinol and retin-A, and what to expect as a first time user.

Gemma Watts

Beauty Expert

0 minute read

Published: June 2022

Origin: Australia

Words like “must-have” and “essentials” are bandied about more often than I’d like in beauty.

But, based on what I’ve gleaned from just about every dermatologist I have ever interviewed, blurted questions at during a consult or walked past on the street, there are really only two products one “needs” to have on high rotation for beautiful, young looking skin- sunscreen and retinol. 

We’ve all heard about this power couple. We know that sunscreen, as its name suggests, works to protect our skin from the sun - but what about retinol?

Widely lauded as the topical secret to youthful, blemish free, smoothed and lifted, bright and bouncy skin, there’s still a great deal of mystery (and misinformation) surrounding this tried-and-tested skin salve. 

Which Retinol to use?

Not sure where to start? Medik8’s Crystal Retinal range is a great way to work retinoids into your routine, as each serum is labelled with a number correlating to the product’s retinoid percentage (for example Crystal Retinal 3 contains 0.3% stabilised Vitamin A) allowing you to gradually increase that percentage and build up your skin’s retinol tolerance.

I also love the Nécessaire Body Retinol after Vitamin A, as it has been specifically formulated to counteract those potentially sensitising side effects thanks to advanced ceramides and a complex of soothing, restorative ingredients. 

What is retinol and what can it actually do for the skin?

Retinol is an over-the-counter derivative of Vitamin A, also known as Vitamin A1. For retinol to “work” on the skin, it must go through a conversion process from retinol to retinoic acid, which is the form of retinol that is bioavailable to the skin.

This is a natural conversion process performed by the enzymes found in our own skin.

We’re told that the topical use of retinol can reduce the visible signs of ageing, can fill out fine lines and wrinkles, fade age spots, treat acne and improve the overall texture of the skin- but what can it actually do? 

The beauty of retinol is that it can, and has been proven to, achieve all of that at once.

Retinol works by increasing the speed of the skin’s natural cell turnover process.

Our skin naturally “sheds” dead and dry skins on a 28 day turnover process naturally. Retinol has the ability to enhance that natural turnover process, speeding up the cycle. 

So how does that manage to assist with both ageing and acne? In a few ways.

Acne is the result of clogged pores, and increased cell turnover means we’re shedding any cells that may be clogging the pores quicker than we otherwise would.

Retinol also decreases the function of overactive oil glands, balancing the skin’s natural oil production for skin that looks clearer and pores that appear smaller and tighter. 

That enhances cell turnover also boosts the skin’s natural production of collagen, which is how (and why!) retinol can give the skin a fuller, firmer, bouncier appearance.

Retinol also slows the production of the enzyme that breaks down collagen and elastin in the skin, working to smooth the skin’s surface and “fill out” fine lines and wrinkles.

Retinol, despite being an antioxidant, also has an almost “exfoliant” quality on the skin (as it thins the outermost layer of the skin while thickening the inner layers), leaving it appearing brighter and more even in tone, with dark spots and pigmentation appearing faded with consistent use. 

Retinol, retinoids, retin-A…

Between retinol, retinoids, retin-A, retinol esters and the rest of the retin roster, it can be difficult to decipher what we’re actually applying to the skin, let alone what we should be applying. 

Where retinol is an over-the-counter form of Vitamin-A, the word “retinoids” is the umbrella beneath which retinol sits.

Retinoids include everything within the retin family, including retinol, retinol esters, retinaldehyde, retinoic acid, tretinoin and isotretinoin.

Tretinoin and isotretinoin, two ingredients you’ll have likely heard used by dermatologists and dermal clinicians, are pure forms of retinoic acid, meaning they’re the strongest of the retinoids.

For this reason, they are prescription only medication, as opposed to retinol which is available over the counter.

The closer a retinoid is to pure retinoic acid, the more effective it is on the skin but the more sensitising it can also be- which is why working retinoids into your routine takes a little bit of work…

How to work retinol into your beauty routine

There are a number of “rules of thumb,” so to speak, that will make working retinol into your skincare routine that bit more seamless.

The first is your age. There is no true rule as to what age you can begin using retinol at, however most dermatologists agree that in your 20s is a great time to start in order to treat acne and prevent the depletion of collagen and elastin that comes naturally with age.

The exception is teenagers with particularly acne-prone skin, although in those instances a dermatologist will likely prescribe a concentration of tretinoin rather than an over-the-counter retinol solution. 

When it comes to choosing a physical product with retinol in it to work into your routine, your options will likely come down to a serum or a moisturiser. If you are brand new to retinol, I would recommend using a moisturiser with retinol in it (noting, however, that I am an educated consumer and not an expert).

I make this recommendation as, in my experience, moisturisers with retinol in them also usually contain really hydrating, soothing ingredients (think hyaluronic acid and ceramides) that work to counteract the potentially drying or irritating effects of retinol (a result of the ingredient slightly “thinning” the epidermis). A gentle, low-percentage (around 0.2%) retinol serum is also a great option for those new to the ingredient.

Beyond dryness and irritation, “purging” is a common side effect of first-time retinol use - this sees the skin have a temporary break out, with deep rooted blemishes rising to the surface of the skin as the cell turnover process initially speeds up.

To combat all of these side effects, I’ve found “buffering” my retinol to be the most effective solution for my skin (and is something I recommend all first-time retinol users try for themselves).

How to buffer your retinol

Buffering your product involves applying a simple, hydrating moisturiser to your skin to create something of a barrier, letting it sink in for around 20 minutes, and then applying your retinol product afterwards. This will slightly lessen the concentration of the retinol, which will allow your skin time to adjust to the ingredient. 

How often you use retinol depends largely on the product itself and on your skin’s tolerance. If you are new to retinol, try using it 2 to 3 times per week, slowly building up over the course of around 8 weeks- slowly but surely!

For some, a high percentage retinol used only a couple of times per week is better for the skin than using a lower percentage daily, and vice versa, so a commitment to a little trial-and-error is essential here.

Retinol is generally recommended for nighttime use, as it makes the skin more sensitive to the sun. This is also why it’s essential (genuinely essential) to use SPF50+ daily when using retinol. 


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Gemma Watts

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