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Retinoids: a guide

The key skincare retinoids and how to use them for incredible results

You’ve heard the name, but what are retinoids and are they really as effective (not to mention scary) as they are lauded to be? Retinoids are a family of vitamin A derivatives that work deeply and powerfully to transform skin by communicating to damaged skin cells.

While pure topical retinoid creams, lotions and gels are only available on prescription, the highly popular beauty industry favourite retinol, along with up-and-coming retinaldehyde/retinal, and less intense retinyl palmitate can all be bought over the counter. However, unlike your daily cleansing and moisturising products, retinoids take some time getting used to.

But stick with us, because these scientific skincare powerhouses have the power to truly transform your skin. All retinoids have a similar effect on the skin: working chiefly as exfoliators, they can help reduce the signs of ageing and the fine lines and wrinkles that go with it, stimulate collagen, improve an uneven skin tone, and blitz pigmentation and surface irregularities.

Incorporating retinoids into your skincare regime requires time, effort and patience while your skin builds tolerance. But the payback is more than worth it – get it right and you’ll soon be wondering how you and your skin ever lived without them.

What are the most popular retinoids?

  •  Retinol: Retinol is a tried and tested retinoid that is available over the counter and gentler on the skin than retinal and retinoic acid, causing less irritation. It works especially well on maturing skin, promoting a youthful glow. 

  • Retinyl Palmitate: Retinyl palmitate is weaker, less irritating and arguably less effective than retinol. It’s recommended for sensitive or reactive skins that cannot tolerate retinol. It has collagen-boosting, pore clearing and antioxidant properties. 

  • Retinaldehyde (retinal): This new-kid-on-the-block vitamin A is a more powerful exfoliator than retinol but weaker than tretinoin/retinoic acid. It acts faster than retinol and also has powerful anti-bacterial properties for promoting a clearer complexion.

  • Tretinoin/retinoic acid: This is a prescription-strength, prescription-only retinoid. It is used to treat acne (by decreasing the number and severity of spots and acne scars) and sun-damaged skin and is sold under many brand names. 

What will retinoids do for my skin?

Retinoids, specifically tretinoin/retinoic acid, were once relied upon to treat acne but they are now also used widely as an age management treatment, mainly by increasing your cell turnover, stimulating collagen and inhibiting melanin production.

Key skincare benefits of retinoids

  • Enhance the rate of cell turnover 
  • Improve skin texture and tone
  • Improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles
  • Improve the appearance of pigmentation by inhibiting melanin production
  • Stimulate collagen and elastin
  • Regulate sebum production and keep pores clear

How and when should I use them?

While they are recognised for being the gold standard in anti-ageing, specialists actually recommend you start using retinoids in your late twenties or early thirties which is when skin starts to lose collagen. As well as blurring fine lines and wrinkles, they are also useful for combatting whiteheads and blackheads.

There is a retinoid to suit most skin types: those with very sensitive or intolerant skin should opt for products containing the weaker retinyl palmitate to minimise irritation (although they should still go easy at first), while those with stronger and less reactive skin should be able to tolerate retinol and the more intense form of vitamin A, retinaldehyde.

Whatever product you choose, apply it at night to freshly cleansed skin – a pea-sized amount should be enough to cover your face. Go ahead and apply a night cream around 15 minutes later if your skin feels dry.

Retinoids such as retinol can make skin more sun sensitive if it’s red or peeling, so use a good sunscreen – a minimum of SPF30 during the day, and be careful if spending time in strong sunlight.

Patience is key! Start slowly, once or twice a week to begin with, building up to every other night. If you are using an over the counter product, start with one that contains at least 0.1 per cent retinol. Then, as your skin gets used to it, you can increase the strength to 0.5 per cent and then one per cent.

It may take between eight and 12 weeks before you start seeing the benefits of using retinoids. Any soreness around the nose or lips can be alleviated by using a little petroleum jelly for a couple of days.

Don’t just stop at your face – retinoids can also be used on your neck and décolletage but go extra carefully or opt for a product specifically formulated for use on these areas.

Are Retinoids safe? What are the side effects? 

Be prepared for your skin to object to being introduced to retinoids for the first time – burning, redness, peeling, shedding, irritation and stinging are par for the course and also expected reactions, usually a couple of days after first use. This is because your skin is working harder and  initiating inflammation to repair and create new tissue.

Having said that, some new generation retinol products are cleverly formulated to swerve the irritation caused by the increased cell turnover.  

If you’re using over the counter retinoids such as retinol, we recommend that you do so under the supervision of a trained skincare professional or dermatologist, especially if you have sensitive skin, to ensure you are using it correctly and at the correct dosage.

If you have rosacea or eczema you may need to avoid it altogether. You should also avoid using retinoids if you are pregnant.