What is retinol and what does retinol do?

What is retinol and what does retinol do for your skin?

26th February 2024 | Author: Jade Vincent

Retinol is seemingly everywhere but what is retinol and what does it do to your skin? Find out more in our latest Ingredient Spotlight

Almost every anti-ageing cream and serum on the market contains the so-called hero active ingredient retinol. It’s marketed as a wonder cure for many skin concerns and needs, but what is retinol and what does retinol do for your skin?

Put simply, retinol is a somewhat miracle molecule within the retinoid family that promises to minimise fine lines, combat blemishes and refine textured skin with continued use.

Retinoids have been championed by dermatologists and beauty experts for their blemish-busting properties since the 1970s when it was first introduced in acne treatments. Yet the multitasking molecule quickly proved itself to be a valuable addition to anti-ageing skincare.

It does come with some downsides though. To help you understand what retinol is and what it does, we’ve explained the science below. We’ve also got expert advice from Kelly Saynor, aesthetic nurse and clinical director of Medica Forte.

This is the latest in our ingredient explainers, having previously covered hyaluronic acid and Vitamin C. You can also learn more in our the truth about the acids in your skincare.

What is retinol?

Retinols are members of the retinoid family which derive from a powerful molecular compound called Vitamin A.

Retinoids have stronger formulas that require a prescription and come in a gel or cream for easy application.

Most retinol products, on the other hand, come in serum form and are readily available over the counter.

Typology Skincare UK retinol serumTypology Skincare

Unsurprisingly, not all retinols are created equal. Retinol products use varying concentrations to treat the skin, ranging from 0.1% to 2% — the latter being the highest percentage you can get without a prescription.

Any skincare product that contains more than 0.25% has been clinically proven to be enough to reap the benefits of glowier skin yet it’s advised to start with a lower concentration for the skin to build up a tolerance.

You can read more on this in our side effects section further down.

What does retinol do for your skin? 

“Retinol is one of the most researched and proven skincare ingredients available,” said Saynor. “It’s renowned for its anti-ageing benefits, including stimulating collagen production, accelerating cell turnover, and improving the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and uneven skin texture.”

Retinol prevents pores from getting clogged with dead skin cells which in turn diminishes the risk of breakouts. Plus, since cells are constantly turning over, the use of retinol can help to fade acne scars, dark spots and hyperpigmentation.

“By increasing cell turnover, retinol helps to exfoliate the skin, leading to a smoother, more radiant complexion,” continued Saynor. “It also aids in unclogging pores, making it effective against acne.”

But how does retinol work? Constant exposure to retinol increases the levels of retinoid receptors in our system.

These are proteins whose job is to carry and deposit Vitamin A into skin cells to stimulate collagen production. That equals maximised collagen and elastin for better hydration and tighter, plumper skin.

FURTHER READING: Does anti-ageing skincare actually work? Here’s what the evidence says

How to use retinol

Face-oil-for-oily-skin-dry-skin-how-to-use-bestGetty Images/iStockphoto

The best way to use retinol is slow and steady. “This is because retinol accelerates cell turnover, which can lead to irritation, dryness, and peeling as the skin adjusts,” adds Saynor. “This can be particularly pronounced during the initial stages of use.”

As a result, gradually introducing a low concentration of retinol into your beauty regime can help you prevent skin irritation.

Use twice a week for the first month and then increase frequency when your skin has built up a tolerance. Once your skin has adjusted to daily usage you can begin to phase in a retinol with a stronger formulation.

Have a gander at our retinol rulebook for best results:

  1. At nighttime, apply a pea-sized amount to freshly cleansed skin, avoiding the eye area. It’s been proven that retinol loses its effectiveness once exposed to sunlight
  2. Use a gentle moisturiser 30 minutes after applying a retinol or retinoid to combat dryness and allow enough time for the active ingredient to penetrate the skin
  3. Apply SPF! Retinol heightens the skin’s sensitivity to sunlight which makes it crucial that you protect your complexion with a high sunscreen
  4. Pair back usage if your skin freaks out. Remember it’s not a race, your skin will build up a tolerance in it’s own time
  5. Be patient. If Vitamin C, AHA’s and BHA’s have taught us anything it’s that a good thing takes time, and it can take up to a month (or longer) to notice results

This is why, when we test retinol-based products (as well as skincare in general), we spend a minimum of four weeks using it in order to get true, real-world results. You can read more in our How we test skincare guide.

If you do find your skin breaking out after use, it could be that you’re experience skin purging and you can read more in our guide to why this happens.

What side effects does retinol have?

As with almost anything you put in or on your body, there are side effects but that doesn’t mean there’s any need to panic, we promise!

Everyone’s skin reacts differently to retinol but a small number of us may experience redness, dryness or flakiness. If this happens, simply limit your application to once a week, use a retinol with a low concentration and apply a hydrating moisturiser.

“Retinol can make the skin more sensitive to UV radiation, so diligent use of sunscreen, and avoiding sun exposure, is imperative,” continues Saynor. “Overuse or using too high a concentration can disrupt the skin’s natural barrier, leading to increased moisture loss and vulnerability to irritants.”

Any side effects will likely pass after a few weeks.

It’s also common for acne-prone skin to “purge” as the retinol turfs out the grime hiding in pores.

Remember these breakouts were inevitable and the molecule is only bringing them to the surface a little faster than usual. You’ll be on the road to clearer skin in no time.

Note that those suffering from rosacea, eczema or psoriasis should give retinol a miss because it can exacerbate skin irritations.

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