Everything you’ve always wanted to know about retinol

The skin care ingredient people can’t stop talking about

Retinol is one of those skin care terms you may have heard bandied about, but may have no idea exactly what it means. 

In a nutshell, retinol is an incredibly powerful skin care ingredient that can offer huge benefits. To find out more about what retinol is, how it can improve your skin, and the best ways to incorporate it into your skin care routine, we spoke to some of the skin care industry’s top experts. 

What is retinol?

“Retinol is one of the most utilised vitamin As in skin care,” says founder of his namesake skin care range, Danné Montague-King. “There is copious research evidence that illustrates that vitamin A plays an important role in regulating cell production in the skin, and enhancing epidermal cell growth that may be sluggish in certain skins.” 

In simpler terms, Jodie King, skin expert and owner of Skin Clinic Blyss in Clovelly, Sydney, explains; “Known as the ‘normalising vitamin’, retinol is a real workhorse when it comes to reversing the signs of ageing and acne and lightening pigment, and is great as an anti-ageing product. Retinol works as an antioxidant to protect the skin from free radicals, increase collagen production, and speed up cell turnover - which slows down as we age - to even out skin tone, reduce wrinkles and in the case of acne, unclog pores." 

Did you catch all that? The superstar vitamin A ingredient you’ve been hearing all about can help with wrinkles, acne, pigmentation, and even enlarged pores. Retinol is also an incredibly handy ingredient for those with oily skin, as it can help balance sebum production.

“Retinol has the remarkable ability to reprogram skin cells into behaving as if they were young cells, making the skin look younger and rejuvenated. The cells will, instead of producing collagen-degrading enzymes, produce more collagen. As a result, the lower layer of the skin plumps up, and fine lines and brown spots are reduced among many other things. I encourage everyone to use at least one vitamin A product every day in their daily routine.”
Lars Fredriksson

When you should start using retinol

Montague-King explains that “It is not so much about age, but more about when your skin needs to re-establish ‘balance’ to restore the skin back into a healthy state.” 

If you’re not entirely sure if you should or shouldn’t start incorporating retinol or a retinol-based products into your skin care routine, your best bet is to go and chat to a skin care professional. As products feature different potencies of retinol, an expert can also help guide you on how much you should be looking to use.

Who should and shouldn’t use retinol

Retinol is an ingredient that can be used by everyone to maintain the health of their skin, but it’s important to note that as it is a vitamin A, women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should avoid the anti-ageing ingredient altogether.

It’s also a good idea for those with reactive or inflamed skin to be wary of using retinol products, as they can cause temporary redness, dryness and tingling (but rest assured, this is actually part of the process – more on that below). 

Lars Fredriksson, founder of skin care brand Verso, also warns those with dry skin should look into pairing their retinol with extra-hydrating products, as the ingredient can dry skin out. 

He also adds that those with sun-damaged and more aged skin should look to use retinol products more frequently and seek formulas with a higher concentration of retinol. 

How to use retinol

Incorporating retinol into your skin care routine shouldn’t be too hard, given that you can find the ingredient in serums, moisturisers, masks, and eye creams. And because there are so many different products with different potencies, you can easily find a product that has the right retinol strength for you. 

But regardless of the retinol product you use, Montague-King says, “When applied topically, it is best incorporated at night, as vitamin A can cause photosensitivity. It is also recommended to slowly introduce vitamin A into your routine and adjust accordingly to your skin type and what condition is being treated.” Montague-King also recommends “starting with twice a week to avoid a ‘retinol response’ or irritation while your skin is getting used to the increase in cell turnover. And always remember to use an SPF during the day.”

Good to know about retinol

When it comes to using retinol products, it’s not only important to remember that you should start off slowly and regularly use sunscreen, but to also understand the initial effects it will have on your skin.

 “Occasionally, retinol can cause irritation, temporary dryness, redness or tingling. These responses are often misunderstood as a bad reaction or an allergy and often result in clients not wanting to continue with the product. The opposite is true – all these sensations are positive signs of restoration and rejuvenation of the skin. New skin is delicate and should not be exposed to the sun, this is why this product has restrictions: it is to be used a night and SPF daily is non negotiable,” says Samantha Wheeler, Senior Dermal Clinician at Total Face Group. 

Retinol products to try:

emerginC multi-vitamin + retinol serum: Pretty as this looks, it packs a punch, too. Suitable for all skin types (and particularly beneficial for those with red, sensitive skin), this combination of retinol, vitamin C and vitamin E works to increase cellular turnover, strengthen skin, improve tone and texture, and reduce the appearance of broken capillaries.

Ultraceuticals Ultra A Skin Perfecting Serum: Featuring pure retinol, this serum works with the skin’s own production of hyaluronic acid to plump skin and reduce the appearance of fine lines. It also contains a complex of calming ingredients to help counteract any irritations that could occur for first-time users.

Dermalogica Age Reversal Eye Complex: This nourishing and anti-ageing eye cream harnesses the power of retinol, niacinamide, and hyaluronic acid to stimulate collagen production and thicken cell layers in the skin around the eyes to leave the area looking plumper and smoother.

emerginC multi-vitamin + retinol serum

Ultraceuticals Ultra A Skin Perfecting Serum

Dermalogica Age Reversal Eye Complex

Cosmedix Refine: This one’s a winner for those with problematic skin. Featuring microencapsulated retinol, this treatment specifically targets oily, congested and acne-prone skin while working to reduce lines and imperfections.

Alpha-H Beauty Sleep Power Peel: Your body is working overtime to renew and repair cells as you sleep, and this combination of exfoliating glycolic acid and collagen-boosting retinol will help the cause, leaving you with smoother, firmer and plumper skin come morning. 

Paula’s Choice RESIST Intensive Wrinkle-Repair Retinol: This fast-absorbing retinol serum can be added into your routine before moisturising to fight against ageing without irritating skin thanks to soothing ingredients and the fact that it’s 100 per cent fragrance and colourant free.

Cosmedix Refine

Alpha-H Beauty Sleep Power Peel

Paula’s Choice RESIST Intensive Wrinkle-Repair Retinol

asap Super A+ Serum: This anti-ageing serum pairs the powers of high-strength retinol with nourishing sodium hyaluronate to leave skin clearer, smoother, and more supple. 

Verso Intense Facial Mask: It was just a matter of time before the sheet mask trend and retinol paired up. This sheet mask will deliver a good dose of retinol 8 and hydration in just 20 minutes, Too easy. 

DMK Retosin: While the retinol in this exfoliating lotion will definitely work hard to fight the signs of ageing, the combination of ingredients really shine when targeting acne and skin tone. Just make sure to slowly introduce it into your routine!

asap Super A+ Serum

Verso Intense Facial Mask

DMK Retosin

If you love learning about skin care ingredients, find out why you should add vitamin C to your regimen.

Main image photography by: Edward Urrutia

Carli is BEAUTYcrew’s Editor and has been since the site launched in 2016. She is currently on a quest to find the perfect medium-coverage foundation for combination skin, is trying to narrow down her mascara collection to just three, and is embracing the power of AHAs. You can find her words right here on BEAUTYcrew, and previously on beautyheaven.