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What Is Retinol?

What Is Retinol?

If you’re anything like me, I’ve started becoming aware that my skin is starting to age. I started this year with one forehead wrinkle, and even though I quit smoking 5 years ago, and religiously follow my skincare routine, by October this year I realised I had 3 (!) forehead wrinkles, however faint.

It got me thinking that the skincare routine I’ve had since I was 16 is not as helpful to my 26-year-old skin today. This year I started getting Botox, but we also need a little bit of help in between jabs. Which brings us to retinol! The saviour of old people skin! The duct-tape of skincare! The arch-nemesis of sarcasm!

Yeah, it was time I started using it. But where to start? What brand should I use? How often do I use it? I had no idea. Good thing I did all my research so I could pass on the knowledge to you beautiful, wrinkling, fellow souls. You’re welcome.

Retinol is a derivative of Vitamin A, which has been proven to have anti-aging effects and actually change the appearance of your skin. Unlike other “miracle” creams, retinol actually does what it says on the bottle – as long as you choose the right product and use it correctly.

The thing about retinol is you’ve got to start low and slow. Not everybody’s skin can handle retinols, so it’s best to try it out first by using the lowest possible percentage one or two times a week for a couple of weeks, just to see how it goes (fingers crossed!). Then you can bump it up to up to 5 times a week, and slowly (if your skin can handle it) you can raise the percentage. Personally, I use my retinol on Monday’s, Wednesday’s, and Friday’s so I have other days free to use different products.

I cannot stress enough how important it is to patch test your products before you use them. Especially if you have sensitive or problem skin like me, and especially if you’re using harsher than normal chemicals on your skin like acids and retinoids – patch test your product!!! It’s easy to have a ‘she’ll be right’ mentality until it all goes wrong, and you end up blotchy and stingy.

It’s important to keep in mind that just because you’re not on the highest percentage of retinol, doesn’t mean that bumping up to the highest percentage is a good idea. There’s an optimum percentage and frequency to use retinol for your skin, and it’s different for everyone. Your skin might only handle 0.3% retinol 3 times a week, and that’s okay! It’s the best for your skin, and forcing your skin to handle anything more than that is probably only detrimental – which is the opposite of what we’re trying to achieve here. Consistency will get you way further than going hard and fast and potentially damaging your skin with a high potency retinol.

If your skin starts getting too dry, starts peeling, or getting itchy – you’re using it too often, or your percentage is too high. If you put it on, and your skin starts stinging, flushes red, or flushes white – wash your face immediately with water and do not use it again. You just had an allergic reaction, but don’t you worry, we’ll find something else for you to keep those little wrinklies at bay.

When looking for a retinol, you want to buy one that’s in a light-proof container. Retinol is light-sensitive, and sunlight decreases the efficacy of the product – so if you find a retinol in a clear glass bottle, don’t buy it, it’s a waste of money.

Try and find an encapsulated retinol, which just means it has a gradual release system, and causes less irritation than normal retinols. I’ve added the best retinols to use below, but Skinceutical’s, Skinbetter Science AlphaRet’s and Medik8’s retinols are all encapsulated with a slow and steady delivery system.

If you’ve ever used prescription creams for acne, you’ve probably used a retinol already. Differin and Trentinoin are both strong forms of retinoids, which you can only get with a prescription – they’re the most effective, however they come with the most side-effects and can be too harsh for most people due to their potency. Over the counter products like those listed below can do just as good a job, without the doctor’s appointment.

What retinoids do is increase the cell turnover of your skin, as well as boost collagen. That’s why retinoids are not only good for acne (where dead skin cells plug pores and hair follicles) but are the best used product for warding off wrinkles and sunspots. With your skin constantly renewing, wrinkles and sunspots can’t settle in – and the same with acne.

So how do I know which are the best ones to use?

Glossier has recently released their first retinol product, which at 0.5% is slightly higher than the normal entry retinols, which usually sit at about 0.3%. However, Glossier’s product is great to start out as it’s a little bit creamy (moisturizing is key when using retinoids), and it’s super stable so you know it’s going to work. It’s in an airproof and opaque bottle which is great because retinol does not like air or light. Not to shit on The Ordinary, but their £4.20 retinol is in a dropper bottle which you can see through, so you might as well just throw that straight in the bin because that retinol will do absolutely nothing. There’s a reason it costs less than a pint at the pub.

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Which is the best and most effective way to get the most out of your retinols?

First of all, retinols should only be used at night-time. As we know, retinol reacts to sunlight, so popping it on in the morning and walking straight out into the sunshine will break down the retinol and make it less efficient. Retinols can be an expensive addition to your skin routine, so ideally we want to get the bang for our buck.

Another reason why you shouldn’t use retinol during the day is that it makes your skin more sensitive to sunlight, so it’s super important to wear sunscreen during the day (true for all moments of your life, but especially important when using retinol!). You can also use a vitamin C serum in the morning to combat sun sensitivity, as vitamin C naturally protects your skin from sun damage and pollution.

Lastly, how do retinols fit in with my skin care routine?

Obviously, remove makeup and cleanse your skin first. If you use a serum, use it next – but make sure it’s only a hydrating serum! If you use any hyaluronic acids or acne treatments, don’t use them the same day as your retinol. When using retinol, it’s best to keep it simple and sweet.

After your hydrating serum, apply a pea-sized amount of product to your problem areas, or even all over your face, excluding your eye area. Don’t forget your neck and upper chest (I hate the word décolletage, sorry), which both end up being problem areas later in life because they are largely ignored. Remember, your neck is part of your face! I like to wait about 5 minutes for the product to sink into the skin to get the most efficiency (you can tell I’m really worried about my wrinkles, can’t you?) but if you’re in a rush, about 15 seconds should do the trick. Then follow with a rich moisturizer to lock it in.

Some people use a face oil over the top, but it tends to actually increase the potency of the retinol, which can be problematic for some. If your skin is fully comfortable with the potency of your retinol and you’ve been using it for a while, try an oil over the top and see if it works for you. Like all skincare, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Most of the time it’s trial and error until we find the right products for ourselves – which can be half the fun!

Below I’ve added the best retinols on the market if you’re thinking of incorporating them into your routine. Remember, low and slow, and baby – you’ll have baby skin before you know it.