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Vitamin A, or its most common derivative, retinol, is famed as skincare’s magic ingredient. It’s beloved by dermatologists and clinically proven to help treat acne and wrinkles – reaching both ends of the skin issue spectrum – as well as all the texture and dullness in between. How? By speeding up epidermal (a.k.a skin cell) turnover and encouraging collagen production. Basically, it tricks your skin into thinking it’s a younger, more youthful version of itself!
The retinol boom first came with a warning of potential side effects – redness, dryness, sun-sensitivity – which were a hangover from prescription retinol treatments. Then came products with ‘gentler’ retinoids that could be worn in the day, and then plant-based alternatives.
Vitamin A is an ingredient with nuances, so if you really want to know the nitty gritty – and how to choose the right retinol for you – then get ready, because class is in session.
What doesn’t it do? The vitamin A derivative addresses every skin concern from fine lines to acne, pigmentation to sun damage. It works by accelerating cellular turnover, triggering collagen production, and evening out your complexion. Bingo: younger-looking skin.
“Retinol can strengthen your skin and regenerate collagen, as well as assist with breakouts,” says Melbourne dermatologist Dr. Alice Rudd. It clears out blocked pores and blackheads, making it a godsend if you’re dealing with breakouts.
Choosing the right type of retinol for your skin will help you get the best results.
Retinol is the most common retinoid in non-prescription skincare. It converts to retinoic acid in two steps. Clinical tests have shown retinol to provide similar results to retinoic acid, just with a little more time.
Retinol is present in different product types for different purposes and is often formulated with other skincare heavyweights, like niacinamide. When combined with ferulic acid and niacinamide, retinol can help boost the integrity of your skin and its barrier.
Dr. Dennis Gross’ Advanced Retinol + Ferulic Overnight Wrinkle Treatment blends retinol with plant-based alternative bakuchiol (more on that later) to deliver wrinkle-smoothing benefits without the side effects commonly associated with retinol.
On the other hand, celebrity facialist Kate Somerville’s KateCeuticals™ Resurfacing Overnight Peel does its work overnight with retinol that’s encapsulated. This means the active ingredient is enveloped in a protective barrier to increase the stability and minimise potential irritation.
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Retinol is a retinoid – the name for all vitamin A derivatives. Think of retinoid as the parent and retinol as the child; but this isn’t a single-child household. There are also retinol esters, retinaldehyde, retinoic acid, adapalene, tretinoin, tazarotene, trifarotene and isotretinoin.
No matter which member of the retinoid family is in your product, your skin can only use the active form of vitamin A – retinoic acid. All retinoids convert to retinoic acid when they combine with the enzymes in our skin, in either one, two or three steps.
Retinol esters convert to retinol, then from retinol to retinaldehyde, then finally from retinaldehyde to retinoic acid. The closer the compound in your skincare is to retinoic acid, the more readily it converts and can take effect. However, other factors can play a part in the effectiveness, too.
A prescription form of vitamin A – often known by the brand name Retin-A – tretinoin is pure retinoic acid, meaning it gets to work pronto!
It’s 20 times stronger than retinol and has shown a significant ability to help reduce wrinkles and fine lines and restore collagen, as well as discouraging acne by slowing keratinisation and preventing the clogging of sebum.
Wonderous abilities, yes! But, the downsides of tretinoin – if not used with caution, following medical advice – are the potential side effects of dryness, redness, inflammation and even hyperpigmentation.
Often seen on ingredient lists as retinyls, retinol esters are the gentlest of the vitamin A derivatives and best used in conjunction with other retinoids for effective results. Verso Daily Facial Fluid contains the brand’s famed Retinol 8 complex, which is a combination of retinol esters that’s eight times stronger than retinol, but half as likely to irritate due to the extra conversion steps.
Oat milk isn’t the only plant-based alternative enjoying a burst of popularity! Retinoids (which are often derived from animal, milk, or egg enzymes) have some growing (vegan-friendly) competition too.
Bakuchiol – an extract from the babchi plant, found in India – is making a name for itself as the natural retinol alternative. It helps to increase the turnover of collagen and skin cells, but with a very low chance of irritation.
Bakuchiol is the champion ingredient in goop’s GOOPGENES All-in-One Super Nutrient Face Oil and Omorovicza Midnight Renewal.
Meanwhile, bareMinerals’ Ageless Phyto-Retinol Face Cream hosts its own natural alternative retinol, dubbed ‘phyto-retinol’, from the picão preto plant – also known as Bidens pilosa.
The right type of retinol for you depends on your skin type and whether you have used retinoids before.
Retinol is available in several different strengths; if you are a complete retinol beginner or have sensitive skin, choose a product with a lower retinol concentration of 0.25%. If your skin shows little sign of irritation, you can gradually switch to higher-concentration products.
If you do notice excessive redness or flaking, try swapping your retinol for bakuchiol.
For those with more robust or oily skin, a medium-strength 0.5% concentration product may be suitable, while regular retinol users may be able to tolerate products with up to 1% retinol concentration.
Though countless beauty fans are tapping into anti-ageing products earlier, inspired by trends like glass skin, the consensus is that your late 20s or early 30s is the moment to embrace retinol. Collagen begins to break down from around 26-onwards, making it a good time to incorporate retinol-type ingredients that encourage cellular turnover and keep the skin firm. Undoing the damage to your skin in later decades is much harder.
A general rule of thumb is to apply your products in the order of lightest to heaviest, practicing prevention and protection during the daytime (with the likes of vitamin C, ceramides and nourishing oils) and correction and restoration in the evenings. Retinol is an integral part of the latter approach, best applied after cleansing and before a restorative night cream every consecutive or alternative day, depending on your tolerance levels.
Those with sensitive skin should tread carefully. Buffering retinol products between layers of moisturiser is one way to mitigate the irritation that can occur. Even if you’re not sensitive, layering on a rich hydrator will help prevent flaking skin, especially in winter.
Some experts argue that the two skincare heavyweights – retinol and vitamin C – counteract each other when applied simultaneously, reserving vitamin C for the morning and retinol for the evening. However, there are several potent formulas that combine both ingredients. Los Angeles facialist Kate Somerville’s Retinol Vita C Power Serum marries the two dynamos in a radiance-boosting treatment with a subtle lemony scent. Chantecaille and Kat Burki also fuse the two actives together for double the benefits. Kat Burki uses rovisome, a stabilised form of the active that is gentler on skin.
Ingredients you should avoid mixing with retinol: acne treatments including salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide. Blending them may cause irritation or even cancel out their benefits — they’re beauty frenemies!
Leading the charge for daytime-ready retinol are Drunk Elephant, Dr. Dennis Gross and Verso, which offer encapsulated formulas that resist breaking down in sunlight.
Drunk Elephant founder Tiffany Masterson told us that her A-Passioni™ Retinol Cream can be applied during your waking hours. Just make sure to layer your favourite SPF on top! “As long as you are diligent about wearing SPF, retinol – worn underneath broad-spectrum sunscreen,” she says, “can help to defend skin against environmental damage.”
Kate Somerville advises applying retinol to the tops of your hands and on your chest. “This is where the most visible signs of sun damage and ageing tend to show up first,” she says.
Meanwhile, in his line-up of retinol-fuelled rejuvenators, Dr. Dennis Gross has a targeted treatment for your neck. Turns out the delicate skin under the chin is even thinner than that on your face, and this serum is designed to firm, smooth and reduce crepiness.
Verso even offers a retinol-enhanced hand serum to banish dark spots and wrinkles, as well as a plumping lip serum. As with all retinol wonders, introduce them gradually into your routine until your skin has adjusted.
Retinol is a powerful skincare ingredient that does it all – from reducing the appearance of wrinkles and acne to improving texture and minimising pigmentation and sun damage. However, it can cause irritation (particularly on sensitive skin or when combined with some other actives), which makes it important to start with a low concentration.
Want to learn more about how to use retinol in your skincare routine? Book a complimentary MECCA Skin Consultation