How ‘miracle’ retinol works on skin

It’s the youth-enhancing active ingredient hailed for its skin-restoring ways. Here’s the lowdown on how, when and why you should use retinol.

If there are two words that grate when uttered together, it is “premature” and “ageing” – because, well, looking well beyond your years just seems unfair.

Which may explain why retinol is creating such a buzz.

Loved for its wrinkle-reducing, skin-smoothing, youth-preserving and acne-clearing properties, it seems there’s little this powerhouse active skincare ingredient can’t do.

But with literally thousands of products on the market containing retinol and the many different names for its many different forms, it can be bamboozling.

What exactly is retinol?

Retinol is a form of vitamin A that is suitable to be applied to the skin, explains skin practitioner Sarah Hudson.

It is known as the “gold standard in anti-ageing ingredients”, the Skin by Sarah Hudson founder says.

Technically, retinol is just one of the many types of retinoids (the umbrella term for all vitamin A derivatives) on the market.

While retinoids such as tretinoin tend to be stronger and need a prescription, retinol and retinaldehyde (or retinal) are available over the counter or online, dermal therapist Dr Giulia D’Anna says.

“Retinol has a proven track record and many, many studies show how effective it is – it’s probably one of the most studied skincare ingredients to date,” Dr D’Anna, of Dermal Distinction, says.

How does retinol work on your skin?

You may have heard almost everyone can benefit from retinol and that’s no exaggeration,  Dr D’Anna says.

“Retinol helps break up the dead cells sitting on the surface of the skin by gently breaking apart the glue or bonds that hold the skin together,” she says.

When skin cells come off at the top, newer skin is pushed through from the bottom at a quicker pace, she adds, leading to skin that is “brighter, more luminous” and with less pigmentation.

Sarah says: “Retinol also increases the production of collagen, improving firmness and elasticity and induces the natural hyaluronic acid in the skin, causing the skin to become more hydrated.”

Incorporating retinol into your skincare regimen

The experts stress more is not better with retinol (a little goes a long way) and that it is best to build up slowly.

“Each brand has different concentrations in their products, so best to start with the lower concentration and move up to more potent ones as your skin gets used it,” Dr D’Anna says.

Use at night if possible, as retinol can react with the sun, Sarah says.

“After thoroughly cleansing, apply your retinol product directly on to the skin and wait five minutes before applying other skincare to ensure it has absorbed effectively,” she says, warning first-timers may experience irritation, redness, dryness, and peeling initially.

For those with skin conditions such as rosacea or sensitive skin, there are many encapsulated vitamin A products available, where tiny molecules of the mineral are delivered to the skin in a protective coating, Dr D’Anna says.

“These protect the skin by allowing very slow infusion, perfect for more sensitive skin,” she says.

Written by Liz McGrath.