When Drunk Elephant launched its A-Passioni Retinol Cream just months ago, it heralded a defining moment for the skincare world. Packaged in a white and hot pink box with an elephant logo sketched by founder Tiffany Masterson, it was unlike its predecessors which often sport clean, clinical designs befitting the doctor brands they’re derived from. Despite its playful appearance, the product still packs a punch, with a formulation that combines 1% vegan retinol with superfood ingredients.
Shortly after, Sunday Riley launched its A+ High Dose Retinoid Serum. That these two buzzy, cult skincare brands released back-to-back products of this powerful ingredient is further affirmation of today’s savvy beauty buyer. Retinol’s accessibility via over the counter is a clear sign that consumers are increasingly educated and open about what goes onto their skin. But not everyone is on board. While its potency inspires devotion, it also incites intimidation in equal measure. In an effort to find out more about this powerhouse ingredient , we sought the help of aesthetic doctors to answer all our questions.
What is retinol, and what does it do?
Retinol is a derivative of the Vitamin A family called retinoids. Vitamin A is needed to boost skin renewal, cellular regeneration, and improves collagen production. There are many benefits to using retinol, and they include reducing the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and age spots, evening out skin tones, as well as clearing up acne.
Are there different types of retinol?
According to Dr Lam Bee Lan, medical director of Ageless Medical and Medi-Aesthetics, retinoids are conventionally used in two familiar forms: Retinoic acid and retinol. The former is available by prescription only and is typically prescribed by doctors to combat acne issues. The latter is found in over-the-counter products to promote skin renewal, brighten skin tone, reduce acne, and boost collagen production.
Why are people fearful of using retinol?
Retinoic acid first became a popular dermatologist-prescribed ingredient in the 1950s as a way to tackle breakouts; three decades later, its benefits for skin ageing was discovered. But in the 1990s, studies revealed that retinoid can cause sun sensitivity and irritation. Products back in the day featured high concentrations of the active ingredient, and people with little skincare know-how slathered it on like a moisturiser. Today’s skincare buyers are lot more educated, and products in the market feature the ingredient in safer variations of concentrations.
How to use it
The first few weeks of using retinol is termed “retinisation”. In this adjustment phase, you may experience what many call the “retinoid uglies” such as skin peeling, irritation, redness and inflammation. Patience is key here.Dr SK Tan, Medical Director, IDS Clinic and Chief Scientific Officer and Co-Founder of IDS recommends “liberal use of moisturisers to alleviate any discomfort” for those using retinol to fight lines and wrinkles. Retinol also works as a barrier function — skin must be moist to apply retinol. Dr Lam warns: “Do remember that retinol is a treatment product, not a moisturiser. So just use a pea-size amount of retinol and apply thinly over your entire face, excluding the eye areas, and over your moisturiser.” Those with acne may experience acne flare-ups in the first few weeks.
Historically, it’s said that retinol can’t be used in the day. But both doctors are quick to debunk this myth. “You must always use sunscreen if the skin is going to be exposed to the sun. Retinol can produce a sun-sensitising effect. If you want to use it during the day, always use a SPF50 sunblock on top of it,” says Dr Lam.
How to pick the right retinol and serum
The collective opinion is that those suffering from severe skin issues need to seek the expert advice of a dermatologist. Otherwise, buying from over the counter requires you to look at the amount of retinol present. Retinol comes in multiple concentrations, with the most common ones at 1%, 0.5%, 0.3% and 0.25%. Those without such a content specification often contain a concentration that’s weaker than 0.25%.
“The usual advice is to start off with mild-to-moderate strength products and gradually step up when the skin acclimatises,” says Dr SK Tan.
“I recommend starting with the lowest concentration before throwing any surprises to your skin. If you have thin or dry skin, start with the lowest concentration. On the other hand, you can opt for a higher concentration if you have thicker or oilier skin. “