Categories: Beauty

What is retinol? A dermatologist explains skincare’s buzziest ingredient

Retinol is one of the most-effective and sought-after components in skincare, said to tackle a vast range of issues including dullness, uneven skin tone, rough texture, acne, hyperpigmentation, fine lines and wrinkles.

On the flip side, the popular powerhouse is also notorious for inducing dryness, redness and irritation due to its potency.

The most familiar advice is to start low and take it slow. But how low and how slow? Kiehl’s is simplifying matters with its new Retinol Skin-Renewing Daily Micro-Dose Serum, which is formulated with a micro-dosing technology that delivers pure retinol while minimising common adverse reactions. In a clinical evaluation, users report firmer, smoother and younger-looking skin after use. Gentle enough for sensitive skin types, the gentle serum can be used day or night and on other areas such as around the eyes, neck, décolleté, and back of hands.

Still unsure if it’s right for you? Ahead, Dr Meghan O’Brien, Kiehl’s global consulting dermatologist gives us a deeper understanding of the ingredient (without getting too scientific) and how best to use products in the retinol family.

What is retinol and how does it work?

Retinol is a synthetic derivative of vitamin A. Within the world of dermatology, retinol is regarded as the gold-standard ingredient for anti-aging because of its clinically proven ability to promote collagen building and accelerate the rate of surface skin turnover to bring youthful, healthy looking skin to the surface. Using formulas with retinol can have a wide range of skin benefits, including reducing the appearance of wrinkles, improving firmness, visibly refining texture, and boosting radiance.

There are several different types of retinol with differences you can expect from each:

1. Prescription retinoids / retinoic acid – examples include tretinoin, isotretinoin and adapalene; they are dosed at a lower concentration compared to over-the-counter retinol because they are forms of retinoic acid that act immediately in skin and are intended to treat medical skin conditions.

2. Pure retinol – this is the most potent form of retinol available over the counter. Once applied to skin, it converts to retinoic acid for effective treatment of skin and visible aging signs.

3. Retinol derivatives – these forms (i.e. retinyl palmitate, retinal) are retinol esters that require several conversion steps to become retinoic acid in skin. The conversion causes a loss of potency but can also be more well tolerated by skin than pure retinol (especially if pure retinol is not paired with other barrier-protecting ingredients).

4. Retinol alternatives – these ingredients, such as bakuchiol, phytomimetic vitamin A, and granactive are not retinol, but can help improve cell turnover and address some of the same concerns as retinol, such as lines and firmness. These forms can take longer to work than pure retinol.

What happens when you use retinol formulas?

By using retinol, your skin cells can turn over at a faster rate so that your skin stays looking fresh and youthful. As with most new things, there’s a “learning curve,” or adjustment period, for the skin to build up a tolerance to the formula and eventually see the benefits.

During the first few weeks of using a retinol product, the skin may undergo a process called “retinisation”: a period of dryness, visible redness, and sometimes peeling caused by the acceleration of skin surface turnover. The degree of discomfort and length of this “break in period” will vary based on skin type – typically those with sensitive skin may have higher potential to experience discomfort, so it is best to introduce to their routine more gradually.

When should you start using retinol and how do you integrate this product into your skincare regimen?

Generally speaking, our skin starts to age in our early twenties, with visible signs of aging such as wrinkles, fine lines, and discolouration starting to show around our mid to late twenties. This is usually a good time to introduce formulas with anti-aging ingredients such as retinol into our skin care routines. For most retinol products, I recommend using a pea-sized amount for the entire face applied after cleansing.

Can formulas with retinol be layered with other ingredients such as AHAs or salicylic acid?

I usually tell my patients to avoid other chemical exfoliants such as AHAs, salicylic acid, or any physical exfoliants (such as facial scrubs) when they are using retinol as the combination may cause too much sensitivity and potential skin irritation. Other ingredients such as niacinamide and hyaluronic acid are more suitable to layer or combine with retinol as they are considerably gentler and non-abrasive.

The most important products to layer with your retinol formula are a moisturiser and an SPF during the day. A nourishing moisturiser – particularly one that focuses on moisture barrier repair – will help to strengthen the skin and maintain adequate hydration to help minimise the potential discomforting effects of formulas with retinol. SPF is always essential for maintaining youthful and healthy-looking skin, but it is a particularly important step when using retinol as it may increase the skin’s sensitivity to sun.

Shop Dr O’Brien’s favourites here:

Kiehl's Retinol Skin-Renewing Daily Micro-Dose Serum

Clinique Moisture Surge Hydrator Moisturiser

La Roche-Posay SPF 50+ Sunscreen

(All images: Kiehl’s)

Crystal Lee

Prestige Singapore's Digital Editor wonders if she's better with words or numbers. Some days she thinks she's terrible at both. But most of the time, she's pretty good at eating, drinking, admiring beautiful things, and exploring new worlds.

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