6 vital things to know before using retinol

And the best retinol formula for your skin type...
mature woman applying a retinol serum to her face
Learning how and when to apply retinol is crucial if you are hoping to reap the benefits

Retinoids are the Barbie of the beauty world: they offer a tangible lifeline to the kind of smooth, even-toned skin we enjoyed in our youth. But if you’ve seen the Barbie movie you’ll know what happens if you play too hard – it gets ‘weird’. So it goes with retinol too.

“Retinoids and retinols are both derivatives of vitamin A and can lead to redness and dryness, especially when you first begin,” says dermatologist Dr Cara McDonald. Once upon a time irritation was almost a guaranteed side effect, but things are slowly changing in the world of retinoids as the choice of vitamin A strengths and derivatives increases and encapsulating technology (the multi-layer membrane bubble around the retinoid) become ever more sophisticated.

What does retinol do to your skin?

Retinoids, the umbrella term for all the various retinol derivatives, are a well-documented way of erasing pigmentation, and improving acne and fine lines. “Retinoids specifically increase the rate of cell turnover giving a healthier and more vibrant top layer to the skin, and leading to improved texture,” says dermatologist Dr Cara McDonald. “They also increase the production of collagen and decrease the breakdown, leading to fewer fine lines and wrinkles.”

TRY: frank body rewind retinol serum

Which retinoid is right for you?

In the world of over-the-counter retinoids, retinaldehyde (also known as retinal) is the strongest, followed by retinol, and then retinyl ester. The label will tell you what percentage it contains and, even at low doses, it’s always wise to start slowly (less than 1%). If you start too strong and suffer side effects, you’ll only slow things down because your skin will need time to recover.

Why you should care about encapsulated retinol

The retinol delivery mechanism makes a big a difference. If vitamin A is encapsulated in a quality protective barrier, that can help minimise potential irritation and also help to increase its efficacy. “Active ingredients in skincare will only deliver the functional change in the skin if they reach the correct target in the skin, in the right form and at an appropriate concentration,” says Dr McDonald. “Ingredients like retinoids will cause more irritation and side effects if the delivery method isn’t ideal for targeting the deeper layers of the skin.” IsClinical Retinol Emulsion+0.3, $170 contains encapsulated retinol but also has bakuchiol, which amplifies the effect and reduces the likelihood of peeling (though you still need to start slow – once twice a week is plenty at first).

If you have sensitive skin…

Prone to rosacea and eczema? Then you are probably best off going with a gentler alternative, such as a cream or serum with bakuchiol or rambutan which have similar effects but less risk of irritation. Try Fresh Black Tea Advanced Age Renewal Cream, $150. Once your skin barrier is strong enough, you could start with a once-a-week application of a retinol product designed for sensitive skin, such as Avene A-Oxitive Soin Peeling Cream, $68.99.

If dryness, rather than sensitivity, is your main issue try a retinol serum that is loaded with hyaluronic acid to keep skin plump and hydrated, such as  Dr. Dennis Gross Derminfusions 3D Visible Fill + Repair Serum, $120 or Elizabeth Arden Retinol + HPR Ceramide Water Cream, $155. A more budget-friendly version worth trying is Hada Labo Anti-Aging Wrinkle Reducer Day Cream, $39.95.

Oily or robust skin tends to be generally more resilient and have an easier time building the required retinol tolerance – at the three-month mark, you might find you can even use it daily without irritation. To avoid any pesky redness and dryness, try starting with a low dose – Skinstitut Retinol Serum, $59, contains just 0.25% – before graduating to something stronger, such as Paula’s Choice 1% Retinol Booster, $79. Experienced users can up the skincare game to The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid 2% Emulsion, $18.50.

Wondering what to avoid when using retinol? Regardless of your skin type, don’t pair retinol with other actives like AHA’s and BHA’s because they’re not good friends. You can use retinol the day after exfoliating, but don’t do both in the same routine (redness and irritation will likely ensue).

Is it good to use retinol every day?

Not initially. “To avoid excess irritation, I recommend starting off by applying retinol every third night,” says Dr Cara McDonald. “If your skin isn’t irritated after two weeks, increase to every other night for another two weeks. If your skin is still tolerating the retinoid, go for every night.” That said, it’s very individual. “Many people will need to go even more slowly than this, and some won’t ever be able to apply it every night.”

Retinol can also help reduce fine lines around the eyes but you’re best off investing in an eye cream with vitamin A, such as Beauté Pacifique Vitamin A Eye Cream, $104, to avoid irritating the sensitive eye area.

Be aware that retinol sensitises all skin to UV light, so make sure you’re religious with SPF. You’ll also need to stop using retinol up to a week before doing any professional treatments.

The right way to apply retinol

As a general rule, it goes on after cleansing and before moisturiser. “Wait a few minutes after applying and then use a generous layer of moisturiser,” says Dr Cara McDonald. If you find it drying, Dr McDonald recommends ‘sandwiching’ your retinol product between layers of moisturiser. “For really sensitive people, moisturiser can be applied before and after retinol but this will impact the absorption and efficacy of the product.”

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