Everything you need to know about retinol – for great-looking skin

It’s the gold-standard ingredient for transforming any type of skin, reversing the effects of aging and treating everything from acne and wrinkles to pigmentation – but what is retinol exactly? NEWBY HANDS guides you through the products, myths and retinol rules to ensure you get the skin you’ve always wanted


What is retinol?

A form of vitamin A, the best retinol does virtually everything we ever dreamed a skincare product could do – and more. “It regulates sebum, it gives you a strong barrier so that skin is better hydrated, it boosts collagen and it regulates cell turnover,” explains product formulator Dr Colette Haydon. Use it long enough and, over time, it will diminish pores, break up pigmentation, smooth out lines and brighten up dull skin. “Retinol is an incredible ingredient that can really help you achieve flawless skin,” says LA esthetician Shani Darden. “Pair a great retinol with daily staples, like an amazing cleanser and moisturizer, and it can truly transform your skin.”

Which type of retinol does what?

There are three main types of look for. In descending potency, there is retinoic acid (available on prescription only, usually in strengths between 0.025% and 0.1%), then the widely used retinol, and then retinyl palmitate. Our skin cells have retinoic acid receptors, so, in simple terms, if you apply retinoic acid it gets straight to work. Retinol, however, first has to be converted by enzymes in the skin into retinoic acid, which makes it slightly less potent, although it will still do the same job given time. On the other hand, retinyl palmitate has to go through more pathways to be converted in the skin (first to the retinol, then to retinoic acid), so it loses further potency along the way. Each of these options will do a similar job over time. Retinoic acid may get you there faster, but it also increases the risk of initial irritation, including redness, peeling and skin purging, where skin seems to get worse and not better. It’s this effect that leads many to give up on retinoids before they’ve seen the eventual benefits, which is why retinol or retinyl palmitate could be your preferred options.

How to start using retinol (and not give up by week three)

The secret to success is in taking it slowly and in steps, building up your skin’s resistance by first using a retinyl palmitate product a few nights a week. Most people will have no reaction at all to this, but if you do, then simply use it less often and stay at this stage for longer. Then you can move on to retinol, following the same protocol. If you want to treat more serious skin issues (acne, pigmentation or deep lines), then you could look to move on to prescription-only retinoic acid. “When starting any retinol product, whether prescription or over-the-counter, it’s important to start slowly,” says Darden. “Start with one night a week and add to that. This lets your skin acclimatize while minimizing the usual retinol-induced dryness and irritation that can occur.”

Which retinol products to choose

With retinol, it can be less a case of looking at what’s in the formulation and more about how it’s packaged. As with vitamin C, retinol is unstable, so look for airless pumps and dark packaging. Some good products come in bottles with droppers, which is not ideal but will be OK as long as the lid is secured properly after use. Retinol should also be stored somewhere cool – not on a bathroom shelf or next to the shower.

Can retinol be layered with other skincare products?

“Retinol doesn’t have to cause a reaction to show it’s working,” says Dr Haydon. “But if it does, then layer it with a cream – retinol and retinoic acid don’t have to be used alone.” While many like to use it as an ongoing, regular part of their skincare regime, Dr Haydon prefers to use it in “bursts, as your skin can plateau. When your skin has acclimatized to it, use it regularly for five weeks. Then maybe swap to another active, like an acid, for a couple of weeks before going back to your retinol.” Last but not least, here are four final retinol rules to remember:


“Use it at night, and not with other actives such as acids or vitamin C,” says Darden. “But it’s great to use it with a hyaluronic acid serum for extra hydration.”


“Be consistent and keep using it – your skin may seem to get worse before it gets better, which is why people stop using it,” says Dr Haydon. “But this is part of the process as it regulates the skin, so keep going and you will get that beautiful skin. And it only gets better.”


Use SPF; retinol is treating your previous sun damage, so you don’t want to be creating more for the future.


“It’s a myth that you should only use retinol from autumn through to spring,” says Dr Haydon. “And it doesn’t thin the skin’s surface. I even advise using it on vacation: research shows it helps repair sun damage, as it encourages the production of collagen and inhibits the production of the enzymes that break down your collagen.”


The model featured in this story is not associated with NET-A-PORTER and does not endorse it or the products shown