I’m often asked what are my “can’t live without” skincare heroes. Forever and always, my answer is retinol. Retinol, which is actually vitamin A, is one of the most well-researched and touted active ingredients on the market. In fact, besides sunscreen, retinol is the only other ingredient that the US Food and Drug Administration will allow brands to claim as “anti-aging” (or “pro-aging” as I like to call it). It is as close to a miracle ingredient as the world’s dermatologists and cosmetic chemists have come up with thus far.
Fountain of youth?
While nothing turns back the clock (and thank goodness for that), retinol is the ultimate ingredient for dewy, youthful skin. A powerful antioxidant, retinol is a “cell-communicator” which means that it actually connects to and alters the behaviour of your cells. Dr. Nisith Sheth of Cedars Dermatology Clinic recommends women begin treating their skin with a retinol product starting in their late 20s to early 30s and to continue this usage on a long term basis. Some of retinol’s super powers are:
- Improves collagen production by interrupting and delaying the free-radical damage that causes signs of aging.
- Reverses effects of sun damage such as hyperpigmentation and fine lines.
- Fights acne.
- Treats many forms of eczema.
Prescription vs over the counter
Vitamin A comes in different formats. Retinol, which is made up of the entire vitamin A molecule, is purchasable in over the counter cosmetic products. Retinoids, on the other hand, are highly concentrated derivatives of retinol and are found exclusively in prescription creams/gels, which typically provide higher concentrations of active ingredient than is permitted in over the counter cosmetics.
In my opinion, if you can get access to it, a prescription retinoid at a concentration of 0.025% – 0.05% is the best you can do for yourself. Most dermatologists are happy to prescribe this as its safety and benefits are well known. Some of the most popular prescription brands are Differin, Retin-A, Renova, Tazorac, and my favourite – Tretinoin.
Fun fact that I probably shouldn’t share – many international airport pharmacies carry prescription-grade retinoids with no required prescription (Dubai, Mexico, Thailand, to name a few).
If you can’t get your hands on a prescription, or would like to start out with a lower concentration, there are a growing number of seriously good over the counter retinol products. I don’t go cheap on these, btw, because formulation is everything when it comes to how well the active ingredient is actually delivered to your skin. Here are a few that come highly recommended:
How to use retinol
Certainly read the label of the product you’re using for exact directions, but in general, one should follow the guidelines below in order to get maximum results:
- Use at night only, never during the day.
- Apply to clean, dry skin, before any other products.
- Use only a pea size amount of the cream. More is not better here, it will only cause irritation.
- Apply any face oils, serums or night creams on top of your retinol (it’s totally fine to layer, just make retinol your base).
- Start by using retinol every 2-3 days and work up to nearly every night, depending on how your skin reacts.
- WEAR SUNSCREEN every day when using retinol, as it makes your skin more sensitive to sun damage.
- Do NOT use retinol while pregnant. (Due to research ethics, they haven’t tested retinol on pregnant ladies so this lack of research means doctors warn against using during pregnancy. As Dr. Sheth advises, it’s not worth risking it.)
How long does it take to work?
What’s incredible is that you’ll probably notice results – added dewiness, brightness, fading of discolouration and lines – after just a few uses. That said, your skin may need several months to adjust to the retinol and you may notice some redness or peeling in the first few weeks. If this happens, make sure you are applying to dry skin (you may even wait 15 minutes after cleansing to make sure your skin is fully dry) in order to avoid irritation. You can also reduce the frequency of use or switch to a product with lower concentration of active ingredient. If you suffer continued irritation, speak to a dermatologist for guidance. You should expect to achieve your best results after 6 months of continued usage.
Nothing will make us look 21 again, and that is fine with me. However, in terms of long term skincare and taking control of your skin’s maturing process, retinol, as part of a well-balanced skincare regime, is truly as close to magic as science has found.
By Renee Parker
Dr. Nisith Sheth, Consultant Dermatologist and Dermatologic Surgeon:
Cedars Dermatology Clinic, cedarsderm.co.uk