If you’re serious about skincare you should be using a Retinoid... Amy Lawrenson Editorial Director

If you’re serious about skincare you should be using a Retinoid... Amy Lawrenson Editorial Director

What is Retinol

When it comes to skincare, experts will all tell you the same: a retinoid is one of the most important and effective ingredients that you can slather onto your skin (second only to SPF). Retinoids are derivatives of Vitamin A and the boffins of the skincare world—they do pretty much everything you could wish for. They tackle acne, rev up skin cell turnover, encourage collagen and hyaluronic acid production, whilst tackling pigmentation and improving texture (think fine lines and enlarged pores). In short, retinoids make skin act younger (yes, you did read that right). So, it’s well worth clueing yourself up with this simple guide.

Call Me By My Name

The stumbling block with Vitamin A derivatives is that they all have different but similar sounding names. They can be tricky to navigate but not impossible—these are the names you need to know.


Every derivative of vitamin A is part of the retinoid family.


Available over the counter, this is the most common retinoid—basically, if it was a Kardashian it would be Kim. Retinol is converted in the skin first to retinaldehyde and then to retinoic acid.

Retinoic Acid

Also known as retin-A or tretinoin, this is stronger and only available on prescription. Where retinol has to convert to retin-A in the skin, this doesn’t have to go through any changes so it’s more potent and you’ll see results faster (but you can also suffer some side effects, more on those later). Other prescription retinols are tazarotene (which can be prescribed for psoriasis) and isotretinoin (also known as roacctutane which is used to treat).


If you have been using retinol for some time, this is the next step up. It also goes by the name of retinal for short and is available over the counter too. Unlike retinol, this skips a step and converts direct to retinoic acid once in the skin, which means you’ll get quicker results. It’s less stable than retinol, but brands are slowly but surely finding ways to funnel this into skincare formulations.

Retinyl Retinoate

With a slower conversion in the skin to retinoic acid this can cause less sensitivity than the more common retinol.

Retinyl Palmitate

Weaker than retinol, this combines the ester of retinol with a fatty acid called palmitic acid which buffers the retinol from the skin, another good choice for sensitive skin types. Since it’s less efficacious it is often cocktailed in formulations with other active ingredients.

User Manual

Most experts agree that whilst retinol tackles everything from fine lines and pigmentation to texture and acne, it also makes for a good preventative. There is no harm in starting to use it in your late twenties or early thirties. Most over-the-counter retinol products will state what percentage of retinol they include, usually from 0.3% up to 1%. The key is to start low and slow, applying it two to three nights per week and working up over time. Because retinoids speed up cell turnover you may experience some skin dryness, flaking or peeling and a little sensitivity, which is why it’s best to err on the side of caution. Apply at night after cleansing. It’s best to use a retinol product on its own, unless you choose a product that has been expertly formulated with other actives. But, if you feel like you need to layer a moisturiser over the top, wait 15 minutes before doing so to let the retinol fully sink in. Opt for a cream that’s simple and doesn’t contain lots of other active ingredients, that way it’s less likely to interfere with the retinol.

Your Retinol Shopping List

Medik8 Retinol 3TR A good starting point, this lightweight serum contains 0.3% retinol. Skinceuticals Retinol 0.5 You can’t go wrong with a trusted brand like Skinceuticals and this cream contains 0.5% retinol. Neostrata Skin Active Retinol + NAG With 0.5% retinol, this boasts the addition of neoglucosamine which supports your collagen to leave skin looking plump, whilst gently exfoliating the skin’s surface too. Agera Ultimate Retinol Rejuvenator 60 If you want to take things up a notch this contains 0.6% retinol <and> some retinyl palmitate for good measure. Dermalogica Overnight Retinol Repair 1% Paired with a buffer cream to help skin acclimatise, this contains Vitamin C for added brightening (great if you want to tackle pigmentation). Alpha H Liquid Gold Intensive Night Repair Serum Created with peri- and post-menopausal women in mind, this contains 1% retinol alongside exfoliating and brightening glycolic acid. Medik8 Crystal Retinal 6 This new gen cream relies on powerful retinal to deliver fast line-smoothing results.

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