As consultant dermatologist Dr. Emma Wedgeworth explains, retinoids are derived from vitamin A, which – when applied to the skin – gets converted by the body into retinaldehyde and then to retinoic acid. It’s this retinoic acid that is biologically active within the skin.
“Retinoic acid has a myriad of skincare benefits - from reducing blemishes by regulating oil production from the sebaceous glands and unblocking pores,” she says. “It increases cell turnover and stimulates the skin’s natural collagen formation as well as targeting pigmentation, brightening and evening-out your complexion. Because of this, it’s excellent for a whole host of people, including those who are blemish and acne-prone, those who are suffering from sun-damage or scars and for anyone who wants to tackle the signs of ageing.”
Here are the golden rules for incorporating retinoids into your skincare routine…
Know Your Retinoids
Here’s where it gets slightly confusing. People and brands often use ‘retinoids’ and ‘retinols’ as general terms, but there are actually seven different types of retinoids, which vary hugely in strength. From weakest to strongest, they are: retinyl palmitate, retinol, retinaldehyde, adapalene, tretinoin, tazarotene and isotretinoin. You’ll find the weakest, retinyl palmitate, in a lot of products that you may already use, like Estée Lauder’s Advanced Night Repair and Boots’ Protect & Perfect Serum. The strongest, isotretinoin, can be found in the last-resort acne treatment, Roaccutane.
The average anti-ageing 'retinoid' beauty product contains retinol and will therefore be much weaker than prescription formulas (don’t be fooled by some brands’ extreme claims). But that doesn’t mean that they won’t be effective – weaker formulas have far less side effects, meaning you’ll probably stick with them for longer.
If you’re in doubt which type is best for you, and have a skin issue that’s really troubling you, see a dermatologist who can advise you on the best option.
If you’re new to retinoids, begin with a lower-strength product. And take note: using lots of product every night won’t make it work faster – you’ll just be left with a red, flaky face. It needs to be built-up gradually in order to prevent over-drying and irritation.
Dr Wedgeworth advises starting slowly: using a pea-sized amount twice a week. “If you can tolerate that, you can bring it up to every other day after a couple of weeks,” she says. “Listen to your skin and take a break if you get any irritation.’
But Start As Soon As You Can
Contrary to what you might think, it’s never too late or too early to start using retinoids. “There’s no exact age, so it’s best to look at your skin and judge for yourself” says Dr Wedgeworth, adding that many teenagers use retinoids to treat acne.
If it’s the anti-ageing benefits you’re after, aim to start incorporating them into your skincare regime by your late-20s. Your collagen levels start to decline by around 1% every year from your mid-20s and early signs of sun damage and ageing start to show on the skin around this time too.
Always Use An SPF
While some retinoids actually provide sun protection – retinyl palmitate is photoprotective and offers the equivalent of an SPF20 – it’s essential to use an SPF30 or higher every day if you’re using retinoids, as they can make you prone to greater sun sensitivity. “A good SPF should already be a given as part of any anti-ageing regime,” says Dr Wedgeworth.
It’s also worth noting that you needn’t avoid retinols in the summer months and it’s a myth they can’t be used in the daytime. Some forms of retinoids aren’t photostable (meaning their active ingredients are broken down by UV rays) so save these for use at night in order to reap their benefits. But other versions – like retinyl palmitate and retinaldehyde – are more stable, meaning they can be used day or night.
Seek Them Out If You Have Sensitive Skin
While retinoids can cause short-term irritation and redness, ironically those with sensitive skin should give them a try. As cosmetic dermatologist Dr Sam Bunting explains, “Sensitive skin often equals thin skin, meaning it is more prone to wrinkling, so it’s precisely this skin type that benefits most from the plumping and collagen-building powers of retinol”.
If your skin is sensitive, it’s wise to remove products with other active ingredients – such as AHAs and BHAs – from your skincare routine when first trying out retinoids. Those with underlying conditions like eczema or rosacea should always check with a dermatologist before using them.
Team With Other Products
Retinoids should always be applied to freshly cleansed skin – make sure your face is completely dry if you’re sensitive as this helps to slow the absorption rate. While they will always work to their full potential when used alone, they can also be teamed with other products to minimise side effects.
Over-the-counter retinoid serums and prescription retinoid lotions can be followed with a soothing moisturiser – and if you’re used to acid toners, there’s no need to ditch them if you’re using a retinoid. Acids and Retinoids work on different levels of the skin so are safe to use together.
Don’t Avoid The Eye Area
Another myth about retinoids is that they shouldn’t be used around the delicate eye area. However, as US-based dermatologist Jonathan Weiss explains, “Not only can you use a retinol around the eye, but you really should – that’s where most of the damage shows up. Studies have shown that people who apply retinoids right up to the eye, obtain the best results.
The skin around your eyes is no more likely to become red or flaky than anywhere else on the face.” However, an eye-specific retinoid, such as Philosophy’s cult Retinoid Eye Cream, is packed with a cocktail of ingredients that will get to work on puffiness and dark circles, too.
But Avoid Retinoids If You’re Pregnant
Oral retinoids like Roaccutane can cause birth defects, so must be avoided if you’re pregnant or trying to conceive. As a blanket rule, doctors advise steering clear of topical retinoids while you’re pregnant and breastfeeding too, although they have never been found to affect unborn babies.
Of course, you should always follow manufacturers’ advice as a precaution, but don’t panic if you’ve put retinoids on your face in the past whilst pregnant.