The Golden Rules Of Using Retinoids |
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Considered the ‘gold standard’ in age-defying skincare, retinoids (a derivative of vitamin A) are one of the only ingredients proven to work – increasing cell turnover, unclogging pores and boosting collagen. But having earned a bad rap for causing redness and flakiness, many of us are wary of using them. Enter, new-gen retinoids – with more stable formulations and skin-soothing ingredients, even sensitive skin can reap the benefits. Want to know more? Here are the nine golden rules of using them...

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: retinol palmitate, retinol, retinaldehyde, adapalene, tretinoin, tazarotene and isotretinoin. You’ll find the weakest, retinol palmitate, in a lot of products you may already use, like Estée Lauder’s Advanced Night Repair and Boots’ Protect & Perfect Serum, while 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 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.

Start Slow

If you’re new to retinoids, begin with a lower-strength product. And take note: using lots of it every night won’t make it work faster – you’ll just be left with a red, flaky face. Instead apply a pea-sized amount every third night for two weeks, slowly building up until you’re using it nightly. Over-drying and irritation of the skin are the two main issues when it comes to retinoids so be sure to take it slow and space out applications further if your skin reacts this way.

There’s No Age Limit

It’s never too late or early to start using retinoids. They can be used to treat acne at any point in your life, but if it’s the anti-ageing benefits you’re after, aim to start incorporating them in 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 at this time too.

They Can Be Used Day Or Night

It’s actually a myth that retinoids can’t be used in the day. Some forms of retinoids aren’t photo-stable (meaning their active ingredients are broken down by UV rays), so save these for use at night to reap the benefits. But other versions – like retinyl palmitate and retinaldehyde – are more stable, meaning they can be used day or night.

Use An SPF

While some retinoids actually provide sun protection – retinyl palmitate is photoprotective and offers the equivalent of an SPF 20 – it’s essential to use an SPF 30 or higher every day if you’re using retinoids.

They’re Okay For Sensitive Skin

While retinoids can cause short-term irritation and redness, ironically those with sensitive skin should seek it out. 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, collagen-building powers of retinol”. However, retinoids should be used with caution if you have an underlying condition like eczema or rosacea, so check with your 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. But while retinoids 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.

They’re Safe For 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 get the best results. The skin around your eyes is no more likely to get red or flaky than anywhere else on the face.” However, an eye-specific retinoid, such as Philosophy’s cult Retinoid Eye Cream, £32.50, is packed with a cocktail of ingredients that will get to work on puffiness and dark circles, too.

Avoid 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, but 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 while pregnant.

Want in? Shop our edit of the best retinol-based products on the beauty shelves...

Miracle Worker Miraculous Eye Repair, £32.50 | Philosophy

Under-eye bags, fine lines and dark circles have found their match with this soothing, velvet-touch eye cream.

Super Facial Oil, £150 | Verso

Beloved by beauty editors, this cult formula has an oil base, making it ideal for drier skin types.

Redermic R UV f30, £30 | La Roche Posay

Favoured by dermatologists, this hero product is formulated for sensitive skin types and contains SPF for daytime use.


Retinol 3 TR Advanced Night Serum, £33 | Medik8

Ideal for retinol first-timers, this 0.3% concentration serum has a clever time release mechanism to reduce irritation and boost results.

Retinol Cream 1.0, £58.03 | Skinceuticals

Formulated with 1% retinol (the highest concentration of pure retinol available), this cream will reduce the appearance of photo-damage, prevent blemishes and even skin tone.

Advanced Retinoid 2%, £8 | The Ordinary

With change from a tenner, this affordable serum leaves skin glowing and noticeably smoother.


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