A Beginner’s Guide to Retinol – Everything You Need to Know

By Tara | Updated: 12/06/2023

In this ever-changing world of skincare trends and thousands of products, one thing has remained consistent and stable: retinol.

With its myriad benefits, retinol has remained a gold standard for many decades for photo-aging concerns by dermatologists.

Retinol is one of the most studied skincare ingredients, backed up by tons of scientific articles and clinical trials. Its results are unmatched: from smoothing wrinkles to fading hyperpigmentation, retinol has captured the attention of skin care professionals and beauty enthusiasts.

But with great power comes great risk, and retinol is notorious for causing dryness and irritation. This article aims to offer an in-depth view of retinol, its benefits and how to choose the right one for your skin type.

A Beginners Guide to Retinol

What is Retinol?

Retinol is a derivative of Vitamin A and is part of the retinoid family. Retinoid is an umbrella term that includes many derivatives of Vitamin A like retinol, retinal, adapalene and tretinoin. Vitamin A isn’t produced naturally in the skin, but we do have receptors that bind to retinoids and allow this ingredient to do wonders on the skin.

The form of Vitamin A that is bioavailable for the skin is retinoic acid (tretinoin/retin-A), other retinoids have to go through some conversion steps until they turn into retinoic acid. The longer it takes a retinoid to transform into retinoic acid, the less strength it has.

Retinol goes through 2 conversion steps, while retinol esters go through three conversion steps. This makes them the weakest of the retinoid family.

Skincare expert, Caroline Hirrons explains the concept perfectly with a coffee analogy:

Double Espresso – Retinoic acid, Tretinoin, All-trans-retinoic acid

Espresso – Retinaldehyde and Hydroxypinacolone retinoate (granactive)

Cappuccino – Retinol

Latte – Retinol esters like Retinol Propionate, Retinyl Palmitate

The Benefits of Retinol

Retinol is a hero ingredient among drug store ingredients when it comes to saving skin from photoaging. It has a lot of benefits for the skin including:

  1. Smoothing Wrinkles and Fine Lines
    Once the retinol is applied to the skin, it converts into retinoic acid, binds to its receptors and sends signals to the skin to stop collagen degradation and boost collagen and elastin production. More collagen and elastin means a reduction of fine lines and wrinkles, an increase in skin elasticity and younger-looking skin overall.
  2. Improves Skin Texture
    By boosting collagen, the skin will feel and look better. Retinol also speeds up the skin cell turnover process, promoting the growth of new cells and shedding dead skin cells. This process improves skin texture, prevents clogged pores, helps with acne and wound healing and rejuvenates the skin.
  3. Fades Hyperpigmentation
    By increasing cell turnover, retinol promotes the shedding of dead skin cells on the outer layer of the skin where the hyperpigmentation is, revealing healthy skin underneath. It also inhibits melanin production and breaks down the melanin that may have accumulated on the skin.
    The increased collagen production creates thicker skin layers which make the skin more resistant to photodamage and hyperpigmentation.
  4. Minimising Acne and Breakouts
    Retinol can help with acne through different mechanisms. It has anti-inflammatory properties and it speeds up cell turnover which helps existing acne scars heal faster and prevents the formation of whiteheads and blackheads.

Before we explain how retinol does these, let’s take a look at skin structure.

Why is collagen important?

Collagen is the most abundant protein in our skin (around 80%). It is a structural protein and has many vital functions in our body. After your mid-20s/early 30s, collagen production starts to drop. This is manifested in a reduction of facial volume and elasticity (saggy skin), fine lines and wrinkles, dull skin tone and uneven skin texture. In addition to our body producing less collagen over the years, UV rays destroy collagen and contribute to photoaging.

How does retinol help? It interrupts collagen breakdown, boosts collagen synthesis and speeds up cell turnover!

Choosing the Right Retinol Product

Retinol is the most common over-the-counter retinoid that you can find. Tretinoin is a very powerful retinoid that is prescription only, and adapalene is a retinoid that’s great for acne and can be found OTC in some countries and prescription only in others.

There are some next-generation retinoids like retinaldehyde and retinyl palmitate. While the latter is the weakest type of retinoids, retinaldehyde also known as retinal, is a derivate of retinol and a direct precursor of retinoic acid. It’s a more powerful form of retinol that can be found over the counter.

Christie Cameron, Senior Dermal Therapist, facial reflexologist and Reiki healer at SSKIN Clinic helped us break down the retinoid family:

“The more conversions it requires, the weaker a retinoid is”, she began.

Retinoic Acid (Tretinoin)

Tretinoin is a very tiny molecule that can easily penetrate the skin and doesn’t require any conversions to become retinoic acid. “That explains why it’s so effective and why it has the potential to be so irritating. Other retinoids have larger molecules and require more conversions”, Cameron explained.

“Tretinoin is only available by prescription, and it must be used carefully and consistently for the best results. It’s only suggested getting a prescription if you’ve been using other, milder retinoids for some time and you’re now looking to address the appearance of more serious sun damage”.

Retinaldehyde (Retinal)

Retinaldehyde is an increasingly favoured form of retinoid for those looking to step up from retinol. “It is recommended to start with something gentler and then work your way up to retinaldehyde”.

Cameron continued: “Retinaldehyde has a small molecular size and only takes one conversion to become retinoic acid, so it’s considered to be the “strongest” of all non-prescription retinoids. As such, it can be irritating, especially to people who have never used retinoids before”.

Retinol

That brings us to retinol, still a highly effective retinoid but more palatable for skincare beginners. “Retinol itself is not necessarily functional within the skin, because it has to be converted to retinoic acid. This is actually a two-step process that occurs in the cell. It first gets converted to retinaldehyde and then it’s converted to retinoic acid. Even though it requires two conversions, it’s still very effective, which is why it’s found in so many cosmetic formulations.”

Retinol comes in different concentrations and forms. It’s important to start slow and find the product that works for you.

Here’s a guide you can follow:

  1. Low-strength retinol (perfect for beginners and/or people with sensitive skin) 0.01%-0.1%. If you don’t find the percentage of retinol labelled in a product, it usually means that it falls into this category. Low-strength retinol is perfect to start with so you can slowly introduce it to your skin and minimize side effects.
  2. Medium-strength retinol (0.1%-0.3%)-is more potent and suitable for people who have already built up a tolerance to lower-strength retinol or people with more resistant skin types. This is also the most common concentration range.
  3. High strength (>0.3%)- this concentration of retinol is more suitable for people with very resistant skin or those whose skin concerns need a more aggressive approach.

When it comes to formulations, it’s important to choose what feels good to you, but there are a few things to be aware of:

  1. Choose products with opaque packaging, because most retinol are photo-sensitive, and well-sealed containers.
  2. Avoid products with fragrances, alcohol and other irritating ingredients.
  3. Dry skin types should choose thicker and moisturising products like creams, combination skin types something like lotions and oily skin types serum products. This is just a guideline, but of course, it’s up to you.

Incorporating Retinol into Your Skincare Routine

Cameron offers some salient advice to retinol beginners, “Always start low and slow. Stronger isn’t always the best option when you are first introducing retinol to your routine. Apart from the incredible benefits of retinol there also can be pesky side effects such as dryness, redness and irritation if introduced too quickly or too strong. Starting with a lower percentage or form of retinol at 1-2 times per week for 2 weeks then increase usage to 3-4 times per week for 2 weeks then every second night for 2 weeks then nightly, once your skin feels comfortable using nightly for a few weeks you can look at increasing your dosage”.

Other important tips for using retinol:

Applying Retinol Correctly

Choosing your skincare products is just as important as choosing your retinol. Your face cleanser should be gentle, non-stripping but yet effective. Cream cleansers usually fit perfectly into this category.

If you decide to add a hydrating and soothing serum, look for ingredients like Centella Asiatica, mugwort extract, green tea, niacinamide etc.

Choose your moisturiser depending on your skin type. Usually, thicker textures are recommended to help with dryness and flakiness. Look for something with hyaluronic acid, ceramides and nourishing ingredients.

There are a few methods that help with the slow introduction of retinol:

  1. Short contact therapy: this method includes using your retinol product as a ‘face mask’ for 20-30 minutes and then rinsing it off. Doing so for a couple of weeks helps to slowly introduce retinol to your skin before you decide to keep it overnight. This method is especially useful for higher-strength retinoids like tretinoin.
  2. Sandwich method: this method includes applying your retinol serum after your moisturiser and adding another layer of moisturiser on top (moisturiser-retinol-moisturiser). The moisturiser under the retinol hydrates the skin and buffers the retinol.
  3. Post-facial oil – this method can be considered an in-between step after the short contact therapy and sandwich method. It includes doing your whole skincare routine, applying a facial oil and on top of it your retinol serum.

Start with using retinol twice a week for a couple of weeks, then switch to every other day for 3-4 more weeks and you can increase the frequency depending on how your skin reacts to every day.

It’s important to know your skin very well and pay attention to how it reacts.

Adjusting to Retinol: The Retinization Period

The most common side effects of retinol include sensitivity and dryness. The intensity of these symptoms varies from person to person and it can be minimized if you follow the advice mentioned above. The period of adjustment to retinol is called retinization period and it can a few weeks. The good news is that it’s only temporary.

However, if these happen to you, don’t worry because we have some advice to make your skin feel better.

Before starting your retinol journey, keep in mind that some areas of your skin are thinner and there’s where retinol mostly causes the irritation. These areas include the delicate skin under and around the eyes, around the nostrils, the chin fold and the corners of the lips. You have to avoid applying retinol close to these areas, or you can add a thick cream on top of these areas to avoid retinol migration. If you notice flakiness and irritation, you can add a vaseline or balm to treat them.

Another side effect of retinol is purging. Purging is the process during which new pimples keep showing up on the skin. This happens because retinol increases skin turnover and the pimples that were forming on the deeper layers of the skin, start coming up faster.

These pimples are generally painless, small and go away in a few days. Purging can last a couple of weeks until all goes back to normality.

Monitoring and Maximizing Results

When you decide to start your retinol journey, take some pictures! 2-3 months later, you would have forgotten what your skin looked like and comparing pictures will make it easier for you to see results.

Start slow, increase frequency and retinol strength when you feel ready and be consistent.

A lot of people complain that they are not seeing results from retinol. This is called the ‘retinol plateau’ phase and can happen for a few reasons:

  1. You may have stopped being consistent with your retinol.
  2. When you first start using retinol, your skin goes through a lot of changes and after some time, the retinol has reached full capacity and there are no more skin concerns to address.
  3. Or, your retinol can only improve them to a certain degree and after this point, it’s better if you switch to a stronger retinol.

This ingredient can improve many skin concerns, but in combination with other ingredients such as antioxidants, niacinamide and peptides, it can be even more powerful.

Alternatives to Traditional Retinol Products

If retinol is not the right option for you, you may want to look for alternatives to retinol. One plant-based ingredient that has been getting a lot of attention lately, but has been around for centuries, is Bakucchiol also known as natural retinol.

Bakuchiol has been widely used in Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic practice due to its anti-inflammatory properties. A small study in the British Journal of Dermatology found bakuchiol to be just as effective at erasing fine lines and improving skin colour as retinol but with less peeling and burning. However the data is limited (especially compared to decades of retinol studies), but Bakucchiol is definitely a promising ingredient.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

To wrap up, Cameron helped us answer some common questions about choosing and using retinol.

Can retinol be used on all skin types?

She explains, “If you have rosacea, psoriasis, or are eczema-prone, then retinol is not really for you, if you have any inflamed skin condition such as inflamed acne I would seek professional advice before introducing retinol. Like anything, it may not be for everyone.”

While retinol is not necessarily out of the question, for those with sensitive skin, it is advisable to choose lower-strength retinol options or alternative products formulated with soothing ingredients.

When should I start using retinol?

When it comes to maintaining overall skin health and appearance, Cameron suggests, “Start incorporating retinol in your mid 20’s to early 30s. This is because the production of collagen fibres starts to decline in our 20s so retinol can help stimulate skin cell turnover and target those very early signs of ageing”.

However, it can also be used by younger individuals who wish to address acne or other specific skin concerns.

Can I use retinol during the day?

“Retinol should always be applied at night. It’s an ingredient especially sensitive to light, if you applied a retinol product and exposed your skin to the sun immediately, the retinol would be less effective”, Cameron notes.

How long does it take to see results?

This can depend on the retinol strength, frequency and degree of skin concern. In general, “Retinol works at a cellular level and could take 3-6 months before you notice the results”.

Are there any long-term side effects of retinol?

“Long-term side effects of retinol are highly unlikely. However, retinol must be used responsibly to avoid the skin becoming unbalanced or experiencing unnecessary side effects”.

What should I not mix with retinol?

Speaking of using responsibly, Cameron noted some of the ingredients to avoid using on the night you apply retinol.

“It’s advised to avoid retinol with vitamin C, benzoyl peroxide, and AHA/BHA acids — many ingredients that you may be using to treat acne-prone or textured skin”.

She continued, “This is because AHA and BHA acids are exfoliating, which can dry out the skin and cause further irritation if your skincare routine already includes retinol”.

Mixing the wrong products can impact the efficacy of certain ingredients, “Avoid Benzoyl peroxide and retinol as they can lead to cancelling each other out rendering them less effective”, she added “Avoid retinol and vitamin C together as Vitamin C protects skin from environmental aggressors and retinol repairs and rebuilds skin so they’re best used at opposite times of the day. C in the morning and retinol at night”.

Final Thoughts

All in all, retinol remains a hero ingredient for every skin type and skin concern.

Used in the right way, it can reap incredible benefits for your skin in the short and long term.

If you’re now ready to choose a retinol product right for you, check out our roundup of the best retinol serums and creams.

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Tara Lusk is the founder and creator of Beauty Space
Tara Lusk is a Sydney-based beauty enthusiast and the founder of Beauty Space. She launched the blog in 2018 to showcase the best beauty and skincare brands emerging from Australia, while also providing insider tips and tricks for hair and skincare. With a focus on tried-and-true products, Tara puts the latest cult products to the test to separate hype from substance.

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