Retinol: How does it work and can you use it every day?

Retinol is known as the “gold standard” for anti-ageing.

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Tori Crowther
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There’s no skincare ingredient quite as powerful as retinol, but there’s also no ingredient quite as confusing to get to grips with. We promise the benefits to make retinol worth getting your head around though. 

Known as the “gold standard” for anti-ageing, retinol also has many other benefits, including reducing acne, hyperpigmentation, fine lines and overall brightening. The best part is that with proper use, pretty much all skin types can benefit from retinol.

As for the golden question: “can you use it every day?” The answer is yes, but there are some rules.

What is the difference between retinol and retinoids?

We’re going to dive straight into the deep (and potentially confusing) end with this, but stay with us — it’s worth it! 

Retinol is derived from vitamin A and is often used as a catch-all term for the ingredient, but there are actually different types of retinol.

Technically when we talk about retinol, we’re referring to retinoids. Retinoids come in 4 main types: retinyl esters (like retinyl palmitate), retinol, retinaldehyde, and retinoic acid. You may also hear another name: prescription retinoic acid

Retinyl esters, retinol, and retinaldehyde all have to be converted on your skin to retinoic acid to work, making retinoic acid bio available on the skin [1]. Each of them takes a different conversion “step” to reach retinoic acid once it hits the skin. These conversion steps make each one slightly weaker in strength, which in turn impacts how irritating it may initially be for the skin. 

Now, this doesn’t mean one is better than the other, you just need to work your way up to increase your strength. This difference in strengths does mean that some are available on prescription only, while others are available over the counter.

What does retinol do to your skin?

Known as the “silver bullet” in skincare, retinol works by getting deep into the skin and stimulating new skin cells and increasing skin cell turnover.

In turn, this increases collagen production, reduces excess oil production, and reduces excess skin cells (known as keratinisation). This increased rate that dead skin cells are renewed essentially rids the things we don't love about our skin and delivers those we really want. 

This impressive effect on the skin means it addresses many skin concerns:

  • Anti-ageing effects of reducing wrinkles and fine lines
  • Less inflammation and worsening of concerns like acne 
  • Increasing plumpness thanks to boosting collagen production.

What are the benefits of using retinol?

Thanks to its laundry list of benefits, retinol is often used for a variety of skin types and concerns, including acne and sensitive skin. 

Reduces fine lines

Since retinol works by stimulating collagen and elastin production, over time this reduces fine lines and wrinkles and reveals smoother skin. 

Improves acne

It’s true, retinol can improve acne. This works by essentially unclogging pores and reducing sebum production thanks to cell turnover. It also helps to calm inflammation in the skin. The ability to regulate sebum production also reduces things like enlarged pores.

Exfoliation

This links to the above note but is worth its own mention. Even if you don’t have acne but struggle with things like congestion, you’ll benefit from retinol’s ability to exfoliate without the need for harsh physical scrubs. 

Decreases hyperpigmentation

The increased cell turnover while using a retinol product can also decrease hyperpigmentation; a skin concern that’s tricky to address so this is a huge benefit for many people. 

Skin texture

The skin's texture can be improved by steady exfoliation over time.

Reduces impacts of sun damage

Retinol can reduce the effects caused by sun exposure by improving skin tone, skin texture, and hyperpigmentation.

Overall radiance

You know that effect when someone tells you “you’re looking really well”, yeah retinol can do that. By increasing cell turnover, retinol can brighten skin.

What are the side effects of retinol?

As with a lot of skincare ingredients, there can be some side effects. Most of the time this is down to the adjustment period. It might take a little trial and error when slotting it into your skincare routine. This process is sometimes referred to as retinisation or "the retinol burn". 

The common side effects of retinol are: 

  • Irritation: This might feel like itching, redness, and rashes
  • Dryness: This is where your skin feels tight and you might experience some flaking
  • Peeling: This is where the uppermost layer of your skin peels off in small patches. 

To combat these side effects, it’s important to phase the correct percentage of retinol in. Start using it once a week and gradually increase this as your skin tolerates it better. By "tolerating" retinol, we mean experiencing no dryness or peeling. 

Though it’s unlikely with correct application and strength, some people simply don’t tolerate retinol. Often this is true for those with skin conditions like rosacea, eczema or psoriasis, or overly sensitised skin. 

That’s not to say you won’t ever be able to use it, though. Many people find once they’ve addressed their skin barrier and other concerns, retinol is something they can introduce further down the line. If you’re unsure, always work with a skin expert to help guide you. 

It’s extra important to wear SPF 50 sunscreen whilst using retinol or retinoids as they can cause sun sensitivity. But, of course, you should be wearing sunscreen every day regardless.  

At what age should you start using retinol?

There is no set age you should start using retinol, it really comes down to your skin type, goals and concerns. Generally, you don’t need to start using it until you’re in your mid-20s and even then some people aren’t ready to incorporate it yet. 

Think of it as something to begin using once you’ve mastered the basics and have a functioning skin barrier. This means you shouldn’t be getting regular dryness, irritation or discomfort. Once you’ve got that regimen down and you want to step things up a notch, you can start introducing retinol.

Some people are also under the impression that it's "too late" to start seeing the benefits of retinol, but that's not true. You can benefit from using retinol no matter your age — from your 20s and beyond thanks to the wrinkle prevention benefits.

Mature skin types can really benefit in improved skin health and skin ageing. Retinol serums and retinol oils boost collagen and elastin production. Along with the increased skin cell turnover, this helps to reduce fine lines and wrinkles, plus improves skin tone and texture. Once you find the correct retinol products for you, they can really give you the healthy skin you've been looking for.

The simplest way to think of it is: if you're under 25, you should focus on a routine without retinol (unless you're looking for expert guidance on acne treatment) and if you're over 25, you could benefit from the ingredient.

Can I use retinol every day?

You can use retinol every day, yes. But only once your skin is used to it. 

If you’ve never used a retinol product before and go straight into using it every single night, your skin will become irritated, and dry and will most likely peel, which isn’t an ideal outcome. 

Try to start off using retinol once a week and see how your skin reacts. Once you’ve found that your skin isn’t suffering from any side effects, you can build up to twice a week. From there, you can slowly work your way up to every day if you wish.

The key thing to note here is not everyone needs to use a retinol product daily. A lot of people get all of the benefits of using it 3 times a week.

How to use a retinol oil

Retinol comes in all sorts of formulas. You can get a retinol serum, retinol creams, retinol gel and retinol oil. The good thing about retinol oil is that you’re less likely to experience irritation.

Software’s Retinol Complex Oil is potent enough to give you all of the benefits of retinol whilst still being gentle enough — thanks to the inclusion of multiple seed oils in the formula — to form a protective barrier on the skin. This oil is also great for those who don’t want to use prescription retinoids whilst still desiring the many benefits of the ingredient. 

Dosage matters too! Use a small pea-sized amount, or 2-3 stops on dry skin after using a gentle cleanser and distribute evenly. Don’t be tempted to use too much as it won’t improve the efficacy and will just increase irritation. 

Until you have that regimen down to a fine art, don’t be tempted to introduce other acids like alpha hydroxy acids into your routine.

Remember: more is not more when it comes to active skin ingredients and some ingredients simply don't work well together. Ensuring your skin barrier is healthy whilst introducing these potent ingredients will help you achieve your skin goals most effectively. 

If you’re using prescription retinol and are finding irritation to be an issue even when applying once a week, you can try 'the sandwich method'. The idea is that your skin gets the benefits of retinoic acid whilst still being protected in a moisture sandwich. 

First, you apply your favourite moisturiser and allow that to soak in, then apply your retinol over the top of that, and follow up with another layer of moisturiser.

Luckily, retinol oil contains a bunch of additional soothing ingredients so you shouldn't need to use additional products to enable your skin to tolerate it well. 

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