What is retinol?
Retinol is the alcohol form of retinoic acid (vitamin A). Vitamin A is an essential nutrient in the body; however, since the middle of the 20th century, vitamin A derivatives such as retinol have proven to assist in various skin conditions such as acne, pigmentation and the visible signs of ageing.
Perhaps a better question would be, why not retinol? There’s no reason why you shouldn’t consider retinol essential to your skincare routine unless you have sensitivity issues. (I’ll come back to that in a moment).
For the rest of us? Regardless of age, retinol is necessary for the skin to function correctly. Vitamin A is an essential nutrient for skin health both in your diet and as a topical skincare ingredient.
As time goes by, you’ll be glad you invested in retinol in your skincare routine. Even if you do not have specific skin concerns, use retinol now. It will preserve your skin, but equally, it will reverse damage caused by sun exposure.
Which retinol is going to be best for you?
Most cosmetic and cosmeceutical brands have some form of vitamin A in their product ranges. But not all are equal in quality, stability, and efficacy, which can affect the results you’re likely to achieve. A poorly formulated retinol product with a barely-there-hint-of-retinol is a waste of time, or worse, it will leave you irritated. Not what you want, and with so many brands promising the benefits of retinol, it can get a little confusing.
A bit of prior knowledge before you buy will help. Right?
What to look for in your retinol serum?
Retinol is a light-sensitive ingredient so how it’s packaged and delivered is important.
My selection criteria when choosing the right retinol product? Formulation, packaging, concentration and stability are all critical.
What type of vitamin A is in the product?
Is it retinol, retinyl palmitate, palmitic acid or retinaldehyde?
For a more detailed explanation, please check my article: Vitamin A for your skin – Activate your youth enzymes.
Is the product stable?
How is it produced, is it encapsulated? What other measures have been taken in the manufacturing process to ensure stability?
What type of packaging?
Is there minimal exposure to light and air?
What is the strength or percentage of retinol in the product?
Strong enough to make a difference or just enough to make the bottom of the ingredient list?
Does the company offer transparent information?
Most good brands will give enough information on their company website to provide you with the confidence to choose the right product for you and should be able to direct you to scientific studies on the type of retinol they’re using.
What advice is being offered or recommended?
A skin consultation with a brand representative via the company advice line or a trusted skincare professional will help you choose.
The side effects of retinol? Or, what’s normal, what’s not.
As I mentioned, a poorly formulated retinol product can irritate the skin. But this is where it gets a little confusing, as most retinoid or retinol products will cause mild irritation initially.
So how do you know what’s normal?
Usually, upon commencement of a retinol product, it’s best to start slowly to not overwhelm the skin with more vitamin A than your skin can handle. If your skin irritation persists and you develop itchiness or a rash, the formulation is unsuitable.
Your best option? Look for quality cosmeceutical or medical-grade brands and start with an entry-level concentration. Or, if you’ve chosen a more potent version, introduce it slowly and sparingly, just a couple of times a week, until your skin becomes tolerant.
How long this takes for your skin to adjust will vary depending on the health and long-standing skin conditions — seeking the advice of a qualified skincare professional who can monitor your results and answer your questions or concerns.
How long before you see results?
The first time I used a retinol product, I noticed a change in my skin. Overnight! It was subtle, but my skin looked brighter, smoother and better. To say others noticed? I don’t know, but I did, which counts. But again, we’re all unique, and our response times will differ.
Your skin condition, history of sun damage, the product’s strength, and the formulation’s quality and efficacy will all come into play.
If you’ve found the right retinol product that meets the above criteria, you will get results which will continue for as long as you use retinol. So keep using it.
Remember, when introducing vitamin A, you’re restoring your skin, allowing it to function in a healthy, youthful way and preventing future damage. Keep going, don’t give up.
If it’s not on, it’s just not on!
Or, put another way, when is the best time to apply your retinol? At night.
Retinol degrades when exposed to sunlight; keep your potent retinol serums for nighttime use and derivatives like retinyl palmitate during the day as it offers additional protection from the sun.
5 of the best Retinol Serums I know of and why I like them.
Alpha H | Vitamin A 0.5%
I love Alpha H for so many reasons. An authentic Australian cosmeceutical skincare range of products.
A perfect introduction to Vitamin A. Alpha H has combined Retinol and Retinyl Propionate in this formula with the addition of Oenothera Biennis Oil (Evening Primrose Oil) in a jojoba and macadamia oil base. Adding these oils provides a gentle approach to the skin while delivering an effective dose of vitamin A and the opaque packaging means the ingredients will not be degraded by light.
Alpha H has recently improved its packaging, which makes this product a winner. Commit to at least three months of regular use, and you will start to see results.
Paula’s Choice 1% Retinol Treatment
If necessity is the mother of invention, then Paula Begoun is one dedicated mother. A career born behind a cosmetic counter and frustration with her skin led to a beauty empire.
Paula has numerous books to her credit, such as ‘Don’t go to the cosmetics counter without me’ and The Beauty Bible.
Despite more than 25,000 products on the market today, Paula has found her niche, delivering only the ingredients supported by evidence in a no-nonsense way.
This particular product will give you a powerhouse of retinol.
What I like about this product, as well as the strength, is the excellent lengths Paula and her team have undertaken to bring you a stable retinol product. Not only has Paula ensured the contents remain stable for as long as possible in an airtight container, but her production and filling methods provide stability with every step along the way.
If you’re ready for a robust and powerful product, this product is for you. If not, start with some of Paula’s other retinol products with less punch.
Environ | Concentrated Retinol Serum
It took me a long time before I tried this product, but I was pretty impressed once I did. Environ take their vitamin A very seriously.
You’ll require a skin consultation before they get you started, and no matter where you are in your journey with retinol, you’ll likely begin with Environ’s lowest strength formula in the Skin EssentiA AVST range.
I started with Skin EssentiA Moisturiser AVST #1, and even though it’s a low-dose formula, I noticed the results very quickly. I couldn’t wait to get to the next level, and the concentration of vitamin A. Des Fernandez is the brainchild behind this brand and the first cosmetic company to bring consumers like you and me a cosmetic preparation containing retinol.
Environ’s Concentrated Retinol Serums are next level. Once your skin tolerates the low-dose formulas in the AVST Moisturising range, you can step up your retinol A game with a retinol serum. There are three levels of potency. Retinol Serum 3 is not currently available in Australia as it’s equivalent to the strength of a prescription tretinoin formula. Still, you may find it is available in the country where you live.
Before Environ came on the market in the early 90s, the only available vitamin A was via a prescription from your dermatologist. So you could say Dr Des Fernandes remains the pioneer of vitamin A in cosmetic formulations.
They also deliver their vitamin A in light and air-controlled packaging. If this is your first foray, then Environ will not disappoint.
Ultraceuticals | Ultra A Skin Perfecting Serum
What can I say; this is a brilliant product. Dr Geoffrey Heber is very passionate about delivering scientifically supported products that will bring you results.
What I like about this range of retinol is the packaging and the sophisticated formula. The improved formula now encapsulates retinol to provide longevity to the last pump of serum.
Ultraceuticals have also created three strengths, so again, if you’re a retinol virgin, you can start slowly and work your way up to the whole retinol love affair. Doubtful you’ll have any regrets.
Aspect | Retinol Brulee
Okay, so I am yet to try this one. But I include it because this is a brand to trust. Aspect has also ensured stability by giving you the type of packaging all sophisticated formulations containing retinol should be.
This product will suit you if you’re accustomed to a potent vitamin A formula in your beauty routine. If not, you may want to start with one of the introductory formulas I’ve recommended here.
One last bonus product.
If you’ve tried skincare with vitamin A, but it doesn’t seem to agree with you because you have super sensitive skin?
Ella Bache | Intensive Recovery Cream (Creme Intex)
Some of us have underlying issues using retinol; even a low-strength formula like Retinyl Palmitate can be irritating. There can be many reasons for this, maybe your lipid barrier is compromised, you’ve had too many years of harsh products and exposure to environmental stress, or you’re just a bit sensitive.
You may like to try Ella Bache Creme Intex. Derived from fish oil, you’ll get the therapeutic benefits of vitamin A, but without the intensity of retinol.
What do I do?
Great question! Thanks for asking.
I use Environ’s Skin EssentiA AVST # 5 Moisturiser, which contains the esters, retinyl palmitate and acetate, morning and night. And, a couple of nights a week, I boost my skin with Environ’s Concentrated Retinol Serum. I’ve been using vitamin A for a long time, so my skin can tolerate this level of intensity.
Be patient, and you will see results.
And now you?
There are many great retinol products on the market, more than I can list here. For now, I’ve chosen five that meet my criteria. Drop me an email if you have a retinol product you’d like me to review. Why not share this article on your favourite social media channel if you liked it? I’d be delighted if you did.
See you next time.