Spotlight On: Retinol

Everything you need to know about this superhero skincare ingredient, from how it works to the best way to integrate it into your skincare regime...

Retinol is a general term for topical products containing a vitamin A derivative – technically, it’s a type of retinoid and there are several variations of these, which are designed to work at different levels. It’s a superstar when it comes to supporting the skin through the natural ageing process and is still the gold standard. It’s also fantastic when it comes to managing skin conditions such as acne, rosacea and hyperpigmentation.

How does retinol work exactly?

Retinol is a cell communicator: essentially, it can attach to most skin cells and tell them to behave like younger, healthier versions of themselves. Pretty clever, don’t you think? It’s also an antioxidant, so it helps to prevent free radical attack and oxidation in the skin, which can lead to extrinsic skin ageing (think premature ageing caused by environmental factors). 

Retinol is known for speeding up cell turnover and for helping to thicken the dermis for a plumper, younger looking skin. It also helps to thin the stratum corneum (the layer of skin we see) to expose fresher, healthier, plumper cells that reflect the light, giving a brighter and more glowing complexion.  

Retinol also helps to improve hyperpigmentation, acne, large pores, lines and wrinkles and increases hyaluronic acid production to plump the skin and regulate moisture production. 

So, what are the benefits?

The benefits of using a retinol are endless. Here’s an at-a-glance view of the many ways that retinol can support your skin:

  • Repairs the skin’s all-important protective barrier
  • Regulates cell turnover, which encourages luminosity and improves skin conditions such as acne, rosacea and hyperpigmentation
  • Improves the functioning of almost all types of skin cells
  • Increases hyaluronic acid production to plump the skin and regulate moisture production; naturally, without the need for conventional moisturisers
  • Controls the melanocytes to prevent irregular hyperpigmentation
  • Activates the fibroblasts to increase collagen and elastin induction 
  • Evens skin colour by ensuring the melanocyte is distributing pigment evenly and by helping slough off irregular pigmented cells
  • Smooths skin texture
  • Increases hydration
  • Supports and slows the ageing process by improving skin texture, discolouration and giving skin back its glow
  • Helps to minimise pore size by increasing collagen, which puts pressure on the outside of the pore

Who might want to use retinol?

If you want to support and slow the ageing process, as well as encourage a healthy glowing skin that’s free of skin conditions, you need to be using a retinol from age 25-28 unless pregnant, breastfeeding or trying to become pregnant. All skin types and skin tones can use a retinol – at Kate Kerr London, we simply modify the type of retinol with this in mind. If we recommend retinol to a teenager to help with breakouts, we always advise that they come off it once the acne is under control and wait until they turn 25-28 before starting up again to help support the skin through the natural ageing process.

What’s the best way to integrate it into your skincare regime?

With retinol, you can go in hard and fast for quick results, or take it nice and slow to limit irritation. If you’re going the hard and fast route by applying more frequently and pushing through the normal irritant reaction, this will give you much quicker and better results, but this isn’t for the faint-hearted. Your skin will be peeling for up to two skin cycles – that’s 12 weeks. Plus, there will be significant redness and tingling in the initial stages. We recommend doing this under the guidance of a skin professional.  

Starting once per week and increasing slowly to find your skin’s tolerance levels will take longer to see results, but it will be a much more comfortable process. We always remind our clients that one cannot get enough retinol into the skin to counteract the rate at which the collagen and elastin is breaking down, so for best results, build up to using it every night if possible.  

Be careful though – retinol has a two to three day-delayed irritation. We always recommend when beginning to use retinol on day one to hold fire on applying it again until day four. That way, you can see what irritation you may have had on day three and adjust accordingly. A more gentle option is retin aldehyde, which is still very effective, but doesn’t cause irritation quite like retinol. 

Using a retinol at night is key as the skin is more active and in repair mode, making it the prime opportunity to stimulate the skin’s cells. 

That being said, if you follow a strict sun protection regime, using a high SPF 30 or 50 and reapply it consistently whilst also covering up as much as possible, there’s no reason why you can’t apply retinol in the morning, too. However, only people seeking an intensive programme to support the skin through the ageing process need to use retinol twice daily.

What are the side effects of using retinol?

It’s important to use a retinol under the guidance of a skin specialist so that you can fully understand the side effects and be guided on when to push through and when to pull back. 

As your skin adjusts to the reparation process, a few side effects are completely normal and expected – the skin is renewing from the inside out and many cell processes are beginning to awaken.

Redness, peeling and burning is typical in these early stages. Shedding can last up to 12 weeks when using a retinol regularly and this can take longer if you aren’t consistent with your application. Be reassured, though, that shedding isn’t dryness – your skin is actually renewing itself. New cells are emerging and the old skin is being sloughed off to reveal healthy, glowing skin cells.

Breakouts may occur due to the purging of congestion within the pores. Just know that the more inflammation you experience, and the longer it lasts, the more this repair and renewal is needed.

How should I manage the side effects?

The effects of retinol application – typically shedding and irritation – generally occur two to three days post-application. When starting out, don’t be too gung-ho and jump straight into applying it every night for multiple nights in a row as the irritant reaction will be much stronger.  

The sudden increase in cell turnover is what initiates inflammation. Your skin cells are suddenly reaching the surface of the skin more quickly – they haven’t had the time to mature, so when they reach the surface of the skin, they don’t function as they should and this temporarily upsets the skin’s barrier function. Your skin reacts to this change by activating inflammation to repair the ‘so called’ problem. A lot of repair is occurring during this time, so sit tight and don’t panic!

The key is to start slowly. Begin by applying retinol in the evening two nights per week and increase to nightly use by adding one extra day per week. Just know that the longer you take to build up to nightly usage, the longer the side effects last. 

You want to make sure that you prep the skin effectively before applying retinol and really massage it thoroughly into the skin. Otherwise, the retinol pools in the upper layers of the skin, causing the cells to receive a much higher dose, which triggers a stronger reaction.  

To target the layers of the skin responsible for pigmentation, skin firmness, smoothness, hydration and acne, it’s important that the skin is prepped properly beforehand with efficient cleansing and exfoliation. Start your evening routine with a cleanser containing Alpha Hydroxy Acids or Beta Hydroxy Acids to remove dead skin cell build up; this will prepare the skin for effective retinol penetration.

When the skin is peeling, do not moisturise! Remember that your skin shedding is actually a sign of renewal – the dead skin cells should be exfoliated away and a hydrating serum applied, instead.

When using retinol, it’s important to apply at least an SPF30 every day, even in the winter – even if you’re staying inside. Remember, you have baby skin now that needs to be protected! 

The neck and eye area don’t tolerate retinol as well, so go easy on application in these areas. You can feather the tiniest bit of product down onto the neck and around the eye once it has almost been fully massaged into the skin of the face.

Every retinol myth, busted

Retinol thins your skin

Using a retinol actually thickens the dermis for a plumper, younger looking skin – even though the skin is shedding, new healthy cells are moving on through.  

Retinol is an exfoliant

Retinol increases cell turnover, but it is not an exfoliant. A polish is still needed to slough off the dead skin cells once they reach the top to reveal the healthy, plump cells below. 

Retinol dries out your skin

The reparation process causes your skin to shed initially, which is often confused with drying. This is actually your skin renewing itself as new skin cells emerge and the old skin is sloughed away. Dehydration can occur in the initial stages, but this is temporary so try to push through and don’t apply any moisturiser. A hydrating serum can be used as and when needed.

You shouldn’t use retinol around your eyes 

If you’re concerned with skin ageing, then this is one of the areas that needs retinol the most. Just take it slowly and use much less product, or use a specific eye cream containing retinol.

Retinol makes you more sensitive to the sun

Studies have shown that retinoids do not increase the risk of sunburn, however, sun exposure can trigger a retinol reaction. Regardless of whether you are applying a retinol or not, it is incredibly important to use an SPF50 everyday and reapply when in the sun. 

All retinol is the same

There are many different types of retinol. Adapalene – known as Differin –  is a prescription-strength retinol that is generally prescribed for acne. It helps to improve breakout and congestion, but with less inflammation.

Retinoic Acid (Retin A or tretinoin) is also a prescription-strength retinol and is the most effective and fast-working of all retin A products. It can cause significant inflammation and shedding, which you may not acclimatise to. 

Over-the-counter retinol has fewer side effects than prescription-strength retinoic acid. You may experience some irritation, but most people acclimatise and the results are fantastic.

Retinol esters (retinyl palmitate, acetate and linoleate) have the weakest strength in the retinol family. They are a good starting point for anyone who is nervous about using a retinol or who has very sensitive skin.

Stronger is always best

This is one of the biggest retinol myths! Yes, using a high dose every day is going to give a stronger result than a weaker dose, but often clients using higher doses of retinol will only apply it a couple of times a week. We recommend using a lower dose, but applying it every night as a more consistent application yields better results compared to erratic application. 

If you’re peeling or red, you’re having an allergic reaction

Retinol significantly stimulates cell turnover, which upsets the skin’s barrier function temporarily, causing inflammation and for the old skin to shed. This is completely normal and expected when starting to use a retinol. That inflammation and the skin shedding is actually a good sign as a huge amount of repair is going on beneath the skin. Push through this phase and your skin will come out the other side healthier and more resilient. The redness normally lasts for 2-4 weeks and the peeling, although more consistent in the early weeks, peters out as you progress for up to 12 weeks.

Sensitive skin can’t use retinoids

You may need to modify your dose and frequency and build up slowly, but you can get there. Start cautiously on a low dose, applying just one to two times per week, then add one day per week until you’re using it every night. If you’re following a skincare and treatment plan with Kate Kerr London, another tip is to start your retinol a bit later, once your skin’s barrier has repaired and the skin is calm and resilient. This works well because applying retinol to a well-functioning skin leads to less irritation and inflammation compared to applying it to an impaired or compromised skin.

Only prescription-strength retinoids provide results

Many over-the-counter retinoids are very effective. Using prescription-strength retinoids can be very irritating for some and, although the skin looks fabulous, the continual shedding and irritation outweighs the benefits. Often clients using higher doses can only tolerate applying a retinol a couple of times a week. A lower dose that is consistently applied every night will yield much better results than occasional application. At Kate Kerr London, we use over-the-counter retinol with different delivery systems, targeting varying layers of the skin to treat very specific concerns and we achieve exceptional results. We can also offer a referral to a doctor for prescription-strength tretinoin, if necessary.

We strongly recommend using retinol to complement a full skin health regime.  It’s important to look after the skin and all its processes with specific products in a comprehensive regime – whilst retinol is a superstar ingredient, it isn’t the answer to achieving optimum skin health on its own. We always advise using retinol under the guidance of a skin specialist to help coach you through the process and to ensure that you meet all of your skin goals. To find out more, book a consultation for a tailored plan.

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