Field Guide to Retinol – all your questions answered

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What is retinol?

It might sound like a scary undefined chemical compound, but retinol is nothing but vitamin A, one of the essential vitamins for your skin. And now a bit of boring, yet necessary sciency stuff. Retinoids come in different forms and concentrations, including retinoic acid (also known as tretinoin), retinyl palmitate and retinaldehyde. Retinol and retinoids need to be processed by the skin in order to be effective, which your body does by using its own enzymes that turn retinoids into the active form of vitamin A, namely retinoic acid.

What does retinol do for your skin?

You will see that retinol/retinoic acid is pure magic for your complexion. Its purpose is to increase cell turnover, which in turn helps smooth and treat any signs of ageing, wrinkles, acne and unwanted pigmentation, making it a multi-tasking wonder suitable for a variety of skin concerns at any age, from teenage years to mature complexions. Retinoids can also boost collagen production, resulting in improved elasticity, and can positively influence skin’s tone, texture and brightness. You will notice that retinol products tend to be marketed for one major skin concern, either for ageing or acne, in the case of over-the-counter treatments, but either of them should offer the same benefits regardless of the marketing on pack.

What is the right form of retinol for your skin?

With concentrations ranging between 0.5% and 2%, there are many options to ease your way into adding this molecule to your routine. You can start with a lower concentration and work your way up to the more potent ones, or you can just find the one that works for you and stick to it. Personally, I started with Paula’s Choice 1% and I noticed great benefits in terms of acne, smoothness and radiance, but the side effects were also quite intense and it took weeks for my skin to adapt.

What are the side effects of retinoids?

Retinoids might be the best at treating a wide range of conditions, but they also come with a few warning signs. When first introduced into your routine, they can cause peeling, dryness, irritation and redness. They can make inflammatory skin conditions worse, so they are not recommended for those suffering from rosacea, eczema and certain forms of acne with papules and pustules. As with any substances that increase cellular turnover, retinol may cause temporary purging, which can generally be prevented by slowly and gradually getting your skin used to it. Retinoids can increase sensitivity to sun exposure, so they have to be paired with SPF protection during the day, and should never be used if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.

How to use retinol?

Due to its sensitivity to light and high oxidising potential, retinol should only be used at night. Apply on clean, dry skin and follow with a light moisturiser if needed. Don’t use layered with acids in general and AHAs or salicylic acid in particular as they can deactivate retinoids and cause more irritation. Start by applying retinol every 2-3 days, then moving onto applying two days on, one day off (you can use your acid toners on the off days), and make sure to take breaks whenever it feels too much – you will know what this means according to the way your skin reacts to it, whether it’s redness, dryness or irritation. It is important to keep your skin hydrated, so on the off days you can treat yourself to a rich moisturising balm or an oil to make sure you’re getting all the nutrients your skin needs. The effects of retinol only become noticeable on the skin after 24-48 hours, the time is takes cells to regenerate, which is an important factor to consider when building your routine.

This is what I try to do in my current routine:

  • Monday & Tuesday – retinol serum
  • Wednesday – acid toner/treatment (think AHA, salicylic, glycolic or azelaic acid) to help exfoliate flakiness caused by the increased cell turnover
  • Thursday & Friday – retinol serum
  • Saturday & Sunday – hydrating serum with hyaluronic acid, moisturising cream and/or oil for an intense nourishing and much-needed calming boost

What retinol serum should I use?

Important tip: retinol deteriorates quickly during exposure to light and air, so it should come in an airtight and opaque packaging. Try to avoid any jars or dropper bottles (with one exception, which you will see below).


Paula’s Choice Clinical 1% Retinol Treatment (£53 / 30ml) contains a high concentration of pure retinol and a mix of antioxidants, peptides, vitamin C and plant extracts to hydrate calm irritation. My favourite retinol product!


The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid 2% Emulsion (£8 / 30ml) contains two forms of retinol: solubilised Hydroxypinacolone Retinoate (HPR), a highly-advanced form that promises to offer a better effect against signs of ageing than nearly all other forms of non-prescription retinoid; and pure retinol in a sustained-delivery form based on a protective capsule system. This is the exception that comes in a bottle with a dropper, but it’s the cheapest good retinol serum on the market. It’s important to close the bottle after a few seconds of opening – I pour a few drops on the back of my hand, tighten the bottle and then apply all over the face and neck.

NB. The Ordinary have a wide selection of retinoids varying from 0.2% to 5% concentrations, with low to high strength and different levels of irritation.


Indeed Labs Retinol Reface Skin Serum (£19.99 / 30ml) uses three forms of retinol to tackle signs of ageing and dark spots in a lightweight formula that promises low irritation. Pricewise, it is a safe middle ground between the two products above.


Skinceuticals Retinol Cream 1.0 (£60 / 30ml) has the same concentration of pure retinol as Paula’s Choice treatment, and comes from a trustworthy American brand with seriously potent formulas.

There are many more other options on the market for you to choose from. Just make sure to start slowly and give your skin enough time to adjust to retinoids – and its great benefits will follow shortly.

What are your thoughts on retinol?

One Comment Add yours

  1. Noha ♡ says:

    Such a helpful guide, I honestly swear by retinol. Constantly have one in rotation in my routine, i swear by The Ordinary’s one! Loved reading this x

    Liked by 1 person

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