Retinol: what is it? All you need to know

Most of us have heard of retinol – it’s an ingredient in countless skincare products. But what does it actually do? Is it really the miracle product some claim it to be, and are there any downsides?

To put it simply, retinol is a derivative of Vitamin A. Found naturally in the skin, Vitamin A’s skin-improving talents were first noticed in the 1970s. Doctors treating acne sufferers with a prescription form of the vitamin noticed that their patients also had softer, less wrinkled skin.

More research has followed over the years. A 2007 study by the University of Michigan found that retinol does indeed tackle both types of wrinkles, smoothing both those caused by ageing skin as well as those caused by sun-damage.

Many over-the-counter skincare products now contain retinol, which the skin then converts, at a cellular level, into a substance called retinoic acid. It is this retinoic acid (also known as tretinoin) that works to repair the skin. It tackles signs of ageing by boosting collagen production, encouraging cell turnover and smoothing out the skin’s surface.

It also helps to even out pigmentation by reducing the accumulation of melanin in the skin. Melanin is the natural substance that gives our skin, hair and eyes their colour, but is also responsible for age spots and uneven pigmentation in the skin. By increasing cell turnover, tretinoin lightens existing dark spots.

Skincare products that contain retinoic acid are also available, but these are prescription-only in the UK. They are generally used to treat mild-to-moderate acne, but they can also cause some skin irritation. Known as retinoid dermatitis, adverse reactions can include redness, peeling, itching and an increased sensitivity to sunlight. However, it has also been shown that skin cells adapt to the application of retinol, and begin to tolerate it better over time. Any initial irritation may only be short-lived, and it may be possible to progress onto products with a stronger concentration of retinol.

Retinol
Adult acne

Over-the-counter retinol products are less potent than retinoic acid, and have been shown to achieve the same anti-ageing results but with fewer side-effects. The downside being that the effects take longer to achieve: it can take around 12 weeks to produce noticeable changes with regular application of a retinol product. So if you’re trying a new product, it’s important to stick with it. Don’t expect overnight results.

Another important thing to know is that retinoids break down in sunlight. While this won’t do you any harm (remember to keep applying your sunscreen too – sunscreen is important every day!), it does mean that the products are best applied at night. It also explains why retinol products always come in opaque packaging!

I work with two non-prescription products that contain retinol: Obagi 360 Retinol 1.0 and Obagi 360 Retinol 0.5. These contain retinol in two different strengths, 1.0% and 0.5% respectively. I also prescribe products from the Obagi NuDerm range, which contain tretinoin in varying concentrations (0.025%, 0.05% and 0.1%). Which one is right for you depends on your skin’s individual needs. If you would like to find out more, just book in for a full consultation and I will assess your skin fully. We can discuss any concerns you may have, and what you’d like to achieve.

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