Prescribed to me by a dermatologist, a metal squeeze tube of Differin was my induction into the world of retinoids. I was a teenager, plagued by persistent acne claiming a permanent spot on my face, and ready to use any lotion or potion I could get my hands on, to exterminate it. The initial redness and flakiness I experienced gave way to clear, smooth, and most importantly – blemish-free skin.
I couldn’t get enough of this miracle-in-a-tube. I renewed my prescription and applied it religiously, i.e. whenever a breakout decided to rear its ugly head. Little did I know the milky-looking gel I was applying was starting to cause skin sensitivity, not helped by the fact that I wasn’t consistent about sunscreen application. My skin sans makeup resembled that of a tomato’s. Smooth and (mostly) blemish-free, but red and so, so thin. It took me a truckload of soothing and hydrating products, time, and effort to get my skin back to normal.
Don’t make the same mistake as I did. We speak to trusted dermatologist Dr Lim Kar Seng, consultant dermatologist at The Dermatology Practice, to get the low-down on Retinol and share our edit of Retinol picks.
What is Retinol?
Retinol (also known as Vitamin A) is naturally found in fatty fish, milk, and eggs. Retinol works by normalizing cell turnover rate and increasing collagen production. What this means? It keeps pores from getting clogged and at the same time boosts collagen production which reduces the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and other skin imperfections.
Is there a difference between Retin-A, Retinol, Retinal, and Retinoids?
Here’s what you need to know: First and foremost, Retin-A (also known as tretinoin, trans-retinoic acid, or retinoic acid) is the strongest and only available by prescription. The over-the-counter versions, like retinol and retinal do not really affect the skin directly. They need to be ‘activated’ by special enzymes – retinoic acid receptor that occur naturally in the skin – to retinoic acid before they’re effective. Retinoids are simply the umbrella term for vitamin A derivatives of which retinols are the strongest.
When to use Retinol?
Retinol should be used to combat acne during the teenage years, otherwise it’s great for anyone above 30 to improve the appearance of wrinkles and pigmentation. Starting retinol usage earlier helps strengthen the skin at a deeper level, as visible signs of ageing and sun damage would surface by then.
What ingredients should I use with Retinol?
Just like how peanut butter and jelly, or bacon and eggs were made to be eaten together, there are other great ingredients that complement the effects of Retinol. Lightening agents like Arbutin or Hydroquinone, Vitamin C, or even Glycolic Acid – in the right concentration – can safely be used with Retinol.
What ingredients should I avoid when using Retinol?
It’s not advisable to use anything that could sensitize skin by removing superficial layers like physical scrubs or drying it out with Benzoyl Peroxide. Whilst Vitamin C in the right concentration can safely be used with Retinol, most forms of Vitamin C don’t work so well with Retinol. The optimum pH level for Retinol is 5.5 to 6, whilst Vitamin C is most effective when it is at a pH of 3.5 or lower. Avoid using other Vitamin A derivatives if you’re already using a Retinol product.
Do I use it in the day or at night?
The short answer – at night. Retinols in skin care formulas can be highly unstable, causing redness, itchiness, and peeling. The ingredient is also prone to breaking down in sunlight, and can increase skin sensitivity to harmful UV rays. This is why Retinol has traditionally been restricted to night use with a caveat to wear a good broad-spectrum sunblock rated SPF 30 or greater, the following day. That being said, the newer retinol formulations are more stable and can be used during the day. Always check the manufacturer’s instructions.
Does the texture of the Retinol product affect efficacy?
The rule of thumb is to pick the texture that works best for your skin type. Try a cream-based product for dry skin and a serum for oily or acne-prone skin.
Which type of Retinol is the most effective, and at which stage of my skincare should I apply it?
The concentration starts at 0.01%, so start low and work your way up. Another thing to look out for – is air-tight, opaque packaging that protects the product from light and air exposure, so the actives don’t lose their efficacy. Retinol should be applied before your moisturizer.
How can I incorporate Retinol into my skincare routine with the least amount of skin irritation?
Use it slowly, on alternate nights. You can start by applying it on thicker areas of facial skin – like your cheeks and nose – before introducing it to more sensitive areas, like your forehead or around the eyelids.
Team Allies of Skin’s Retinol picks:
For all skin types: Allies of Skin 1A™ Overnight Mask
“Although this felt heavier than other moisturizers I’m used to, it sinks into skin quickly and doesn’t leave skin feeling sticky. I really enjoy the light lavender scent, which relaxes me before bed. It tingled a little on application, but my skin wasn’t irritated. Overnight, my blemishes and redness are calmed and my skin looks brighter, and feels more supple in the morning.” – Marjorie, Customer Experience
For oily skin: Paula’s Choice Skincare Resist 1% Retinol Booster
“The pump on this bottle dispenses a generous amount of product, I found it difficult to get 1-3 drops as instructed. Bright yellow, the serum had a runny, watery texture, and felt hydrating. Thanks to the time-released retinol, I didn’t experience stinging, dryness, or peeling, even though I was slightly burnt from prior sun exposure.” – Vati, Operations
For combination skin: Jordan Samuel Skin Treatment Oil: Étoile with Retinol
“I love how this oil is lightweight, yet still has enough slip for me to do a quick facial massage during application. It sinks into my skin almost immediately and doesn’t leave a residue. Next morning, I wake up to glowing, soft and smooth, hydrated skin.” – Charmaine, Editorial Lead
For virgin skin never before touched by Retinol: The Ordinary Advanced Retinoid 2%
“I don’t like spending too much time applying skincare, so I was pleasantly surprised at how this seemingly thick and concentrated serum absorbed quickly. I have nothing negative to report – no unpleasant smell, dryness or stinging – and my recent pimple scars seem less obvious, and are healing more quickly.” – Benjamin, Creative Director
For dry skin: Zelens Vitamin A Treatment Drops
“Silky smooth, this lightweight oil feels very nourishing when applied. I didn’t experience any irritation or stinging, and I noticed my skin looked smoother and brighter with more refined pores after three nights of use.” – Gillian, Social Lead
For skin sensitive to Retinol: Kypris Moonlight Catalyst
“Touted as a gentler, herbal alternative to retinoids, I had my doubts if this would work on my skin since I’m used to stronger concentrations of Retinol. Surprisingly it evened out my skin tone, nixed redness, and left my skin feeling velvety. I used it on its own, but if you have drier skin, it can be mixed with your favourite hydrating facial oil. My only complaint: It’s a little too fragranced for my liking.” – Charmaine