There are hundreds of beauty products claiming to give you smoother, younger, plumper skin but one ingredient has stood the test of time and lives up to the hype: retinol. But not all retinols are created equal and some can be used by your skin more easily than others.
Top Sante beauty writer Natalie Millman gives us the low down on how they work and the pros and cons of each (and you can read even more in our May issue, on sale Apr 16).

What is retinol?

The terms you need to know:

  • Retinoids: This is the family name of vitamin A derivatives
  • Retinoic acid (aka Retin-A, Tretinoin): Prescription-strength, this is the granddaddy of retinoids and is the form your skin can readily utilise.
  • Retinaldehyde (retinal): This requires just one conversion to retinoic acid so, according to skincare brand Medik8, it can act 11 times faster than retinol. Drawbacks are that it’s a little more irritating than retinol and can be unstable like other retinoids, which means they can degrade upon regular exposure to light, heat and air – this is why packaging and formulation needs to be carefully considered by brands.
  • Retinol: Before your skin can use retinol, it needs to be firstly converted to retinaldehyde and then to retinoic acid – a two-step process.
  • Retinyl retinoate: This new-generation retinol derivative has a slower conversion into retinoic acid than retinol. It’s also thought to be less sensitising than retinol.
  • Retinyl esters: These include retinol propionate and retinyl palmitate. These need three conversions: first to retinol, then retinaldehyde, then retinoic acid. This means they will take longer to be effective but they’re gentler.
  • Hydroxypinacolone retinoate (often seen marketed as granactive retinoid): This is a retinoic acid ester, which means it’s directly “related” to retinoic acid so doesn’t need converting to retinoic acid. It’s a newer form so hasn’t got the same amount of research behind it as some other retinoids. You might see this used in higher concentrations because it’s a gentler form of retinoid.

Find skin-renewing retinoids in these anti-ageing creams, lotions and serums

Kate Somerville DermalQuench Liquid Lift + Retinol (£80)

Contains 1 per cent bio-active retinol, a gentler form that is kinder on skin but still effective. The additional hyaluronic acid, botanical extracts and oxygen all help to refine, hydrate and improve the appearance of fine lines.

The Organic Pharmacy Retinol Night Serum (£37)

Contains encapsulated retinol at 2.5 per cent to give fine lines and uneven skin a real boost. ‘Encapsulating retinol in lecithin [a lipid] supports its delivery and skin penetration, and allows for a more even release of the active ingredient,’ says Adam Kielbasa, Head of Training at The Organic Pharmacy. ‘This is important because retinoids can be irritating and you need to allow your skin to build tolerance for them.’

La Roche-Posay Redermic R (£29.50)

Perfect if you have sensitive skin or are cautious about using a retinoid. It contains just 0.3% retinol and is a hypo-allergenic formula with no preservatives, fragrance, colourants, lanolin or parabens. There’s also an eye cream in the range, which contains 0.1% retinol for tackling signs of ageing in the delicate eye area.

Sunday Riley A+ High-Dose Retinoid Serum (£70)

is ideal for when your skin has built up a tolerance to retinol. It combines a 5 per cent retinoid ester blend, 1 per cent liposomal-encapsulated retinol blend, and 0.5 per cent blue-green algae, which has a retinoid-like action to reduce signs of ageing, plus botanicals such as Hawaiian white honey, cactus extract and ginger to soothe any effects of the retinoids.

Estee Lauder’s new Perfectionist Pro Rapid Renewal Retinol Treatment (£63)

Teams its pure retinol with soothing, hydrating ingredients such as hyaluronic acid, vitamins E and C and algae extract. It claims to boost cell turnover from day one and to improve skin tone in one month.

The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid 2% in Squalane (£7.10)

Rated by Dr Anjali. ‘It’s ideal if you’re prone to redness, as the serum contains a less irritative retinoid as an alternative to retinol.’ If you want to try retinoids without spending a fortune, The Ordinary’s range goes from a low-strength Retinol 0.2% in Squalane to a high-strength but low irritation Granactive Retinoid 5% in Squalane. In each case, the squalane – a natural substance often derived from olives or other plants – heaps moisture onto your skin to keep it supple while the retinoid gets to work.

Medik8 Retinol 10TR Serum (£29)

Also recommended by Dr Anjali. Although it’s a strong concentration (1% retinol) it’s formulated to slowly release the formula through the night – think of it as a dripping tap rather than an instant flood! Start by using just twice a week for two weeks before applying every other night for two weeks, then every night.

The new plant-based alternative to retinol

Just recenty, a new plant-based alternative to retinol has emerged (regular retinol is usually synthetic).
‘Bakuchiol, a compound found in the seeds of the Indian plant Psoralea corylifolia, is gaining a lot of interest in the beauty and skincare industry,’ says Dr Anjali Mahto.
‘Bakuchiol seems to work in a similar manner to retinol – it’s been shown to activate a number of chemical pathways in skin cells that ultimately lead to improved collagen production, decreased collagen breakdown and a reduction of melanin (pigment) synthesis. The overall effect seems to be an improvement in fine lines, wrinkles and pigmentation, which are commonly associated with the natural ageing process. But bakuchiol has the added advantage of causing less irritation – peeling, dryness or sensitivity – that’s associated with retinol.’
You might see other plant-based ingredients, such as beta-carotene, which is found in the likes of carrot seed and pomegranate seed, or rosehip oil, being described as ‘natural retinols’ but it’s worth remember these aren’t the same as retinol.
‘Rosehip oil doesn’t contain retinol. It contains small concentrations of all-trans retinoic acid,’ says Dr Anjali. ‘The main issue with this is you don’t really know what concentration you’re getting to determine whether or not it is going to be clinically effective.’ So for proven, gold-star anti-ageing ingredients, stick to retinoids and bakuchiol.
You can find bakuchiol in the following new beauty products:

1. Indeed Labs Bakuchiol Reface Pads

These are for swiping over your cleansed face to let the mix of bakuchiol, niacinamide (vitamin B3) and allantoin calm, clear, rejuvenate and plump up your skin.

2. Ole Henriksen Goodnight Glow Retin-ALT Sleeping Creme (£46)

Theis cream combines AHAs and bakuchiol to exfoliate your skin while you’re sleeping and to target fine lines, wrinkles and pigmentation. Edelweiss stem cells provide antioxidants that also firm skin and prevent collagen breakdown.
To find out more about how retinoids could help your skin, read the full article in the May issue of Top Santé, on sale Apr 16, 2019.