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Don't look now, it's the return of Retinol

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It’s long been heralded as a wonder ingredient in the skincare industry but to most of us, retinol is Patrick Bateman-scary. Stylist’s Evie Leatham explains why it deserves a second chance

Chances are, you’ve heard the rumours. Myths abound of the women who have gone before, slathering on potent retinol products, only for them to hole up at home for days on end, waiting for the tell-tale signs to disappear from their raw, ravaged faces. You may have been brave and used it anyway, only to imagine the potential horrors tomorrow may bring: an irritated, red and flaky complexion that is nigh-on impossible to disguise with foundation. Retinol may be a panic-inducing ingredient that looms large in our beauty psyche but behind its undeserved reputation lies an anti-ageing powerhouse. And it should definitely be included in your beauty armoury.

The much misunderstood retinol is a derivative of vitamin A, which is naturally found in skin. Vitamin A’s wrinkle-fighting prowess was first discovered in the early Seventies, when doctors found that acne patients who were being successfully treated with prescription Vitamin A (known as tretinoin) were soon experiencing newly soft, less pigmented, line-free skin. “The advantage of vitamin A is that it works fundamentally on cells’ DNA, helping them to function in a healthy way while repairing damage from ageing,” explains Dr Des Fernandes, a South Africa-based plastic surgeon and founder of the Environ skincare range. But other side effects weren’t quite so welcome: namely peeling, itching and irritation. And so retinol, which is a less potent ingredient than tretinoin, was born. Since its discovery, it’s been the gold standard; the anti-ageing ingredient to live up to. So why are so few of us actually using it?

The retinol revolution

“It’s largely misunderstanding or myth,” says Dr Leslie Baumann, a US dermatologist. “In fact, when used with SPF retinol protects skin from the sun’s damage and thickens and plumps the dermal layer by increasing collagen. What is true is that to avoid a rough ride, retinol needs a considered approach so that it’s tolerated by the skin.” Indeed, the little secret that dermatologists have known for years? Retinol is a wonder anti-ager – other ingredients are no match when it comes to fading pigmentation, replumping collagen, shrinking pores and combating the signs of ageing as well as helping to combat breakouts. A winning combination for skin.

But at some point during the advance of supposedly more skin-friendly ingredients such as peptides and hyaluronic acid, retinol got left behind. And with enough products on the shelves to paralyse even the most decisive of us, confusion still reigns when it comes to the R-word. Many people assume it involves a visit to a dermatologist and with so many other anti-ageing options, who can be bothered? Tretinoin is indeed prescription-only but retinol is available in many over-the-counter products. Studies confirm it achieves the same results as tretinoin; it just takes longer to get there because first it’s converted into retinoic acid (the active ingredient in prescriptions) within the skin. The advantage is that this gradual conversion causes less irritation.

The latest technological advances mean retinol that plays nicely with your skin is now available, which is big news for everyone, but especially for the estimated 60% of us at the sensitive end of the skin spectrum. “Ironically, sensitive skin is often thin skin, more prone to wrinkling, so it benefits most from the plumping, collagen-building powers of retinol,” explains cosmetic dermatologist Dr Sam Bunting. New time-release technology means that retinol and sensitive skin can get along just fine. It drip feeds retinol so it no longer needs to be applied in one aggravating hit. Find it in Indeed Labs’ Retinol Reface Retinol Skin Resurfacer Serum, £19.99 (1 - below).

Some vitamin A derivatives, called pro-retinols, claim to be better suited to sensitive skin, but the jury is out as to whether these ever become active. “They require more steps to convert to retinoic acid and with each step the effect is weaker,” says Dr Bunting.

A Swedish company found many of these pro-retinols wanting, so it created Retinol 8, a smart molecule found in its skincare range, Verso, which it claims is 50% less irritating than standard retinol but eight times as potent. The levels of Retinol 8 ingredient in the Super Facial Serum are lower than the 0.5% retinol found in most standard serums but clinical studies have shown it to be just as powerful but with none of the associated irritation. The Super Eye Serum, £65 (2 - below), can even be used on the delicate eyelids without problems. In the past, retinol-based formulas could irritate if they were used over-enthusiastically – a liberal ‘a-little-more-won’t do-any-harm’ attitude is a frequent mistake – so they can often make skin a lot worse before it looks better.

La Roche-Posay is a favourite among dermatologists and its newly launched Redermic R, £29.50 (3 - below) is a game-changer. It combines 0.3% retinol with lipo-hydroxy acid, which has six times the exfoliating effect of salicylic acid, aiding the penetration of retinol so it works at a deeper level without requiring higher doses. If you’re new to the retinol party, 0.5% should be your upper limit. Still, always start slow and steady. “Use a pea-sized amount every third night for two weeks, slowly building up over fortnightly periods until you’re using it nightly,” advises Dr Baumann.

Keep in mind that retinol is a nocturnal beast: it breaks down in sunlight so restrict it to your nightly routine. For see-the-difference clarity and smoothness, retinol-based serums work the quickest – think of them as the souped-up engine of the beauty world. Oilier skin types only need to use a retinol-based serum on clean skin, but if you suffer from dryness, layer your usual moisturiser over the top at night.

With oily skin, it can be tempting to resort to the big guns in the form of prescription-strength formulas but try to resist. “Over-the-counter retinol is efficacious and so much easier to tolerate,” says Dr Baumann. She’s a huge fan of Retinol 0.5, £44, and 1.0, £59 (4 - below), both SkinCeuticals, as well as Retinol Complex 0.5, £52, SkinMedica (5 - below), which serve most of her patients’ regimes.

The next step

As technologies develop, retinol will become friendlier still, says Dr Bunting: “The UK is still limited compared to the US where more options are available. I’d love to see more over-the-counter products containing retinaldehyde, one of the most effective but stable pro-retinols, because it is gentle enough to recommend for most skin types.” YsthÈal+ Emulsion, £22, Avène (6 - below), is currently one of few high-street brands that contains this potent retinoid, but expect more to arrive as retinol’s comeback continues. Still feeling the fear? Shut your eyes, go ahead and do it anyway. Your skin will thank you.

Stylist's Best Retinol Products

For Under Eyes

Super Eye Serum, £65

For Sensitive Skin

Redermic R, £29.50

For Retinol Devotees

Retinol 1.0, £59

For Normal Skin Types

Retinol Complex o.5, £52

For All Skin Types

Ysthéal + emulsion, £22

 

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