Retinol is the number one ingredient in skincare, here’s everything you need to know

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Wrinkles? Acne? Pigmentation? There isn’t a single bugbear retinol can’t fix. Here’s how to incorporate it into your skincare regime in order to reap the benefits.

There’s no quick fix for skin concerns, but retinol is as close as it gets to delivering instant and long term transformative results. 

Alongside SPF and vitamin C, retinol is considered a gold standard ingredient in the world of skincare. It’s also one of the only things that is scientifically proven to impact the way skin ages – and it could be the solution to many of your skincare woes.

In fact retinol has become such a popular skincare ingredient that it was the most searched for skincare ingredient on for the whole of 2020, with searches increasing by 120%.

So, with the help of experts, we’re breaking down why retinol deserves a place on your bathroom shelf. 

What is retinol?

“Retinols belong to a class of compounds known as retinoids,” says consultant dermatologist and British Skin Foundation spokesperson Dr Anjali Mahto. “These agents are derived from vitamin A. Retinoids have repeatedly been shown in clinical trials to improve skin cell turnover and reduce the breakdown of collagen. They are helpful in reducing fine lines, pigmentation and marks left behind from acne.”

What are the benefits of using retinol?

Retinol is more or less the holy grail of skincare ingredients. According to experts, continued retinol use has the ability to significantly minimise the appearance of the following skin concerns: 

Acne and acne scars

“Retinol helps to reduce comedones (aka blackheads or whiteheads) and to improve pigmentation left behind by acne,” says Mahto.

How? By exfoliating the top layers of skin cells so that pores are much less likely to become clogged with dead skin. 

Lines and wrinkles

“As a person ages, collagen and cell production slow down, but retinol helps to encourage cell regeneration and ensure that new collagen continues to form,” says dermatologist Dr Howard Murad, founder of Murad Skincare.

“As a result, it has been shown to reduce wrinkles and increase skin texture.” Hello, soft, plump skin.

Dr Murad continues, “As collagen is replenished and old skin cells are shed, fine lines recede and skin begins to reveal a brighter, smoother texture.”


We’ve already touched on how retinol is great for erasing those pesky stains left behind by acne, but it can also blur pigmentation caused by things like sun damage (UVA) into submission – and it’s all thanks to its ability to increase cell turnover to a speed akin to lightning. 

When is it best to apply retinol?

Since cell turnover and regeneration tend to happen while you sleep, it’s more efficient to apply retinol as part of a night-time routine. 

Is retinol safe?

“[Retinol] can cause sensitivity and irritation and use should gradually be built up,” says Mahto – but if you’re still sold on the idea of amazing skin, there are ways to incorporate it into your skincare routine.

To avoid redness and parched patches, apply retinol two or three times per week. Give your skin a break with a retinol-free moisturiser or serum on the other nights, so that your skin’s tolerance increases. If you find that your skin reacts well to retinol, you can use it every night. You can also apply retinol alongside your current moisturiser to dilute the formula a little.

“If you do have sensitive skin, then you could also look for a product that uses a time-released retinol which is gentler on skin therefore less likely to cause irritation,” says Murad. Try the new Murad Retinol Youth Renewal Night Cream, £70, which features a time-release retinol as part of a patented Tri-Active technology that is made up of three different types: a retinoid to speed up cell turnover, a time-released retinol and a retinol booster to maximise the effects. It’s super-gentle, too.

And while retinols have a bit of a bad reputation for making skin red raw, more and more beauty brands are now formulating products with encapsulated retinol, which is delivered to the skin alongside a slew of other skin-perfecting ingredients, such as hyaluronic acid and ceramides. They act like a buffer, so that skin becomes flawless, not flaky.

The retinol in Beauty Pie Super Retinol, £11.45 for members, hangs in a formula packed with ceramides, hyaluronic acid and lactic acid to cushion the effects. 

Something to remember:

If you’re using retinol as part of your skincare routine, always wear a high-factor SPF during the day to protect your skin from UV. Specialists rate Heliocare 360 Gel Oil-Free SPF 50, £29.45. 

Below, you’ll find our pick of the best retinol products to buy right now.

The best beauty editor-approved retinol creams and serums

  • The bestseller

    No7 Advanced Retinol 1.5% Complex Night Concentrate, £34

    This supercharged concentrate starts to work immediately, targeting visible signs of ageing and dullness to kick start surface skin renewal from the very first application. In fact, it helps to boost skin radiance so well that it was the number one product sold in Boots stores and online throughout the whole of lockdown. Impressive. 

    £34, No7

  • The night serum


    Lixir Night Switch Retinol 1%, £28

    Containing a 1% concentration, this retinol is recommended to be used at night for four weeks, followed by a few days off for your skin.

    £28, Lixir Skin

  • The day and night facial moisturiser


    Medik8 r-Retinoate Youth Activating Cream, £135

    Eight years in the making, Medik8’s retinol moisturiser contains a hybrid version of vitamin A, for maximum effectiveness.

    £135, Medik8

  • The Eye Serum


    Murad Retinol Youth Renewal Eye Serum, £70

    Newly formulated, this retinol eye serum provides a day’s worth of hydration to help prevent dryness that often comes with using retinol-based products.

    £70, Murad

  • The budget-friendly retinol


    The Ordinary 1% Retinol In Squalane, £5.75

    A cult favourite, this retinol is combined with hydrating hero squalane for an effective treatment that still protects your skin from dehydration.

    £5.75, Beauty Bay

  • The all-in-one

    Paula’s Choice CLINICAL 1% Retinol Treatment, £53

    Blended with vitamin C and peptides, Paula’s Choice retinol harnesses 1% retinol to firm skin, fade brown spots and smooth wrinkles for a radiant and rejuvenated result.

    £53, Paula’s Choice

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Images: REX Features/Getty/Kyle Smith/Unsplash

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