Two women applying moisturiser

Retinol in skincare: from benefits to best retinol products, here’s everything you need to know

Posted by for Beauty

Acne? Pigmentation? Fine line? 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 throughout 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 Dr Anjali Mahto, consultant dermatologist at Skin55 Harley Street.

“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 (also known as 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 Dr Howard Murad, dermatologist and 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.

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, to prevent skin flaking.

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, £31. 

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

Best retinol creams and serums

Sign up for our essential edit of what to buy, see, read and do, and also receive our 11-page Ultimate Guide To Making Your Home Feel Bigger.

By entering my email I agree to Stylist’s Privacy Policy

Images: REX Features/Getty/Kyle Smith/Unsplash

Share this article

Recommended by Stylist Beauty Team