Retinol: The hero skincare ingredient that everyone's talking about

Posted by
Jacqueline Kilikita

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

There’s no quick fix for skin concerns, but retinol is as close as it gets to delivering instant transformative results. The anti-ageing ingredient could be the solution to many of your skincare woes. 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, £65, 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, £8.25 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, £28. 

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

Lixir Night Switch Retinol 1%

The Ordinary 1% Retinol In Squalane

Medik8 r-Retinoate Youth Activating Cream

Institut Esthederm Intensive Retinol Serum

Kate Somerville +Retinol Firming Eye Cream

Avon Anew Infinite Effects Reversalist Night Cream


SkinCeuticals Retinol 0.3

Murad Retinol Youth Renewal Eye Serum

Images: REX Features/Getty/Kyle Smith/Unsplash