Retinol, the ‘Holy Grail’ of skincare?

mature skin options

Serums containing retinol are, arguably, amongst the most effective products available to support skin health and should be a staple of all good skincare regimes, alongside a suitable cleanser, moisturiser and broad-spectrum sun protection, plus, Vitamin C (and that’s another blog post…)

Retinol is a form of vitamin A, and vitamin A itself, is long established as being central to cell renewal. Extensive research has shown that Retinol, by encouraging new skin cell production, can improve a variety of skin concerns –

·         Firming skin: by encouraging the production of the skin’s structural proteins (Collagen & Elastin) and Hyaluronic Acid (the natural water retaining molecules in skin tissue)

…which also has the added bonus of …

·         Reducing wrinkles

·         Improving Acne: by encouraging ‘desquamation’ – the skin’s natural exfoliation process – so that pores don’t become blocked by dead skin cells

which also has the added bonus of …

·         Improving the appearance of enlarged pores (this is also thought to be helped by the increased Collagen and Elastin production, as the pores are strengthened)

So, if it is ‘the holy grail’ of skincare, why has it got such a questionable reputation?

Unfortunately, Retinol is one of a family of vitamin A derivatives called Retinoids, which vary in strength and effect. The strongest, and the one with the greatest effect on skin cell turnover, is Retinoic Acid.

Retinoic Acid can most easily be described as ‘prescription strength’, and it is used in cream/gel format (Tretinoin) and tablet form (Isotretinoin) to treat Acne. Its strength means that cell turnover is very rapid indeed, and so, in the short term, it can cause irritation, dryness and flaking. This has led people to believe that Retinol thins the skin.

However, this is misleading, because, it only thins the very most outer layer of the epidermis, removing those skin cells that would be exfoliated naturally.  In fact, evidence shows, that over time, Retinol actually thickens the skin, by encouraging the basal layer, which contains the stem cells, to reproduce more quickly. Used appropriately, it will not detrimentally affect the skin, as it has a regulatory effect on the cells and renewal is controlled. So, in the short term, this leads to brighter, healthier looking skin, and in the longer term, to the strengthening of the deeper dermal layers of the skin which helps to smooth lines and wrinkles!

So, should we all rush to add Retinol to our daily regime?

The answer is yes & no!

As already explained Retinoids (of which Retinol is a form) come in varying strengths

·         Retinyl Palmitate, which is the weakest, but the least potentially irritating form

·         Retinaldehyde

·         Retinol

·         Retinoic Acid, the strongest but the most potentially irritating form

Ideally, in order to see the greatest improvement in the look and health of our skin, we should opt to use Retinol on a daily basis. However, as already discussed, it is potentially irritating when first used. The sensible approach, is to gradually introduce it into our regimes, either by starting off with a lower strength product, such as one containing Retinyl Palmitate, or by initially using it only once or twice a week, and slowly reducing the time between applications. It is important to note that the onset of irritation can be delayed, and so may not be apparent for 2 or 3 days.  The goal should be to use a moderate strength Retinol (0.04-0.1%) every evening, but if your skin is sensitive, you may find that 2 or 3 times a week is all that it can comfortably tolerate. If irritation is still an issue you may need to look at products containing weaker retinoids. These options will still provide the improvements, but progress will be slower.

So, is Retinol suitable for everyone?

Natural collagen production begins to slow down from our mid 30’s, and so from this age, everybody should think about boosting it through Retinol use. However, if you are prone to irritation, or suffer with conditions like Eczema, then you should seek help to ensure that your choice is appropriate.

Retinol is not suitable for use during pregnancy and whilst breastfeeding, and should be discontinued for a month prior to attempting conception.

Finally…..SPF,SPF,SPF: daily use of a broad-spectrum sunscreen (minimum SPF30 & 5 crowns) should be one of the mainstays of your skincare regime. But retinoids have a photosensitising effect on the skin, it is therefore imperative not to skip this vital step, and if/wherever possible avoid strong sunlight in order to avoid pigmentation issues.

It’s also important to make sure your skin’s barrier function remains intact, by moisturising and maintaining your hydration levels. This will ensure that your skin remains healthy, and irritation is kept at bay, once you have established the use of skincare’s ‘Holy Grail’ in your routine!!