Are you looking for a skincare ingredient that’ll boost collagen, improve the look of fine lines, reduce acne, fight congestion, brighten and get rid of pigmentation? Look to retinol, an ingredient that promises to do all this—all at the same time.

What is retinol, and which kind should you be using?

When used correctly, retinoids can boost collagen production, combat breakouts, smoothen uneven texture and fight fine lines. These anti-ageing miracle workers are derivatives of Vitamin A–which is the nutrient responsible for bolstering cell turnover. They are available by prescription at a chemist or in the tubes and tubs you buy from a beauty store. Retinol is a kind of retinoid. It works by converting to the active form (trans-retinoic acid) by using a two-step conversion process. The more steps the type of retinoid needs to convert to this active form, the weaker it is.

But they are good servants and bad masters—so you’ll want to use a retinoid that’ll work for you. Here are some of the popular retinoids you’ll see on the market. So if you’re looking at a skincare product label, keep this in mind.

This means that retinol may take longer to work than a stronger version that doesn’t need to convert (like Adapalene or Tretinoin). But it causes less irritation in the process.

Retinol works to prompt cells to turn over quicker than without intervention. This increases and encourages new cell growth. Because of this, retinol can clear congested pores and prevent acne as well. While they’re considered exfoliants, retinol is actually an antioxidant that communicates with younger, fresher cells to come to the surface.

How can you use retinol?

Less is more. If it’s a gel, lotion or cream, start with a pea-sized amount all over the face. Then, layer it with a serum, moisturiser or oil to stave off dryness. It is best to apply it onto a totally dry face. Then wait for it to totally dry before adding anything on. Phasing it in is a good idea—use it twice a week, and then work up your tolerance.

What about the side-effects of retinol?

With this product, you have to be ready for your skin to look and feel worse for a while, before it gets a LOT better. Initially, you may have to deal with retinisation, which is the period where your skin is adjusting to the increased cell turnover, collagen and elastin production. During that time, you might find your skin feeling super dry, irritated and prone to peeling, and this could last 4-6 weeks. Eventually, your skin develops a tolerance. However, If you have oily skin, retinization might not hit you as hard—the drying might actually help mattify the skin.

If you’re prone to acne, you might find that your breakouts have worsened for these first few weeks too. Retinol is causing new cells to come up to the surface, but that might bring with it some trapped oil and debris too, which—when they mingle with the dead skin cells on the surface—might clog pores and cause congestion in the area. Once this is cleared out, things get a little more smooth sailing. If you are purging and want tips on how to deal with acne at the time, read our discussion of what causes breakouts and how you can help them here

There are some that are nervous about the possible long-term side effects of this ingredient. But there is no definitive evidence that topical retinoids lead to cancer or reproductive toxicity. So doctors still suggest keeping it in your repertoire—as long as you’re dosing correctly and following it up with lots of sunscreen. The only time you’ll have to take a break is when you’re trying to conceive, are expecting or are breastfeeding. It is important to note that actual research with test subjects isn’t really possible in this case. But it is clear that too much Vitamin A can cause issues to the fetus, so doctors will suggest you leave it for after you’re done breastfeeding.

So, what’s the alternative?

For those that have tried low concentration retinols and found the side-effects overwhelming, research is being done on newer, time-release formulas that give skin time to acclimate before getting to work. If you’re still nervous and want to start with an alternative without some of these concerns, bakuchiol and carrot seed oil are being researched currently, which indicates that they may be able to create similar results (albeit slower), but with less irritation or retinisation.

We are happy to help you incorporate retinol into your routine and talk more about all its benefits. Click on our WhatsApp icon to chat with us!