Everything you need to know about retinol

Here we explore this wonder ingredient and the science behind its skin benefits

Everything you need to know about retinol

Vitamin A and its derivatives have been getting a lot of attention lately and we wanted to cover this topic to give you clarity on what it is, what it does, and who should be using it (and who shouldn’t). 

What is Vitamin A?

Vitamin A has many different forms. In nature, beta-carotene exists as a pre-cursor to Vitamin A, meaning once ingested, the body converts it into Vitamin A. Beta Carotene is typically available in orange coloured vegetables (think sweet potato, carrot, red pepper etc), and is great for the immune system and for eye health (hence the age old ‘carrots help you see in the dark’ – there is some truth there!)

In skincare, there are a number of different derivatives of Vitamin A that can be used to formulate products, which can all be recognised by the RETIN which will be somewhere in the chemical name (found in the ingredients list). 

How does the body use it?

When any derivative is used on the skin, the body needs to first convert it into retinoic acid, the active form that can be used. The closer the derivative is to retinoic acid, the better the body can use it, but it also tends to cause the most side effects. Below illustrates the process of conversion that happens in the body to convert different forms into the end product retinoic acid:

Retinyl palmitate (or other retinol derivative) -> Retinol -> Retinaldehyde -> Retinoic acid 

Products containing pure retinol have to go through less conversion steps than retinol derivatives to become useful, making it more ‘active’. But pure retinol is also very unstable, and has the most negative side effects, causing dryness, flaking and redness. The challenge when formulating with retinol is to get the most active form into the product, keep it stable, and balance the formula to minimise any negative side effects.

So, what does retinol actually do? 

Firstly, it has a keratolytic effect on the skin, meaning it encourages the outer dead layer of skin cells to shed, which in turn encourages new skin cells to be generated at the base of the epidermis (known as the basal layer). This increased cell turnover prevents pores becoming blocked (reducing blemishes), improves skin radiance, and with prolonged use, has also been shown to thicken the epidermis, which gives it better resistance to visible wrinkles. Secondly, retinol also stimulates fibroblasts within the dermis to produce more collagen and elastin fibres, which gives more structure & support underneath the epidermis, plumping & firming the skin to further reduce wrinkles & skin sagging. 

How long does it take to see results with retinol?

It has been shown to have cumulative effects, meaning the longer you use it for, the better the results become. The turnover of the epidermis is typically 4-6 weeks (getting slower as we age), so in the first 'cycle' of this may show on the skin with little or even negative effects, sometimes purging for acne prone skin where they might experience more breakouts than usual, or redness/irritation in drier or more reactive skin types. In the second cycle, you might start to notice some benefits as the epidermis has renewed completely, and by the third cycle you should be seeing very noticeable results (so 12-16 weeks in). 

Who should be using retinol-based products? 

If you suffer with breakouts, or are worried about ageing (from 30+), retinol is worth a go. If your skin is on the drier or more sensitive side, look for encapsulated retinol or a retinol derivative in an oil form, which allows for a slower release into the skin, reducing any potential negative side effects. 

And who should avoid it? 

If you are pregnant, or trying for a baby, it is best to avoid retinol. Research has shown that Vitamin A can have a negative effect on an unborn baby, so please steer clear if you are thinking about becoming pregnant in the near future. 

We should also state that because retinol is encouraging the top layer of skin to shed, it can make our skin more photosensitive (sensitive to sunlight). Therefore, we suggest keeping this active to night time use only, and when using retinol in any form please always use a high factor broad-spectrum SPF during the day. It’s probably best avoided completely if you are planning to be in the sunshine for long periods (on holiday etc.)

We hope this has helped to explain a little bit about how this miraculous ingredient works. 

Below are a few of our favourite retinol products to suit any budget:


Beauty Pie Super Retinol Ceramide-Boost Anti-Aging Serum - using microencapsulated retinol to deliver effects with relatively small doses (minimising irritation), this serum boasts impressive user trial results and is available at factory-direct prices (meaning 80-90% savings for you vs. comparative market products)

La Roche Posay Redermic Anti-Aging Concentrate Intensive - more of a light cream than a serum (but we'd still recommend using a moisturiser on top) designed for sensitive skins, this mid-price concentrate is an industry favourite for delivering results without the usual irritation

Murad Retinol Youth Renewal Serum - if budget allows, this serum gets fairly unanimous 5* results anywhere you look. Formulated with 2 types of retinol, plus a bunch of barrier-supporting ingredients to combat any irritation and dryness, this is a winner for those willing to splurge


The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid 2% in Squalane - a great, low strength introduction to retinol in a nourishing carrier oil to minimise any drying effects

Disciple Dreamy Skin Retinyl Oil - a mid-range price, this oil includes retinyl palmitate, which has less side effects vs. pure retinol. It also includes an anti-inflammatory blend of essential oils to reduce stress in the skin

Pestle & Mortar Superstar Night Oil - a gorgeous lightweight, fast-absorbing facial treatment with a blend of natural oils to nourish the skin and Hydroxypinacolone Retinoate (Granactive retinoid) plus retinyl palmitate for a double-dose of retinol action. 


If you would like to find out if retinol is right for you, head over to our online form to find your best fit skincare regime. Alternatively, please comment below or get in touch with us at hello@skinlyst.com