Why Retinol Isn’t As Scary As You Think

by Olivia Cox October 20

Retinol. It’s one of those skincare buzzwords that’s been floating around for years. But, unlike Hyaluronic Acid (physically impossible to say now without imagining Eva Longoria spelling it out) et al., retinol doesn’t have an entirely perfect record. The Retinod (bear with) was pitched to me previously as only for *whisper it* mature skins, and seemed shrouded in myth and mystery. Then I discovered that ‘retinol’ is actually a fancy word for Vitamin A. And that threw a massive spanner in the works, because vitamins are good for you so why should so much caution be heeded with Retinol, aka Vitamin A?

Let’s start at the beginning. Retinol is a Retinoid, which is a huge family of compounds derived from Vitamin A. There are many different branches of Retinoid, but Retinol is the most commonly used for anti-ageing purposes. The purpose of retinol is to neutralise free-radicals in the dermis (mid-layer of skin) and boost production of elastin and collagen, hence the much-coveted plumping effect and reduction in appearance of fine lines and engaged pores. Essentially, a retinol encourages new, young cells to make their way to the surface of the skin. 

Retinol oils

REN Youth Concentrate Oil
L’Abu Retinol Complex Oil
Mara Algae Retinol Face Oil

Problem is, there are also side effects to using retinol – perhaps best publicised is increased sun sensitivity, which means retinol are best used at night, and daily application of spf is imperative. But we all do that anyway, right? Possibly where the scaries start to set in is the added potential risks of redness, itchiness, and peeling. However, these side effects very much depend upon the potency of the retinol used, how much you use, and how often you use it. And the general advice is to start small, building in frequency of use as your skin gets used to it. Think of it like building running tolerance – you wouldn’t go balls deep into a marathon on your first trot. 

Retinol oils

The Inkey List Retinol
ROC Retinol Capsules
REN Youth Serum

One of the most interesting concepts I came across whilst researching for this piece was the issue of age. Specifically, what age to start using retinol. Until very recently, I operated on an ‘out of sight out of mind’ basis with retinol, assuming it was something I’d need later in life, and that by some magic I’d suddenly wake up one day and know I needed it. Au contrair. According to the science and minds at Roc (arguably the Godfathers of retinol), retinol is best started young, as a prevention rather than a cure. It’s a concept that rings especially true when you consider that collagen production begins to decline from the age of 20. In fact, the dermis produces around 1% less collagen each year after 20. So the concept of something to stimulate collagen production from a younger age and thus slow this decline is frankly marvellous.

Retinol eye creams

ROC Line Smoothing Eye Cream
Olay Eyes Retinol 24 Max

Of course, if you’re not quite ready to take the plunge to a retinol, there are alternatives to bridge the gap. Anything that works to remove dead skin cells from the surface of the skin helps new, healthier cells come to the top, which leads to a more even, plumped complexion. AHA stands for alpha hydroxy acid, and products helppeel away the surface of your skin so that the new cells can come to the top. This creates a smoother, more even complexion, although doesn’t directly stimulate collagen or elastin production. 


REN Ready Steady Glow Daily AHA Tonic
Ole Henriksen Dewtopia Night Treatment

Glycolic acid is another chemical exfoliant. It unbinds dead skin cells from healthy new ones, and removes the dead ones, meaning dry patches are gone. It’s also highly hydrating, which is a massive win.


No7 Laboratories Resurfacing Peel
it Cosmetics Bye Bye Pores

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