A Crash Course On Retinol

Everything you need to know

Retinol, part of the vitamin A game, is the gold standard for anti-ageing. Read on to learn about all the skin benefits it holds and how to work it into your skincare routine. 


Need a chemistry lesson on vitamin A and retinol? This will help. Part of the vitamin A family, retinol is a type of retinoid. “Retinoids are a group of compounds that have vitamin A as their core structure,” says Dr Eleni Yiasemides, dermatologist and Mohs surgeon. “Retinoids are naturally occurring derivatives of betacarotene.” Types of retinoids include retinol, retinoic acid, retinaldehyde and retinyl esters, so look for these on your skincare ingredients lists.


The skin benefits of retinol have been studied and proven to work. “It is well known retinol improves the signs of skin photo damage, such as fine lines, wrinkles and pigmentation as well as age spots,” says Yiasemides. “It thickens collagen, improves elasticity, exfoliates and provides smoother-looking skin.” That means a brighter, more luminous complexion that behaves and looks like younger skin. If you suffer congestion, retinol is also your go-to. “It removes blackheads and improves the appearance of pores,” says Yiasemides.

Try: Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Retinol Oil, $42.99.



Vitamin A can cause sensitivities but there’s good news: retinol is the best type of vitamin A for sensitive skin. “It is the least-irritating version,” says Yiasemides. “Start applying it every second night and then build up slowly to nightly as the skin becomes more tolerant.” Also, keep your dosage small and partner it with moisture. “Apply a pea-sized dollop to the whole face at night-time,” says Yiasemides. “And always apply a moisturiser with retinol.” If your skin is particularly tetchy, try applying moisturiser before your retinol. “This will help your skin tolerate the product but won’t reduce its efficacy.”

Try: Paula’s Choice Skin Balancing Super Antioxidant Concentrate Serum, $46

Paula's Choice


The best time to get retinol working is at night. “The main reason is that retinols are broken down by exposure to sunlight,” says Yiasemides. “So if you apply in the morning there is more chance that you won’t get results.” The other reason is that retinoids are known to make the skin more sensitive to the sun. “Applying at night allows the skin to metabolise the product while you sleep, then applying a sunscreen in the morning will counteract any photosensitivity.”

Do this: start using retinol in your 20s and 30s. “Start young so you get the best anti-ageing benefits,” says Tiasemides. 

Glow Recipe


When you enlist retinol, there are products to include and ones to avoid:

Pair up with these…

Night cream: “You should partner a topical retinol with a moisturiser,” says Yiasemides. “This will counteract any drying effects of the retinol.”

Sunscreen: “The sun causes the most ageing effects on the skin, so it should be protected from the sun to get the best anti-ageing effects from the topical retinol,” says Yiasemides. “Reapply during the day if you spend time outdoors.”

Be cautious of these…

Cleansing: Over-cleansing could make skin prone to are-ups when using retinol. “Retinol impacts on the barrier of the skin, so harsh cleansers will make your
skin more likely to get irritated,” explains Yiasemides. “Use a gentle cleanser to wash your face once at night.”

Other actives: While your skin adjusts to retinol, shelve any other actives such as AHAs or BHAs. “Don’t use any other products at the start until your skin [has] adjusted to the retinol product,” says Yiasemides.

Treatments: Similarly, don’t book in any treatments that could irritate the skin. “Don’t do any exfoliating treatments such as scrubs, microdermabrasion, chemical peels when using retinol,” says Yiasemides.

Pregnancy: Hold off if you’re a new mum or mummy-to-be. “Don’t apply retinol if you are pregnant, trying to get pregnant or are breastfeeding,” says Yiasemides.

Try: Skinceuticals Retinol 1.0 Maximum Strength Refining Night Cream, $114


Try: The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid 5% in Squalane, $19.80

The Ordinary

Try: Sunday Riley Luna Sleeping Night Oil, $160

Sunday Riley

This article originally appeared in the December 2019 issue of marie claire.

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