Favorite Skincare Ingredient – 1. Retinol

This series is going to feature my favorite skincare ingredients. I will summarize the pros and cons, why I like this particular ingredient, what it’s used for and whose skin it’s suited for. Each blog post will also give you a selection of products at different price points.

There are only very few ingredients used in the cosmetics industry that can truly live up to their claims. One of them is retinol, simply speaking a form of vitamin A. Often times the other forms of vitamin A (like retinoids) are used interchangeably. What you as a consumer, mainly need to know is that retinol is available in over-the-counter products (OTC), whereas retinoids or Renova and Retin-A (or their main ingredient Tretinoin) etc., are a lot more potent and therefore prescribed by physicians only.

Nevertheless, OTC products that have retinol in them are still very useful and are actually proven to work. There are many independent clinical studies out there that have shown how retinol is an excellent ingredient for exfoliating the skin, therefore being an excellent anti-aging choice.*Let’s not forget, as a form of vitamin A it is also an antioxidant and cell-communicating agent*2, which also helps in keeping your skin feeling and acting young(er).


  1. As a form of vitamin A it is a powerful antioxidant (which neutralizes free radicals that damage skin and lead to cell damage, so premature aging, sun spots, etc). Antioxidants are crucial for preventative skincare!
  2. Retinol is a cell-communicating ingredient, that basically means it can “tell” other cells how to behave. When absorbed by the skin and broken down by skin’s enzymes into retinoic acid (or Tretinoin) it influences skin cells, encouraging them to continue their renewal process and produce collagen and elastin.*3 Retinol has a boosting effect on the thickness and elasticity of the skin and therefore lessens the signs of aging.
  3. Retinol exfoliates the skin, meaning it helps with shedding old, dead skin cells from the surface and simultaneously leads to the production of new skin cells moving from the lower layers upward to the skin’s surface. Retinol helps to speed up this cycle of shedding old skin cells and producing new ones, meaning a higher cell turnover rate*4, which results in smoother, younger looking skin. The higher your age, the higher is the cell turnover rate. Your skin needs more time to renew itself than when you were younger.
  4. Due to its small molecular structure it can easily be absorbed by the skin and has the ability to get down to the deeper layers (that contain elastin and collagen) and repair those deeper layers of the skin. Unlike peptides, for example, that are found in a lot of skincare products, and have rather large molecules. Depending on their formulation, peptides can have a hard time penetrating the outer layer of skin. There is still a lot of research going on about how beneficial peptides really are.
  5. Due to its exfoliating and cell-communicating effects, retinol is perfect to resurface the skin. It can also help with the appearance of enlarged pores due to clogging and blackheads.


  • Some people show sensitivity to retinol. You should introduce it gradually.
  • Of course prescription strength forms of vitamin A CAN have more severe side effects. But I’m not going into details here as I believe that over-the-counter products aren’t that much affected by it. The issue here is mainly sensitivity.
  • Don’t use when pregnant. (Higher doses of vitamin A in a pregnant woman’s diet can cause birth defects. It’s not clear yet if this applies to topical vitamin A as well. Just to be on the safe side, I don’t use retinol products on clients who are pregnant).

It pretty much comes down to trial and error to find the right percentage of retinol for your particular skin to tolerate. To start with, you can go with a product (serum) that contains something as low as 0.01% retinol, which is still shown to be effective. Also make sure you stay away from products that have other possibly irritating ingredients in them as well (i.e. fragrance). To make sure the retinol in your product is stable and remains effective, look for opaque packaging (tubes, not jars) with little to almost no exposure to light and air.

Retinol © skinandcolors.com

Retinol © skinandcolors.com

Who retinol is suited for:

I started incorporating retinol serums in my mid-thirties. I don’t have any wrinkles yet or brown spots, but that was the time when retinol began hitting the cosmetic markets and I also felt like I had to “preserve” the state of my skin. I do however, have enlarged pores around my nose area and since using a low retinol serum along with other exfoliating ingredients like lactic acid and glycolic acid, I can definitely see improvement in that area.

Retinol has also shown to work on acneic skin and even excema. So it’s not just for anti-aging and preserving your skin. As long as you are not sensitive to retinol (remember you have to get your skin adjusted to retinol), I would recommend it to almost everyone over 25, particularly people who are looking for anti-aging properties, exfoliating properties (especially in the case of acne scarring, brown spots), dry flaky skin and rough texture as well as blackheads due to enlarged pores. (Bear in mind, that it often takes a cocktail of active ingredients, working together to fix certain problems).

Important note:

As I’ve mentioned before, make sure you skip products that contain unnecessary irritants like fragrances and irritating plant oils (especially if you’re sensitive), look for the right packaging and always use a proper sunscreen (broad spectrum UVA and UVB, with an SPF that is <30).

If your experiencing mild irritation like redness or flakiness, try to alternate between retinol and retinol-free serums or days/nights. Note that mild flaking is nothing to be concerned about, especially if your skin is just getting used to it in the beginning. Go for a lower percentage or only use 2-3 times a week. You might want to look for a product that contains retinol retinoate or a form of retinol that works time released. However, if irritations persist, you should stop using it. In this case it’s just not for you. But don’t fret. There are other effective ingredients you may want to try out, i.e. glycolic acid or you might even consider a microdermabrasion treatment. It all depends on what you are trying to fix.

A few product recommendations:

  • Sunday Riley “Luna Sleeping Night Oil” $105 (This is for people who don’t mind to spend a lot of money on brands or products that are being hyped at the moment. I could definitely live without some of the irritating plant oils in here that are probably mainly used for fragrant effects but are in fact potential irritants, i.e. Ylang Ylang, Vetiver and Neroli oil. The reason why I am still listing this under recommendations, is that it contains the latest form of retinol (Hydroxypinacolone Retinoate) and also a lot of good plant oils that calm the skin and provide a lot of antioxidants. While this retinol ester is quite remarkable, I will leave it up to you to decide, if this works better for you than let’s say, a truly fragrance-free, different form of retinol in the medium price range (see choices below).
  • Dermadoctor “Poetry in Lotion Intensive Retinol 1.0” (for oily and combination skin types), $75. Whether or not this product really contains 1.0% retinol, it is quite potent, so I don’t recommend it for beginners or people with dry and sensitive skins. This is perfect for people with combination and oily skin, who have already been using retinol products before and are looking for something more potent to keep seeing results. It also absorbs nicely into the skin at high speed and leaves you with a non-greasy finish, unlike some other silicone-based serums that contain retinol.
  • Paula’s Choice “Skin Balancing Super Antioxidant Serum with Retinol” (for oily/combination skin; has a silicony slip to it but absorbs well), $30
  • Paula’s Choice “Skin Recovery Super Antioxidant Concentrate Serum” (for dry/mature skin; has slip to it and feels like a nourishing oil), $30
  • Indeed Labs “retinol reface” (for all skin types; contains three different forms of retinol; fragrance-free; it is a reasonably priced, no-fuss product, available at Ulta (US) and Boots), £19.99/$24.99
  • RoC “Multi Correxion Skin Renewing Serum” (all skin types, except sensitive) $27.99
  • Neutrogena “Healthy Skin Anti-Wrinkle Cream Original Formula”, $23.59

I hope this has been informative. As always, thanks for reading.

Do let me know what other retinol products you like to use and recommend.



*More information on clinical studies and the effects of retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2699641/

*2 Read more about retinol and its cell-communicating effects here: http://www.paulaschoice.com/expert-advice/anti-aging/_/retinol-for-anti-aging

*3 Read more about retinol’s ability to boost collagen and elastin production here: https://www.truthinaging.com/ingredients/retinol

*Brief explanation of the CRF (Cell Renewal Factor) or cell turnover rate: “The […] CRF,  or cell turnover rate, is the rate of cell mitosis [process of cell reproduction in human tissue] and migration [the movement from skin cells from the deeper layers towards the top layer of skin] from the dermis to the top of the epidermis. This process slows down with age. The average rate of cell turnover rate for babies is 14 days; for teenagers, 21-28 days; for adults, 28-42 days; for those 50 and older, 42-84 days. Keeping the cell mitosis going is one of the goals for skin preservation.” Taken from: Gerson, Joel et al. (2013): Milady Standard Esthetics: Fundamentals, Eleventh Edition. Clifton Park, NY. P. 530.


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