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What Exactly Is Retinol & How Should You Use It?

As skincare ingredients go most – make that all – experts agree retinoids are the gold standard. But what’s the difference between retinoids, retinol and retinoic acid? And how should you use retinol in your skincare regime for maximum results? Here, we answer all your burning questions about one of the most highly regarded ingredients in skincare…

Retinol: it’s seemingly everywhere right now and, along with sun protection, it’s the one ingredient dermatologists, beauty editors and facialists recommend hands down if you want to fend off the visible signs of ageing.

But is retinol really all that, or is it just a load of fuss and nonsense? The truth? It’s just as good as it’s made out to be; working hard to not only keep lines, wrinkles and discolouration at bay, but also to help fight acne for a clearer, more balanced complexion. 

This might sound too good to be true, but decades of research can’t be wrong. Still not convinced? Need to know more about this seemingly miraculous, age-defying skincare superhero? Here we go…

What Is Retinol?

This is the complicated bit, so buckle up and get your notebooks ready…

Retinol belongs to a family of ingredients called retinoids. Retinoids encompass any active, topical form of vitamin A, including retinol and its more powerful cousin, retinoic acid (otherwise known as tretinoin). 

While retinoic acid is the purest form of vitamin A, it’s extremely potent and needs to be used with great caution – hence why it’s only available on prescription. Retinol, on the other hand, must be converted into retinoic acid by enzymes in your skin before it can take effect.

This slows down its potency and somewhat reduces its efficacy, but don’t think of this of a bad thing. In fact, it’s quite the opposite, making retinol gentler and much easier for your skin to tolerate than pure, hardcore retinoic acid. 

There are many forms of retinol used in over-the-counter skincare, so keep your eyes peeled for ingredients like retinaldehyde and retinyl palmitate which we use in our fabulous Pre-Eminent Beauty Serum

Still with us? Excellent, because things get much simpler from now on…

How Does Retinol Work?

Unlike exfoliating acids that remove dead skin cells from the surface of your skin, retinol works on a deeper level, activating specific genes within the dermis to boost their efficiency.

Studies show that regular use of a retinol-based product accelerates the production of collagen and elastin, repairs connective tissue, neutralises free radicals and stimulates your cells to turnover quicker and more effectively. 

How Does Retinol Benefit Your Skin?

Retinol is the golden child of skincare for one main reason: its anti-ageing benefits are almost unbeatable. By communicating with your cells it helps keep skin plump, smooth and even diminishes the visible appearance of lines, wrinkles, dark spots and enlarged pores.

Due to its antioxidant properties it also snuffs out free radicals to further reduce damage caused by environmental stressors like pollution, cigarette smoke and the sun. And yes, all this is yours without even setting foot near a cosmetic surgeon’s office.

But retinol isn’t just a whizz at defying the signs of premature ageing. It also helps treat acne and oily skin by keeping your pores clean and clear of excess sebum and dead skin cells. 

Frankly, we’re not sure any other skincare ingredient has so much to offer in terms of benefits to your skin. 

So, Come On, What’s The Catch?

As previously mentioned, when you compare it to pure retinoic acid, retinol is much less potent (perhaps up to 20 times less potent, in fact). But we believe this is a good thing because it makes retinol much more comfortable on your skin when applied on a regular basis.

However, it also means retinol takes longer to work. So, one word: patience. Your skin will take four weeks to adapt to using retinol, but most experts agree that it will take at least three months for true results to really show up on your skin.

This doesn’t mean retinol is completely free of side-effects, however. As with most active ingredients that pack an anti-ageing punch, temporary symptoms like dry skin, redness, peeling and itchiness can still occur. You’ll find this is especially true when you start using retinol for the first time and your skin goes through an adaptation process called ‘retinisation.’

Knowing how best to incorporate retinol into your skincare routine is vital to help get you through these early stages of use.

What’s The Best Way To Use Retinol?

Unless you have rosacea, extremely sensitive skin or are pregnant or breast-feeding, retinol is perfectly safe to use. You just need to remember a few important rules…

1. Start ASAP

Your skin produces 1 percent less collagen per year from the age of around 20, so it’s great to start using some kind of retinol in your twenties when the first signs of ageing start to appear. But don't worry, it’s really never too late to start incorporating a retinol into your regime!

2. Go Slowly

No matter how tolerant your skin is, diving straight in with a highly concentrated retinol serum and applying it every morning and night without a care in the world is asking for trouble. Yes, retinol is less irritating than its big, bad tretinoin cousin, but it’s still powerful and will cause irritation if you don’t start low and slow.

Most side effects will subside as your skin gets used to using retinol, but to keep them to a minimum apply your retinol-based serum or moisturiser gradually. Try using it two or three times a week for the first few weeks to see how your skin reacts and if your skin flares up after this time, slow it down to once or twice a week.

If you experience no side-effects, however, feel free to slowly up your frequency to four times a week, then daily as your skin acclimates. 

The good news is Pre-Eminent Beauty Serum contains retinyl palmitate which is one of, if not the best retinoid for irksome, sensitive skin. But still, it’s always a good idea to introduce it slowly into your regime.

3. Apply Retinol To Clean, Dry Skin

Retinol serums should always be applied after cleansing and toning your skin, but before moisturising or applying facial oil. And if you have sensitive skin, make sure your skin is totally dry before applying any retinol-based product. Moist skin speeds up the absorption which could exacerbate irritation if you’re not super careful.

4. Be Consistent

As with most active skincare ingredients, you have to be consistent and dedicated if you want to see real results from retinol. Your skin could potentially appear worse before it gets better, but stick with it by making small alterations to your frequency of use and you will soon start to reap the benefits.

Of course, retinol is not for everyone, so if it really doesn’t suit your skin – even after trying the above pieces of advice – there are plenty of other effective ingredients for you to try. Vitamin C, vitamin E and hyaluronic acid, for example, all have fabulous antioxidant and anti-ageing benefits.

We'd highly recommend our Organic Age-Defying Facial Oil which contains a blend of 20 botanical oils rich in antioxidants and nourishing properties.

5. Always Wear Sunscreen

Contrary to popular belief, retinol DOES NOT cause sun damage.

Mic. Drop.

The main reason retinol formulations are usually applied at night is because sunlight degrades and deactivates it, rendering it less effective. Retinol also has a slight thinning effect on the outermost layers on your skin which leaves it vulnerable to damage from UV radiation. So there’s that, as well.

We believe retinol can be used in the morning and/or night as long as you allow your skin to slowly get used to it. And always, we repeat, always use a broad-spectrum sunscreen like Organic Tinted Moisturiser with SPF 25 as the last step in your morning routine.

Ageless skin, here we come!


Joy Keast on July 08 2021 at 09:39PM

Really interesting, I shall start using my serum at nighttime instead of the morning I think to get full benefit of its ingredients. ☺️

Susan Coutanche on July 02 2021 at 12:40PM

A very interesting article (as always!)
Thank you Highborn and for lovely products 😊

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