Whichever way you slice it, retinol has become to skincare what sunscreen is to summer: an absolute essential. Along with our active serums, night creams and masks, using a retinol is all the rage – with dermatologists giving it their seal of approval. But how to pick a retinol, the right ‘kind’ and the right balance in your skincare? Now, that’s the tricky part.
“Without a doubt, retinoids are powerful skincare ingredients, and I’ve seen their effects first hand on my patients’ skin and my own skin,” says Amy Knoetze, Medical Aesthetic Therapist, Director AQ Skin Solutions SA and Founder of Pulse Dermatology and Laser.
What’s retinol, anyway?
Actually, the group of compounds are known as retinoids. They’re a derivative of vitamin A. Researchers first discovered it back in the early 20th century, and since then, we’ve discovered its use in treating acne. There are different types of the stuff, each with its own efficacy. “Retinoic acid, or tretinoin, is the most active form of vitamin A,” says Amy. It’s available as prescription-only and also has the highest irritation potential for your skin. This is the hardcore stuff used by derms in severe cases.
Then there’s retinaldehye, with mild to moderate irritation potential. It’s the most potent form of retinoid you can find that isn’t prescription-based. There’s retinol, the stuff that we see in most skincare. And finally, the weakest form of retinoid is known as retinyl esters, with the lowest irritation potential.
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Why does retinol work so well?
“Skin is a major retinoid-responsive tissue,” explains Amy. “Cells in both the epidermis and dermis contain proteins and receptors that mediate the biological effects of vitamin A metabolites in the skin.” (Cue the ‘Aah!’ moment.) “Topical (the kind you apply to your skin) retinoids have a well-documented effect on skin health, with the majority of clinical evidence relating to their treatment of acne vulgaris and certain signs of photo-aging,” says Amy. They have the ability to improve fine lines and wrinkles, smooth the skin and even help hyperpigmentation. Now that’s a triple threat.
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So, how do you pick a retinol?
Well, now that you know the different kinds, you can make up your own mind abut which type you’d like to use. But remember: it’s not Mount Everest, with the end goal to reach the most potent form available. “The goal shouldn’t necessarily be to work your way up from retinyl all the way to tretinoin,” says Amy. “Many people stick with non-prescription retinoids, and over time, see amazing results.”
One caveat, though: Your skin adjusts back to its original state when you stop using the product, so stick with it for long-lasting, dewy results.
Also, Amy notes that we only have a finite amount of vitamin A receptors in our skin, and those need to be introduced to the stuff gradually (that’s where the percentages come in). “It is not advised to just go in guns blazing with the strongest form of vitamin A,” cautions Amy. “This will most certainly cause a retinoid reaction when you have not yet built up your receptors.” Signs of overkill? You’ll see redness, itching, stinging or even flaking. Instead, start low and go slow.
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When it comes to picking a product and working with the different percentages, Amy recommends these brands:
Environ Concentrated Retinol Serum 1, R519.95
Designed as the first step in phasing in retinoids, this serum should be applied after washing and followed up with a lotion. Once skin acclimatises after four weeks, you can start on Serum 2.
SkinCeuticals Retinol 0.3, R1350
Designed as a night cream specifically to phase in retinoids, this cream has stabilisation technologies for an even release. Once your skin has adjusted, you can move along to the 0.5 and finally, the 1.0 concentrations.
Dermaclinical Retinol 100 Serum, R1650
Containing 0.1% Vitamin A in the form of Retinal and Retinyl Palmitate, these convert into retinoic acid in the skin to smooth and brighten. The range also offers stronger concentrations.