There is a lot of misinformation about vitamin A (aka retinoid, Retin-A, retinol, pro-retinol or retinoic acid), so let’s clarify what retinoids are. Are they scary to use, if they are all the same and how to use them. Any vitamin A derivative is referred to as a retinoid. By increasing collagen production and cellular turnover, retinoids break down old cells (resulting in less build-up of dead skin cells which can result in blockages, spots and a dull uneven complexion) and promotes the production of new healthier skin cells.
Topical Vitamin A in the form of Retin-A started out as an acne treatment over 30 years ago and is still used as such. When you begin using retinoids it is possible to get a flare-up of breakouts before the skin settles. This is due to the retinoids forcing the skin to work harder, which leads to the purging of the existing blockages that may be sitting just under the skin’s surface. Retinoids also reduce the swelling and redness we see with acne blemishes. It may take 8-12 weeks to start seeing the benefits of using retinoids, so don’t expect miraculous overnight results.
You need to persevere, over time retinoids will give you clearer healthier skin and reduce the likelihood of scarring. Regular use of retinoids also make your skin more absorbent to other ingredients, so after the initial breaking-in period you can slowly introduce other acne fighting ingredients and they will work more effectively thanks to the retinoids. Don't rush out and buy lots of active products at once. Start slowly, see how your skin reacts to one product and then gradually introduce the next active product, otherwise you risk having a strong reaction and irritation. Following on from treating acne, retinoids are now widely used as an age-management treatment for lots of the same reasons. The increase in cellular renewal means the skin is repaired and renewed resulting in fewer fine lines and wrinkles. As collagen is stimulated, pigmentation lessens because melanin is inhibited. As the old pigmentation peels away, the skin looks brighter, healthier and plumper.
Are retinoid’s just fancy exfoliators?
NO! They work on a much deeper level. They are cell communicators that help damaged skin cells regain some of their normal function. This communication ability disrupts the process that leads to wide spread free-radical damage within the skin. Free radical-damage is caused by the sun’s UV rays, pollution, stress, smoking, chemicals and bad diet. When a cell has been damaged, important parts of it are destroyed. The ‘broken’ cell then tries to repair itself by attacking and stealing bits of surrounding cells. The ‘broken’ cell can never fully fix itself but in the process of trying, the surrounding cells are also damaged and in turn more cells are damaged. This Mexican Wave of damage leads to the breakdown of collagen and elastin resulting in loss of elasticity, development of wrinkles and generally weaker skin. Retinoid molecules rescue the damaged cells by attaching to them and mimicking the missing damaged particles so the cells can function effectively and stop from wreaking havoc on the surrounding cells.
Will Any Vitamin A Product Do?
No, there are different types and strengths of retinoid products available so the results vary. RETIN-A is the gold standard in terms of activity. They are the strongest and are prescription only like Tretinoin. I am cautious about recommending these because they can cause weeks of serious irritation (dry, red sore skin) when first used. If you are able to manage these side effects the results are great especially for wrinkles and elasticity as Retin-A promotes the most collagen in the shortest amount of time. However be forewarned, I am talking about 10-12 weeks to start seeing results and up to a year for best results.
How To Use Retin-A
I would recommend using a less-aggressive retinol for the first 3-12 months to prepare your skin before moving onto Retin-A Start by only using every third or fourth night. You only need a pea-sized amount. If you have sensitive or dry skin or have not prepared the skin with a retinol beforehand, apply on top of your moisturiser.
Be careful around the lips, sides of the nose and around eyes. These areas are the most sensitive and are more likely to get dry and sore. If these areas do become sore, you can use something like Vaseline or a post procedure product (see my recommendations at the end) on the area for 2-3 days. Don't use any perfumed or active products on the affected areas, as they will cause more irritation. While retinoids are great for the skin around the eye, it is best to use one formulated especially for this area.
Once the skin has settled and the dryness and irritation has passed start using every second night. Wait for the skin to settle again (which can take several weeks) before attempting to use every night. Some people will only ever be able to use it every third night; which is fine as there will still be a lot of benefit. If you are able to use it every night, there may be times your skin becomes reactive. If this happens, give your skin a break for a couple of days to let it settle before continuing use.
RETINOL - is a vitamin A compound only a percentage of which turns into an active retinoic acid when applied to the skin.
Retinols are not a prescription product so can be bought without a doctor’s recommendation. Retinol-based products are not as strong as Retin-A products so the results are slower to manifest. On the plus side, they cause less irritation to the skin and are much easier to use. Retinols are still clinically as effective and biochemically work the same as pure retinoic acid. However there is a risk of irritation during the breaking-in period but it should be a much milder reaction for a shorter period.
How To Use Retinols
If you have very sensitive skin opt for a brand that has different levels of retinol so you can gradually work up to using a stronger formulation. For example start with a 0.3% for 3-6 months then move on to a 0.5% formulation. Be careful around the lips, sides of the nose and around eyes. These areas are the most sensitive and are more likely to get dry and sore. If these areas do become sore, you can use something like Vaseline or a post procedure product (see my recommendations at the end) on the area for 2-3 days. Don't use any perfumed or active products on the affected areas, as they will cause more irritation. While retinoids are great for the skin around the eye, it is best to use one formulated especially for this area.Once the skin has settled and the dryness and irritation has passed start using every second night. Wait for the skin to settle again, which can take several weeks before attempting to use every night.
*Some people will only ever be able to use retinols every third night; which is fine as there will still be a lot of benefit. If you are able to use it every night, there may be times your skin becomes reactive. If this happens, give your skin a break for a couple of days to let it settle before continuing use.
Pro-Retinols (retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate, retinyl linoleate).
These are the weakest and least effective of the retinoids. They can be useful for someone who cannot tolerate retinols at all, but do not expect the results that Retin-A and retinols deliver.
Use of Pro-Retinols
*If you have hyper-sensitive skin start by using every 2-3 nights to see how your skin reacts and then gradually build up to every night. These could be a good starting option for the eye area before moving onto a retinol.
Will Retinoids Make My Skin Sensitive To The Sun?
No, that is a myth. Retinoids actually protect your skin from the free-radical damage caused by the sun. However if your skin is red and peeling from use of a retinoid, it will react to any kind of heat stimulation, including the sun. For the best multi-approach with retinoids, always apply at night when the skin is repairing itself. In the morning, use an antioxidant and a high factor SPF.
My Favourite Retinols
PCA Skin’s retinol range has something for everyone. With 4-targeted retinol formulas each blended with supporting ingredients for pigmentation 0.5%, acne 0.5%, age management 0.5% and sensitive skin 0.1%, you can find the right product for your needs.
Neostrata’s retinol and NAG complex gives you the reviving benefits of both 5% retinol and glycolic acid. It’s a great product for general age management.
Medik8’s range of retinols starts from very gentle to more active in an easy-to-use gradient system. You can build-up your tolerance gradually. They have the option of a cream base if you have drier skin, and do an eye-specific retinol serum.
Best Soothing Creams for Retinol Redness
Medik8’s post recovery cream is a lightweight soothing hydrator that reduces the irritation from peeling treatments.
La Roche Posay’s Cicaplast Baume is a thicker balm-like texture for instant soothing of even the driest skin.
Biafine Emulsion is used by doctors and dermatologists in Europe to treat skin irritation, including burns. It’s perfect for soothing and repairing peeling skin.