• Anastasia Pentias

TBN: Retinol Edition Part 1- What You Need to Know


One of the most, if not THE most, requested topic in my inbox is retinol.

For the sake of expediency, I'll use the umbrella term 'retinol' for all vitamin A derivatives, the only ingredient in skincare with significant clinical data to prove its efficacy not only toward fighting acne, but also in brightening the complexion, smoothing fine lines and fading pigmentation (aka sun spots).

Retinol does not exfoliate, as hydroxy acids do. It gives you that amazing glow by working on a much deeper level: it speeds up cell renewal and boosts collagen production. Here are a few basics concerning its use:

'When should I start using retinol?'

My answer is always 'now' because TBN readers are in their vast majority over 30. So, now is the time.

'I am scared to use retinol because of its side effects'.

Don't be. Like everything else in life, it's just a matter of good practice. If you follow some very simple guidelines, you'll only benefit from this amazing ingredient.

'What can I expect when I start using it?'

That depends on the concentration of the product and the frequency of use. If you start with a milder product (look out for my next article on suggested products), all you'll probably notice is glowing skin. If it's a stronger formula, you might see some initial purging, meaning your sebum being expelled by your skin in the form of pimples or blackheads. That passes. You'll also probably notice dryness and very fine layers of your skin peeling, which will repeat in cycles. That is all completely normal.

'Should I use it with other active ingredients?'

I don't know who started this rumour, but it's everywhere I look: that you can use this with any active ingredient and you'll be fine. My skin has NEVER tolerated retinol combined with any hydroxy acid or vitamin C; even niacinamide sensitises me. I would personally suggest not mixing. I always use these on alterate nights or mornings and keep my retinol grouped only with moisturising serums, facial oils and moisturisers.


*retinol is currently so popular, lots of niche companies have come out with new retinol products this year- I'm currently testing the stronger Drunk Elephant Passioni, photo via cultbeauty.co.uk

'How do I start using it?'

If there's one thing to remember about retinol products, it's that you introduce them slowly to your skin. Yes, even a retinol oil. Start by every third night, for two weeks. Then, every other night. Then, if your skin can take it, try it every night (many use the new formulas such as the Passioni in the mornings as well, but I only use retinol during the night). My skin has only been able to tolerate only one retinol product every night, but it's not a race. You can reap the same rewards from retinol with a slow and steady approach, if you apply every other night that's fine. Build it up, nice and slow. If your skin reacts, if you get redness, sensitivity or any other adverse reaction, cut back and try again. There's even a minute chance your skin will not tolerate it at all, but that is very rare. Soothe your skin and try again. Never forget to apply your an SPF of 30, or higher, in the morning. Retinol works toward revealing your new skin, which is sensitive to the sun.

'Where do I apply?'

Opinion varies on this one. Many aesthetic doctors or aestheticians suggest using it all over the face, even on the outter eye contour but NOT close to the eyes, neck and decolletage. Others suggest only using it on the forehead and cheeks. I use it all over the face: around, but not close to, the eyes, on the nose to treat my pigmantantion and around the mouth. My smile lines have faded significantly thanks to retinol, we're talking a 5-year rewind. Yes, it's that good. On the other hand, my neck reacts badly even to the mildest formula and I have now abandoned trying altogether. You need to test in small patches of each area to find out if your skin can tolerate it. In areas such as around the mouth and the eyes, your skin is more sensitive and might react. Don't push it, follow your skin's individual cues and don't harm yourself.

'How do I apply it?'

You apply on cleansed, dry skin, leave it to act for 15-30 minutes, then follow up with your serums and moisturisers. When I use a retinol oil, I only put on a comfortable cream on top and that's it. If it's a stronger product, I'll add an oil or a moisture serum, plus cream.

'How much should I use? How often?'

In -almost- all aspects of life, I like to use common sense. I don't think that exposing your skin to constant stress throughout the year is a good idea. It's too disruptive for me personally. I have no data to back this up, this is only my own stance on cosmetic self-care. I like using stronger retinols in the very heart of winter, for about 4 months or so, and then cut back to a light retinol oil for upkeep. This is also crucial during the summer months, when sunlight is at its peak and your face is exposed to a maximum degree.

On this very subject: in the past month or so, the most respected skincare specialists in the field, Caroline Hirons and Nadine Baggott, have mentioned, in passing, that recent studies have shown that cell renewal is finite. There is a limit to how much our skin regenerates. In layman's terms (and this is a sweeping generalisation), at some point you use your cell renewal up; it runs out. Since we don't know exact numbers, it makes sense to think ahead and be economical. I have searched for these studies, but I have not been able to find them, yet. I promise you I will, very soon. What this all means, is that high-strength retinol use all-year-round could be considered bad practice. You'll use up all your cell renewal at a relatively young age and run out when you need it most, in your 60s, 70s onward.

Below, is a photo of my skin in one of my peeling days, just to show you that with a little serum or oil and a moisturizer on top, you can disguise the problem. You shouldn't expect anything too crazy or freakish with your peeling, it's all quite manageable. I'll follow up this week with two more articles: the first on which products I would recommend using (from milder to stronger ones) and the second, on how to tackle retinol peeling.


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