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Rethinking retinol: How to use the powerhouse ingredient if you’re nervous about it

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Retinol is the skincare ingredient most beauty experts will say you need to use.

Clinically proven to soften the appearance of ageing skin, the appeal of this powerhouse ingredient is strong.

It comes from a family of retinoids, which are derived from vitamin A (keep reading to learn more about the technical jargon).

But for all the benefits retinol brings to skin, there’s the risk of skin peeling, reddening, becoming sensitised and irritated, and potentially even more.

It’s an ingredient you need to build a tolerance for, but even when starting with the lowest concentrations of product, irritation is still possible.

So, who’s scared of retinol? Many first time users, unsavvy skincare consumers (not everyone has time or interest to research ingredients), and those who once had a bad reaction but want to try again.

The experts will tell you it is worth trying again if your skin would benefit from the rewarding active ingredient.

Why bother with a potentially tricky ingredient?

Renowned dermatologist Dr Anjali Mahto says there are many reasons why someone might want to incorporate retinol into their routine.

‘[Retinoids] repeatedly demonstrate anti-ageing effects in scientific studies,’ she says.

‘Retinoids are able to minimise the appearance of wrinkles, slow the breakdown of collagen and fade pigmentation or age spots.

‘They work by improving skin cell renewal and stimulating collagen production.’

While Dr Mahto explains that retinol is a ‘firm favourite’ ingredient of dermatologists, ‘there are a large number available, all marketed for their anti-ageing properties, but the truth is that they are not all the same in their effects.

‘Getting the right retinoid for your skin is a minefield, given the sheer number of options available on the market.’

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Adding to these options is skincare expert Dr Dennis Gross (whose brand is behind those sellout exfoliating pads loved by beauty editors).

His latest retinol range launched under his namesake brand was specifically designed with those who are retinol-ambivalent in mind.

He wants the new range to flip what you thought you knew about retinol and who it’s for on its head, presenting his Advanced Retinol and Ferulic Texture Renewal Serum as being ‘retinol reinvented’ at a press launch. First-time users are a big target, as well as those unhappy with past tries.

‘Not all retinol is created equal – don’t let a bad experience stop you from trying another retinol product,’ he tells us.

‘Unfortunately retinol has acquired a negative reputation for being too harsh or unsuitable for all skin types, which is why there’s so much fear surrounding it.

‘That said, using clinical-grade retinol formulations that incorporate anti-inflammatory ingredients such as ferulic acid, bakuchiol and rambutan prevent redness, irritation or discomfort.

‘Rather than focus on the percentage of retinol in a skincare product, pay attention to the other ingredients within the formulation and ensure the product is coming from a clinical-grade brand.’

These anti-inflammatory ingredients he’s chosen support the skin barrier and work to keep moisture in, combatting against the common complaint that retinol dries out the skin.

Over time, brands are developing smarter ways to make retinol work for more people – partly because it’s in their interest from a business sense, but largely because the demand is there from consumers.

They are becoming more knowledgeable and focused on understanding active ingredients in order to get the best out of their routines.



The top myths about retinol busted by Dr Dennis Gross

Retinol thins the skin

False: Retinol increases cellular turnover which in turn causes collagen production in both the epidermis and dermis – this is actually thickening skin. Depending on the formulation, retinol products have the potential to strengthen the skin’s moisture barrier while treating physical signs of ageing.

The higher the percentage, the better the retinol product

False: There is a huge misperception that higher percentages of retinol are the best treatment possible. Oftentimes, higher percentages of retinol damage the moisture barrier, which is where you’ll see flakiness, redness and irritation. Rather than focusing on the percentage specifically, it’s important to take in the full picture and examine the ingredients incorporated within the retinol formulation.

Retinol is only meant for ageing, older skin

False: Originally, retinol was actually used to treat blemishes. That said, retinol is a fantastic ingredient for treating texture concerns and adult acne.

Making it work, step by step

We all know to start slow, but what does that actually look like?

Dr Mahto says: ‘When introducing retinol if you’re a beginner and/or nervous, start with the lower strength (0.3%) and phase it in gradually.

‘Apply the product at night after cleansing on two non-consecutive evenings per week for the first few weeks, then look at every other evening for two to four weeks, followed by every evening if tolerated.’

Depending on where your skin is at when you start, you might need to anticipate some initial difficulty while your skin adjusts.

People with existing skin concerns, like eczema or rosacea, and those with very reactive skin that reddens or flushes easily, might struggle to tolerate retinol.

‘Always check with your doctor before applying retinol if this applies to you as you may be better served by options such as peptides (or even bakuchiol) if the aim is to slow the signs of ageing,’ she suggests.

And like all actives, retinol needs aftercare – namely, by wearing SPF 30 to 50 the day after application (which should be done at night). Ceramides and hylauronic acid can help plump moisture back into the skin where tightness is experienced.

Knock on impacts, reassessed

Fears around retinol don’t stop at the ingredient itself – many worry about the impact it’ll have on other products in they use in tandem.

At the most basic level, Dr Gross says to be mindful of when you apply certain ingredients: ‘If you are noticing that your other skincare steps, such as a vitamin C serum or alpha and beta hydroxy acids, are causing irritation when layered with retinol, you can use one product at night and the other in the morning.’

Stagger the more potent things in your skincare arsenal and remember, you don’t need to use every wonder ingredient on the market.

Dr Mahto says there are some unhelpful myths floating online though, particularly around what retinol won’t agree with.

‘If you turn to the internet, depending on the page you read, there will be plenty of mixed messages about whether retinol and AHAs can be used together,’ she notes.

‘Some will loudly and categorically proclaim it is not safe to do so, while others will exalt the virtues of both.

‘If you are concerned about the changes associated with premature skin ageing such as fine lines, wrinkles, and pigmentation then using both AHAs and retinol (in conjunction with daily sunscreen) should be the solid backbone of your routine.’

But the rumours don’t stop there – in a world where everyone is a ‘skintellectual’, there’s a lot of noise to cut through.

‘There are some common myths propagated over and over again that these two ingredients should not be used together: the first one is that AHAs reduce the effectiveness of retinol if used at the same time,’ Dr Mahto explains. ‘There is little scientific data to back this up.

‘The second myth is that AHAs reduce the pH of the skin and in this process deactivate the enzyme that converts retinol into retinoid acid (the active form of vitamin A used by your skin).

‘This is also not a robust, reproducible finding in the scientific literature.’

If you’re thinking of incorporating both AHAs and retinols into your routine then think of it as ‘work in progress’, Dr Mahto realistically advises, as for most people it will take time to build up to this.

Most importantly, she continues: ‘If your skin feels dry, tight or sore then don’t plod along for the sake of it – back off and give your skin a break.’

Varieties of retinol are sworn by ingredients for many with good reason, but you’ve got to be prepared for some adjustment.

Good things, after all, take time.



The technical side, explained by Dr Anjali Mahto

If knowing the fine detail is your thing, read on.

‘Let’s start with looking at individual ingredients: Retinyl esters, retinol, retinaldehyde, adapalene, tretinoin, isotretinoin and tazarotene are all different types of retinoid,’ Dr Mahto says.

‘Lots of names, but all are slightly different compounds. The key, however, is that your skin is only able to use a retinoid in the form of retinoic acid to get clinical benefit.

‘While prescription tretinoin and isotretinoin are already retinoic acids, the conversion process of the other noted ingredients takes place in the skin. Retinyl esters are converted to retinol, then retinaldehyde, then retinoic acid. So a retinol-containing product is firstly converted into retinaldehyde and then retinoic acid – it’s a two-step process. Products that require the fewest conversion steps tend to be more effective for anti-ageing purposes.’

Most of the initial scientific studies looking at skin ageing and retinoids were carried out with tretinoin (retinoic acid), which was found to be 20 times more potent than retinol. However, even 1% retinol has been shown to be effective at 12 weeks in improving fine lines and wrinkles.

Some people who get on well with vitamin A derivates, will look to use a prescription for maximum benefit as their skin can handle it, or if it’s been prescribed, for example, to treat acne.

Dr Mahto says: ‘If prescription-strength tretinoin is more effective, then why do we bother with the other agents? Well, this largely comes down to tolerability. The more potent the retinoid, the higher the likelihood it will cause problems with skin irritation, such as burning, stinging, redness and scaling. There is a trade-off between clinical benefit and potential side effects.

‘So if you are looking for a suitable over-the-counter retinoid product, choose one that contains either retinol or retinaldehyde. These are likely to be more effective than the retinol derivatives such as retinyl acetate, retinyl propionate and retinyl palmitate.’

 


Credit: Original article published here.

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