• Stephanie Drax

Retinol: genius in a bottle?

Updated: Dec 11, 2018

Hailed as today’s wonder ingredient, the consensus among experts is that retinol can truly transform your skin, whatever your age.

Its arsenal of kick-ass properties include:

  • Fighting fine lines and wrinkles

  • Brightening, firming and smoothing the skin

  • Shrinking the appearance of pores

  • Reducing oil build up to minimize breakouts

  • Evening out pigmentation caused by sun damage, pregnancy or age spots

  • Building up skin resistance to future sun damage

I tried it recently, a Peter Thomas Roth product called Retinol Fusion PM 1.5%. Recommended to me by a clueless Sephora store assistant in Miami, I woke up after using it looking like my face had been gone at with a cheese grater. My skin was red, flaking, puffy and sore.

In a panic, I called Tina Richards, a natural anti-ageing beauty expert who I’d interviewed for the Telegraph ten years ago. She was horrified that I'd been advised to buy that product. As it was my first foray into retinol, I shouldn’t have been recommended any more than 0.2% in strength.

I’ve asked Tina to talk us through this anti-ageing phenomenon: how it works, which ones to buy and how to avoid your own horror story when using it.

Tina Richards


Retinol is an active form of vitamin A. When you put it on your skin you metabolize it on a cellular level and convert the retinol into retinoic acid.

Deep in our epidermis, we constantly have plump new cells that rise to the outer surface layer. As they rise upward, those plump cells dry out and die, become full of keratin and fall off (when we exfoliate, those dead skin cells are what we’re trying to get rid of.)

The retinoic acid causes the skin cells of the epidermis to turnover faster. When they slough off more quickly it encourages plump cells to appear more regularly.

This is the effect on the epidermis. But what we’re really interested in is the dermis. Think of the epidermis as your duvet and the dermis as your mattress. Your dermis contains the springs for your skin, known as collagen and elastin - the dynamic duo which help you look younger for longer.

Collagen makes your skin look plump, and specialist cells in the dermis called fibroblasts are what make it. The retinoic acid causes a biochemical chain reaction that stimulates those fibroblasts to produce more collagen (and it also cleverly hampers the breakdown of existing collagen and in the presence of UV light.)

The increase in cell turnover and collagen and the decrease in the destruction of existing collagen is a trinity of effects that will make a guaranteed difference to the quality of your skin.


Not too much, and not too often. Be patient. It’s human nature to think applying more is going to give faster results, but don’t do it: your skin will get excessively dry, flaky and sore and it will put you off using it. If you’re sensitive or have never used retinol before, start on a product that is 0.2% or less.

Only apply the retinol at night (UV during the day will deactivate the retinoic acid.)

If you have very dry skin, then apply the retinol, allow it to sink in for 5 minutes and then apply a basic fragrance-free moisturizer. Take care around the eye area by sticking to the orbital bone. If you’re using more than 0.5% strength retinol, it can be very irritating to mucous membranes so I put a dab of Vaseline to the corners of my eyes, nostrils and lips before applying it.

To begin with, use it only for two nights a week (non-consecutive) for two weeks. Then, increase to every other night, for two weeks. You can progress to a nightly application if your skin tolerates it well.

After you’ve tolerated the product and have finished it, you can move onto the next level of strength. Apply only a light covering of product to your skin. More is not going to speed up results - it will likely increase irritation.

Some peeling and flaking are normal – it shows that the ingredient is working. This is a temporary side effect until your skin begins to tolerate it. It should not sting or feel sore. However, if it does, peddle back the strength and/or frequency of application.

Avoid using other exfoliating skincare products. That also means no cleanser with acids such as AHA’s and BHA’s or exfoliating beads. Use a gentle, mild, fragrance-free cleanser.

A top tip for gentle removal of any flaking is to use a cotton muslin cleansing cloth to very gently buff your skin while removing cleanser, whenever needed (assuming your skin is not feeling sore, otherwise leave it alone.) I also buff my lips before bed and then apply lip balm or Vaseline.

Avoid the sun. Wear a broad spectrum SPF30 sunscreen that contains zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide and wear a broad-brimmed hat if it’s sunny as the retinol will make your skin hypersensitive.

Make sure that the packaging is airtight in an enclosed pump or a metal encased tube. It’s sensitive to break down and can be unstable.

Don’t use retinol if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding.


Under 0.5%

For Sensitive Skin:

Image AGELESS Total Overnight Retinol Masque (use 1-3 nights per week as your retinol treatment.)

Philosophy Help Me

Topix Replenix Retinol Smoothing Serum 2X (0.2%)

Topix Replenix Retinol Smoothing Serum 3X (0.3%)

No.7 Protect & Perfect

Mild to Moderate Strength

Topix Replenix Retinol Smoothing Serum 5X (0.5%) (If your skin is sensitive, start with the lowest “2X” strength before progressing on to the “3X” and then “5X” strength formulations. This brand also contains green tea extract which helps prevent inflammation).

0.5% and 1% Retriderm (Always complete at least one bottle of 0.5% Retriderm before moving up to 1% Retriderm).

Image Ageless Total Repair Creme

Image MD Restoring Retinol Creme

High Strength

Retinol serums over 1% concentration.

Tretinoin (This is clinical strength and can only be prescribed by a dermatologist or cosmetic doctor).

I recommend you buy a generic tretinoin cream as the branded creams are much more expensive. Start with 0.025%. This can be mixed in your hand with a basic, fragrance-free moisturiser to make it even milder. I also highly recommend that you start with a non-prescription retinol (as above) first to acclimatise your skin to retinoid use before introducing tretinoin treatment (you will thank me later!) Introduce tretinoin very slowly, starting with one very light application per week for the first 2 weeks. Then 2 non-consecutive nights per week for 2 weeks and so on…

Top Tip: Remember that the skin effects of retinol or tretinoin become evident up to 72 hours post application, so go slow with the moderate to high strength products.