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What Are Retinols?

By September 25, 2023No Comments

Retinols are one of the best known skin care ingredients on the market and are often described as a ‘miracle’ skin care ingredient, particularly when dealing with mature skin, acne and hyperpigmentation. But what is retinol? And should you be using it in your skincare routine?

What are retinols?

A retinol is made from vitamin A and belongs to a group of vitamin A derivatives called retinoids. A retinoid is much more concentrated and often only available through prescription, whereas a retinol is weaker, better for daily use and can be bought over the counter. Even though it is weaker, it is one of the strongest ingredients available for skincare to buy over the counter.


How does it work?

Retinols are made up of small molecules that are able to enter the middle layer of your skin (dermis) in comparison to most skincare ingredients that only work on the top layer of the skin (epidermis). The molecules in retinol enter the dermis and work to neutralise free radicals which are unstable atoms that cause skin issues like dark spots. Retinol also has an exfoliating effect which promotes cell production and unclogs pores, resulting in many beneficial qualities for the skin.

Benefits of using retinol

There are many benefits of using retinol in your skincare routine, here are a few:


When retinol exfoliates the skin, it removes any dirt or excess oil on the skin too, which is often the cause of new spots and pimples forming. Using retinol could be the key to preventing any new breakouts, especially if you have oilier skin.


Retinol is favoured in skincare products due to is ability to encourage the skin to rejuvenate itself. It does this by exfoliating and also penetrating deep into the middle layer of the skin to help the skin produce vital elements such as collagen and elastin. These help the skin cells turn over, resulting in even skin tones and healthier looking skin.


When retinols assist the skin in forming new cells and creating collagen, one factor it can massively reduce are signs of ageing. This includes wrinkles, sagging and age spots. The collagen plays a role in keeping the skin looking glowy and feeling elastic and firm.

Side effects & risks

Although retinol is a safe ingredient to use in skincare and for most skincare, it does have a few side effects and risks that can worsen if used incorrectly or too frequently.

  • Dryness
  • Redness
  • Peeling
  • Itchiness
  • Burning
  • Sun sensitivity

If you feel you are experiencing any or all of these side effects, you should limit your use of retinol to a few times a week instead of daily and use SPF of factor 30 and above on a daily basis. However, if they persist, then you should see a healthcare professional or doctor.

For those who are prone to any of the following skin conditions, it’s recommended that you either use a very low strength of retinol and limit the use to a few times a week, or avoid retinol all together:

  • Rosacea
  • Eczema
  • Any other skin allergies
applying retinol

Cautions and Risks of Using Retinols

When using any form of retinoid, you should be careful with how you treat your skin before, after and during. Here are some cautionary steps you can take to make sure you are using retinols effectively and not damaging your skin.

Apply SPF

It is incredibly vital that when you are using retinols, that you apply an SPF of factor 30 or above. Due to retinols chemical nature, it can make the skin more sensitive, especially when out in sunlight. Applying SPF daily, even if it isn’t sunny, can prevent any further damage to your skin.


If you are either pregnant or trying to become pregnant, you should avoid anything that can add high levels of vitamin A into your body such as retinols. Large amounts of vitamin A can cause serious harm to a fetus.

Retinol burn

Applying too much retinol can cause something known as retinol burn. It occurs when retinol breaks down in sunlight, resulting in a burning sensation, redness and irritation which can later evolve into hyperpigmentation. It can also happen if you are applying too much retinol or too high of a concentration.

If this happens, apply ice to the affected area (not directly) and wash with cold water. You can use over the counter hydrocortisone cream if it is very inflamed, but you should note that this is a steroid cream that cannot be used for longer than 2 weeks and should also be avoided around the eye area.

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