The Retinol Comeback

It has a reputation for being an effective anti-ageing ingredient that’s also tricky to use.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

It has a reputation for being an effective anti-ageing ingredient that’s also tricky to use. Now, it’s trending again, with many skincare brands working it into their recent offerings. What’s changed?

It’s light-sensitive, so you must only use it at night. It’s so intense it causes skin to become red and flaky. These are common assumptions that have always dogged retinol. But even though its reputation may be intimidating, its track record for smoothing lines, refining skin, boosting radiance and even fighting acne has never been doubted.

“New skincare ingredient trends come and go, but retinol is scientifically proven to give you clearer and younger-looking skin. It’s still the gold standard in antiageing,” says Dr Melvin Tan, medical director of aesthetic clinic Epion Clinic.

Skincare brands know this too, which is why many continue to bank on retinoids (the umbrella term for vitamin A-derived compounds like retinol) to power their anti-ageing products, devising everimproving formulas to deliver on the pros while minimising the cons.

Tiffany Masterson, founder of cult label Drunk Elephant, which recently launched its A-Passioni Retinol Cream, says: “It is capable of doing incredible things for skin, but like any powerful active, retinol needs to be properly understood and its strength respected when formulating it into a product.” Here’s what you need to know about the new generation of cosmetic retinol skincare.

It doesn’t increase sun sensitivity

In fact, clinical studies now show that retinol products never did. According to Dr Low Chai Ling, medical director of SW1 Clinic, the myth arose from some early research that detailed how users became sunburnt when they ventured outdoors after applying a retinoid product. However, with recent studies revealing that retinoids do not, in fact, reduce the skin’s tolerance to UV exposure, it has come to light that the exact cause of sunburn in those early tests was unconfirmed. Dr Low says that one likely cause might be heat exposure.

Masterson, too, says that retinol does not make skin photosensitive. “You wear sunscreen to protect the healthier skin that’s been produced, not because skin is photosensitive.”

That said, retinol product labels continue to stick by two pieces of advice as a precaution: First, use retinol at night, because the ingredient breaks down under sunlight and becomes inactive. Second, make sure you’re wearing sunscreen with high SPF the morning after, because retinol can cause peeling and redness as it reveals new skin, and this new skin needs to be protected from sun exposure.

Improved delivery methods keep retinol stable

“Retinol (as an ingredient) is notoriously unstable and loses potency whenever it is exposed to light and air. This is why some people might find that their retinol product is not as effective after a while, if the packaging is not airless or opaque,” says Loraine Wong, assistant training manager at Elizabeth Arden.

To get around this problem, the brand put its Retinol Ceramide Capsules Line Erasing Night Serum into single-dose capsules to protect the retinol until application. According to its tests, this makes the retinol 76 per cent more potent than in non-capsule form.

Clinique has a different way of maintaining efficacy. Its Fresh Pressed Overnight Booster With Pure Vitamin A comes in an opaque bottle containing two things – a soothing emulsion, and liquid retinol held in a double walled chamber. Pressing a button at the top of the bottle releases the retinol into the emulsion, creating a booster mix that can be applied alone or added to a moisturiser. Once activated, it is best finished within a week.

Some products, like Drunk Elephant’s A-Passioni Retinol Cream and Pixi’s Retinol Tonic, encapsulate the ingredient within micro spheres, not only to keep it stable but also to enable its gradual release into skin.

“Encapsulation pushes the stability of our plantderived retinol further, which means that it has longer to do its job once it is absorbed into skin. The controlled release also makes it much better tolerated by skin,” says Masterson.

It’s now soothing and hydrating

Because retinol may cause irritation in the form of peeling and redness, especially during the early stages of use when skin is still adapting to it, many brands have tailored their formulas to include ingredients that counteract these side effects.

New-generation formulas mitigate the effects of retinol by adding more hydrating, healing or soothing ingredients so that the retinol can be gentle on all skin types.

Sunday Riley’s A+ Highdose Retinoid Serum, for instance, has 5 per cent rare Hawaiian white honey which is rich in skin-protective phytonutrients to seal in moisture and off set the peeling and feeling of tightness as the retinol renews the skin. It also has German camomile to tame redness, ginger to fight free radicals and protect skin, and cactus extract for an instant soothing effect. 

Luxury botanical brand Chantecaille also looks to plants to minimise skin peeling and the sensation of dryness. Its Retinol Intense+ moisturiser has evening primrose oil to moisturise, emollient flower waxes to soften skin and magnolia bark extract to soothe redness. And at Elizabeth Arden, the inclusion of ceramides strengthens the skin barrier, thereby preempting the problems of dehydration and irritation.

It suits almost all skin types – if used correctly

The key is to go easy, go slow and pay attention to how skin reacts to retinol, especially if you’re a firsttime user.

Even though skincare brands are putting in ingredients to counteract the redness and peeling, according to Dr Tan, a little bit of sensitivity is to be expected when starting on products with retinol. “This usually subsides after a few weeks of consistent use. Try starting on the lowest concentration or using it every other day. Also, be sure to apply moisturiser after,” he says.

Patience and perseverance are also needed. Dr Low says: “I have noticed it takes around 12 weeks for there to be visible changes in the skin. So I would advise that you use it for at least that period of time in order to reap the benefits. Clinically, skin tends to adapt to the retinoic acid and can tolerate it after a few weeks of use.”

“It is capable of doing incredible things for skin, but like any other powerful active, retinol needs to be properly understood and its strength respefied when formulating it into a product.” 

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1 Elizabeth Arden Retinol Ceramide Capsules Line Erasing Night Serum, $153 for 60 capsules or $81 for 30 capsules.

2 Clinique Fresh Pressed Overnight Booster With Pure Vitamin A, $52 (part of a two-product set which includes a vitamin C booster for daytime use).

3 Drunk Elephant A-Passioni Retinol Cream, $105.

4 Pixi Retinol Tonic, $22.

5 Sunday Riley A+ High-dose Retinoid Serum, $128.

6 Chantecaille Retinol Intense+, $235.

7 Epion Fortify, $115.60.