What are retinoids? How to use them and what they do

Here's the lowdown on the beauty buzzword…

Fiona Ward

Retinoid has been touted as the ultimate wrinkle-busting skincare ingredient and is adored by beauty experts the world over so it's little wonder, then, that in recent months, demand for the miracle beauty elixir has only been on the rise. But what exactly are the benefits of it? We spoke to Dr Anjali Mahto, Consultant Dermatologist at the Cadogan Clinic to find out what they are, who they're best for and how they work…

What are retinoids?

"Retinoids are a class of compounds derived from vitamin A, which is commonly used in skincare," says Dr Mahto. "Scientific studies (mainly on tretinoin - which is generally a prescription-only retinoid) show that they can reduce the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and pigmentation after 12 weeks of use.


Retinoids are a Vitamin A-derived skincare ingredient

"There are many different types of retinoids which contributes to the confusion - these include retinyl esters, retinol, retinaldehyde, adapalene and tretinoin, to name but a few. They are all slightly different chemical compounds. Retinyl esters, retinol and retinaldehyde are available over the counter and are weaker than tretinoin." So remember - retinol (seen more commonly in everyday products) is a gentler type of retinoid.

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Who are they suitable for?

Though an effective plumping agent on more mature skins, or those that have aged prematurely by the sun, retinoids are also extremely effective on those suffering with breakouts. "They act as an exfoliant and improve skin cell turnover," says Dr Mahto. "So they are particularly effective in people with sun damaged skin, or those suffering with acne.

"They also help improve the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, age spots and skin pigmentation by increasing the production of collagen and stimulating the blood vessels in the skin," she adds.


Indeed Labs' Retinol Reface is a popular over-the-counter retinol product

When should I start using them?

Though widely known as an anti-ageing ingredient, the benefits of retinoids are broad - and we should be incorporating them into our routines earlier than we think, according to Dr Mahto. "The skin loses about 1 per cent of collagen (the protein which gives skin its structural support) per year from the mid-twenties. Introducing retinoids from your late twenties onwards is a reasonable time to start adding to your skincare regime," she says.

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How do I use them?

"Choose an over the counter product that contains at least 0.1 per cent retinol as a starting point, advises Dr Mahto. "This is more likely to be effective than weaker derivatives such as retinyl acetate, retinyl palmitate, and retinyl propionate. Read the ingredients list or ask at the counter what exactly the product contains. As you begin to tolerate it, the strength may be increased - for example to 0.3 per cent, 0.5 per cent, and eventually one per cent.


The Ordinary's Granactive Retinoid 2% in Squalane is a gentle product to start with

"Apply your retinoid at night time to cleansed skin. Moisturiser can be used 15-20 minutes later if the skin feels dry. Ensure you are wearing SPF 30 minimum during the day as retinoids can make you sensitive to ultraviolet light from the sun.

"Consider upgrading to prescription tretinoin for maximum results, if you can tolerate one per cent retinol on a daily basis - a dermatologist can advise you on your treatment plan. And be patient! You won't see results overnight and it may take up to 12 weeks before any benefit is noticed."

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What are the downsides?

"Retinoids may cause side effects such as burning, stinging, peeling and irritation when first applied. Build up their use slowly a few times a week until you are able to use them nightly," she says. "Use trial and error to see what you can manage - if the product makes your skin sore, ease off and give the skin a break. If your skin is able to tolerate it, you are okay to continue. For those with sensitive skin or an underlying inflammatory skin condition such as eczema, psoriasis or rosacea, speak to a dermatologist first as the products can potentially cause problems."