Anyone interested in anti-ageing products will probably have heard of retinol. But is all the hype worth it and what are the best retinol products on the market?

If you are always on the look out for the best anti-ageing solutions, you’ll probably have heard of retinol cream – or have one in your make-up bag. It’s been a beauty buzzword  for decades and celebrities like Rosie Huntington-Whitely and LA make-up artist Jessica Wu are big fans.

rosie huntington-whitely, hair

What is retinol?

See also… Retinyl/Retinoids/Retin-ahhhhh

With so many scientific sounding names, things can get confusing. Lots of products have retinol in them but what is it and what should you look out for? The simple answer is that retinol is Vitamin A. It can be found in dark green vegetables such as spinach, broccoli and kale.

“Rubbing spinach on your skin is not going to knock years off your skin'” says Dr Ifeoma Ejikeme, a consultant physician at University College London University and Medical Director of Adonia Medical Clinic. But retinol creams and serums can be very effective for anti-ageing if used as advised.

Retinoids are a derivative of retinol. Confusingly, people tend to oscillate between the two terms but technically it is likely to be a retinoid that is in your anti-ageing cream rather than retinol itself. 

How do retinol creams and products work?

As you get older you skin cells age and this means they slow down. Dr Ejikeme says the strongest retinoids can do four things:

  • Increase the skin turnover
  • Increase blood supply to the skin
  • Reduce pigmentation
  • Reduce oil production in the skins.

The overall effect is less acne, age spots and less wrinkles. Amazing right?

But do retinol products actually work?

Yes and no. Unfortunately nothing is as powerful as nature’s intentions. While retinol creams can reduce the signs of ageing they cannot work miracles. But if you are consistent then you are likely to see some good results.

Limara Fayyaz, 28, suffered from adult acne for years and in her own words, “it’s not fun”. Eventually she sought professional help. Limara went to skin care specialist Natali Kelly and was given prescription-skincare products and a personalised skincare regime. She says, “It was in intense. And the only reason I saw it through was my trust and belief in my practitioner. My skin would be red the nights I used it, I’d get very dry and the peeling was crazy, my chin especially would just peel and peel.

“My reaction to it was above the norm in my practitioners eyes but assured me to stick to it, and train my skin to tolerate it and I’d reap the rewards. And that’s just what I did.” 

It took two years of gradually increasing the retinol strength for Limara’s skin to bounce back and leave her fresh faced. But she admits that it took a lot of commitment and constant reassurance.

Limara says, “If you have a concern such as acne like I did, I’d recommend seeking a specialist, and getting your hands on that stronger skincare and stronger retinol under supervision. I don’t think I would have stuck to it without professional advice and I’m so thankful I did. Be prepared for the adjustment period and stick to it, it takes time.”


So what retinol products are available?

There is a wealth of retinol products on the market. According to Bryan Barron, director of skincare research for Paula’s Choice, the best way to apply retinol to the skin is through a leave-on product like a lotion or gel.

She says, “In a cleanser, the retinol would be rinsed from skin before it has a chance to work. Generally speaking, gel formulas penetrate skin faster than creams or lotions, so those with extra-sensitive skin should start with a retinol product in a moisturising base.”

Dr Ejikeme recommends products with a 0.05 per cent dosage of  retinaldehyde. She says it is one of the best kept secrets for anti-ageing but very few products in the UK have it. Studies show when used daily for 3 months it can have a similar effect to a prescription only cream but without the redness peeling or dryness. Two brands Dr Ejikeme also recommends are Avene and dermaquest.

But remember the golden rule…

Dr Ejikeme recommends always using a high SPF sunscreen while using retinol products to protect your skin. If you are having other treatments such as laser hair removal or skin peels, you should tell your therapist that you are using retinoids. And retinol products certainly should not be used by women who are pregnant or breastfeeding because it can cause birth defects.

Retinol cream – which one is right for you?

We’ve rounded up our favourite retinol products available, but if you’re in any doubt about what might be right for your skin type, please do consult a dermatologist first…

The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid 2% Emulsion, £8,

The Ordinary are a low-cost skincare brand that promises incredible results. Their £8 Granactive Retinol 2% Emulsion has been making waves on the beauty scene, with editors and customers raving about its quick effects.

Estee Lauder’s Perfectionist Pro Rapid Renewal Retinol Treatment, £63,

This nifty product promises brighter, younger-looking skin after just 28 days use. Pure retinol is blended into a stabilised delivery system to time-release its power over an extended period.

IMAGE skincare’s Ageless Total Overnight Retinol Masque, £80,

ageless overnight retinol masque

If you’re new to retinol, IMAGE skincare’s overnight masque is a great place to start. It offers a high concentration of retinol (3%) without the skincare challenges that can come with retinol products. ‘Kemspheres’ in the masque allow the retinol to be absorbed quickly and effectively with less irritation, letting the product get to work while you sleep.

REN Bio Retinoid Anti Ageing Cream, £44,

REN’s pretty packaging isn’t the only reason we love the brand. This small-but-mighty anti-ageing creme will last you longer than it looks, as only a tiny amount should be applied with your daily moisturiser, morning and night.

La Roche-Posay Redermic UV, £25.05,

This is a super affordable retinol cream – with an in-built SPF to ensure your skin is protected from harmful UV rays.

Super Facialist Retinol+ Anti-Ageing Restoring Serum, £16.99, Boots

Super Facialist is a skincare brand we’ve grown to trust thanks to its vast range of products targeting specific skincare concerns. Their Retinol + range promises results in just three weeks.

Palmer’s Cocoa Butter Formula Perfecting Facial Oil, £9.99, Superdrug

A crafty little product, this unassuming-looking high street facial oil is actually packed with anti-ageing ingredients, including a dose of line-reducing retinol. An easy way to work retinol into your day-to-day routine.

skinChemists Advanced Retinol Moisturiser, £69, and

skin chemist retinol serum

A little on the pricer side – but worth it for swift results, this lightweight serum sits underneath your moisturiser.

And finally…

From creams to serums, oils and masques, when it comes to your retinol routine the most important thing is dedication. As you can see there is a wealth of products to choose from so you just need to find the product that works best for you.

If you are worried about your skin’s health or you have never used retinol creams before, it could be best to consult a professional skincare expert who can help find you the right regime and product.