Want to start using Retinol? Read this first.

Vitamin A is often hailed as the Queen Bee of skincare.

The main diva.

The prima fricken ballerina.

Okay, you get it. It’s good. Like, really good. But you also need to know what you’re doing when you’re using it to avoid any skin freakouts and flair-ups. So I asked a few experts to weigh in on the why, what and how of it all.

What does Vitamin A do in the skin?

“Vitamin A is the ‘normalising’ vitamin – it seems to correct whatever is out of balance,” explains Sonette Donker, Skin Specialist from Skin iD. “Vitamin A increases collagen synthesis, corrects hyper-pigmentation, smoothes skin texture and is a fantastic antioxidant. It is the best vitamin alongside Vitamin C to prevent and correct photo-aging.

Vitamin A used in skincare is normally found as the following:

  • Retinyl Palmitate: the least aggressive form of vitamin A. This is a much ‘safer’ option to use in skincare products, as most skins can tolerate it.
  • Retinol: The fat soluble or alcohol form of Vitamin A. It is used in stronger skincare products, normally available only through professional skincare therapists. A 1% retinol increases collagen synthesis within 48 hours.
  • Retinoic Acid: The most aggressive form of Vitamin A, only prescribed by doctors.
Dermalogica Retinol 1 9Lives
Dermalogica Overnight Retinol Repair 1%

Is it better to use pure Retinol and phase it in to your routine, or to start with retinol derivatives like Retinyl Palmitate and build up to pure Retinol?

According to Dr Alek Nikolic, an aesthetic medical practitioner and owner of skinmiles.com, it is best to phase pure retinol into your skincare regime. “My personal approach with my patients is to start them on retinol or the newer Granactive retinol, phasing these ingredients slowly into the skin regime.

“I always advise to start with the lowest concentration first (typically 0.5%), using it every third night for 2 weeks, then every second night for 2 weeks and then nightly.

If skin sensitivity occurs, I recommend they stop using the retinol, wait for the skin to settle completely and then to start again, this time applying it every fifth night for 2 weeks, then every fourth night for 2 weeks and so on.

Once the skin gets used to nightly applications of the 0.5% for an entire 2-3 weeks, I will move them up to the 1%.”

Skinceuticals Retinol 0.3 9Lives 2
SkinCeuticals Retinol 0.3

Why can’t I just start at a high percentage retinol? Why isn’t more better in this case?

“Introducing too high a percentage of pure Retinol into your skin care regime could result in Retinisation – which happens when the skin does not know how to cope with high amounts of Retinol,” explains Lusinda Burch, training specialist for Dermalogica South Africa. “In this case you might experience some redness, sensitivity, slight flaking, tightness or dry patches, breakout activity, an itchy sensation or even a wind-burn feeling.

“Our skin cells naturally contain Retinoic Acid (the purest form of Retinol) that helps with cell functioning. Around our skin cells we have natural Retinoic Acid receptors that can convert Retinol into Retinoic Acid, which can then be used by our cells. Introducing Pure Retinol slowly into your skin care regime will give your skin cells time to make more Retinoic Acid receptors, so they’re able to convert higher amounts of Retinol into Retinoic Acid.”

When using retinol, can I still use AHAs?

“Absolutely!” says Lusinda. “AHA’s are great ingredients to exfoliate dead skin cells and stimulate healthy cell regeneration.” Lusinda does, however, advise that you don’t use retinol and AHA products in one go, but rather on different nights of the week. “Depending on the percentage of the pure Retinol in your product, it is advised to alternate the use of your Retinol product with your AHA product so that you don’t over-stimulate the skin.”

Can I combine retinol with other antioxidants? Are there any that could clash?

“Yes you can combine retinol with other antioxidants without causing any clashes,” says Dr Nikolic. “However the combination of antioxidants depends on your skin concern, and tends to work best when they are separated between morning and evening. Try the following:

  • Oily skin, blemishes, breakouts – AM: Vitamin B | PM: Retinol (Vitamin A)
  • Dehydrated, dryness – AM: Vitamin B | PM: Vitamin E
  • Rough Texture, Flaking, Pink scarring – AM: Vitamin B | PM: Vitamin E
  • Deep lines, loss of firmness – AM: Vitamin C | PM: Vitamin A
  • Fine lines, wrinkles, crow’s feet, large pores, pigmentation – AM: Vitamin C | PM: Vitamin A
  • Uneven skin tone, pigmentation, dull skin – AM: Vitamin C | PM: Vitamin B with Retinol
  • Normal age prevention – AM: Vitamin C | PM: Vitamin B
  • Sensitive, irritated – AM: Vitamin B | PM: Vitamin E
Dermaceutic Activ Retino 1.0 9Lives
Dermaceutic Activ Retinol 1.0 Intense Age-Defense Serum

Should I only use retinol at night?

“The general consensus is to use retinol at night,” says Dr Nikolic, “but new data is emerging that shows it can be used in the morning as well. However there is a direct link with retinol use and increased redness (erythematous reactions) during the day so I still advise patients to only use it at night and to apply a good SPF 3o or higher several times daily – specifically one containing zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide.”

Optiphi Intense Retinol 9Lives
Optiphi Intense Retinol Infinity Serum

Are there people who just can’t handle retinol?

“Yes there are,” says Sonette. “These are often highly sensitive or sensitised skins. A professional can help build up the tolerance of your skin by fixing the impaired skin barrier, and once fixed you can start introducing low doses of Vitamin A.”

According to Dr Nikolic, new technology is also making retinol more accessible. “I do believe with the new slower-release retinol products almost everyone should be able to use retinol as part of their skin regime. Furthermore newer retinol ingredients are emerging such as Granactive retinol that has been shown to have the same effect as retinol but with less sensitising skin effects.

“Today’s technology allows us to encapsulate retinol with a slow-release mechanism that reduces unwanted skin effects. Some brands have found that adding other additional ingredients such as Hyaluronic Acid and ceramides help to calm the skin and improve skin barrier function, which also reduces reactions when starting with retinol.”

Worth a try:

Dermalogica Overnight Retinol Repair 1%

R1 680 for 25ml Retinol Repair Serum and 15ml Buffer Cream, professional skincare centres.

This serum has micro-encapsulated retinol, which ensures the active ingredient stays potent and gets delivered to where it is needed. It also comes with a Buffer Cream, which will help you skin to adapt. Start by using one part serum with three parts buffer cream, and apply it as a night cream. As your skin gets use to the active you can move to using the retinol serum alone.

The microcapsules has given the serum a grainy texture so don’t be alarmed, that’s how it is suppose to be. If you’re new to retinol, it’s best to start with the standard Overnight Retinol Repair before moving on to the 1% serum.

SkinCeuticals Retinol 0.3

R1 250 for 30ml, skinmiles.com and professional skincare centers

This is a great product to try if you’re new to retinol, helping to gradually adapt your skin to this powerful active ingredient. Use it once a week for four weeks and then gradually increase the frequency. SkinCeuticals retinol products have been formulated with the latest stabilisation and delivery tech, which helps to minimise irritation and ensures you get the best results.

Dermaceutic Activ Retinol 1.0 Intense Age-Defense Serum

R1 200 for 30ml, skinmiles.com and professional skincare centres

This serum combines 1% retinol with 1% pure Vitamin C and E, and powerful skin-restoring actives including ceramides, cholesterol, Panthenol and Allantoin.

Dermaceutic also makes a Retinol 0.5 that can be used as a stepping stone to the Retinol 1.o.

Optiphi Intense Retinol Infinity Serum

R1 277 for 30ml, optiphi.com

This serum contains retinol as well as Peptide 4 to stimulate healing, and special lipids that protect and energize your cells.

Optiphi recently introduced a clever time-controlled technology to their retinol products. The retinol is protected within a porous sphere that slowly and continuously releases retinol onto the skin, from where it’s transported into the deeper layers. This delivery system reduces the risk of irritation, and the sphere helps to protect the retinol. Futhermore, these spheres stay behind on the skin, providing an additional protective barrier.


Anything you’d like to ask or add? Pop your thoughts in the comments section below, I would love to hear from you.

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