Retinoids are amongst the most potent and effective ingredients you can have in your skincare arsenal when targeting common skin concerns—from uneven tone and texture through to pigmentation, wrinkles, and acne. “Retinoids work to increase cell turnover and rejuvenate the skin, so they work particularly well for anyone concerned with signs of ageing or breakouts that they want to reduce,” says skincare expert Caroline Hirons. “They are brilliant for treating hyperpigmentation, signs of ageing such as fine lines and wrinkles and breakouts.”
Basically, retinoids are the over-achieving multitaskers of the skincare world, and if you’re the type of person who not only wants to see really noticeable results from your skincare but wants to see those results fast, then you’re in the right place. “Retinoids are such a popular ingredient because they work and the results are really visible,” adds Victoria Evans, education manager at Dermalogica. “They’ve also gained popularity across social media in recent years and the hype continues to build.”
And as the hype has built, so has the innovation. Indeed, the best retinoid products to come out in recent years are those which strive to present the ingredient in hardworking and fast-acting, but also sensitive skin-friendly formulas. “We are able to formulate more sophisticated formulas with advancements in ingredient technology to create retinoid formulas that are efficacious and minimise the sensitivity issues often associated with retinoid use,” adds Evans.
For Hirons, who has years of experience within the skincare industry, launching her brand, Skin Rocks, with retinoids made total sense. “I have always loved retinoids and as soon as I decided to launch a skincare brand, I knew I wanted to release retinoids, but only if they were right and bringing something new to the market,” she tells me.
The first Skin Rocks serum, Retinoid 1, is aimed at those who are new to retinoids or are scared of using them from previous reactions. “We have had so many comments from people who have previously reacted to retinoids and can now get on with Skin Rocks Retinoid 1 comfortably and are moving up to Retinoid 2, including those with eczema and psoriasis,” she says. Retinoid 2 is Skin Rocks’ more advanced retinoid serum, aimed at those who have already used retinoids and are looking for a maintenance product. According to Hirons, “It’s not always about chasing the highest percentage but it’s about using an efficacious formula that will still give you results.” Welcome, to a new era of retinoid products.
Scroll down to find out more about retinoids and shop the best new retinol creams and serums.
1. What is retinol?
In order to find the best retinol products for your skin type and concerns, it’s important to understand exactly what retinoids are. “Retinoids are vitamin A derivatives that help regulate skin cell turnover and collagen production, which support healthy-looking skin with less noticeable pigmentation concerns, such a sunspots or post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation,” explains Evans. "Our skin naturally produces a retinoid compound known as retinoic acid, which contributes to a normalised rate of cell turnover and desquamation, decreasing the build-up of dead cells on the surface of the stratum corneum which causes rough skin texture.” As retinoic acid is considered a prescription strength retinoid, skincare products are formulated with weaker derivatives like retinol. “Once applied to the skin, it naturally converts into retinoic acid to give us the positive skin change,” says Evans.
It's also worth nothing that while the terms 'retinol' and 'retinoid' are often used interchangeably, they are in fact different. 'Retinoids' is the over-arching term for vitamin A derivatives, of which retinol is one—alongside others including retinyl esters, retinaldhehyde, and retinoid acid. “Retinol is the most widely used and researched retinoid in skin care," explains Evans. "It is clinically proven to reverse the signs of skin ageing.”
2. Does retinol have any side effects?
Dermatologists, estheticians, and skincare experts alike swear by the ingredient, but for all the hype surrounding retinol, it’s not without its side effects. “Retinisation—sensitivity, dryness and flaking—often happens when too much is used too quickly, and the skin can’t cope with the acceleration in skin renewal,” explains Evans. “The barrier can become compromised, negatively effecting the health of the skin.”
3. How should you use retinol?
Introducing retinol into your routine slowly but steadily is the best way to help skin acclimate to the ingredient. “Your skin cells have receptors for retinoic acid, but they need time to build them up to avoid a negative response,” says Evans. “Use just twice a week (a few days apart) for the first two weeks, then increase to alternate nights for another two weeks before using nightly.” In addition, SPF in the morning is critical with retinoid use. “If your skin is sensitive or very dry, you can also try buffering the serum with moisturiser or sandwich between layers of moisture by moisturising before as well as after the serum,” she adds. “Although it’s worth noting that diluting the serum will mean slightly longer to see results compared to neat use.”
With that said, the best new retinol products are formulated with additional ingredients to help alleviate any irritation and sensitivity in the first place—and without diluting the efficacy of the retinol. Thanks to ingredients which support the skin barrier (like ceramides and squalane) or calm irritation (like tiger grass or aloe vera), the latest wave of retinoid serums allow you to experience all of the benefits with none of the side effects. Sound too good to be true? Scroll down to discover our tried-and-tested pick of the best retinol products.
Shop the best retinol products:
"New ingredient technology and developments in formulation allowed us to create a fast-acting, high-dose, multi-retinoid serum that is very well tolerated compared to a retinol-only formula," says Evans. "Our clinical studies showed it reduced four signs of ageing in two weeks and delivered results faster than a leading competitor."
The formula is boosted with ingredients to help address the side effects of skin barrier issues associated with retinoid use. "Squalane plus oat-derived beta glucan are added to deliver hydration, and have soothing and barrier reinforcing properties," she adds.
Retinoid 1 is formulated for those who are new to using retinoids, or who may be wary of using the ingredient due to sensitivity. But that in no way means this formula isn't effective. "It contains 0.2% hydroxypinacalone retinoate (HPR) which helps to visibly reduce fine lines, dark marks and breakouts," explains Hirons. "It is boosted with bakuchiol and soybean extract to give you visible results whilst containing supplementary actives such as squalane and vitamin E to nourish the skin whilst it renews itself."
Those who are already familiar with and comfortable using retinoids should skip the above and head straight for Retinoid 2. "Retinoid 2 contains 0.5% HPR alongside 0.05% retinal to deliver an optimally active formula to maintain an even, radiant complexion." says Hirons. "The glow is no joke. It also contains squalane and vitamin E to hydrate the skin whilst giving you visible results."
La Roche-Posay are the experts when it comes to creating products for sensitive skin, so you can pretty much guarantee that this retinol serum will be a safe bet, even if your skin is easily irritated. "It's formulated with niacinamide and with glycerin which is a very effective humectant," says La Roche-Posay's consultant dermatologist Emma Wedgeworth. "So it's a really good one for sensitive skin and a great entry level product."
Summer Fridays' new retinol serum is formulated with two different forms of retinol for maximum impact. One of these, retinyl linoleate, is a particularly gentle and stable retinol derivative—ideal for those who have sensitive skin or are new to using retinol. Since the formula is also boosted with skin-soothing ingredients like tiger grass, oatmeal, niacinamide, and jojoba oil, it calms skin and prevents any irritation.
Alongside two different retinoids (one to address signs of ageing over time, and the other to deliver fast results), this serum helps to improve skin tone and texture, boost elasticity, and reduce the appearance of wrinkles. In order to support the skin barrier and prevent moisture loss, it's boosted with nourishing ceramides and antioxidant-rich plant oils.
"I created this serum as an alternative to harsh, traditional retinoids," says esthetician Shani Darden. "Retinol is the most effective anti-aging ingredient, and this serum delivers—without irritation.”
Interested in the science behind this? The formula contains encapsulated retinol, a version of retinol which envelops the ingredient in a protective barrier in order to gently and slowly release it. While anyone can use it, it's a great choice for those just starting to use retinol.
Eve Lom's newest serum launch takes the skin-boosting properties of retinol and combines them with exfoliating alpha hydroxy acids. Meaning, uneven skin tone and texture don't stand a chance. Better yet, it includes barrier-strengthening prebiotic oat kernel ferment to prevent risk of irritation or sensitivity.
There's a whole lot of retinol happening inside this tiny bottle—0.3% pure retinol to be precise. This fast-acting formula penetrates up to 15 surface layers deep into the skin, reducing both fine lines and deep wrinkles within just two weeks (according to clinical trials).
CeraVe is known for combining effective active ingredients with ceramides—lipids which form and strengthen the skin's protective barrier. The logic behind this? The stronger and healthier the skin barrier is, the less likely you are to experience irritation and sensitivity. While typically retinol serums are targeted towards anti-ageing concerns, this one was developed to address acne marks and post-inflammatory pigmentation.
"With my first retinoid, Flawless Nightly Serum, I created a balanced product combining four actives which together reduce the irritation typically seen when starting a retinoid, so it’s incredibly easy to get going," says dermatologist Sam Bunting. "With its unique formula, in Flawless Nightly Pro I’ve shifted focus to even greater potency, to deliver more collagen, even clearer pores, greater clarity and smoother texture.”
Alongside 5% granactive retinoid, the formula contains bakuchiol which magnifies retinoid benefits, and niacinamide to boost the barrier.
Naturium's retinol serum is an (affordable) one-way ticket to smoother, clearer skin. It combines a complex of multiple encapsulated retinoids to target fine lines, wrinkles, elasticity, and skin tone—without putting your skin through the common retinol side effects.