I Was Terrified of This Ingredient Until This £20 Product Transformed My Skin

When it comes to trending skincare ingredients, there's one in particular that has gone straight to the top of the hot list this year. I've already lost count of the number of press releases and product drops I've received containing the stuff in the past few weeks alone, and when I ask any dermatologist or skin expert what ingredient they'd recommend everyone to start using immediately it's always this ingredient that comes out on top. Yes, it's official—everyone is totally obsessed with retinol in 2019.

Except, that is, for me. It is to my shame as a beauty editor that I've spent the best part of my career feeling totally scared about putting retinol on my face. For context, here's the back story: After reaching peak frustration with my adult acne last year, I decided to bite the bullet and pay for a private consultation with a dermatologist.

Reluctant to try isotretinoin (more commonly known as Roaccutane), I settled on a three-month plan of antibiotics and topical treatments—including azelaic acid, benzoyl peroxide and retinol. How did I get on? Well, let's just say, my face and retinol were not a match made in heaven.

With retinol, it's important to build up your usage of it gradually over time. I started by using it twice a week, then slowly incorporated it more regularly into my routine until I was using it every evening. Honestly, my skin has never been so irritated. As well as trying to keep my breakouts in check, I was now facing flaky skin, redness and patches of irritation. Not a good look. After about eight weeks of using it, I gave up and my skin slowly returned to normal. I, however, vowed to never use retinol again.

Of course, my dramatic claims didn't last long. Back in March, I was invited to a panel discussion about the rise of retinol with Indeed Labs. One of my favourite skincare brands, I actually switched to Indeed's natural bakuchiol pads during my retinol hiatus thanks to the way that they offer up similar effects—more even skin tone, diminished breakouts and smoother skin—without the risk of irritation.

After the event, I was given a tube of their retinol serum, and following an hour of the brand's president Dimitra Davidson raving about its skin benefits, I cautiously gave it a whirl. I have been having a retinol love affair with this product ever since.

Since using this product as part of my evening skincare routine, I've noticed that my skin looks so much smoother and brighter than ever before—and, even better, I haven't had a hint of the negative side effects that I noticed when using my prescribed retinol. In fact, the scars that I have from old acne breakouts are now starting to fade after about eight weeks of using this. I'm seriously impressed.

Sadly, now that I'm pregnant I've had to switch back to bakuchiol as using retinol or any derivatives of vitamin A during pregnancy is a big no-no. But to find out a bit more about this product works—and to get some advice on retinol in general—I caught up with Davidson herself.

Keep scrolling for a beginner's guide to retinol, and then shop the best retinol products for you.

What is retinol?

"Retinol is derived from vitamin A and is considered to be one of the most effective ingredients to help reduce visible signs of skin ageing," explained Davidson. "It sinks into the skin and speeds up cell turnover—causing your body to churn out fresher, smoother skin. Consistent use of retinol in your skincare routine should significantly reduce the amount of fine lines, dark spots and acne."

How should you use it?

"Use a pea-sized amount of your chosen form of retinol every night, 30 minutes after washing your face for 2 to 3 weeks—then every other night after that," said Davidson. "Be careful not to use other harsh products such as acids and peels when using retinol, though you can use your normal moisturisers on top. Be diligent in applying sun protection the next morning, as retinol can increase skin's sensitivity!"

Any tips for avoiding irritation?

"Start with a gentle retinol and build up," advised Davidson. "You want to gradually increase the concentration, as your skin becomes more accustomed to the ingredient. Skin is also more sensitive during winter months so try to lessen your application during the colder months. Our Retinol Reface combines retinol, a retinol-like peptide and plant-based retinol microspheres. These make it less like to irritate the skin, so it’s a great one for beginners."

The rise of retinol

"The popularity of retinol has increased due to the increased availability of over the counter retinols, and in turn, the increased demand," Davidson told us. "Research has debunked old myths such as retinol being harmful to the skin. The clear results of brightening skin, reducing pigmentation and fighting ageing lines have made retinol one of the biggest buzz words in skincare."

Retinol alternatives

"Retinol is not recommended for use during pregnancy or for those with very sensitive skin," advised Davidson. "Bakuchiol is an amazing alternative and perfect for those who have sensitive skin who struggle to use retinol, and it's also safe for use during pregnancy.

"Bakuchiol is clinically proven to significantly reduce wrinkles and hyperpigmentation without causing any of the irritation associated with using retinol. It is suitable for daily use both daytime and nighttime and doesn’t increase photosensitivity, so it's perfect for those with sensitive skin who are looking for a really effective anti-ageing ingredient. Plus, derived from a plant, bakuchiol is completely natural, so it's suitable for vegans."

Shop the best retinol products

The £20 product that convinced me that retinol is well worth using.

If you're nervous about using retinol, then start with a low concentration formula like this one from The Ordinary to get your skin used to it.

A slow-released formula from affordable beauty brand The Inkey List to minimise irritation without compromising on results.

The addition of soothing jasmine flower in this retinol tonic helps to repair and protect your skin while the retinol gets to work with brightening and reducing breakouts.

It's not just the skin on your face that can enjoy the benefits of retinol—your hands can too. This luxurious cream fades pigmentation and dark spots while also protecting your skin from UV rays.

A concentrated sheet mask containing retinol to combat dull skin, dryness and fine lines. It also has hydrating ingredients to deeply moisturise and boost radiance—all in just 15 minutes.

Rosie Huntington-Whiteley and Kim Kardashian both swear by this gentle retinol serum from celebrity facialist Shani Darden.

This has the benefit of high-grade pure retinol blended into a time-release formula so you'll see more radiant skin from day one and a smoother, more even skin tone and a reduction in pigmentation within 28 days.

Anyone that deals with dark under-eye circles or puffiness regularly will know how difficult they can be to shift. Opting for an eye serum like this one that contains retinol can do wonders at brightening tired eyes and smoothing the skin around them.

For quick results, this 15-minute sheet mask delivers a boost of cell-regenerating retinol alongside hydrating coconut water to rejuvenate tired skin when you're in a rush.