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You’ve probably heard of retinol as an ingredient that’s commonly found in many anti-ageing serums and creams. It is also frequently recommended by doctors to patients looking at improving skin texture and evening out skin tone. But on another hand, you’ve probably also heard stories (from a friend of a friend of a friend) who suffered some kind of reaction from using retinol, which made you wary about trying it out yourself.

To put all your doubts to rest, here are the top 5 things you need to know about retinol:


#1: Retinol vs retinoic acid vs retinoids vs retinol derivatives
Before you feel like you’re stuck in an organic chemistry nightmare, hear us out. The above-mentioned terms are frequently thrown about by skincare brands and doctors, so it’s inevitable to wonder what are the difference between them if they seem to be referring to the same thing?

For starters, retinoids refer to the broad class of products that contain retinol. So what is retinol? Simply put, it’s a vitamin A derivative. Commonly found in skincare products, retinol has to be converted to retinoic acid first before it is able to works at the cellular level of the skin, which makes it gentler compared to applying retinoic acid directly on the skin. However, it’s loosely used on product labeling even though many products might only contain retinol derivatives and not pure retinol.

This brings us to retinoic acid, a more potent form of vitamin A derivative and is also found in products that help combat acne. For example, Differin, as well as acne prescriptions like Roccutane and Retin-A are all various forms of retinoic acid. Lastly, the next time you’re reading the ingredients label, keep a lookout for ingredients like retinyl acetate and retinyl palmitate. Classified under retinol derivatives, these are basically gentler and weaker versions of retinol, making them less likely to cause irritation to skin.


#2: When can I start using retinol?
Widely regarded as the gold standard for anti-ageing, retinol works best on skin with visible signs of ageing. Once absorbed into the skin, retinol accelerates collagen production to smooth wrinkles, improve skin texture and reduce the appearance of age spots. However, starting the use of retinol early can help maintain collagen production even before it starts to slow down due to age.


#3: Is it safe for those with sensitive skin? 
This is where its bad rep comes from. Even though some people might experience slight discomfort like stinging or flaking skin when using retinol products, that doesn’t mean that their skin is sensitive or retinol is not suitable for them. The truth is, everyone’s skin reacts differently to skincare products. And retinol is one of those ingredients that your skin can actually build up its tolerance for, so if you’re trying out retinol for the first time, start at a low concentration of retinol to avoid such negative reactions. First Aid Beauty’s Skin Lab Retinol Serum .25% Pure Concentrate, $95 for 30ml, has a low concentration of retinol, and is also enriched with soothing ingredients like colloidal oatmeal, tocopherol and allantoin that help calm irritation.

Or opt for products that contain gentler forms of retinol. For example, Alpha-H’s Liquid Gold Intensive Night Repair Serum, $109 for 50ml, contains retinyl acetate while Skin Inc’s Vitamin A Serum, $68 for 10ml, contains retinyl palmitate, both retinol derivatives that are milder and less likely to cause irritation. Alternatively, you can also start your retinol usage by only using it once or twice weekly, gradually increasing the frequency to every other night before finally using it daily.



#4: Does retinol makes my skin photo-sensitive?
Another source of retinol’s bad rep, it is widely thought that retinol “thins” the skin, making it more sensitive to skin. While it is true that retinol is a compound that is highly unstable, i.e. it breaks down and loses its efficacy once it is exposed to water or air, it doesn’t affect skin’s sensitivity to the sun. You should always look for retinol products that are housed in opaque bottles to protect the integrity of its ingredients. And since some people might experience stinging and flaking skin when they started using retinol, that could be other the reasons why skin might seem more sensitised than usual. That said, regardless of how well your skin is able to tolerate retinol, it is always crucial to wear sunscreen every day.


#5: Does the concentration of retinol matter? 
As previously mentioned, everyone’s skin reacts to retinol in different ways. This means that there is no ideal concentration of retinol that works for everyone. To find what is best for you, experiment with various products and vary the frequency of usage according to your skin’s tolerance for it. In addition, many products also contain other ingredients like antioxidants etc to complement retinol’s effects on skin for an all-rounded anti-ageing effect. Dr Dennis Gross Skincare’s Ferulic + Retinol Wrinkle Recovery Overnight Serum, about $113 for 30ml, combines ferulic acid, retinol and niacinamide for added antioxidant and brightening benefits. Similarly, Dermalogica’s Overnight Retinol Repair, $190 for 30ml, contains vitamin C to help fight discolouration. Peter Thomas Roth’s Retinol Fusion PM Night Serum, $115 for 30ml, also contains vitamins C and E to further enhance skin tone and texture.