How to (safely) introduce retinoids into your skincare regime


It’s not as scary as you think.

When it comes to holy grail skincare ingredients, retinoids have no competition. Vitamin A derivatives (retinol, retinoids, Retin-A) happen to be some of the only ingredients scientifically proven to work for a variety of skincare concerns, but they can also be a little intimidating.

Retinols of days past come with horror stories of flakiness, irritation, and breakouts as your skin purged and struggled to adjust. The good news is that over-the-counter retinol has come a long way in the last few years. If you can incorporate one into your routine properly, there’s actually very little that a retinol product won’t help with when it comes to skincare concerns.

Fine lines and wrinkles are smoothed, skin tone and texture are evened, blemishes are reduced, radiance is returned and sebum production controlled. In other words: if skincare jail existed, retinol would be my one phone call out.

Some tips if you’re trying it for the first time

Go low and slow. Once you find out about the wonders of this ingredient, it can be tempting to go all out by using a higher concentration or using it every night, but that’s likely to do more harm than good. Studies have shown that retinol is actually effective at concentrations as low as 0.25 per cent, so it’s a good idea to ease into it with the lowest concentration that a brand offers.

You know your skin best, but in general, it’s recommended that you start by applying your retinol every third night for the first ten uses, every second night for the next ten, and then every night from then on if your skin can tolerate it. By this point, any purging or initial irritation should have dissipated.

If you have sensitive skin, try buffering the product by applying your moisturiser first and following up with your retinol. While retinol can work well with other actives if your skin can tolerate it, you should avoid putting them in the same routine while you’re starting out. Leave your AHAs, BHAs, Vitamin Cs, peptides, etc. for the morning or for your alternate night-time routine.

It’s hard, but try to be patient with it. It can take 12 weeks of consistent use before you’ll notice any improvement in skin texture. This powerful antioxidant breaks down in sunlight, which is why it is usually bottled in opaque packaging and best worn at night to make sure they aren’t rendered inactive. It’s also a good idea to store it out of direct sunlight and to really pay attention to that expiration date.

Once you become a regular retinol user, you’ll be exposing fresh flawless baby skin to the elements, so you must wear a broad-spectrum SPF30+ or higher every day, no exceptions.

Some product recommendations 

Best Australian: Alpha-H Vitamin A 0.5 per cent With Evening Primrose Serum $59.46 (on sale)

Australian-made brand Alpha-H is known for its liquid gold line, but its retinol offering is just as special. The perfect entry-level retinol, this hydrating formula is ideal for those struggling with the first signs of aging, hyperpigmentation and acne.

Best budget: The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid 2 per cent in Squalane $18.30

Deciem’s cult-favourite brand The Ordinary has a number of retinol and retinoid offerings, so I encourage you to choose one that is right for you, but this one promises to give moderate results with no irritation. It contains a patented retinoid that the brand claims achieves “better reduction in signs of aging than retinol without irritation.” I don’t know about that, but it’s hard to argue with hundreds of positive reviews.

Best luxury:  SkinCeuticals Retinol 0.3 per cent $97

If you’re ready to splurge, this ultra-effective serum is your girl. Beyond fighting aging, it’s perfect for anyone with sensitive skin or those using retinol to fight acne. This formula is creamy and fortified with chamomile to help soothe your skin. It’s also available at 0.5 per cent and 1 per cent strengths, so you can graduate to higher concentrations as your skin adapts.

Best pregnancy-safe: Biossance Squalane + Phyto-Retinol Serum $112

Vitamin A is a powerful antioxidant, and doctors recommend that you stay away while you’re pregnant or breastfeeding. The good news is that this glorious formula contains the much-talked-about natural retinol alternative bakuchiol, which is said to have similar effects to retinol without the irritation. If you’re looking for a more affordable alternative The Inkey List’s Bakuchiol Moisturiser has similar ingredients and a less painful price tag at just $16!

Best multi-tasker: Dr Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Universal Daily Peel $27 – $240

If you’re already a seasoned retinol user, you might want to try this Mecca bestseller, (or even its extra strength older sister). It’s a two-step process that contains basically every active ingredient you’d ever need, including AHAs (glycolic, citric, lactic and malic acids), BHAs (salicylic acid), vitamin C and retinol. This formula packs a punch, but if your skin can handle it you could be in for a dramatically glow-up. Hyperpigmentation be gone! 

It is important to note that everyone’s skin is different, and it is always a good idea to read the ingredients and patch test products before use. And remember, sunscreen is a must.

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