Retinol is one of the most well-known, well-researched and well-regarded ingredients when it comes to plumping skin and smoothing wrinkles. As for using retinol for acne? It’s perhaps not the first ingredient most people would think of, thanks to the hype around (also effective) ingredients like salicylic acid, glycolic acid and benzoyl peroxide.
But, ask the dermatologists, and they’ll tell you that retinol could just be a smarter all-rounder for preventing and treating blemishes. Allow us to explain…
What is retinol?
Retinol tends to be used as an umbrella term for all retinoids (there are different versions which vary in strength and concentration). It’s a powerful active ingredient derived from vitamin A that’s best known for firming skin and diminishing the appearance of wrinkles. It can slow the breakdown of collagen, increase collagen production and boost elasticity to give a plumper-looking complexion.
But, it also has many other benefits such as brightening skin, reducing pigmentation, clearing pores and treating acne. While dermatologists agree it’s a gold-standard ingredient, its potency can be difficult for the skin to tolerate. If, however, you can introduce it slowly, it can make an enormous impact.
Why use retinol for acne?
“Retinol can help declog pores, so it can prevent as well as treat acne,” explains Harvard-trained dermatologist, Dr Michelle Henry. It can also reduce sebum (oil) production, improve skin texture and minimise enlarged pores.
“Retinol treats acne scarring in the same way it treats fine lines and wrinkles,” says Dr Michelle. “An acne scar is a divot in your skin, the same as a wrinkle, so retinol plumps the area with collagen, the same way it would plump fine lines.” Clever!
How to apply retinol, especially if you have sensitive skin?
“I like to recommend the sandwich method,” says Dr Michelle. “Apply moisturiser, then apply the retinol, then apply another layer of moisturiser.” She suggests introducing it slowly: twice a week at first, then every-other night once you’re comfortable, and finally, every night.
One common mistake is over-applying. “Apply less than a pea-sized amount all over skin,” advises Dr Michelle, “or apply it regionally (rather than topically, like you would with a spot serum). So if you have combination skin, like dry cheeks but an oily T-zone, just apply it down your T-zone.”
How to choose the right retinol for you
As we mentioned before, retinol is generally used as an umbrella term for all retinoids. But, it’s worth noting that off-the-shelf retinol is often not as potent as prescription-strength products (which are typically retinoids – like tretinoin and isotretinoin). While these products are extremely effective, they can cause skin irritation and dryness.
In most cases, the experts will say that it’s best to start with a mild formulation to reduce the risk of skin irritation. If you’re unsure, consult a dermatologist who will be able to assess whether retinol is suitable for you and if it is, what strength to go for. As a general rule, start with a low concentration from a reputable skincare brand.
Are there any retinols that are highly-recommended?
“I would really recommend Cerave’s Resurfacing Retinol Serum with Ceramides and Niacinamide for Blemish-Prone Skin,” says Dr Michelle. It gently exfoliates and brightens skin, it smooths the complexion and reduces the appearance of acne scarring, and restores with skin-strengthening and barrier-building ceramides.
“It’s ideal because it’s the perfect balance of active and nourishing. It’s gentle on skin which is great for people with sensitivity, or who are scared of retinols,” says Dr Michelle. Apply the lightweight fluid before your moisturiser, or use the sandwich method mentioned above.
Other retinols we rate include…
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