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Retinol Serums: When, How and Why You Should be Using Them

Vogue Arabia, June 2023. Photo: Mattia Holmt

Retinol is undoubtedly a gold standard ingredient when it comes to encouraging youthful, healthy and plump skin. It’s why finding the best retinol serum can be such a game-changer for your skincare routine. However, narrowing down the right one for you can be tricky, since the active (which is also known as vitamin A) can sometimes cause irritation, dryness and flakiness if it’s used incorrectly or isn’t right for your skin. Once you’ve managed that, when used consistently the best retinol serums and creams can change the quality and texture of skin in a way that few other ingredients can – from increasing cell turnover to stimulating collagen production.

Here, Dija Ayodele, aesthetician and founder of West Room Aesthetics and the Black Skin Directory, answers all of your most pressing retinol-related questions, from the ideal amount of retinol to apply to the most effective ingredients to layer it with.

Retinol is a form of vitamin A that is applied topically to the skin. “Retinol is a long-term game-changer for the skin,” says Ayodele. “Our skin cells are much better at interacting with it than many other ingredients. Retinol stimulates collagen, helping to keep the scaffolding under the skin firm, while smoothing lines and wrinkles in the process. It refines the skin by speeding up the normal exfoliation process, giving clarity, smoothness and a much more even-toned complexion. It also stimulates the internal hyaluronic acid in the skin, keeping skin moisturised, hydrated, plump and bouncy.”

How much retinol should I put on my face?

“It really does depend on the version of retinol you are using, as there are many variants with different strengths. Always defer to the practitioner that’s providing it to you. If in doubt, a pea-sized amount is just fine. It is always better to use a smaller amount than larger – less is always more with retinol.”

What percentage of retinol serum is best?

“There is no single correct answer to this common question. It all depends on your skin and what percentage it can comfortably tolerate – contrary to popular belief, flakiness and dryness don’t need to be symptoms of retinol use.

“When it comes to over-the-counter retinol serums, percentages of 0.01 per cent or greater have been shown to be effective, with 0.01 per cent a strength best used by those who are new to retinol. (Don’t jump in at the deep end, you and your skin will regret it – start slow and build up use.) Meanwhile, 1 per cent retinol is best used by those whose skin has become accustomed to the ingredient.”

Can I use retinol every day?

“You can work up to using retinol every day. Again, it depends on the strength of the vitamin A, regardless of the variant. There are some brands that will say their product is gentle enough to be used everyday from the onset, but it is ultimately up to the strength and the integrity of your skin at the time.

“Start off including retinol in your routine twice a week – I always advise a Wednesday and a Sunday, just to allow skin enough rest time in between. Retinol can compound in the skin, so if you were to apply it every day, you might find your skin is okay on day three, only to have a lot of irritation on day four. So space your usage out – apply twice a week in the first few weeks, then three times a week, then four, and so on.”

Does retinol have any side effects?

“It can do, yes. As mentioned, when your skin isn’t used to retinol, you may find you suffer redness, flaking, dryness and/or irritation. As well as finding the right retinoid for your skin type, it’s also key to build up usage, which in turn improves the skin’s tolerance levels.

What age should you start using retinol?

“You should consider using it from the age of 25, as collagen starts to decline and deplete around this age. If you are using prescribed retinol for a skin condition like acne however, there is usually no age bracket – this is at the discretion of your doctor or dermatologist – though many of us avoid giving retinol products to those who are very young.”

What should you not use retinol with?

“There isn’t anything you shouldn’t use retinol with. Anything you use alongside retinol and vitamin A is very much dependent on your skin’s integrity and health. My personal preference is to use retinol on its own at night after cleansing my skin. I cleanse with an alpha hydroxy acid-based cleanser. I then go ahead and use things like glycolic acid, vitamin E, lactic acid and hyaluronic acid (not all at once). If you are on prescribed medication, you may want to avoid alpha hydroxy acids and opt for milder poly hydroxy acid, such as gluconolactone or lactobionic acid. Dermatologists should ideally give their clients an appropriate skincare routine to follow.

“The question, really, is what should you be using retinol with. Hydrating ingredients like glycerin, peptides, ceramides, when sandwiched with your retinol, all help to support the integrity of the skin.”

Ultimately, you should listen to your skin and let it be your guide. Ayodele advises keeping a diary noting any changes and taking pictures of your skin, comparing week one to week six. And remember: it is crucial to use SPF every day with retinol.

Originally published in

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