Retinol: What is it and how to use it?

Ask a Dermatologist: Retinol

Our skincare experts reveal everything yo

Ask a Dermatologist: Retinol

Our skincare experts reveal everything you need to know about using retinol.

Hailed as one of the most powerful anti-ageing ingredients, retinol is proven to transform the texture of the skin while targeting several concerns at once. On the downside, it has a reputation for causing irritation and redness as it gets to work accelerating skin cell turnover. But now thanks to gentler formulations that are even tolerated by sensitive skin types, more and more women are adding retinol to their beauty routine. But what actually is retinol, what does it do and how can you introduce it safely to your regime? Consultant dermatologist Dr Justine Hextall answers your most pressing questions.

Retinol: What is it and how to use it?
Retinol: What is it and how to use it?

What is retinol?

“Retinol is an over-the-counter form of a group of substances referred to more broadly as retinoids which are derived from vitamin A,” explains Dr Hextall. “Retinoids work by binding with the retinoic acid receptors in the skin which stimulates faster turnover of skin cells. Retinol also reduces the production of enzymes known as collagenases, which as their name suggests facilitate the breakdown of collagen in the skin. As collagen forms our skin’s scaffolding, this should be avoided at all costs”.


Do retinols live up to the hype? 

“Essentially yes. Retinols are probably the most evidence-based ingredient that reduces the visible signs of ageing caused by UV exposure,” explains Dr Hextall. “Retinols can reduce wrinkles, increase collagen, treat active acne and reduce scarring and unwanted pigmentation”.


Can over the counter retinols perform as well as their stronger prescription counterparts?

“Yes, they can, it just takes a little longer,” says explains Dr Hextall. “One of the advantages of over the counter retinoids is that they tend to be more tolerable and are ideal for a more sensitive skin”.


If I have sensitive skin can I use actives like retinol?

“Yes if retinols are introduced slowly. I would recommend applying no more than twice a week for the first week,” advises explains Dr Hextall. “I would then start applying three or four nights per week until you can tolerate applying it daily”.


How else can I avoid creating irritation?

“As a dermatologist, one of the most common mistakes I see is individuals introducing too many active products to the skin too quickly,” explains Dr Hextall. “Always balance active products with skin-soothing, compensating gentle cleansers and moisturisers that hydrate and protect the skin barrier. If you can maintain this balance, the difference is remarkable and the skin begins to glow”.


What products work well with retinol?

Dr Hextall recommends using vitamin C and a hyaluronic acid-based serum alongside a retinol for best results. “Vitamin C should be applied after cleansing in the morning,” she says. “I would recommend a 10% concentration for sensitive skin. Once this brightening anti-oxidant has absorbed into your skin, follow with a hyaluronic acid serum and a light moisturiser if needed. Then finally, a broad spectrum sun cream in SPF50+”. In the evening, you can then swap your vitamin C serum for retinol following with hyaluronic acid if you so wish and your usual moisturiser.



La Roche-Posay’s Retinol B3 Serum is a great way to introduce retinol gently into your skincare routine. It’s formulated with 0.3% retinol and the soothing agent vitamin B3 to help keep the skin soft and plump while retaining moisture. Glycerin also delivers intense hydration to the skin and helps to restore the natural barrier function. Additionally La Roche-Posay’s Pure Vitamin C10 Serum contains 10% pure vitamin C and leaves the skin glowing and hydrated.


Always use at least an SPF15+ in the morning, as Retinol may increase skin’s sensitivity to the sun. At La Roche-Posay we recommend Anthelios Ultra-Light Invisible Fluid SPF50+.