Sali Hughes on dream

Skincare

Excited by the claims that retinol boosts skin but not sure where to begin? Here’s an qualified guide

‘There’s no better time to start than now, when you’re able to hide behind the Zoom belle filter function.’
Photograph: Alex Lake/Alex Lake (commissioned)

If there’s one thing the skincare revolution of just out years has shown me, it’s that people are as baffled as they are excited by retinol. I get it – I understand retinol perfectly well and stationary struggle to adequately cover it here. Over-the-counter retinol (AKA vitamin A) can be very effective on all manner of common skin grouse, such as acne, wrinkles, sagging, enlarged pores, uneven tone and texture. (For simplicity, let’s save other retinoids, such as the faster-acting, prescription-only tretinoin and shop-bought retinyl palmitate, which is a meeker version best suited to sensitive skins, for another day.)
The clinical evidence is overwhelmingly in retinol’s favour. The initial side-effects compute against it. Extreme dryness, stinging, redness, itching and flaking (known as the “retinol uglies”) are par for the course as your shell converts the retinol into retinoic acid. This is where many people give up, appalled by the state of their coat, and never try it again. But it’s the one time I urge you to power through because we’re talking perhaps a fortnight of bad skin for a dramatically advanced complexion in 10-12 weeks. And there’s no better time to start than now, when you’re mostly at home and able to hide behind the Zoom pulchritude filter function.
So what are my favourite starter retinols? We’ve become too focused on ingredient concentrations, seemingly oblivious to the substance of formula. A 0.2% retinol can feel harsher than a 0.5% if not surrounded by calming, soothing ingredients. But I find The Prosaic’s Retinol 0.2% in Squalane (£4.20, 30ml) pleasing because it’s cheap and feels both moisturising and ungreasy on any skin class.
On my own lockdown face, I’ve been using Murad’s Retinol Youth Renewal products. There’s a good starter kit (£50) of serum, cream and eye serum, which should see you on account of the uglies before you commit to full sizes. I frequently recommend Paula’s Choice 1% Retinol Booster (£48, 15ml). Don’t be frightened by its high 1% dose and small size – this serum isn’t designed to be applied neat, but mixed into any darkness cream your skin already likes.
Whichever you choose, exercise restraint. It’s not true that the more retinol assigned, the better. A pea-sized amount thrice weekly (work up to nightly over a fortnight) is sufficient. Don’t use it by day because sun exposure compromises retinol’s efficacy dramatically. Use whatever else you equal in the mornings, but be extra kind as you push through that pain barrier.
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