A Deep Dive Into Retinols


When a beauty product is showered in praise on social media – or when a single ingredient promises to give you the Best! Skin! Of! Your! Life! – it’s only natural to be a little cynical. Instagram is nothing if not a black hole of smoke and mirrors. But when it comes to retinol, not only is the hype real but it’s among the most heavily studied ingredients in modern skincare.

For those unfamiliar, retinoid is an umbrella term for vitamin A derivatives. Within that umbrealla you have retinol (skincare that contains a concentration of retinoid among other ingredients like hyaluronic acid), adapalene (a type of retinoid used to treat acne like Differin), and then retinoids that are much stronger (with more severe side effects) that require a prescription, like Retin-A, ReTrieve and Renova, which are pure retinoid acid. According to celebrity aesthetician Shani Darden, the retinols we buy from Sephora and Mecca usually vary in strength from about 0.25 percent concentration to 2 percent concentration.

Confused yet? Stay with me! The reason supermodels, celebrities and dermatologists alike sing the praise of this ingredient is because it promotes skin cell turnover and enhances collagen production. But beyond that, you can expect brighter skin, less acne, less wrinkles, and – in my case – less periorificial dermatitis around my nose. Thank you and good night. In the name of research (and the aforementioned nose redness), I’ve trialled three popular retinol products over the past three weeks.

Drunk Elephant’s A-Passioni Retinol Cream, Shani Darden’s Retinol Reform and Estèe Lauder’s soon-to-be-released Perfectionist Pro Rapid Renewal Retinol Treatment are all crowd pleasers that do their job. What sets them apart is you. Specifically, how sensitive your skin is and how much experience you have with retinol or acids. The Drunk Elephant offering retails for $127 NZD and is housed in a metal foil tube – this is a big tick because it means that the retinol is protected from any light or air which would oxidise the ingredient and reduce its efficacy. This retinol is encased in bioavailable oils like passionfruit and jojoba which make it more soothing than a prescription, but it also means it takes longer to see results. Shani Darden’s retinol, $149 NZD, is the most famous of the three (I trust the woman in charge of Rosie Huntington-Whiteley’s face) and has a much more liquid-y texture than the Drunk Elephant variety, similar to a serum. Shani combined her retinol with lactic acid (to exfoliate the skin and kill bacteria), niacinamide (to smooth pores) and Aloe Vera (to calm the skin from all that retinol!). It get’s a massive tick from me because it’s also free from parabens, phthalates, sulphates, synthetic dyes or fragrances. Plus, the redness around my nose started clearing within a week of implementing this one into my routine. Unfortunately, the Estèe Lauder retinol, $175 NZD, does contain fragrance and alcohol, so if you have sensitive skin I wouldn’t recommend this option. It does however contain borage seed oil (one of my favourite skincare ingredients) and hyaluronic acid (ditto). This will be launching in Farmers and Smith & Caughey’s around New Zealand from mid-March.

While I noticed a clearer, smoother complexion in my skin almost immediately, the most dramatic effects of using these retinol products will be clear in about six to eight weeks: the length of time it takes for skin to turn-over (even though retinol speeds up this process so it could be sooner). But what I can say at this stage, three weeks in, is that my skin tolerated all three products really well. I experienced none of the redness, flakiness or inflammation commonly associated with the beginning phase of using retinol. I attribute this to the fact that I regularly use acids (another harsh skincare product) and spent all my teenage years using Differin, so my skin had built up a tolerance to retinoid’s already. If you do experience any of these side effects, stick with it – they only last about three weeks and the pay off is worth it.

So now you might be thinking, but wait isn’t this what my acids and chemical peels are already doing? Yes and no! Both products remove dead skin and brighten complexion, but retinol works at the cellular level – below the skin’s epidermis layer – to promote healing and cellular repair whereas acids work on the epidermis layer. And while we’re on the topic of acids: don’t ever double them up with your retinol. Never let them near your skin at the same time. Don’t even let them make eye contact. Personally, on the night’s I’m using retinol (and you should only use it at night because it will increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun), I prefer to keep the rest of my routine really simple: after cleansing I will apply retinol to my skin, leave it for ten minutes to sink in, and then follow it up with either Embryolisse Lait-Crème, Weleda Skin Food or a tiny amount of Estèe Lauder Advanced Night Repair.