Ingredient focus

Ingredient in focus: retinol

Let’s talk about retinol (baby)! A vitamin A derivative, {retinol} is converted into retinoic acid at a cellular level, which has potent skin-reparative and age-defying benefit, but is oft-maligned because of its side effects. Unlike AHAs, which brighten skin by dissolving the bonds that bind dulling dead cells to its surface, retinol re-energises lazy fibroblasts, stimulating synthesis of skin-essential ‘scaffolding’ the collagen, hyaluronic acid and elastin that keep skin smooth and supple.

Retinol accelerates turnover maintaining the natural regenerative processes we take for granted in our teens and early 20s. As skin cells become sluggish (sometime around 25), retinol helps to keep things ticking over however, this can trigger a slight ‘peeling’ effect. Redness and flakiness went hand-in-hand with retinoids until relatively recently, often acting as a deterrent to their use (obviously). However, with modern technology and clever, encapsulated formulations (as well as milder strengths for those who’re tentative), it’s easier and easier to find a perfect daily formulation.

Retinol also increases sun sensitivity, which is why most vitamin A products are positioned as overnight treatments. You’ll find a wealth of night creams, bedtime ‘peels’ and overnight ‘facials’ laced with vitamin A, which works its unencumbered, skin-perfecting magic while you slumber.

And it isn’t just an age-defying powerhouse. It’s also brilliant for blemish-prone and acneic complexions, as well as those with dulled, pigmented or pock-marked visages. By ‘bothering’ cells into action, it stimulates skin’s healing and reparative processes to ‘densify’ while fading scars and fortifying fragile tissue.

The ‘head girl’ of the anti-ageing ingredients league, there are few things retinol doesn’t do – it strengthens, plumps, elasticises, brightens, unifies and ‘youthifies’ in one fell swoop ideal as a preventative measure, as well as a potent, time-rewinding treatment.


Pioneering ‘clean-clinical’ skin care, {Drunk Elephant‘s} first foray into the ‘retinol realm’ bridges a perceived gap in the brand’s potent age-defying arsenal. The {A-Passioni Retinol Cream} has a comforting, silicone-free formula with 1% retinol (it’s sufficiently gentle for use in the day time) buffered by powerhouse plant extracts, peptides and fatty acids to guarantee maximum, youth-boosting benefit with zero side-effects.


New in and making blemish-busting waves is the {Medik8} {Retinol 3TR Intense} serum. Supercharged with vitamin E for additional antioxidant protection against ageing free radicals, (plus hydrating squalane!), Time Release Technology allows the retinol to gradually work its way through deeper layers of the skin while you sleep. Working with skin’s nightly regenerative cycle and with a low 0.3% retinol concentration, skin isn’t irritated or overwhelmed – making it ideal for vitamin A newbies.


{Pixi‘s} eagerly-anticipated {Retinol Tonic} pairs time-released, encapsulated retinol with soothing jasmine flower extract to deliver a quick, youth-preserving boost to sleepy cells. A nightly post-cleanse step, this purple cocktail is the perfect introduction to this potent powerhouse – sufficiently gentle for beauty beginners, it’s sure to become a fixture of your bedtime regime.


{Sunday Riley‘s} {Luna Sleeping Night Oil} partners retinol with blue tansy a calming plant extract which quickly combats signs of sensitivity. With an array of rave reviews, this product is an ideal introduction for those keen to start a ‘youth-preserving’ ritual as well as those who’re struggling with myriad skin issues.


If your skin is showing signs of slowing down, the {Retinol Youth Renewal Serum} from {Murad} can help you to pick up the (cellular!) pace. Fuelled with pioneering Tri-Active Technology (a fast-acting retinoid, time-released retinoid and a retinol booster), the featherlight formula delivers a firmed, toned, evenly textured, radiant complexion.


The {VERSO} {Super Facial Serum} is a revelation in retinol, thanks to its signature ‘Retinol 8’ complex the ‘first high dose vitamin A derivative that can be used safely in the daytime’. The ‘8’ stands for ‘eight times more effective’ than typical retinol in the same quantity, which means maximum gain with minimum upset.


Or, opt for {The Ordinary‘s} {Granactive Retinoid 5% in Squalane} which at only £11.90!! is the perfect ‘no frills’ formulation for anyone looking to jump on the retinoid bandwagon. Apply in the evening, sandwiched between cleanser/toner and night cream/oil – it’s a treatment serum and quite potent, so build up your tolerance gradually. Use on alternate evenings to begin with, gradually increasing frequency to maximise the skin-transforming benefits.


Verity Douglas

Verity Douglas

Content Editor

Verity is our Content Editor and a Cult Beauty veteran. Currently on maternity leave, raising Cult Beauty’s honorary ‘word nerd’, Tabitha, she speaks fluent ‘beauty’ and loves nothing more than the marriage of language and lip balm (and cleanser and candles… ad infinitum). Nothing can stop her from quoting Nancy Mitford, treating herself to yet another Bella Freud candle for her desk or buying that pilgrim-esque collared or heavily fringed outfit she’s been eyeing. You can trust her to debunk widespread beauty myths and dispense invaluable advice with ease…