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Retinoids are truly the topical ingredient that can change your entire skincare game! Today I'm going to talk about different retinoids, how they work and dig into the juicy question of how much you really need to spend to get a great product that works...


Let's start with a little bit of context. 'Retinoid' is an umbrella term for Vitamin A derivatives. They were originally developed as a treatment for acne, and they are indeed great at improving skin texture and the appearance of stubborn pigmentation marks. However, it was also discovered that they have anti-ageing benefits, and they're actually the only skincare ingredient family where there's scientific consensus that they increase collagen production in the skin and not only to prevent and protect, but actually reverse damage that's already been done. Retinoids should be used at night and a broad spectrum sunscreen ritual is essential (it is anyway, but your skin can be extra photosensitive when you're using retinoids). They should not be used by those who are pregnant or breastfeeding.

The ultimate goal is to deliver retinoic acid to your skin cells, so you can understand the different forms of retinoids in this context. Retinoic acid is available by prescription only and tretinoin is the specific version that I've used (adapalene is also pretty popular). Moving into cosmetic products available via retail outlets, the next step away is retinal (retinaldehyde), which has to go through one conversion to become retinoic acid. Another step away, we have your bog-standard retinol; the most popular form of Vitamin A. Your skin needs to convert it to retinal and then retinoic acid, and it loses some of its potency in the process. Then, lastly, you have the least potent form; retinyl palmitate, which has to be converted to retinol, retinal and then retinoic acid. Make sure to check the INCI list on the back of your product to make sure you're buying what you think you're buying, because products are often called 'retinol cream' or whatever and they actually only contain retinyl palmitate, which isn't going to deliver dramatic skin results. Typically your most concentrated retinoids will be sold as treatment serums and will be found in opaque, air-tight pump packaging for stability. Checking the INCI list is also important if you're looking at the percentage retinoid in the formula; 0.006% tretinoin is a lot stronger than 0.5% retinol.


The key is to start low and slow. Retinoids are amazing but they can irritate the skin; if you're very sensitive then retinyl palmitate could be a good starting point but going straight in with retinol should be ok for most as long as it's a relatively low concentration (less than 0.5%, unless it's a granactive formula, as that's gentler and encapsulated). Start with once a week and progress from there, so long as your skin is happy and you're not getting irritation. I personally find an oil to be the gentlest formula type for retinoids. Once you've used up your product, and your skin is happy with it, you can consider increasing the percentage concentration or graduating to a more direct form of retinoid. You may experience 'purging' when you first start on a retinoid or up the potency; these are breakouts due to increased cell turnover (effectively; the spot was lurking in the deeper layers of your skin and this process has brought it to the surface at an accelerated speed). Try to stick with it for a couple of weeks, by which point this phase should have passed. Before trying any new product, you need to conduct a patch test to ensure you don't have any allergies to it and that it isn't too strong for your skin (it's focused on their own products only, but this guide by the Ordinary is still very helpful).

Update: here are some 'cheat sheets' to help you understand the basics of retinoids:


All that in mind, let's dive into the products, starting with the cheapest: The Inkey List's Retinol* | £9.99. This is 30ml, which is pretty standard for a serum, but for whatever reason (perhaps it's the texture); I seem to get through this one really quickly. It has this sort of melting almost oil-serum formula and there are other ingredients in here, like castor oil to moisturise and hyaluronic acid to draw water into the skin. Let's dig into what's in here; the Inkey List's formula contains 1% Retistar and 0.5% Granactive Retinoid. What is that? From my research Retistar is a patented emulsion-like ingredient containing retinol, castor oil, tocopherol and sodium ascorbate. I couldn't find exact percentages of what percentage of each of these ingredients Retistar contains, but we obviously know it's under 1% retinol (I've seen 0.05% floating around, but I couldn't verify this information). Granactive retinoid is an encapsulated delivery system for retinoic acid that purports to be a step above retinol and we have 0.5% of it in here. I would take that with a pinch of salt, because my research suggests it isn't as effective in achieving skin-beneficial results as retinol and 0.5% of an ester isn't the same as 0.5% of retinol. The benefit of using this sort of ester is that it's a lot gentler on the skin, and I can confirm I experienced no dryness or irritation using this product. So, how much retinol are you actually getting with this product? I honestly couldn't tell you! I can only speak on my experience with the product, I'm afraid. I think if you're brand new to retinoids; this is a gentle introduction. I did see some mild improvements in my skin's clarity, smoothness and fine lines because immediately before testing this out, I hadn't been using retinoids at all. But, if you love your retinoids, you're experienced with them and you're just looking to cut costs in your routine; sorry to disappoint, but I don't think this is going to cut it for you. 

Let's move on to our next product, which is one step more expensive: the PSA Skin Midnight Courage Rosehip & Bakuchiol Retinol Night Oil | £37. It's actually only a 15ml serving you're getting here, so that's something to bear in mind. The oil-based formula makes this a gentle retinol and the other ingredients here really nicely counteract its potential drying effects; you're getting non-fragrant plant oils like safflower seed and rosehip. These ingredients are rich in fatty acids and antioxidants to protect and replenish the skin. Q10 is in the formula, which is a powerful antioxidant (this protects against free radical damage, so I personally prefer it in an daytime product, but it's still nice) and you're also getting bakuchiol, often touted as the 'natural retinol'. Personally, I've found the results to be nowhere near on the level of a retinoid, but it's worth a go if you're pregnant or breastfeeding. There is actually some evidence that, when paired with retinol, it can boost its effectiveness and reduce inflammation. This contains 2% retinol but again it's that granactive retinoid, so it isn't really going to feel or act like that a 2% 'true' retinol. However, on balance, I'm pretty sure you're getting a significantly higher percentage of the final ingredient than with the Inkey List's formula, which is what you'd hope given the price-point. I can't tell you with any certainty what the exact amount of retinoid getting to your skin is, but I'd say this is more of a beginner-level product. It's gentle and it does soften and smooth the skin, as well as providing some mild benefits in terms of harmonising the skin's tone. I really liked this when I wanted to use a retinoid, but my skin was feeling very dry and sensitive.

Next up we're actually jumping up that retinoid ladder to the Medik8 Crystal Retinal 3* | £45. Retinal is wedged in-between retinol and retinoic acid, and Medik8 do a wide variety of retinal options (containing 30ml of product), from 0.01% formulated specifically for sensitive skin (Crystal Retinal 1) through to 10 (0.1%) and, after a consultation with one of their clinics you can also access Crystal Retinal 20 at 0.2%. 3 is probably where you'd start if you've dabbled a bit in retinoids before. I introduced this after having not used them for a while and the effects were nothing short of transformative; my skin's tone and texture was noticeably improved, my skin was smoother with fewer visible fine lines and this all happened within a couple of weeks. The more direct form of retinoid means that you get faster results; it's not uncommon for your usual retinol to take 4-6 weeks to give visible changes in the skin. I don't experience irritation with this product, personally, and it's a pretty moisturising formula with hyaluronic acid and Vitamin E. It doesn't dry out my skin, cause me peeling or give me any irritation. I did get some mild purging in the first couple of days of using this, though.

We do have an actual retinol in here, you'll be pleased to know! It's the Paula's Choice Clinical 0.3% Retinol + 2% Bakuchiol Treatment* | £53. This formula (which comes in a standard 30ml bottle) contains a 0.3% concentration of retinol, so it's an intermediate formulation, not wildly dissimilar to the Medik8 product in that it's probably not your first ever retinoid, but it's not going to irritate most people. I'd say it's a really great next step if you've been using something like the Inkey List's formula but want to graduate. You have bakuchiol in there again to support the work of the retinol, and there are some great moisturising ingredients in there like shea butter, oat extract, Vitamin E, hyaluronic acid and ceramides. These really work for me in terms of taking the edge off the retinol; again, it's a lovely formula that moisturises my skin. It doesn't feel drying and I didn't experience peeling with this product, but I had been using the Medik8 product immediately prior to it, so I wasn't going in cold. It definitely smoothed out my skin and made it look clearer and plumper. I was really happy with the results and the lack of side-effects.

Next up let's talk about Dermatica* | £20 / month | I've placed this here on the scale because used nightly you can probably get 2-3 months use out of an average 30ml serum, depending on the texture but this is a monthly subscription. You have to do a consultation with this service because a dermatologist needs to prescribe a treatment to you. Forms of retinoid acid are considered a medical ingredient (a full list of the ingredients Dermatica offer can be found here) and I was personally put on tretinoin (they usually start you at 0.025%) and hydroquinone initially. I won't get too much into hydroquinone, because this is really a retinoid post, and it's quite a controversial ingredient (do your research!) Most dermatologists seem to recommend it for stubborn pigmentation and melasma on a short-term basis. I did it for a month and then changed to the tretinoin with niacinamide, a gentler ingredient that can also help treat pigmentation issues. I have to preface this by saying that going with a strong retinoid like this is a personal choice and I don't feel comfortable recommending it to everyone because it's a prescription drug and I'm not a doctor or pharmacist. I wouldn't consider it (unless you have a regular dermatologist who has recommended it) if you're new to retinoids and it's really important to read the guidance, answer the dermatologist's questions honestly and to do research and ask if you're not sure before going onto this, because it might not be for everyone. However, in order to do this comparison, I did want to include the most direct retinoid available. That aside; I had been using retinal before moving on to tretinoin, so my skin had built up a degree of tolerance. I didn't experience purging on this course, but I did experience extreme dryness using this nightly (as advised, due to the short shelf life of something like this). Additionally, I definitely noticed an increase in skin sensitivity; nothing major but I'm not usually someone who gets a sensation when doing something like wiping my face with a cloth or touching my skin (though I know some people are able to 'move past' this phase by sticking with it for ages). However, it works! It gives those next-level results in terms of smoothness, it's really helped the look of a specific line I'd noticed makeup was settling into and it just gives that smooth skin texture and consistent tone. In terms of results, it doesn't get better than tretinoin. Just remember, it's a no-frills formula with no added moisturising benefits and not much elegance. For me, I am just not convinced I can handle the drying effect on a long-term basis. What I've been doing is a couple of months on it, 6 months off (using a gentler alternative) and then back on for a couple of months. This seems to work well for me.

Lastly,  we have the Allies of Skin 1A Retinal + Peptides Overnight Mask | £105. The most expensive product in this post by quite a margin, though you are getting 50ml of product! This is formulated with 0.05% retinaldehyde (0.01%% less than Medik8's Crystal Retinal 6, which retails at £59, so looking at cost per ml, they aren't a world apart) however there are a good few added benefits with this product. You're getting peptides, which may or may not stimulate collagen production, but can definitely have a hydrating and plumping effect on the skin. It's also rich in antioxidants and moisturising oils, with hyaluronic acid as an added hydrator. This has an elegant, lightweight but moisturising formula that doesn't cause peeling or excess dryness. I'm not entirely clear on whether retinal is simply not too drying, or whether it's the other ingredients in the retinal formulas I've used that counteract it or if it's a combination of both. I had no purging and no increase in irritation with this product. I saw some pretty amazing results too; my skin was smoother, fine lines were less visible and I felt it did a good job of shifting some quite stubborn marks. My only negative is really that the Medik8 formula gives me similar benefits, just as good results and costs considerably less to work your way through the different strength vs. getting one version of the ingredient from this brand.


When it comes to results; as someone who's tried a range of cosmetic 'off the shelf' products, it really has to be tretinoin. But, it's heavy-going, on my skin at least, so the question turns to: as a person whose skin is very used the retinoids, what do I use in-between my short-term tretinoin hits? I think I'm beyond the point where the Inkey List's formula is going to do a lot for me; to an extent, you are going to get what you pay for and (in this case) that's a less potent form of the ingredient. It's fine as an entry-level product. If you've used retinoids before but perhaps you're a little sensitive; the PSA oil is a great option. I did enjoy the Paula's Choice formula but, in all honesty, it's a touch more expensive than Medik8's product and retinal just took those results to the next level for my skin. The Allies formula is beautiful and I'll thoroughly enjoy it while it lasts, but I think Medik8's product is just as good and a lot cheaper, making it a no-brainer!

For me, I'll be progressing through the Medik8 'ladder' of retinal concentrations on the whole, and each time I finish a tube, I'll probably do a couple of months of tretinoin. I know many people swear by tret and think that anyone who chooses to spend their money on a cosmetic product instead is a total mug. However, I disagree; whilst it's true you can get the highest-strength retinoid available for £20 a month, a 30ml product should last you at least 2-3, and some people enjoy the added ingredients you can have in a cosmetic. They like the texture more or its less drying on their skin. Some people simply cannot tolerate direct retinoic acid at all; it's really important to listen to your skin and do what's right for it instead of jumping in at the deep end.

Do you use retinoids? If so - what form and how much are you willing to spend on it?

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