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Today we're talking retinol, retinoids (the family of ingredients that retinol belongs to) and marketing. I'm definitely not a believer in the 'stronger is better' mantra, but you want to be using products that are at the right level for your skin and will give you the results you're looking for, and unfortunately we're going to have to cut through some marketing to get there...
This is really important because you could pick up two products marketed as 'retinoid serums' but if one of them is a retinol and the other a retinal, you're going to be comparing apples to oranges. The reason being: retinoic acid is the form of retinoid that's bioavailable to your skin. It's only available by prescription in forms such as tretinoin and adapalene, so if you're buying a cosmetic product, your skin needs to convert it. As a general rule of thumb: the fewer conversions, the more effective (and potentially-irritating) the formula will be and the lower the concentration required to get results is. It's important to be mindful of where your skin is at and what it needs; if you're pretty young and you've got quite sensitive skin, retinol esters are probably a pretty good starting point for you but if you've got mature skin, they could be a waste of time.
As a general rule of thumb: if a product is advertised as much more than 1% retinol, that's cause for a bit of further research. I don't believe that 'stronger is better' but my issue with retinol complexes is that they combine different retinoids or retinol with various moisturising ingredients so you often don't know how much retinol is in there. You might be using a 0.5% pure retinol formula and think 'well, I've emptied 3 bottles of this, my skin enjoys it but I'd like to step it up a little' and reach for a product that on the surface seems to contain 1% retinol but actually contains 0.05% retinol. That might be fine for someone new to retinoids but it wasn't what you wanted! What's going on here? Well, brands will often advertise the concentration of the complex they're using rather than how my retinol the product contains to make it seem like it's a stronger formula than it is (even to the point where it doesn't make sense - I'd be scared a '5%' formula would burn my face off!)
Let's take Retistar as an example; this is a patented complex of retinol and some moisturising ingredients. You will often see products touted as 1% formulas because they contain 1% Retistar but that actually only equates to around 0.05% retinol. Whilst some brands are being more transparent about this now, it can be really confusing for consumers. Just be conscious of any percentages referring to 'blends' or 'complexes' and names for retinoids you don't recognise as they could be patented combinations. Googling the names might help you find out more information to figure out how much retinol is in there.
For all of the reasons we've discussed: you really can't just look at a percentage concentration on the product packaging. I've pulled a bunch of retinoids out of my collection to show practical examples.
The Medik8 Crystal Retinal 10* | £83 | full review | is a retinal formula (as the name suggests) and although it doesn't have a % concentration on the packaging, the website states it contains a 0.1% concentration and if you look at the entire line you can see it's the strongest Crystal Retinal option. So, if you're a beginner, you can probably figure out that Crystal Retinal 1 is where you might want to start. This gets a thumbs up from me in terms of transparency.
Next we have the Trinny London Overnight Sensation Retinal + Serum* | £69 | full review coming soon. This doesn't tout any sort of percentage (possibly to avoid confusion in a fairly capsule line!) but is described as 'high-dose' and the name 'Retinal +' implies that this combination of retinal and granactive retinoid (for ease, let's consider this a form of retinol) is stronger than the other retinal serum in this line. I personally really enjoy this product and I think it conveys that it's a stronger product that will do the work for more mature skin types. I'll give it a C- in terms of conveying information to the consumer!
Ok, so I love this brand but one of the worst culprits of all the things I've discussed has to be the Sunday Riley A+ High-Dose Retinoid Serum* | £70 | (and I also didn't feel this product was particularly effective for my skin). The first little clue is that it's a 'retinoid' serum and it's being described as a '6.5% retinoid blend'. 'Retinoid' keeps things vague because it encompasses all of the forms of this ingredient in our flow chart above. But if you do some digging on their website (to their credit, at least the information is there if you look for it!) this actually contains 5% retinol esters (the weakest form of retinoid), 1% encapsulated retinol and 0.5% blue-green algae, which is a reach... Is it a bad formula? I didn't personally love it, but 1% retinol is plenty and if it's supported with retinol esters, then that's great too - I'm just not a fan of the smoke and mirrors to make this product seem implausibly-strong.
Moving on, we have the Paula's Choice Clinical 0.3% Retinol + 2% Bakuchiol Treatment* | £55 | and thank the lord they're not calling bakuchiol a 'retinoid', which I've actually seen brands do... This plant extract might mimic retinol in skin cells whilst being far gentler but more work is needed on this, and it's a real stretch to get to some of the marketing claims made about it. However, it might boost the efficacy of your retinol. This product clearly lays out that they're two separate ingredients and how much of each this product contains. It's pretty obvious that this is intended to be a gentler retinol serum and overall, the marketing of its concentration is clear.
The next product here is a tretinoin (retinoic acid) prescription I got through a Skin & Me | £20 / month | dermatologist, but I just wanted to include it to show you how the % concentrations go down as you move through to more and more direct retinoids. This is something I'll definitely want to get back on in a few years when my skin really needs it, but you would typically start off on a 0.006% concentration and that is a lot! It takes a good couple of months for your skin to adjust so it feels less dry and reactive. However, this is really the gold standard when it comes to ageing, so it's worth pushing through if that's your primary skin concern.
Finally, we have one of the products that really inspired this post (though its marketing has since been amended to be more transparent!): the Inkey List's Retinol Serum* | £9.99. This was branded as a 1% retinol serum when I first tried it, and I remembered thinking how mild it seemed. I just thought it was maybe a bit of a dud for me and my skin and tossed into the back of a drawer, until I saw a YouTube video that kind of 'outed' the product as being 1% Retistar, not retinol. This is a complex of retinol in a moisturising base but the concentration of retinol is billed to be at 0.05%! It was combined with a 0.5% granactive retinoid, but this form of retinoid is usually at higher concentrations than standard retinol, so it probably wasn't adding much. No wonder it wasn't as punchy as I'd expected... I've noticed that the Retistar has recently been changed to 1% of an ester, which is a little more transparent but I still don't think this should be called a 'retinol' serum. The original formula was absolutely fine as a starter product for people just getting into retinoids, and I'm sure the new version is too, but I just think it needed to be clearer what you were getting and who this product should really have been pitched to.
I'm sure at this point your head is spinning and you're wondering how on earth to choose a retinoid! We all know retinoids are an amazing ingredient that can be great for acne and are a must-have for pretty much anyone over 25 (who isn't pregnant or breastfeeding), however understanding what you're buying is really important.
For me, the type of retinoid you want to use is way more important than the concentration. Retinol esters are great if you're brand new to retinoids or you have sensitive skin. Retinol is your in-between; this is the most common retinoid on the market and you could start here, but I recommend beginning with a product that's marketed as 'gentle' or a retinol moisturiser, as the moisturising ingredients can help to buffer the ingredient and take off some of that edge. If you want amazing results but the gentle feel and flexibility of a cosmetic product then retinal is the way to go, but be sure you're comfortable with retinoids before diving into this specific form. Then there are the big guns... there'll be a dermatologist between you and those ingredients, so I won't get too much into prescription products but if you've worked through the cosmetic option and you're looking for more: this is the next step.
'Stronger' doesn't mean 'better' so be cautious around products claiming to contain extremely high concentrations. Instead, you can look for other indicators of if the product is suitable for you, for example words like 'gentle' or 'sensitive skin safe' imply the product will be good for beginners, whereas 'advanced' and 'high-dose' denote they're geared towards the seasoned retinoid user. Within the same range there may also be options at different strengths like the Medik8 'ladder' or there could be a 'gentle', 'original' and 'high strength' version.
It's still far from easy but if you're unclear on the product you're looking at: look out for my little red flags and give it a Google if you're in doubt!
I really hope this post was helpful! Let me know - how do you shop for retinoids?