How Does Retinol Work? Retinol Explained Simply

14 November 2022


Different retinols for different skin types!


Retinol- if you’ve been searching for an active ingredient in skincare to diminish signs of ageing, chances are you would have come across this ingredient. As one of the buzziest ingredients of 2022, retinol products and information about retinol can be everywhere. However, confusion about retinol remains, especially when it comes to the different types of retinoids and how to get started.


Here’s your doctor’s guide to retinol made simple, as part of this month’s series of blogposts dedicated to retinols. You don’t need to be a chemist or doctor to get smoother and younger looking skin with this powerhouse ingredient. In the next few posts I’ll also be sharing about retinol alternatives for readers who are unable to use retinol; and my review of different types of affordable, drugstore retinol products. But if you can’t wait, 2021’s Retinoid Reviews can get you started. Update: 2023’s Review of Popular Retinol Serums and Creams is up!


Retinol VS Retinoids



First things first about demystifying retinol is to understand what exactly is retinol? Retinol is one of the types of vitamin A ingredients in skincare. The entire family of vitamin A ingredients is called retinoids. In this family retinoids- are retinols, retinyl esters, retinaldehyde and retinoic acid.


Of all these retinoids, retinol is among the most commonly used in anti-aging skincare. Retinol, when applied to the skin, can lighten dark spots, reduce fine lines and improve skin tone and texture. But here’s the catch: the bioactive form of retinoids is retinoic acid. This means that retinol itself isn’t going to work on the skin. Retinols need to undergo a series of conversions to become retinoic acid in order to initiate the cellular changes that bring about the benefits to the skin. This means that retinols are less potent and effective than retinoic acid; but they are less likely to cause the side effects of retinoids, and can be purchased in over the counter skincare products without a prescription.


Related blogpost:

The Beginner’s Guide to Starting Retinoids


 What are the benefits of using retinol for your skin?



Retinol’s benefits the skin by increasing cell turnover and increasing collagen levels in the skin- think firmer, smoother skin! So if you’re looking to reduce early signs of ageing; improve your skin texture; or reduce acne, consider adding retinol into your skincare routine.


These are the benefits of retinol for your skin:

• Reduced hyperpigmentation

• More even skin tone • Reduced fine lines

• Improved skin texture and firmer skin

• Reduced clog pores


Related blogposts:

Hyperpigmentation Disorders: Types, Causes, Treatments

How to Lighten Hyperpigmentation with Skincare

Acne: Types, Causes, Treatments & Tips for Prevention

The Complete Guide to Back Acne & Treatments

How to Get Rid of Large Pores: Myths & Truths


Real life example of retinoid dermatitis on my neck.



When you first get started on retinols, you might experience some flaking and light peeling. This can occur because cell turnover is increased with retinols. As your skin adapts to the introduction of retinol (retininisation), the flaking and peeling will resolve. I’ll share more about techniques and skincare to reduce this process.


However, severe irritation with redness, scaling and burning sensation. This is known as retinoid dermatitis or retinol burns. In the initial phase of embarking on retinols, the increased cell turnover sloughs off dead cells from the top layer of the skin faster than healthy cells can resurface. This ends up compromising the skin barrier causing severe irritation and inflammation.


If you have any inflammatory skin diseases such as eczema may also experience a temporary flare. The process of retinisation can render the skin more vulnerable to triggers and inflammation. If you have any of these but wish to incorporate retinols into your skincare routine, please consider discussing with your doctor about retinol options which are safer to start on. You can learn more about the skin barrier and how to protect it in How to Repair Your Skin Barrier.


Another side effect of using retinols is purging. In purging, users with acne experience worsening of their acne before the pimples improve. As retinols increase cell turnover, microcomedones and comedones under the skin get brought to the surface of the skin as pimples. Besides retinol, other skincare ingredients can cause acne purging too. Learn more about purging in Is Your Skin Purging or Breaking Out? Acne Purging Explained.




So the million dollar question: How can I start using retinols safely without side effects?


First of all, ensure that your skin barrier is healthy before starting retinols. If your skin is damaged or dry; or if you’re having a flare of any dermatological condition, focus on repairing your skin back to a healthy, moisturised state first. Otherwise, starting on retinols could worsen your skin. Start low and slow. To avoid irritating your skin, start with using retinols in lower concentration and introduce it slowly. Retinols at concentrations of 0.1% can improve your skin with consistent use.


Start with using it 2-3x a week first before working your way to using it every night if your skin allows. Retinols that have a slow release formulation and encapsulated retinols can also reduce the risk of irritation without compromising effectiveness. And as always, be sure to use sunscreen. We don’t want any of the new collagen that your skin has painstakingly built to be destroyed by UV rays!


Related blogposts:

Sunscreen Reviews 2021

Sunscreen Reviews 2019 


 The retinol sandwich technique explained


You might have heard of a retinol application technique called the retinol sandwich, which has gained momentum on TikTok. According to TikTokers, the retinol sandwich helps to reduce irritation with retinol use. The retinol sandwich consists of applying a moisturiser first followed by retinol and then layering moisturiser again; so the retinol is sandwiched between 2 layers of moisturisers. The logic is that the first layer of moisturiser acts as a physical barrier to reduce the side effects of retinol; and the second layer of moisturiser seals in moisture for the skin.


Does the retinol sandwich work? Published studies on retinol sandwich are not available; but the effects of the first layer of moisturiser as a physical barrier reduces the uptake of retinol by the skin. As the uptake of retinol is impeded; the benefits and potential side effects are also reduced. The second layer of moisturiser to seal in the whole complex is akin to another popular but questionable TikTok trend, slugging. The problem of slugging, or using an occlusive moisturiser over retinol is that it could also increase the uptake of retinol, like a face sheet mask; negating the intent of the retinol sandwich. Essentially with a retinol sandwich, you might get less irritation, but the uptake (and hence, benefits) of retinol use becomes unpredictable.


Related blogposts:

Slugging Your Face: the Latest TikTok Trend Explained

Sunscreen Contouring: A Dangerous TikTok Trend

5 Worst Viral TikTok Skincare & Beauty Trends to Avoid


Last tip- use retinol only at night. Retinols degrade in sunlight, so the product loses its effectiveness in the day.


Best skincare pairings for retinol

The best way to pair retinol is with active ingredients that moisturise your skin and nourish your skin barrier. Healthy skin that is well moisturised will tolerate retinols better so you can use them consistently! Examples of ingredients that can accomplish these but will not react with retinol are: hyaluronic acid, ceramides, natural moisturising ingredients and niacinamide. These ingredients have been covered in depth in the following blogposts, so please feel free to read them and my product reviews:

Everything You Need to Know about Hyaluronic Acid

5 Cult Favourite Hyaluronic Acid Serums & Moisturisers Reviewed

Ceramides in Skincare

Niacinamide: A Versatile Skincare Ingredient Will Thank You For


Retinol use also increases the user’s sensitivity to sun damage; so sunscreen use is strongly advised in the day. My recommendations (and duds) for lightweight and affordable sunscreens have been covered in these blogposts Sunscreen Reviews 2021 and Sunscreen Reviews 2019.



I’m not seeing any benefits of using retinol. What should I do?

If you’re not experiencing any irritation or flaking with retinol, it’s not a bad thing! You don’t need to have that to know that retinol is working for your skin. More likely you’ve prepped your skin and skincare pairings right and just have to be patient with the results. With consistent use, you should expect some of the benefits such as smoother skin and less fine lines in at least 6 weeks.


However, if you’ve bid your time with retinols but the results are lacklustre, you can consider escalating the retinol concentration and frequency of use. Or, consider more potent retinoids such as retinaldehyde. Retinaldehyde requires fewer conversion steps to form retinoic acid. Benefits are faster and more obvious; but the risk of retinoid burns is higher. Please ensure your skin has adapted to using retinols without side effects before trying retinaldehyde.


If you have dermatological conditions such as acne or wrinkles, retinol alone will not be helpful. Acne is a complex condition that is often multi-factorial in nature and often requires prescription strength retinoic acid as well as in-clinic treatments such as chemical peel and Q-switched lasers for good results. This also holds true signs of ageing such as wrinkles; which are better addressed by procedures such as Botox.


Related blogposts:

Is Botox Deadly?

Baby Botox & Preventative Botox in Your 20’s Is Real

10 Things to Know Before Getting Lasers for Hyperpigmentation

The Truth about Chemical Peels


 My review of retinol serums and creams with different delivery systems will be shared very soon! Some of the products that will be reviewed are Innisfree Retinol Cica Repair Ampoule, RoC Retinol Correxion Night Serum Capsules, Paula’s Choice 1% Retinol Treatment, Kiehl’s Renewal Skin Renewal Daily Micro-Dosing Serum and The Ordinary’s 1% in Squalene


Conclusion on Retinol Serums and Cream

Retinols are one of the best ways to reduce and prevent early signs of ageing and improve your skin texture; without experiencing the side effects of its more potent retinoid cousins. When done right and paired with skincare, you can expect smoother skin, more even skin tone, reduced dark spots and diminished fine lines as early as 6 weeks. Hope this blogpost helps your retinol journey and check back again for more retinol related posts this month 🙂



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