How Does Retinol Really Work?

6 min read

Retinol Cheat Sheet

Retinol… again? We know, we know. The skincare superhero on everyone’s lips (and face). The mysterious Retinol is everywhere because it is one of the few ingredients that has actually been scientifically proven to work.

Not only does it fight signs of ageing, (such as fine lines, wrinkles, large pores, pigmentation, and rough, dull skin), it also helps to clear up acne and blemishes. It is the dog’s b*llocks of skincare.

But how does it work? What is it? How much should you use and when? Enter our retinol cheat sheet…

What is retinol?

Retinol can be confusing so, the basics:

Vitamin A and Retinoids. Vitamin A is an essential nutrient that our body cannot produce. It comes in two forms,retinoidsand carotenoids, the latter works as an antioxidant – something we can get from our diet.

A retinoid is a term used to describe the group of chemical compounds that are a form of Vitamin A. (There are many different types of retinoids, for full details visit our websitehere.)

Our Vitamin A Game contains the retinoid calledretinol, a medium strength Vitamin A. Our bodies need to convert into retinaldehyde and then retinoic acid before it becomes active. These steps make it less powerful than other types of retinoids, but also makes skin irritation less likely.

 

What’s on the market?

Some people use the term ‘retinol’ to describe all retinoids, which is incorrect – so watch out and check the ingredients list of a product if you are unsure. Products range from 0.01% – 1% of retinol, although anything over 0.3% needs to be prescribed, and our Vitamin A Game drops contain 0.15%.

 

What does it do for our skin?

  • Retinol encourages healthy cell turnover in our skin. This means skin cells are less likely to block up our pores leading to blemishes. Our skin gets revived, giving us a bright, glowing complexion. (Hurrah!)

  • They stimulate collagen and elastin production – the two key building blocks of our skin. This helps keep our skin firm and plump, reducing the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines.

  • They block proinflammatory signals within our body, meaning pimples are less likely to develop. This is really important because inflamed blemishes are more likely to cause acne scarring, which can be very difficult to treat.

Like the Sony Walkman, Rubix Cube and Floppy Disk, using retinoids to treat acne has been around since the 1970s – it’s old school. So there are tonnes of clinical studies showing the effectiveness of retinoids in acne treatment. Even if you don’t have acne, Vitamin A can be really helpful in regulating our skin’s normal processes. We can’t guarantee you’ll never get another pimple, but we can rely on years of scientific studies showing that retinoids can help to fight blemishes.

How does it work? – Vitamin A for anti-ageing

Skin ageing comes in two forms – standardchronological ageing and photoaging, which is where we prematurely cause our skin to deteriorate due to lifestyle damage like sun exposure, cigarette smoke and pollution.

Together, these ageing processes do a number of things:

  • they reduce the amount of collagen (one of the skin’s fundamental building blocks) in our skin leaving it thinner and without the “plump”
  • they cause our skin to slow down the speed at which it regenerates itself (i.e. develops new skin cells)
  • they cause our elastin (another key building block) to develop in irregular arrangements which undermines the skin’s ability to “bounce” back into shape
  • they disrupt the production and distribution of melanocytes (the cells in our skin which give us colour).

Altogether, this can lead to fine lines, wrinkles, thin, limp-looking skin, and pigmentation.

 

How does it work? – Vitamin A for anti-ageing

Skin ageing comes in two forms – standardchronological ageing and photoaging, which is where we prematurely cause our skin to deteriorate due to lifestyle damage like sun exposure, cigarette smoke and pollution.

Together, these ageing processes do a number of things:

  • they reduce the amount of collagen (one of the skin’s fundamental building blocks) in our skin leaving it thinner and without the “plump”
  • they cause our skin to slow down the speed at which it regenerates itself (i.e. develops new skin cells)
  • they cause our elastin (another key building block) to develop in irregular arrangements which undermines the skin’s ability to “bounce” back into shape
  • they disrupt the production and distribution of melanocytes (the cells in our skin which give us colour).

Altogether, this can lead to fine lines, wrinkles, thin, limp-looking skin, and pigmentation.

 

How Vitamin A helps...

  • Evidence suggests that Vitamin A both stimulates the production of collagen and obstructs the enzymes which cause collagen to degrade over time.
  • Studies also show that it enhances elastin fibre formation and changes the processes which control the production of new skin cells, causing cell turnover to increase.

The effect of these processes on our skin means we see

  • reduction in wrinkles and fine lines
  • increased plumpness and skin elasticity
  • less pigmentation

Vitamin A might not turn back time, but it can definitely slow down the signs of ageing.

What's the correct way to use retinol?

One thing we often hear about when it comes to retinol is that there are some unintended side effects, redness, skin irritation and dryness, being the main culprits. The stronger the retinoid and/or concentration, the more likely you are to experience these effects.

These symptoms are caused by our body’s immune system kicking into gear in response to the retinoid. After our skin gets used to the retinoid, this response normally goes away. This is why we should start with using a low strength retinoid a couple of days a week and build up frequency and strength over time. Of course, if you experience severe discomfort or symptoms, you should stop using the retinoid and seek professional medical help.

Sun sensitivity is another symptom experienced by new users of retinoids. Studies show that the skin’s sensitivity to UV rays returns to normal after a couple of months of retinoid use. However, due to the harmful impact of UV rays on our skin, it is always important to avoid sun exposure wherever possible and always wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen (please, it really is important).

Does retinol have a sell-by date?

When retinol is exposed to air and sunlight, it decomposes quickly which means that it loses its potency. You’ll see lots of brands use airtight containers (e.g. pump action), and dark coloured or opaque packaging to try and preserve the potency of the product. By wrapping up our retinol serum in seaweed drops, we prevent the active ingredients from coming into contact with light and air. Studies show that this enhances the stability (and efficacy), and increases the shelf life to 36 months.

New to retinol? 

Ease in gently. Start off by using the retinol twice a week for a couple of weeks; then every other day for a few weeks; then finally every day. This should help your skin time to adapt to a Vitamin A. Remember, everyone’s skin is different: some of us might be able to use the product every day without any issues; others might take longer to build up a tolerance.

If you have any questions or concerns, drop us an email - hello@bolt-beauty.com.

Does retinol have a sell-by date?

When retinol is exposed to air and sunlight, it decomposes quickly which means that it loses its potency. You’ll see lots of brands use airtight containers (e.g. pump action), and dark coloured or opaque packaging to try and preserve the potency of the product. By wrapping up our retinol serum in seaweed drops, we prevent the active ingredients from coming into contact with light and air. Studies show that this enhances the stability (and efficacy), and increases the shelf life to 36 months.

New to retinol? 

Ease in gently. Start off by using the retinol twice a week for a couple of weeks; then every other day for a few weeks; then finally every day. This should help your skin time to adapt to a Vitamin A. Remember, everyone’s skin is different: some of us might be able to use the product every day without any issues; others might take longer to build up a tolerance.

If you have any questions or concerns, drop us an email - hello@bolt-beauty.com.

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Kelly Washington

Kelly is Bolt's Social Media Manager and London-based freelance Fashion and Arts journalist.

She has an MA in Fashion Communication from Central Saint Martins and a BA in English Literature and Linguistics from the University of Manchester. She has written for Hunger Magazine, TANK, Miuse and Fashion Unfiltered covering a range of topics including fashion, music, youth culture and art. For copywriting and commissions email kelly.washington1@outlook.com.

Kelly Washington - Bolt Beauty

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