Retinol is one of the most talked about skincare ingredients for two reasons. The first, it’s widely hailed as the holy grail of great skin. And the second, so many people are confused about how and when to start using it.
To answer every question there is, there was only one thing for us to do and that was talk to an expert in the field. Daniel Isaacs is the Director of Research for Medik8, a beauty tech-savvy and science backed skincare brand whose retinol products have started more than a few conversations.
Read on for a deep dive into everything retinol, from getting it’s name right to incorporating it into your routine, and even what to use as a super alternative when vitamin A isn’t right for you.
Can you give us an overview of what retinol is and what it’s used for?
Daniel Isaacs: In marketing the term vitamin A often refers to retinol. Retinol is the traditionally used form of vitamin A, which is most well known in the beauty industry.
When retinol is applied to the skin, it is first converted to retinaldehyde and then to retinoic acid (the active form of vitamin A). That’s when it starts to work its anti-ageing magic.
The gold-standard in anti-ageing skincare ingredients, vitamin A is the most important ingredient to utilise in your skincare routine for minimising the signs of skin ageing. It’s proven to help plump the skin, leading to a smoother complexion with fewer fine lines and wrinkles. It can help speed up the way your skin regnenerates, promoting a smooth and even skin texture. Vitamin A can even help minimise the process which makes pigment in the skin, therefore reducing hyperpigmentation for a brighter, more even skin tone.
OBE: We see so many different names for retinol i.e. retinoid, retinyl palmitate, retinaldehyde etc. Can you explain a little about the difference between various derivatives of vitamin A?
DI: Vitamin A is the umbrella term that represents many other retinol derivatives. These can all be grouped together by the term ‘retinoids’ which refers to forms of vitamin A such as retinol, retinaldehyde, retinoic acid and retinyl palmitate. In reality, some of these forms are more powerful than others, some are more irritating than others and some are more well proven than others.
At Medik8, we only use two different forms of retinoids across our whole range: retinol and retinaldehyde.
We only use these because as far as we know (reading the literature), they are the only forms of vitamin A, apart from retinoic acid (aka tretinoin/retin-A – highly irritating and prescription-only) which are well proven to help improve skin condition in credible studies published in scientific journals. This is why we do not use traditional retinol esters such as retinyl palmitate (where trials show little to zero effects).
Retinaldehyde is one step closer than retinol to biologically active vitamin A, and is proven to work 11x faster than traditional retinol and has antibacterial properties which are great for blemish-prone skin types. It’s also low irritation.
OBE: What age should people start using retinol?
DI: We recommend people commence with our Medik8 CSA Philosophy (vitamin C plus sunscreen by day and vitamin A at night) from their mid 20’s on. As we like to say prevention is better than cure and developing good habits and a good foundation is key. It’s also important to remember that retinol at night must be followed by SPF during the day.
OBE: For people worried about irritation, how do you recommend minimising and moving through that?
DI: The best way to reduce irritation associated with retinoids is to look for a retinoid serum which has a time release delivery system. All our formulas include Time Release Technology to slowly release the vitamin A into the skin overnight, so as not to overwhelm the skin all at once. As the serum is rubbed into the skin, the encapsulation breaks down and the vitamin A is slowly released into the skin. This significantly minimises the risk of irritation and ensures that skin benefits are received slowly over a prolonged period of time.
It is also extremely important to ease skin into using retinoids gently. Start by using a low strength vitamin A serum twice a week for two weeks, then every other night for two weeks, and then finally go up to every night application. This will allow skin some time to get used to this strength of vitamin A, and you can then start to introduce higher strengths as your skin becomes accustomed to it.
OBE: When would someone know it’s time to move up to a higher strength product?
DI: We recommend that retinol application be phased in gradually and have developed a ‘retinol ladder’ that allows the skin to get used to the ingredient:
At first, start with an entry level strength product, then once your skin has built up a tolerance to the ingredient, you can move on to a higher strength vitamin A. This would normally take 6 weeks (roughly 1 tube/bottle). Skin’s natural turnover cycle is 6 weeks which is why we recommend waiting until then before considering the next strength up. Low and slow is our advice.
OBE: Bakuchiol is getting a lot of attention as a retinol alternative. Can you explain what it is and how it’s similar or different to vitamin A derivatives?
DI: Bakuchiol is derived from the seeds and leaves of the Indian Babchi plant (Psoralea Corylifolia). It’s currently trending in skincare because of a new study published by the British Journal of Dermatology. It is proven to provide similar results in collagen stimulation and skin rejuvenation on the skin to retinol, but without retinol-like side effects, for example the dryness some individual’s experience. 
Sometimes, people are unable to use vitamin A; such as pregnant and nursing mothers*, those with sensitivities to vitamin A and those with extremely sensitive skin. Bakuchiol Peptides, is a perfect plant-based alternative for vitamin A.
Bakuchiol and retinol can both help to visibly reduce fine lines and wrinkles. They also help to speed up cellular turnover in the skin, giving it a smoother, softer surface.
The key differences are that as an ingredient, bakuchiol is a lot gentler on the skin than retinol, working to naturally soothe and calm the skin. Bakuchiol is also photostable, and can be used day and night. Vitamin A on the other hand, may not be photostable but is often considered the ‘gold-standard’ in anti-ageing due to unparalleled results and scientific data.
OBE: Are there any myths about retinol use you think need to be cleared up?
DI: We’ve all heard the rumours that vitamin A use should be halted during the summer months. In reality, it is completely fine to continue using vitamin A throughout the hotter months, as long as you’re using it carefully.
One of vitamin A’s main benefits for the skin is that it speeds up the way the skin renews. It boosts cell turnover which is why you might get some mild exfoliation when you first start using a vitamin A. It’s just a sign that your body is trying to keep up with the faster than normal cell turnover. However, these fresh cells are often more vulnerable to the sun’s damaging rays than the older ones, and this means they need more protection.
See our tips on how to get started using retinol in this article HERE
*Of course, due to ethical considerations the Bakuchiol Peptides formula has not been tested on pregnant women, but there is nothing in the formula which is known to be an issue (eg vitamin A or high levels of exfoliating acids). If you are at all concerned, always consult your doctor.
 S. Dhaliwal et al, Prospective, randomized, double-blind assessment of topical bakuchiol and retinol for facial photoaging, BJD, 2019, 180(2), pp 289-296