Retinol. You've no doubt heard or read about the buzzy beauty ingredient that editors and dermatologists alike tout as the 'gold standard' in skincare. In fact, there isn't a beauty bugbear retinol – aka vitamin A – can't fix, and it's all thanks to its ability to encourage cell turnover fast.
"Retinols belong to a class of compounds known as retinoids," says Dr. Anjali Mahto, dermatologist, British Skin Foundation spokesperson and author of The Skincare Bible: Your No-Nonsense Guide to Great Skin. "These agents are derived from vitamin A and improve skin cell turnover and stimulate collagen. They are helpful in reducing fine lines, pigmentation and acne because they exfoliate the top layers of skin cells."
Sounds good, right? But retinol has a bad rap in skincare and it's all down to the irritating side-effects. If you're not used to using it, the potent ingredient can cause redness, dryness, flaking and increased skin sensitivity – not cool, especially if you've incorporated it into your skincare routine to get rid of things like uneven skin texture.
Before you shelve the retinol entirely, hear Dr. Mahto out. At Refinery29's recent Skin Deep panel on tackling acne, she let the room in on a game-changing retinol trick that could help our skin, while saving us a flaky forehead in the process.
Usually, experts advise that retinol should be applied to cleansed skin in the evening and left on overnight for maximum results. According to Kirsti Shuba, skin specialist and cofounder of Katherine Daniels Cosmetics, our skin cells are typically renewed and repaired at night – the optimum time is 1am, to be precise. But if you're fearful of the effects of sleeping in retinol, Dr. Mahto suggests applying it to your skin for just one hour, instead of a full eight, before rinsing it off. "Think of it like a short contact treatment," she told R29.
Now, this might go against everything you've ever known about retinol working best as an overnight treatment, but it's so powerful that practising a quick flash treatment regularly is more than beneficial for the skin. In short, you get all the advantages of sleeping in retinol without the burning. But remember: "Retinol makes skin more sensitive to sunlight," says Dr. Mahto. "It is therefore important to ensure a high factor SPF, ideally 30 or above, is worn during the day."
If you're a retinol novice, go for The Ordinary's Granactive Retinoid 2% in Emulsion, £8. The milky serum absorbs in seconds and gets to work on skin issues like pigmentation, acne and fine lines without making skin sore and angry. The same formula also comes in squalane to quench thirsty skin.
LIXIRSKIN's Night Switch Retinol 1%, £28, can be mixed with the Universal Emulsion, £29, or your current moisturiser and used as a speedy treatment.
Retinol regulars will love Medik8's Crystal Retinal 6, £59. With 0.06% stabilised retinal, the skin-mattifying cream provides an antibacterial effect (bye, spots) and works 11 times faster than classic forms of retinol, while buffers like hyaluronic acid, glycerin and vitamin E hydrate, moisturise and soften skin. If you want to splurge, Clark's Botanicals Retinol Rescue Overnight Cream, £85, is packed with finely milled oatmeal, well known for its moisturising properties, as well as retinol, and makes a luxe mask for those prone to dryness.
Ed Note: This article was amended on 16th July to include commentary from Dr. Mahto on the skin's sensitivity to UV while using retinol.