The best starter retinols to try | Sali Hughes

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If there’s one thing the skincare revolution of recent years has shown me, it’s that people are as baffled as they are excited by retinol. I get it – I understand retinol perfectly well and still struggle to adequately cover it here. Over-the-counter retinol (AKA vitamin A) can be very effective on all manner of common skin complaints, such as acne, wrinkles, sagging, enlarged pores, uneven tone and texture. (For simplicity, let’s save other retinoids, such as the faster-acting, prescription-only tretinoin and shop-bought retinyl palmitate, which is a milder version best suited to sensitive skins, for another day.)

The clinical evidence is overwhelmingly in retinol’s favour. The initial side-effects count against it. Extreme dryness, stinging, redness, itching and flaking (known as the “retinol uglies”) are par for the course as your skin converts the retinol into retinoic acid. This is where many people give up, appalled by the state of their skin, and never try it again. But it’s the one time I urge you to power through because we’re talking perhaps a fortnight of bad skin for a dramatically improved complexion in 10-12 weeks. And there’s no better time to start than now, when you’re mostly at home and able to hide behind the Zoom beauty filter function.

So what are my favourite starter retinols? We’ve become too focused on ingredient concentrations, seemingly oblivious to the importance of formula. A 0.2% retinol can feel harsher than a 0.5% if not surrounded by calming, soothing ingredients. But I find The Ordinary’s Retinol 0.2% in Squalane (£4.20, 30ml) pleasing because it’s cheap and feels both moisturising and ungreasy on any skin type.

On my own lockdown face, I’ve been using Murad’s Retinol Youth Renewal products. There’s a good starter kit (£50) of serum, cream and eye serum, which should see you through the uglies before you commit to full sizes. I frequently recommend Paula’s Choice 1% Retinol Booster (£48, 15ml). Don’t be appalled by its high 1% dose and small size – this serum isn’t designed to be applied neat, but mixed into any night cream your skin already likes.

Whichever you choose, exercise restraint. It’s not true that the more retinol applied, the better. A pea-sized amount thrice weekly (work up to nightly over a fortnight) is sufficient. Don’t use it by day because sun exposure compromises retinol’s efficacy dramatically. Use whatever else you like in the mornings, but be extra kind as you push through that pain barrier.

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