understanding your skin

Retinol: Explained

Retinol has had a stratospheric rise to fame in the skincare world over the last decade. What started off as a prescription drug to treat severe acne can now be found in thousands of lotions and potions all promising results. And there’s no denying its results - it’s one of the most studied and clinically proven ingredients. But there’s also no denying that it can be confusing territory and is one of our most asked-about products at the clinic.

So, in true Pfeffer Sal form, we are here to simplify the world of retinol, explaining what it can do, what it can’t do, who it’s best for, and how to achieve great results without compromising safety or skin health. We connected with our friend, formulator, biochemist and founder of Elequra, Nausheen Qureshi to take a deep dive into retinol. Below is a summary of our #PSLIVE session on 13th May 2020.

What is retinol?

Retinol is a derivative of vitamin A. 

Any form of retinol is converted into retinoic acid which your skin can use to perform 4 key functions:

  1. It stops the breakdown of collagen and elastin 
  2. It increases cell turnover. As we age, our cell turnover slows and retinoic acid acts like a CPR for your skin, starting the cell turnover process again
  3. It increases your natural moisturising factors including your natural resource of hyaluronic acid
  4. It combats free radicals, preventing cell damage

These properties make it a fantastic product to incorporate if you’re looking to improve skin texture, reduce the signs of ageing, or combat acne and congestion. 

What are the different forms of retinol?


Pure retinoic acid is available on prescription. Retin-A and tretinoin are both retinoic acid-based. The only difference is their trade names. Retinoic acid is immediately available for your skin to use, they are stronger than other retinol-based products. Usually, these stronger forms of retinol are prescribed for acne or to improve skin texture and pigmentation issues. Retinoic acid is also available as Accutane, a medication that is taken orally used to treat severe cases of acne. 

Over the Counter

Over the counter vitamin A are forms of retinol that are available without a prescription. Because of this, they are lower strength than their prescription counterparts but still deliver fantastic results.

Retinol - retinol is 1 step away from retinoic acid. When applied to your skin, enzymes break it down into retinoic acid. This one-step makes it slightly weaker than prescription retinoic acid. 

Retinol can also come in a ‘stabilised’ or ‘encapsulated’ form. Stabilised retinol is an ester of retinol. Retinol is stabilised as it can be quite an unstable ingredient so this assures it’s efficacy. 

Encapsulated retinol is basically a retinol molecule wrapped up to protect it. It’s encapsulated so it can be added to water-based formulations (retinol is oil soluble so this usually isn't possible). Look for lecithin on the ingredient list as a sign that the retinol is encapsulated. 

Both encapsulation and stabilisation make retinol slightly gentler on the skin and usually don’t result in dryness or inflammation when applied.

Retinyl Palmitate

Moving further away from retinoic acid is retinyl palmitate. Your skin has to go through an extra step with this form, first converting to retinol, then to retinoic acid so it’s a very gentle form of vitamin A and great for beginners, or those looking for a very gentle retinol product. 

Synergie Skin
Eye Architecture Cream
Ultimate A
Synergie Skin
Ultimate A

How to Make the Most of Retinol

  • Be patient

Retinol has a cumulative effect, so don’t expect to see results straight away and don’t try to rush the process. It usually takes around 12 weeks to really see the effect that retinol is having on your skin. At Pfeffer Sal, we recommend using retinol for 12 weeks on, then taking a break of 1-2 months to give your skin a rest. If you're finding your skin is red, inflamed and flakey then the formulation you’re using probably isn’t right for you. Speak to one of our team to find out which formula will best for you. 

  • Apply in the right amount, at the right time

The best way to use retinol is much the same as other skincare products; little and often.Many studies now show that even applying retinol once a week can have a beneficial effect so you don’t need to be using it every night to see improvements. Start slow, once a week, then increase frequency to 3-4 times a week if your skin is responding well. 

As it’s acidic, it has a mild exfoliating effect. For that reason it’s best applied in the evening and SPF must be used in the morning when using retinol. It’s best followed by a ceramide moisturizer to help strengthen the skin barrier. 

  • Ensure it’s part of a well suited routine.

Don’t start using retinol too early in your life. If you’re in your 20s and early 30s and have overall good skin health, retinol is not the best path to take as your cellular turnover is already functioning well and you’ll naturally have better natural moisture levels. Instead focus on maintaining your skin health for the future with great antioxidants, hydration and SPF. 

It’s important to remember that retinol is not a silver bullet. Just like you don’t rely on kale to provide all your nutrition, don’t rely on retinol to solely look after your skin. Make sure you have a varied, well suited skincare routine that delivers everything your skin needs. 

  • Ignore Percentages

In general, don’t buy into the percentage - they don’t matter! Just because there’s 20% of retinol in there, doesn’t mean that it’s as effective as a 1% or even 0.1%. The efficacy of the product depends on the quality of the formulation, the delivery vehicle used to take the ingredient into the skin and the other ingredients in the formula. Look for stabilized and encapsulated retinol as they are non-irritating and deliver the same results. They are a great entry-level and everyday retinol.

Need some guidance on the right retinol for you?