What is Retinol?

What exactly is retinol? In this article, i’ll break down everything you need to know about this popular wrinkle-fighting ingredient.

Retinol, retinoids, retinal, Retin-A. Confused? You may well be, but these are all names for what is essentially one of the most talked about skin care ingredients ever, most commonly called Retinol. 

Retinol is an acronym for retinoic acid. This substance is the only effective form of vitamin A. Retinol acts as the active ingredient in many popular products such as eye creams, moisturisers and even skin lightening products. 

While it has numerous beneficial effects on your skin and your appearance, its greatest benefits stem from the anti-aging properties that it can have on your skin. You can reap the anti-aging benefits of Retinol by using it as a topical treatment.

Vitamin A acts by stimulating cell growth and improving the health of the cells in the epidermis (outer layer of the skin). As it improves the health of your cells, it stimulates the production of collagen and elastin which are the proteins responsible for maintaining a youthful and healthy looking appearance. With the improvements that retinol provides to the skin, you can actually see and feel the effects almost immediately which is why it has become so popular in recent months.

What is Retinol?

Retinol is a type of vitamin A that occurs naturally in the human body. You know it as the anti-aging miracle product. But Retinol is also widely used by dermatologists and cosmetic surgeons for a variety of skin conditions such as acne scars, wrinkles, and sun damage.

1. The Benefits of Vitamin A

2. How Does Retinol Work?

3. Different types of Retinol

4. The downside of Retinol

5. How should I use Retinol?

5. Retinol and Microblading/Permanent Makeup

1. What is Retinol? : The Benefits of Vitamin A

Vitamin A, is a fat soluble compound and as well as other vitamins, minerals and compounds, is a micronutrient essential for healthy growth. The most important function of vitamin A is in the development of healthy tissue and organs. Its function is to promote cell differentiation and maintenance. Vitamin A, along with its family members vitamin D3 and E,  promotes calcium absorption and bone growth. 

The human body cannot manufacture Vitamin A and therefore it has to be included in our diet and historically has come from food sources such as animal fats (meat, fish, dairy) that include the active compounds retinol, retinal and retinoic acid. Provitamin A carotenoids are the inactive form of vitamin A found in plants. These compounds are converted into the active form, Retinol, in the small intestine. 

Vitamin A is also available as a supplement and is included in skin care products in the form of Retinol, Retinaids, Retinal, Retinyl Palmitate, retinaldehyde and Retin-A.

Vitamin A also provides an anti-inflammatory effect that helps keep skin smooth, supple, and healthy and has been shown to help prevent premature skin ageing, acne and even certain types of cancer.

2. What is Retinol? : How Does Retinol Work?

If, like me you spend more time than is healthy in the skin care aisle at Boots, hoping to find the cream, lotion or potion, that will finally make a difference and bring back the girl that used to look back at us in the mirror, then Retinol might be worth a shot. 

Whilst it might not have time freezing capabilities of Botox or the skin plumping power of filler, it is possibly one of the biggest breakthroughs in skin care in quite some time.

Lack of Vitamin A has been identified by skin care specialists as one of the root causes of unhealthy looking skin. Hailed as the ‘holy grail of anti ageing skin care’ Retinol certainly has a lot to live up to, but how does it really work?

Vitamin A, has the ability of normalising cell function in the skin, regulating oil production, reducing the risk of hyperpigmentation such as age spots, promoting the production of collagen and elastin, essential for skin health. It supports the skin’s immune system, aiding in the speed of of healing, preventing breakouts and promoting a healthy dermis and epidermis, the top two layers of skin.


Acne is caused when the skin’s pores and hair follicles become blocked. This is usually due to over production of sebum, the natural oil that your skin produces, and lack of exfoliation of the dead skin cells which then cause clogging of the pores and follicles. This causes bacteria to grow, leading to spots and breakouts. 

Vitamin A stimulates cell production and slows down the production of sebum. Retinol is also anti inflammatory in nature as well as aiding in the removal of dead skin cells, which are the main causes of clogged pores and follicles. 

Retinol has become one of the most popular Dermatologist recommended solutions for Acne to date. 

Anti Ageing

Foods containing betacarotene and Carotenoid Provitamin A (usually from leafy green vegetables, orange and yellow vegetables, tomato products, fruits, and some vegetable oils) provide antioxidants, which  destroy the free radicals responsible for breaking down elastin and collagen bonds which are essential in maintaining the skins elasticity and volume. Topical retinol serums, retinol creams and retinol eye creams simulate these provitamins and can be directly applied to the skin where they can be easily absorbed and do their best work. 

The main benefit of retinol is its ability to increase cell turnover in the epidermis which is the skin’s first barrier against  external elements such as bacteria, infection and pollution. Retinol also stimulates the production of fibroblast cells, a type of cell that contributes to the formation of connective tissue and are essential for the firmness of the skin at the dermis level. 

Skin Tone and Texture

Melanin is the natural pigment found in the epidermis layer of the skin, it is responsible for the skin’s overall colour as well as darker areas such as  freckles, birthmarks and moles. The over production of melanin, usually caused by sun damage, are known as age spots or sun spots and can appear on the face as well as the hands, arms and legs due to their prolonged exposure to daylight. 

Retinol causes an increase in cell regeneration which discards damaged and dead melanin cells and can result in a reduction in age and sun spots. The reduction in melanin production also often results in a more even and glowing skin tone and improved texture.

3. What is Retinol? : Different types of Retinol.

Skin care ingredients can be quite baffling at times and the terminology can easily go over our heads. Retinol goes by several different names and this quick run down will help you get your head around the jargon used when trying to understand Retinol. 

Vitamin A derivatives come in different forms (creams, gels, foams and serums) and different strengths. Be aware that anything that is prescribed by a Doctor or Dermatologist (for example a 0.1% Retinoid gel or cream) is going to be much more potent than anything purchased over the counter at a drug store (such as a 1% Retinol moisturiser.)

Retinol, Retinyl Palmitate, Retinal and Retinoid are all derivative of Vitamin A, however, they have slightly different chemical structures and potencies. 

Retinyl Palmitate

Retinyl Palmitate is the most gentle form of Retinol and will generally cause the least amount of irritation. It’s a great gateway ingredient for those concerned about their skin reacting to stronger versions of Retinol . It offers a gentle dose of Vitamin A whilst increasing brightness and offering antioxidant protection. Ideal for those with dry or sensitive skin. 



Retinol is typically lower strength and converts the active ingredient more slowly than retinoids. These products are readily available over the counter at places like Boots or Superdrug and tend to be on the lower end of the price scale. Retinol does the same job as retinoid, however, will take longer to work.



Retinal, sits in between Retinol and Retinoid as the middle child in terms of efficacy. It’s generally available over the counter from premium outlets and online beauty stores and generally comes with a heftier price tag than retinol.


Retinoids, top of the tree in terms of strength and having a different molecular structure and being stronger, work more quickly and  increase cell turnover at a faster rate than retinol. 

Higher strengths such as Retin-A (Tretinoin) come in the form of gels and creams in strengths from 0.01%-0.05%, are typically prescribed for acne and are only available from a Doctor, with a prescription.

4. What is Retinol? : The Down Side of Retinol.

With all the huge benefits that come with a hero ingredient like Retinol, i’m sure you’re desperate to try it for yourself and start seeing some amazing results. Like anything this effective, there are some drawbacks to incredible product. 

Sadly, Retinol is not a one size fits all product and it’s not going to be suitable for everyone.

Prescription strength Retinoids such as Tretinoin come with a long list of potential side effects that should be discussed with your G.P before use but even some stronger over the counter products may have side effects which include dryness, redness, soreness, breakouts and peeling of the skin as the skin renews itself. Those that have very dry or sensitive skin types may find these side effects difficult to tolerate.  

Due to the increase in cell turnover, the epidermis will regenerate more quickly which can cause irritation. It is all part of the process.  These side effects should subside with increased usage as your tolerance increases.  Those who tend to suffer with breakouts are likely to see an increase in breakouts initially as the ingredients bring everything to the surface. Dermatologists that recommend Retinol suggest that the results long term will be worth it. 

Most Retinol users will be fine in the long run, but may potentially have to go through a period of unpleasant side effects until they begin to see results of Retinol and in some cases, these side effects can sometimes last weeks.  

Those that have deeper skin concerns such as Rosacea, Eczema or Psoriasis should definitely seek medical advice before beginning to use any over the counter or prescription strength Retinol products. 

5. What is Retinol? : How Should I use Retinol?

Keep it Simple

There are so many different products on the shelves these days that it’s hard to know which to use and when. When using Retinol, keep your regime simple. Use a gentle cleanser, a good moisturiser and of course sunscreen, as Retinol makes your skin more sensitive to the sun. Once your skin has acclimatised to the new regime and the Retinol product, you could begin adding other things. 

Slow and Steady

For those that have never used Retinol before, it is recommended to begin by introducing Retinol into your skin care regime slowly, using it a couple of times a week and gradually increasing its use week on week. It’s also advisable to start using a low strength Retinol and increasing the strength slowly and steadily.



One Pea at a Time

Apply thin layers of your Retinol serum or cream. Use just a pea size drop of the product and don’t apply to the thinner, more delicate ares of your face such as your eyes and lips, unless it is a product specifically designed for that area, such as a Retinol eye cream or gel. 

6. What is Retinol? : Retinol and Microblading/Permanent Makeup

When you’re getting Microblading or Permanent Makeup for the first time, your artist will often ask you about the kind of skin care you’re using and it’s for good reason. Skin care ingredients can be very powerful, especially ingredients that increase cell turnover like Retinol and Retinoid.

As Cosmetic Tattoo Artists our canvas is the skin. A living tissue and the body’s largest organ, the health of the skin is paramount to getting you fabulous and predictable results.

I have seen first hand, the stimulating effect that Retinol has on the skin, causing issues during the implantation process. I have seen on more than one occasion, Retinol cause excessive bleeding and bruising. Even low strength Retinol, with short term usage can quickly alter the tolerance of the skin to cosmetic tattooing, especially in more mature skin types. 

This can usually be avoided purely by discontinuing use of Retinol for a few weeks prior to treatments. However, those using prescription strength Retin-A gels or creams will need to discuss discontinuing use with their Doctor.

When your artist asks you if there have been any changes in your medical history since your last appointment, be sure to tell them about any new skin care, especially stimulating products like Retinol. The world of skin care and aesthetics moves quickly and changes occur regularly, so we are learning about products that have an impact like Retinol all the time. It’s easy to forget in between appointments, that you’ve started a new skin care regime. But, whether it’s been just a few weeks or a year since your last appointment, be sure to tell your artist of you’ve started using Retinol or anything similar as it could really affect the outcome of your appointment. 

Retinol, whilst amazing for the skins health and an anti ageing superhero, can also affect the longevity of microblading and permanent makeup. As we discussed earlier, Retinol can have a positive impact on the natural pigmentation caused by overproduction of melanin, the natural pigment in the skin and can fade unsightly age/sun spots.

The increase in cell turnover can bring the pigment to the surface and exfoliate it away. Unfortunately, Retinol can have the same effect on the pigments we implant with Microblading and Permanent Makeup. For this reason, it is not advisable to use Retinol directly on an area that has been cosmetically tattooed.

In conclusion, when you have decided to take steps to improve your skin, make sure that you do so in a measured, safe way.

When using Retinol, start slow with a small dose and build up gradually.

And finally, always let your Microblading or Permanent Makeup artist know if you’ve started using Retinol to avoid complications and to get the very best results!

Thanks for reading, if you’ve enjoyed this post or found it interesting, please leave me a comment below or share on the socials!


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *