A Guide to Retinol Cream for Beginners

The skincare buzzword we should all be familiar with

Those hot on the tail of forever-youthful skin will have already heard of retinol, the skincare buzzword that has been invading the industry for decades. While its parent, retinoid, might conjure up nightmares from the nineties involving red and flaky skin, retinol is a much gentler version which continues to be snapped up by beauty gurus the world over. Ideal for those wanting a break from wrinkles and acne, retinol is seemingly the go-to preventative skincare measure we can’t get enough of. We speak to dermatologist and cosmetic surgeon Dr. Dendy Engelman (who has been working closely with world-renowned beauty brand Elizabeth Arden) to find out just what retinol is, before picking out some of the best retinol creams out there right now.

A Guide to Retinol Cream for Beginners

What is retinol?

‘Retinol is a Vitamin A derivative, similar to how AHA is an acid,’ says Dr. Dendy. ‘There are several different forms of retinol on the market – typically retinoid refers to a prescription and retinol is available over the counter.’

It’s an effective ingredient in skincare, proven to help even out skin texture, reduce wrinkles and even crack down on blemishes and enlarged pores. Quite the miracle mud, it seems. ‘Since retinol helps with overall textural and tone improvement, it can be beneficial for numerous different signs of ageing. It helps with cell turnover, making skin look more youthful. It also helps to support skin’s natural collagen and elastin, thus improving the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.’

Why should we use eye creams?

If you look at your face in the mirror when you smile, you’ll notice one area in particular will break out in laughter lines: the skin around our eyes. These lines grow into deeper grooves on our face over time, creating many an unwanted wrinkle. The demand for anti-aging eye cream has subsequently soared, with many swearing by retinol as their-go to fine line eradicator. ‘The eye area contains the thinnest skin on the body and is therefore, the first to show signs of ageing. This is the first region on the face that starts to show fine lines and wrinkling, so it needs to be treated to prevent signs of ageing.’

When should we start using retinol?

This depends on the individual’s skincare needs, says Dr. Dendy. ‘Vitamin A derivatives were originally found to be beneficial in the acne space, but it’s hard to limit usage purely from an age perspective. For anti-ageing benefits I recommend starting in mid-to-late 20s to help encourage cell renewal since we know cell turnover slows as we inch towards 30. That being said, I have more and more patients in their early 20s asking for it as a preventative measure.’

Are there any side effects from using retinol?

There are unfortunately a few side effects that can come with using retinol products, with the most common being redness, irritation, dryness, flaking and itching. But these can all be toned down by using the correct amount of retinol and using it in combination with more soothing ingredients. Remember, retinol is a strong product, and should be introduced into your skincare routine gently and in small doses. You’ll also need to apply sunscreen daily while using retinol, as it increases your skin’s sensitivity to the sun.

How can we reduce irritation when using retinol?

There are multiple ways of preventing irritation, says Dr. Dendy. ‘A good place to start is by using the proper amount. Using more of a retinol product won’t make it more efficacious, just more irritating.’

You can also keep an eye on what other ingredients are used in retinol products, as some can instead help hydrate skin. ‘Formulating with ceramides also helps protect against irritation—by adding ceramides to the formula, we are helping to moisturise with the application of the serum itself and helping to pre-emptively address the dryness and potential irritation that we know retinol can cause.

‘You should also avoid any products containing other vitamin A derivatives (such as prescription retinoids) and any exfoliating ingredients such as alpha hydroxy acid or beta hydroxy acid as these can be overly irritating or drying to delicate areas of skin.’

The Best Retinol Creams

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Retinol eye cream and serum capsules in pink packaging

Elizabeth Arden

Retinol Anti Ageing Wonder Duo (Retinol Ceramide Line Erasing Eye Cream & Retinol Ceramide Capsules Line Erasing Night Serum), £106, elizabetharden.co.uk

Best For: Reducing wrinkles

As Dr. Dendy highlighted, we can use retinol as a cream, gel or serum (the latter of which is available at Elizabeth Arden in a handy capsule form to prevent using too much or too little). Elizabeth Arden’s retinol eye cream helps to smooth, brighten and de-puff skin for younger-looking eyes, while still being mindful of delicate skin prone to irritation. The cream is a blend of retinol, peptides and niacinamide, which also work together to keep skin hydrated with an eight-hour continuous release – meaning it will continue to work its magic long after you’ve applied it. Combine with the serum, which is packed with retinol and moisture-boosting ceramides, for better texture and minimised wrinkles.

Purple bottle of retinol cream

Paula’s Choice

Clinical 1% Retinol Treatment, £58, paulaschoice.co.uk

Best For: Acne

Paula’s Choice has a wide range of retinol products for all kinds of skin types, but its Clinical 1% Retinol Treatment is often raved about for its ability to target acne and breakouts. A more lightweight lotion as opposed to a cream, the treatment combines retinol with antioxidants to create a more even-toned complexion (think firmer skin with faded brown spots, smoothed wrinkles and minimised pores).

Burgundy tub of retinol cream

Dr. Dennis Gross

Advanced Retinol + Ferulic Intense Wrinkle Cream, £77, spacenk.com

Best For: Hydration

This rich moisturising cream combines retinol, rambutan, ferulic acid and bakuchiol to build skin proteins that can smooth rough textures and plump up the skin (in turn reducing wrinkles). This cream also contains antioxidant-rich arnica and centella asiatica, which help with hydration. The effects should leave your skin feeling brighter and tighter, as the cream helps to strengthen the natural moisture barrier and firm up skin.

White tube of skin lotion


Retinol 0.3, £72, skinceuticals.co.uk

Best For: Beginners

This cult retinol cream is so popular that it remains in a near-constant ‘sold out’ limbo. But it’s an ideal fit for first-time retinol users, as SkinCeuticals’s concentrated facial cream uses pure retinol to tackle fine lines, wrinkles, discolouration, blemishes, and pores by accelerating cellular turnover. Apply at night-time, and let the cream work its magic while you sleep (for glowing results in the morning).

White retinol cream bottle with pink cap

Drunk Elephant

A-Passioni™ Retinol Cream, from £24, cultbeauty.co.uk

Best For: Sun-damaged skin

One of the best vegan skincare brands out there right now, Drunk Elephant has joined the ranks of retinol aficionados with its A-Passioni™ Retinol Cream. The cream, which is completely free of essential oils, silicones and fragrance, combines 1.0% vegan retinol with peptides, botanical extracts and fatty acids to diminish wrinkles and repair sun-damaged skin. This is as close to a full skin reboot as you’re going to get.

Featured image: Ian Dooley, Unsplash