Retinol Is the Hardcore De-Ager Guys Aren't Using

The Glossary decants grooming's toughest scrum player.

A lack of moderation is what prompts the start of a skincare regime for so many in the first place. Those fine lines—trenches littered with Camel Blues and late nights and middling commercial beer—grow deeper still with each passing year. And the troops, they're digging in.

But an aversion to moderation can be a plus in grooming. You don't want to nibble around the edges. You want to go hard, not home. You want heavy-duty advanced skincare, and that begins with retinol.

What is retinol?

The short answer is that retinol is a derivative of vitamin A, which has multifaceted benefits for the skin when applied topically. Retinol, unlike its fellow wunderkind hyaluronic acid, cannot be produced by the human body, which explains why every brand, expert, and influencer shrieks emphatically about slapping it on via serums and creams.

Retinol isn't a new thing—it has been used in products since the 1970s—nor is it a fad. This one works. In fact, retinol and its co-stars (‘retinoids' is the overarching term for retinol and its close relatives) are the only topical ingredients that have repeatedly had their efficacy proven via countless scientific studies.

There's good reason dermatologists agree on retinol's efficacy. As Dr. Anjali Mahto, Consultant Dermatologist at 55 Harley Street explains, "retinoids are able to minimize the appearance of wrinkles and fade pigmentation or age spots." They do this by increasing the rate at which the skin rejuvenates, accelerating cell turnover, meaning you get shiny new baby cells hitting your skin surface at a faster rate.


But it doesn't end there (wowee!) as retinol has been found to encourage collagen and elastin production—the stuff that provides strength and stability in the skin, thus improving the look of those lines. That, in tandem with its propensity for cellular refurbishment, makes retinol a key ingredient in the fight against aging.

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The retinol side effects

At this point, you're probably wondering why you haven't been bathing in a retinoid since puberty. As with most things, there is a downside to skincare's favorite age-preventer.

Where other grooming products go light and delicate, retinol plays in the scrum: beefy, hard-working and not to be tackled by the noodle-limbed. Due to its quick turnaround time (results can be seen in as little as ten weeks), retinol puts your skin's natural cycle on speed, and that doesn't come without a cost.

The side-effects of retinol generally relate to skin discomfort: a dry surface, redness, and irritation are all common, as is mild flaking of the skin.

How to use retinol successfully

Due to retinol's propensity for irritation, it's widely recommended that you start slow. Dr. Mahto suggests applying your retinol two to three times a week, gradually building up to every night—if your skin can tolerate it.

You'll also need to use a moisturizer with SPF every single day. "Skin treated with a retinoid is sensitive to ultraviolet radiation and at risk of burning; sunlight also makes the product less effective." So, in short: use your retinoid at night, a few times a week, and don't emerge into the daylight before you've slathered on an SPF 30 or above.

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To combat any redness or peeling, you might want to upgrade your moisturizer to one specifically designed for dry skin, or even slip in a hydrating serum.

The best retinol products

Such is retinol's success that there is now a retinoid product in pretty much every science-led skincare line. "These products are all marketed for their anti-aging properties, but the truth is that they are not all the same in their effects," says Dr. Mahto. "Getting the right retinoid for your skin is a minefield, given the sheer number of options available on the market." So how do you know which one to buy?

The fact this power ingredient goes by so many monikers hardly makes things easy. "Retinyl esters, retinol, retinaldehyde, adapalene, tretinoin, isotretinoin, and tazarotene are all different types of retinoid," explains Dr. Mahto. These slightly different compounds all have the same end game: they're converted by the skin to retinoic acid, the active stuff.

Some retinoids—the hardcore ones, like tretinoin—are only available via a prescription, which means you'll either need to book in face-time with a derm or look to a specialist subscription service like Skin + Me.

There are plenty of over-the-counter options though—some may say too many. Each one will contain a retinoid derivative that, once absorbed by the skin, is converted to pure retinoic acid. These derivatives come in various strengths and degrees of efficacy. If in doubt, Dr. Mahto recommends ‘retinol' or ‘retinaldehyde', as "these are likely to be more effective than other derivatives."


Clearly, retinol is not messing about. So, nor should you—especially on the eve of another beer-lined summer.

Advanced Retinol + Ferulic Intense Wrinkle Cream


Dr. Dennis Gross knows how to formulate retinol that really goes the distance. His newest offering combines retinol with ferulic acid, which is said to increase stability. Moisture-grabbing humectants and softening emollients round out this no-filler cream.

Retinol Skin-Renewing Daily Micro-Dose Serum


Kiehl's might be a newcomer in the retinol realm, but this smart offering has already scooped up skincare awards. The retinol is bolstered by firming peptides, while a dose of barrier-building ceramides negate the risk of flaking and dryness. Trust it to smooth fine lines as well as acne scarring and rough texture.

Retinol 1% in Squalane


When you combine a tiny price point with an effective formula, you get a consistently sold-out product. However, The Ordinary's elusive no-frills retinol serum is currently up for grabs, so we suggest stocking up.

FromEsquire UK

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