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What is retinol?

Georgina Smith / 06 July 2016

Scan the eye cream isle at the pharmacist and the word ‘retinol’ is hard to miss. But what is retinol, and why is it used in so many beauty products?

An older lady smooths moisturiser containing retinol on to her face

Scan the eye cream isle at the pharmacist and the word ‘retinol’ will be hard to miss. But what is retinol, and why is it used in so many beauty products?

A vital vitamin

Did you know that retinol is, in fact, a form of Vitamin A? Other compounds in this vitamin group include retinal, retinoic acid and other little things called carotenoids. (Have you ever heard that carrots contain plenty of Vitamin A? Well, there's a clue right there.)

Vitamin A, in all its guises, is vital for many functions within our body. As retinal it's essential for vision. And as retinoic acid, it's fundamental to skin health, tooth strength and bone growth.

Eat your vitamins

Retinoic acid, collagen and skin health

In our skin, retinoic acid helps to prevent the breakdown of collagen, a protein, which is key to keeping our skin strong.

In fact, around 75% of our skin is collagen. So it's no wonder that when collagen starts to break down, our skin loses its structure and we see visible deterioration.

Get rid of wrinkles naturally

Collagen production reduces with age

The reason our skin loses its suppleness and strength as we get older is because we naturally produce less collagen over time. Wrinkles start to appear and our skin gets thinner.

Some may turn to collagen injections to reinstate the levels within their skin, but there are other, less invasive ways to help restore collagen.

Retinol in skin creams

The reason we see so many skin creams and serums containing retinol is because when we apply them topically to our skin, the retinol turns into retinoic acid. Bingo!

This then hampers the breakdown of collagen and stimulates collagen production in our skin – restoring its structure and giving it a fuller, more youthful look.

Does your moisturiser work?

Do retinol skin creams really work?

Dermatologists the world over swear by the effectiveness of retinol in skin creams. For more serious skin problems they may offer prescription-only creams that contain pure retinoic acid.

However, over-the-counter creams containing retinol can be enough to make a noticeable difference to the appearance of your skin.

Visible results

By increasing the collagen levels in your skin with a retinol cream, in time you may notice that fine lines and wrinkles look less pronounced.

Whilst many bottles and tubes of cream may state you'll see a difference within a few weeks, it's worth waiting two to three months before losing heart or switching products.

Get younger looking skin

When to use creams with retinol

Retinol breaks down under UV light. That's why many face creams containing the compound come in an opaque tub, tube or bottle. It's also another reason why you'll find retinol in many night creams. By applying a retinol cream at night, it has a better chance of soaking into your skin and working without being broken down by the sun's rays.

Which retinol cream to use

Redermic [R] by La Roche-Posay is often cited as one of the most recommended over-the-counter retinol creams. It contains 0.3% retinol along with lypo-hydroxy acid, which aids the penetration of retinol into the skin. At £29.50 for 30ml it's in the mid-price bracket and is also suitable for sensitive skin.


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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