Summer day woman
We decode the retinol hype and the secret to working it in the right way. Image Credit: Pixabay

It’s night-time, you’re casually scrolling through social media at the end of a long day when you see it again – an unbelievable skin transformation achieved in record time, whether from acne or hyperpigmentation to clear, lit-from-within skin and suddenly you’re transfixed. In recent times, the product making these ripples has been retinol – and with celebs like Nicole Kidman, Jessica Alba and Chrissy Teigen on the official devotee list, it has cemented its position in skincare routines worldwide.

At the same time it’s also become notorious for what is sometimes described as the ‘purge’ (not related to the horror movie, don’t worry), or the side effects like redness, dryness, peeling and sensitivity that one has to go through before attaining the longed-for skin paradise. For some, it has even damaged skin.

Zainab Husain, a Gulf News staff writer whose cystic acne was successfully treated by retinol, says, “If you’re going for something life-changing, it is a great product but so many people give up halfway because it is so hard on the skin.”

If you’re going for something life-changing, it is a great product but so many people give up halfway because it is so hard on the skin.

- Zainab Husain, Gulf News Staff Writer and retinol user

Whether for cystic acne, hyperpigmentation or wrinkles, you might be wondering how to navigate this skincare journey without any harmful effects yourself. Gulf News speaks to Dr Priya Kurian, dermatologist at Abu Dhabi–based Ahalia Hospital, about this much-touted magic skincare ingredient and how you can safely integrate it into your routine.

She says: “Retinol is now an important ingredient in many skin-care products for treating wrinkles, fine lines, dyspigmentation (abnormal skin colouration) and to improve the skin texture.” But, what exactly is this enigmatic substance?

Retinol falls under the group of retinoids – formulations of Vitamin A, that are also found in foods like cheese, milk and yoghurt, eggs, oily fish and more. The main natural retinoids are retinol, retinal and retinoic acid, ordered in their increasing potency.

Dr Kurian explains, “It influences the biological activities in the cells and tissues, leading to an improvement in the skin texture, pigmentation, reducing acne and wrinkling. It is added to topical skin care products to promote rejuvenation of skin, give an even skin tone and boost collagen production.”

Skin Panacea: A wrinkle in (longer) Time

Retinol is so beloved worldwide because it changes your skin slowly and consistently, from the inside out. The molecules of the retinoid actually bind to receptors in your skin, stimulating the production of not only skin cells, but also fibres that determine the elasticity of it – collagen.

Dr Kurian says, “Retinol increases the proliferation of the skin cells which increases the thickness of the epidermis or the outer layer of the skin.

“This strengthens the protective function of the epidermis and decreases the trans-epidermal water loss, improving the hydration of skin.” For those of us looking for perpetually plump, glowing skin, this is the answer.

Retinol helps in improving acne by blocking the inflammatory pathways that exacerbate acne and by reducing the production of sebum (oils on the skin).

- Dr Priya Kurian, dermatologist at Abu Dhabi–based Ahalia Hospital

As for collagen, the structural protein that also keeps your skin smooth and elastic, retinol prevents its degradation and improves blood flow and nutrients to the skin by promoting the development of new blood cells. This is what improves your skin texture, elasticity and firmness – slowing the formation of those pesky fine lines and wrinkles.

According to Dr Kurian, retinoids have emerged as some of the safest and gentlest ways to exfoliate the skin: “They work by speeding up the epidermal cell turnover process, and replacing the old skin cells at a faster speed, exfoliating away old cells in the process.”

Perhaps a victim of acne? Retinol has a solution for that too. Dr Kurian says, “Retinol helps in improving acne by blocking the inflammatory pathways that exacerbate acne and by reducing the production of sebum (oils on the skin).

“The regulation of shedding within the sebaceous gland ducts reduces blackheads too.”

spot treatment skincare stock
A pea-sized amount of retinol is all you need. Image Credit: Pexels/Anna Nekrashevich

Moreover, it also helps regulate the activity of the cells that produce melanin, the pigment that determines the tone and evenness of complexion, and its distribution. “This leads to an even skin tone and reduction in the intensity of brown spots,” adds Dr Kurian.

The material operates in different intensities with the final active form as retinoic acid in the skin. “Retinol is converted by the skin enzymes to retinaldehyde and then retinoic acid,” says Dr Kurian, adding that this is why retinol is the gentlest form – with slower results, but also fewer side effects. Synthetic formulations of Vitamin A – adapalene and tazarotene are only available through prescription for severe cases.

“That is the reason why it is an ingredient in anti-aging over the counter serums and creams whereas the more potent one - retinoic acid is a prescription only cream,” she adds.

Now, a colourful variety of retinol products line skincare shelves online and in stores – serums, day and night creams, gels, eye creams, face masks and more, opening up the opportunity to all of us to try this all-purpose skin ingredient.

So then, where do we begin?

The retinol rulebook: Surviving the ‘purge’

According to Dr Kurian, the mid-twenties to early thirties is a great age to start with an over-the-counter retinol for preventative measures for fine lines, wrinkles and dyspigmentation (hyper- or hypo-pigmentation). If a sufferer of teen acne, you can start it earlier as prescribed by your dermatologist as well. However, such a potent ingredient also comes with side effects and guidelines that you should follow – to avoid and survive the ‘purge’.

The golden rule is to start with a lower concentration of retinol – around 0.3 per cent – applying it once or twice a week and then gradually increase this. “Apply a small pea-sized amount for the full face,” recommends Dr Kurian. If not, you could be subject to a ‘retinol burn’, a severe redness, flaking and painful irritation, for which you would need to immediately stop retinol use.

Apply a small pea-sized amount for the full face. Use a moisturiser to avoid dryness and scaling.

- Dr Priya Kurian, dermatologist at Abu Dhabi–based Ahalia Hospital
Start with a lower concentration of retinol – around 0.3 per cent – applying it once or twice a week and then gradually increase this. Image Credit: Shutterstock

If there’s something that all retinol users swear by – it is sunscreen. It is foundational to use it, as retinol can initially sensitise your skin. Using retinol at night, with liberal daytime applications of sunscreen is absolutely crucial for your retinol rock ‘n’ roll to succeed and not leave you with damaged skin.

“Use a moisturiser to avoid dryness and scaling, and also treat the neck and décolletage as these areas can also show signs of aging,” adds Dr Kurian.

On another important note, here is the complete list of things not to do when on retinols:

1. Applying retinols during pregnancy

If you are planning pregnancy, or are pregnant - stay away from retinoids. It has been proven that excess intake of Vitamin A and retinoids by pregnant women often results in malformations to fetuses’s skulls, faces, limbs, eyes, central nervous system. Thought it is mainly oral retinoids that have been linked to this – Dr Kurian recommends, that topical application of retinol should be avoided as there is a risk of birth defects for the fetus.

2. No daytime application

“Don’t apply during the day as retinol makes the skin more sun-sensitive and sunlight decreases the efficacy of the product,” says Dr Kurian.

3. Using more than one harsh product at once

According to Dr Kurian, when using retinols, also using other irritating topical products like harsh soaps, high concentrations of alcohol, astringents, salicyclic acid and scrubs should also be avoided. Your skin barrier may be damaged.

4. Cosmetic treatment protocol

If you’re out and about to transform your skin with treatments like lasers, microdermabrasion, chemical peeling and more, Dr Kurian says: “Stop using retinol for at least 72 hours or as advised by your dermatologist.”

5. Having severe skin problems

If facing severe eczema, rosacea and other severe skin diseases, Dr Kurian recommends consulting a doctor before starting retinol. She says, “You may have to have your skin condition treated and get the doctor’s opinion before you start retinol.”

6. Allergy alert

“Some people may be allergic to retinol though not very frequent which may cause redness, itching, burning sensation, stinging sensation and scaling of skin,” says Dr Kurian. Think ‘retinol burn’. They may have to be treated with emollients, sunscreens and a mild to moderate topical steroid as advised by a dermatologist.


1. What retinol should I use?

Use an over-the-counter product – whether a serum or moisturiser – with a low concentration of retinol, once a week to start with. As per your skin’s responses, you can slowly increase the frequency of the product to twice, and then thrice a week, taking it step-by-step.

However, if you suffer from serious skincare concerns like cystic acne and psoriasis, your dermatologist may advise for use of prescription strength retinoids for results.

Dr Kurian says, “Retinol can be used by people with any skin type – but those with sensitive skin have to use it cautiously starting with a lower concentration and frequency and gradually increase the frequency and concentration as the skin gets used to the product.”

2. What if my skin is undergoing a lot of irritation?

“A person who has started using retinol and sees too much redness sensitivity and peeling may be because of overzealous use starting with a high concentration or a larger quantity or more frequent application like daily application,” says Dr Kurian. As advised by a dermatologist, she says that this can be treated with emollients, sunscreens and a mild to moderate topical steroid.