The beauty community has been raving about retinol for quite a while now, and with good reason. Because of its anti-ageing and acne-busting benefits, retinol is beginning to earn its place in many a skincare aficionado’s heart as a staple for achieving a youthful and healthy complexion. However, with so many products and articles on the subject, trying it out for the first time can be a daunting task. So to help you understand this skincare ingredient and its benefits better, here’s all you need to know about incorporating retinol to your skincare routine.

Many skincare brands are now starting to incorporate lower grade retinols in their products

What is retinol?

While retinols in powerful doses are only available via prescription and over the counter, many skincare brands are now incorporating this skincare ingredient in small and safe quantities in the form of serums and moisturizers. While these formulations contain retinol at a much lower percentage, they are usually combined with other active skincare ingredients to optimize their efficacy on the skin.

Essentially, retinol is a type of retinoid which is a derivative of Vitamin A. Hence, the term retinol basically refers to any topical skincare product that contains a Vitamin A retinoid. Normally, you will find retinoids under different names like Retin-A, Adapalene and Tretinoin but they all are very similar in function.

What does it do for your skin?

Unlike alpha or beta hydroxy acids that exfoliate the surface of your skin, retinol works at a much deeper level by accelerating your skin’s cell turnover cycle. In other words, it increases the renewal rate of your skin cells while boosting the production of collagen. As a result, the old skin cells on the surface layer of your skin will shed quickly to make way for the fresh new layers of skin underneath.

However, do take note that budding whiteheads and tiny bumps may appear initially as retinol functions to purge impurities from the deeper layers of your skin. This is all part of the process as many retinol users report that their skin gets better after the initial weeks of purging or detox. Also, after weeks of consistent use, users report having clearer skin overall for a longer period of time.

The dos and don’ts

Before picking out a retinol for your everyday use, here are some important tips to remember:


Start slow

Like acids, Vitamin C and other skincare actives, it’s crucial that you take baby steps when introducing retinol into your skincare routine. Initially, you can use it once or twice a week. Then, gradually increase your use to every alternate day before incorporating it on a daily basis if there are no adverse side effects.

Exfoliate regularly

Retinol improves cell turnover, collagen production and draws out impurities from the deeper levels of your skin. However, it doesn’t exfoliate your skin like an acid or physical exfoliant does. Hence, it’s important to exfoliate your skin regularly at least twice a week or every alternate day to keep flakiness and clogged pores at bay.

Moisturize and protect your skin

As retinol can dry out your skin and make it more sensitive and prone to flaking, moisturizing regularly and applying sunscreen are essential steps in your skincare routine. You can opt for a richer moisturizer at night to replenish the moisture in your skin. And it’s highly recommend that you use at least SPF50 for your sunscreen.

Consult a dermatologist

When in doubt, always do a patch test on your wrist beforehand and consult a dermatologist to get a professional opinion on what is best for your skin.

It’s important to protect your skin with sunscreen after retinol use


Give up so soon

When first using retinol, you may experience more breakouts than usual as it is working to eliminate impurities from the deeper layers of the skin. So instead of giving up after 1 week of use, give your skin time to clear and settle before giving it up completely. In fact, it takes up to 3 months for some to see a significant improvement in their skin. Consistency is key when it comes to using retinol. However, if you are dealing with an allergic reaction, stop all use immediately and consult a dermatologist as soon as possible.

Overuse it

You only need to apply a thin layer of your retinol skincare product once a day, mainly in the areas that are prone to acne, fine lines and wrinkles. Overusing it daily can lead to an increase in redness and sensitivity in the skin.

Use it if you’re pregnant

Retinol and other Vitamin A retinoids have been known to cause birth defects and are not safe for pregnant women to use. Even though you’re not ingesting it like oral retinoids, it’s still best to avoid using retinoid topically. This is to avoid the risk of retinoid absorbing into your bloodstream and affecting the baby in the womb.

FAQ About Retinols

How do I layer retinol with my other skincare products?

Considering retinol is a derivative of vitamin A, it must be handled with utmost caution. Therefore, retinol products may be abrasive on the skin so how you apply it makes a big impact on how effective it’ll be.

Begin with a mild toner to prepare your skin for hydration and absorption, then add serums or ampoules to help compensate for your skin’s concerns such as dullness or pigmentation. Finally, only then can you apply prescription topical treatments like retinol, lotions or creams to seal it all in.

However, it needs to be clarified that with the rise in popularity that retinol is making, different forms are emerging. Prior, retinol often came in a cream version but nowadays, you can find them in form of serums and gels. In this case, you’d want to apply it before your serums and after your toning products. Ensure to give it time to set and sink into your skin before following up with your serums.

What percentage of retinol should I use?

Start with a 0.25 per cent retinol product if you have sensitive skin. Try it for a few weeks before deciding whether you want to raise your dosage to 0.5 per cent. However, if you have sensitive or acne-prone skin, you may want to start with a lesser proportion and gradually increase it until your skin can accept it. After you’ve built up a tolerance to it, your dermatologist may prescribe a 1% retinol cream that you should apply every other night.

What acids should and shouldn’t I mix it with?

Before you delve into using a retinol, you need to ensure products you regularly use don’t clash with the active acid. If you mix acids that react badly can cause severe harm to your skin rather than bring any good. It can lead to flakiness, irritation, inflammation and painful burns.

Therefore, what you do want to mix retinol with are moisturising ingredients such as hyaluronic acid and ceramides. Hyaluronic acid and other humectant compounds can attract and hold water molecules to your skin’s surface layers. Whereas, oil-based emollient substances assist to seal in moisture.

However, what you don’t want to mix with retinol are vitamin C, benzoyl peroxide, and exfoliating acids such as AHAs, BHAs and PHAs. These active ingredients are very powerful and due to their exfoliating properties, they may cause pain when used together.

How long does it take for my skin to adjust to the retinol and how often should I use it?

Results usually take a few weeks to appear but some OTC alternatives may require months of consistent use. Most dermatologists agree that you’ll need to take retinol for a few weeks before seeing benefits but most treatments should show results in as little as 12 weeks.

Moreover, while retinol promotes cell turnover, it has no effect on existing skin cells and can irritate the skin. This is why combining a retinol product with additional exfoliants like salicylic acid or glycolic acid, or increasing the frequency of usage, might help your skin adjust to the retinol more rapidly.

Therefore, start by applying every other night for a few weeks, then every night after that. As your skin becomes used to the retinol, you may be able to apply it sparingly over a few days without causing irritation.

What is the right amount that I should use?

The general rule of thumb is to use a pea-sized amount- and you stick with it; no more nor less. You want to use the other hand to dot from the pea size on different areas of the skin for a more even layer. Using too much may cause irritation while using too little might not be effective enough.

Will it thin out my skin?

Yes and no are the answers. It all depends on what you’re attempting to accomplish. The stratum corneum, or the outer layer of the skin, is thinned by retinol. Additionally, the outer layer corneum might become dull and abrasive as we age. Retinols are used to thin the stratum corneum, making the skin seem smoother and more polished. As a result, retinol thickens the dermis (the collagen-rich layer of the skin), giving you a plump and youthful appearance.

Can I mix it with lotions and creams?

It is recommended that you do not dilute your retinol by combining it with lotion in order to obtain the greatest results. Applying layers of moisturiser instead is recommended if necessary. Mixing in a moisturiser isn’t bad; it’s just ineffective.

10 Retinol products available in stores and local pharmacies

There are so many retinol-infused skincare products on the market, but here are 10 of the popular ones that have gotten positive reviews from skincare junkies online:

1. Pixi Retinol Tonic

If you’re new to retinol, then this toner by Pixi is a great starter’s option. Because it only contains a mild level of retinol, it is less likely to cause too much sensitivity from the get-go. Plus, it also contains other skin-soothing ingredients like rosemary leaf water, evening primrose extract, glycerin, as well as jasmine and lavender flower extract.

Why we love it:

  • Great for beginners
  • Has a soothing floral scent
  • A gentle way to introduce retinol into your skincare routine
  • Locks in moisture and rebuilds the moisture barrier

Where to buy: Sephora, RM70

2. First Aid Beauty Skin Lab Retinol Serum .25% Pure Concentrate

We’re huge fans of First Aid’s Ultra Repair Cream for eczema. So when they came up with this retinol serum, we knew it was something to add to our skincare wishlist! Because it combines a low percentage of retinol with other moisture-boosting ingredients like hyaluronic acid, your skin would be able to reap the benefits of retinol without the potential dryness and irritation.

Why we love it:

  • Low dose of retinol – only 0.25%
  • Suitable for sensitive skin types
  • Contains colloidal oatmeal to soothe eczema-prone skin
  • Contains peptides to reduce fine lines and wrinkles

Where to buy: Sephora, RM260

3. Biossance Squalane + Phyto-Retinol Serum

Housed in a stunning emerald green and champagne gold bottle, this serum contains a plant-derived alternative to retinol known as Bakuchiol. Hence the name phyto-retinol with phyto meaning plant-based. Besides Bakuchiol, the serum contains skin-compatible squalane, niacinamide and amino acids to visibly plump up the skin without the sensitivity of regular retinol.

Why we love it:

  • Safe plant-based alternative to retinol
  • Reduces fine lines without irritating the skin
  • Free of parabens, sulfates, mineral oil
  • Free of artificial fragrance

Where to buy: Sephora, RM327

4. Sunday Riley A+ High-Dose Retinoid Serum

Next up, we have this powerful retinoid serum by Sunday Riley. Because of its higher concentration of retinoid content (6.5%), it is more suitable for those who have had prior experience with retinol skincare. Unlike many other brands, Sunday Riley is upfront about the percentages they use. Here, the 6.5% concentrate is a blend of stabilized retinoids and botanical retinol alternatives made of blue-green algae.

Why we love it:

  • Advanced strength for smoothing fine lines and wrinkles
  • Eliminates impurities and detoxifies clogged pores
  • Contains CoQ10 to heal UV damage
  • Has soothing Hawaiian white honey and cactus extract to replenish skin’s moisture levels

Where to buy: Sephora, RM386

5. Drunk Elephant A-Passioni Retinol Cream

A good option for vegans, this retinol cream by Drunk Elephant contains 1% of vegan retinol and superfood ingredients like jojoba, kale and avocado oil to restore radiance and vitality to the skin. Moreover, it contains peptides to plump up the skin and Vitamin F to balance the skin’s oil and moisture levels.

Why we love it:

  • Suitable for vegans
  • Packed with antioxidants
  • Comes with 3ml B-Hydra Serum to rehydrate the skin
  • Special packaging to uphold the stability of light-sensitive ingredients

Where to buy: Sephora, RM323

6. Hada Labo Retinol Lifting + Firming Essence

Who doesn’t love a good drugstore option? This essence by Hada Labo contains retinol, 4 kinds of hyaluronic acid and hydrolyzed collagen to visibly plump up the skin and improve skin elasticity.

Why we love it:

  • Easily found in local pharmacies
  • Ultra-hydrating
  • Hyaluronic acid fortifies skin’s moisture barrier
  • Contains coconut oil fatty acids to heal and nourish the skin

Where to buy: Watsons, RM90

7. Olay Regenerist Retinol 24-Night Moisturizer

The Regenerist range by Olay has built up a cult following over the years because of the efficacy of their anti-ageing essentials. After 21 years of testing the stability of Vitamin A in skincare, Olay has come up with their own retinoid complex to accelerate cell renewal 10 layers deep in the epidermis.

Why we love it:

  • Free of artificial dyes and fragrance
  • Sulfate and phthalate-free
  • Contains Vitamin B3 improve moisture retention
  • Absorbs quickly into the skin with no greasy residue

Where to buy: Watsons, RM109.90

8. Origins Plantscription Retinol Night Moisturizer With Alpine Flower

A little pearl-sized amount is all you need for this high-grade retinol moisturizer from Origins. In addition to retinol, it contains alpine flower and Anogeissus to speed up cell turnover and support the skin’s collagen production.

Why we love it:

  • Effective overnight treatment
  • Cruelty-free and free of parabens, sulfates and formaldehyde
  • A little bit goes a long way
  • Suitable for all skin types

Where to buy: Sephora, RM295

9. Skin Doctors Potent Vit. A Ampoules

If you’re looking for a powerful retinol treatment, then this vitamin A ampoules by Skin Doctors is one to consider. Each ampoule contains 0.15% pure clinical retinol to activate cell renewal and boost collagen and elastin production. Additionally, it’s also great for targeting and treating acne scars and reducing the appearance of hyperpigmentation.

Why we love it:

  • Very portable, great for travel!
  • A great spot treatment for acne scars
  • Reduces the appearance of hyperpigmentation
  • Improves overall skin tone

Where to buy: Hermo, RM199

10. Kate Somerville Nourish Daily Moisturizer

Last but not least, we have this nourishing daily retinol moisturizer by Kate Somerville. It feels incredibly lightweight on the skin and doesn’t leave a greasy residue. Besides incorporating one of the most stable forms of Vitamin A known as Retinyl Palmitate, it also contains Vitamin C and E as well as lavender and ginger extract to protect the skin from environmental aggressors.

Why we love it:

  • Lightweight and refreshing
  • Great for everyday use
  • Suitable for sensitive skin
  • Free of sulfates, phthalates and parabens

Where to buy: Sephora, RM300

11. The Inkey List Retinol

THE INKEY LIST | Retinol Serum | Cult Beauty

The Inkey List Retinol is a favourite for those who are new to retinols and just gentle enough to the skin. It is a high potency, fast-acting serum and it works best with other products in The Inkey range. It has a light texture that absorbs easily. Additionally, it helps to target several signs of ageing in the skin such as the appearance of wrinkles, fine lines and pores. It is my personal favourite and highly recommended.

Why we love it:

  • Great for beginners
  • Gentle enough with only 0.5% of retinoid acid

Price: RM60.00

Where to buy: Sephora

12. The Ordinary Retinol Serum 0.2% in Squalene

The Ordinary | Retinol 0.2% in Squalane | Cult Beauty

Combining 0,2% pure retinol with hydration, The Ordinary Retinol Serum 0.2% in Squalene has been formulated for even the most sensitive skin. Retinol helps to restore the water balance of the skin and may help reduce multiple signs of ageing. This incredible formula increases collagen production, gently resurfaces the skin and helps with elasticity.

Additionally, it contains Squalene to aid in moisturisation without creating any oily surface film. It is perfect for those who want a gentler way to fight wrinkles while experiencing a dramatic reduction in lines and an increase in smoothness.

Why we love it:

  • Cult-favourite
  • Great for those who regularly use retinol

Price: RM52.00

Where to buy: Zalora

Need some sunscreen recommendations to protect your skin after retinol use? Here are 15 sunscreens recommended by dermatologists in Malaysia.

Author Clara Siew | Date 2nd Nov 2020