With thousands of different ingredients on the market that are helmed to revitalise your skin, it's easy to be confused as to what your visage actually needs. The ingredient list of skincare products are often saturated with obscure chemicals and even rarer natural elements, of which their benefits can only be understood with the help of a medical textbook. For that reason, we've asked for guidance from skincare savant, Katie Service, who'll be breaking down common beauty ingredients in our new series, Dermatology Diaries.

Described by Sarah Jossel as "The new skincare beauty bible", her new book The Beauty Brief: An Insider’s Guide to Skincare shares Service's tips and tricks, including case studies of global best-sellers, in-depth analyses of different dermatological treatments and SOS skin repair. Currently the Editorial Beauty Director at Harrods, and having worked with world-famous makeup artists such as Charlotte Tilbury, she is one of the best in the business to be answering any beauty-sphere queries. 

This week, Katie breaks down retinoids, explaining what their benefits are, how and when to use it and what are her favourites on the market. 

Ah the mysteries of retinoids! Rate them or hate them, everyone you discuss them with will tell you something different about them. Online, you’ll read about this age-defying ingredient and probably stumble across as many horror stories as you do success stories. And it doesn’t help that starting on a retinoid can feel a little like joining a secret cult… you have to be initiated with a low level of the ingredient in order to progress onto the skincare enlightenment that comes with the highest levels of potency. Frightening hocus pocus? No, there’s nothing mystical or scary about retinoids – but you do need to understand what they are and how they work to be able to use them properly. You also need to commit to them (which is when they start to sound cult-y again). 

Retinoids are a group name for the derivatives of the skincare ingredient Retinol, which by another name is Vitamin A. In Layman’s terms, they work by speeding up the life cycle of skin cells and by preventing the breakdown of collagen within the dermis, reducing the formation of deeper wrinkles. I’ll list some names here in order of potency that you may recognise, starting with the strongest: retinoic acid (often prescribed by dermatologists for severe acne), retinaldehyde and retinol palmitate. The latter, which is a fusion of retinol and fatty acid palmitic acid is a great place for those just starting out on their retinoid journey.

When it comes to retinol, which has become a bit of a highstreet superhero of the retinoid bunch, you’ll notice that many of the products you buy on the shelf name check a percentage; if you have sensitive skin or are new to retinol then you may want to start with something nice and low, for example 0.25% or even 0.025% if you have a darker skintone – this is because some retinoids can cause a little hyperpigmentation in darker skintones. The highest percentage of retinol you can get without a prescription is 2%.  Skincare brands often boast about having a high percentage of retinol, but don’t forget that it’s important to look at the other ingredients paired with them. Neat retinol is fantastic, but your skin needs a diverse cocktail of ingredients to function at its best

A few more things you should know – look for retinoids that come in an airtight pump or tube as exposure to the air in a pot can cause them to decrease in potency. My trusted friend and Sunday Times Style beauty director Sarah Jossell, also told me that she waits fifteen minutes after applying her retinoid before adding her moisturiser into the mix – this is because the wait time avoids diluting the retinoid and you get more from it. 

My advice for starting on a retinoid for acne or deep wrinkles?  Get more advice – go see a dermatologist that you trust, who isn’t trying to sell you a certain brand or regime. The results of using a retinoid can be really impressive so it’s worth the time investment.

Shop The Beauty Brief: An Insider’s Guide to Skincare by Katie Service, published by Thames & Hudson here.

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