This ingredient is the gentler alternative to retinol that we’ve all been waiting for

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It’s one of the most talked about skincare ingredients, but due to some of the downsides of retinol, there are a lot of skin types that can’t benefit from it. Luckily, there’s an irritation-free way to get in on the action. 

Before you even decide on what your next skincare buy will be, you’ll probably have to wade through a lot of retinol-based product suggestions first. The call to “use retinol” is right up there with “wash your hands” as the soundtrack to our current existence. There’s no other ingredient out there that stirs up such impassioned responses and a deluge of raving testimonials.

While retinol may well be the darling of the beauty world, it has an annoying habit of humbling your skin with some bothersome side effects. Think irritation, peeling, dryness and redness. To some, that’s just the price you have to pay for brighter skin, but for others, it isn’t worth the hassle. 

If you fall into the latter group as someone who refuses to let their skincare be an enemy of progress, then meet pro-retinol. The friendlier, less dramatic but still powerful sibling of retinol. In other words, the retinol for the masses.  

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What is pro-retinol?

It often seems like anything beginning with R is notoriously confusing to understand when you see it on an ingredients list. But, this is one to keep an eye out for. “Pro-retinol is a type of vitamin A molecule called retinyl palmitate. Our skin stores vitamin A mainly as retinyl palmitate (approximately 80-90%) with a smaller amount of retinol (about 10%),” explains Dr Miriam Adebibe, cosmetic and wellness doctor at aesthetics clinic Victor & Garth.

For the ultimate beauty mic-drop, Adebibe goes on to say that “if storage levels of retinyl palmitate are low, then your expensive retinol products are somewhat wasted, as the skin will convert that retinol into retinyl palmitate to replenish vitamin A storage, before it will convert to active vitamin A.” Duly noted.  

Is pro-retinol a retinoid?

After sitting through what might seem like a mini science class, here’s your reward: the benefits. “Retinoids are amongst the very few chemicals shown to improve skin quality by many rigorous scientific studies. Regular use of retinoids will increase collagen production and some studies show perhaps even elastin too. They work to firm the skin, reduce fine lines and wrinkles, as well as improving overall texture,” explains Dr Adebibe.

“Retinoids also speed up skin cell turnover rates, which is the shedding of dead skin cells in favour of fresh young skin cells. This is important for those who are prone to either acne or hyperpigmentation.”

Impressed yet? Well, if you’re deciding between a pro-retinol or another form, then this might sway you. “Retinyl palmitate and other fat-soluble vitamin A derivatives are photo-protective, contrary to previous concerns around the risk of sunburn after use. Studies show that retinyl palmitate can be as effective as SPF 20 in preventing sunburn by absorbing UVB light,” says Dr Adebibe.

SPF still needs to remain a non-negotiable in your routine though, especially when using retinoids as those fresh skin cells will be more susceptible to sunburn.

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Who should use pro-retinol?

When you’ve carefully curated your skincare routine, it’s understandable if you have some slight trepidation about adding in a newbie. Especially, when the word on the street about retinol side effects isn’t ideal. Fear not. “I recommend [pro-retinol] to clients who come to my clinic for any skin health concern, as part of a clever skin regime. Unlike prescription-level vitamin A, retinyl palmitate is very well tolerated by most skin types,” says Dr Adebibe.

“The dryness, burning, peeling and flaking often seen with tretinoin are often avoided which is a relief. My advice would be to use daily moisturiser with retinyl palmitate to maintain skin storage levels and then use prescription-only vitamin A as a spot treatment for problem areas, every one-three days as tolerated.”

Regardless of the product you go for, prioritise patience here, as it might take at least six weeks to see results, but good things come to those who diligently wait for their skincare to work.  

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The best pro-retinol skincare products

  • Glossier Pro-Retinol Nightly Renewing Complex

    When Glossier launches a new product, it rivals the early noughties hysteria of hearing that your favourite popstar is releasing an album. This one certainly lives up to the hype with the use of retinyl sunflowerate that gives the majority of skin types an all-access pass to the benefits of using a retinoid, without the usual irritation.

    Shop Glossier Pro-Retinol Nightly Renewing Complex at Glossier, £30     


  • Disciple Skincare Dreamy Skin Retinyl Oil

    Rosehip seed oil is quite literally what dreamy skin is made of, so when it couples up with pro-retinol you know you’re in for a treat. The balancing and stress-relieving inclusion of chamomile and frankincense essential oils make this a must-have.

    Shop Disciple Skincare Dreamy Skin Retinyl Oil at Cult Beauty, £35  


  • Kiehl’s Youth Dose Eye Treatment

    When it comes to eye creams, you have to manage your expectations, but if you’re looking for a new skincare staple that will brighten your under-eyes and flood it with moisture, then this is a solid option. Retinol can be harsh on the delicate eye area, so Kiehl’s has used pro-retinol alongside vitamin C and grape seed extract for a gentler approach.

    Shop Kiehl’s Youth Dose Eye Treatment at Kiehl’s, £38


  • L’Oreal Paris Revitalift Pro-Retinol Night Cream

    An affordable and hassle-free option if you don’t have any extra space to add in another serum. The addition of pro-retinol in your night cream is a smart approach, as this product takes the overnight shift on your behalf to nourish and add some all-important radiance to your skin.

    Shop L’Oreal Paris Revitalift Pro-Retinol Night Cream at Boots, £13     


  • Pestle & Mortar Superstar Retinoid Night Oil

    This is seriously decadent stuff for when your skin is ready to up the ante, as it combines pro-retinol with a new-gen retinoid to keep you side effect free but with all of the skin-loving benefits you need. If you enjoy the sensory aspects of a face oil but need some more efficacy, then get this into your bathroom cabinet. 

    Shop Pestle & Mortar Superstar Retinoid Night Oil at Pestle & Mortar, £68


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Images: courtesy of brands.

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