So today we’re gonna talk retinol. Pull up a chair, bietse.

I’ve been getting this question a lot lately and thought I’d address it right here: ‘If retinols so freakin’ awesome why do so many cosmetics companies use mild retinol derivatives like retinyl palmitate as opposed to the big R itself?’

The answer’s pretty simple; retinol is a potent ingredient. It’s something you shouldn’t just buy and slap on your face sommer so. You need to build up tolerance for it, especially if you’ve got sensitive skin. If not, you could end up with redness or peeling. This is why Environ have a range of retinol creams at different strengths so you can get used to it before using their big kahuna retinol cream. Thus, as big beauty brands would much rather appeal to a wider audience and not have to deal with upset customers shrieking ‘X brand turned me all red and then my whole face peeled off!’ they tend to use the softer, less potent retinol derivatives that’ll play nicely with the masses.

So, if you’re a diehard when it comes to anti-aging, make a point of looking out for products that contain actual retinol and list it fairly high up in the ingredients list. A few of my favourite retinol-focused brands include the aforementioned Environ as well as RegimA, Neutrogena, RoC (which I buy via eBay as it’s now sadly discontinued in SA) and Paula’s Choice, an amazing American brand that now have a local website so you can buy online.

Paula’s Choice Intensive wrinkle-repair retinol serum, R385.

There’s a lot of pressure on cosmetics companies to innovate and bring out new lines every few months so they’re always touting new and amazing ingredients; things like the essence of a golden orchid that only blooms at midnight or the extract of a rare sea cucumber you’ll only find in Brazil but the fact is retinol’s still the golden standard in wrinkle-busting. If it weren’t, it wouldn’t be the number one go-to product recommended by dermatologists around the globe. It’s just not very ‘exciting’ anymore.

Anyway it’s also worth mentioning that retinol alone isn’t going to save your face. A good beauty routine is one that ensures your skin gets a good mix of ingredients proven to help turn back the hands of time, so make sure you’re also using other products that contains collagen-encouraging antioxidants like vitamin C and E.

Last but not least, don’t bother wasting your cash on an ‘anti-aging face’ wash. It doesn’t matter how many anti-aging ingredients it contains, retinol included, as they’ll only sit on your face for all of ten seconds before being washed down the drain. Rather ensure your active ingredients exist in your creams and serums so they’ll actually absorb into your skin to work their magic. One more thing; if you’re using an anti-aging face cream there’s no reason to buy a separate eye cream. (Feel free to challenge me on this and I’ll refer you to a zillion experts who say the same thing and aren’t invested in making billions a year by selling you an extra, often more expensive, anti-aging cream in an even smaller jar.) The only reason you’d need one is if you want to address a different concern, like puffiness or dark circles caused by lethargic circulation*.

Okay, so I’ll shut up now. I hope this clears things up.

Love, love


*For the record, the majority of under eye circles are due to the fact that the skin under your eyes is thinner than the rest of your face. In this case, you can zap them with a good concealer or possibly consider getting a filler like Juverderm injected underneath your eyes to thicken up the skin. It works like a bomb and should only cost around R2000 with a result that’ll last nine months. A great option for men, but as a girl, I’m happy to stick to a great cover up.

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Editor of South African beauty blog Lipgloss is my Life.

22 thoughts on “So today we’re gonna talk retinol. Pull up a chair, bietse.

  1. Leigh you are so right, but I can’t resist putting a punt in for REN – last year this ultimate in CLEAN skincare brand (Clean meaning it does not have any ‘skin unfriendly’ ingredients such as parabens, sulfates, petrochemicals, animal ingredients etc) launched the most fantastic product called ‘Bio Retinoid’ Anti-Ageing Concentrate. The beauty of this product is that it uses 100% nature derived Vitamin A, Pro Vitamin A and Retinoid Analogue. So, what does this mean? Bio Retinoid combats the appearance of wrinkles and age-spots but without the irritating effects of synthetic Retinol. As one user REN customer said “I have been using this product for approximately 6 weeks now and my skin is glowing! I have been getting many compliments. I have sensitive skin so was a little concerned about the Retinoid, there was no sensitivity what so ever. I am happy.”
    Just a thought and for those who do not want their face to ‘peel off’ – but would still like the benefits of Retinol.
    Kerry-Ann Scrase for REN Skincare

      1. Hi Leigh – to be clear there is no synthetic Retinol in Bio Retinoid. The Vitamin A is derived from Andean Musk Rose and Seen Oil, the Pro-Vitamin A from Arctic Seabuckthorn and Berry Fruit Flesh and the Retinoid Analogue from Brazilian White Beggar’s Stick Flower. Does that help? To find out more follow this link on YouTube to see REN’s trainers David Delport and Rui Branco talking about Bio Retinoid. And yes you will recognise the SA accents – both are local boys who have done good in UK. Lekka hey!

      2. Always nice to see local guys doing good. Again, are you saying it doesn’t contain any retinol, synthetic or otherwise? From your answers I’m gathering it uses natural retinol derivatives that aren’t as potent as retinol. And that’s okay. I just don’t want to tell people who are looking for sterk retinol products that this fits the bill. To me, it sounds like this would be great for someone with sensitive skin who’d like to use retinol but can’t tolerate it.

  2. LOVE LOVE LOVE THIS!!!! THANK YOU! (Yes, I am shouting. Only because I’m so freakin’ happy about this post, I could kiss your feet. Maybe. 😛 ) With regards to that “there’s no reason to buy a separate eye cream” note, don’t you think the same applies for anti-ageing serums?! Many people just don’t want a too-creamy/thick/rich eye product. I’ve had many issues with eye products, but I tried a serum ALL OVER my face (incl. eye area) and neck , and have had no issues. No little red bumps, no itching, nada. It’s often a light formula, and sometimes I just use the serum around my eye area if I don’t have time (and patience) to pat-pat-pat all over my face. It’s also great if you can’t afford a full range of high end products. Have a separate sunscreen for day (or make sure there’s SPF in your makeup) and then you can use the same moisturizer day and night over your serum! No eye extras needed. Ek hou van “multi-purpose”. 🙂

    1. Glad you like it. Personally, I use a retinol serum all over my entire face, eyelids included, and have no issues. It’s not hydrating enough, however, do then I wait a min or two and slap on a daily moisturizer with an SPF. This month it’s an Avon skin lightening one I’m testing. Lasting month it was Neutrogena oil-free daily moisturizer with SPF 15.

      1. Leigh, should one not use the Retinol in the evening, you mention above here that you use it under your day cream?

      2. I do. I use it both morning or night or whenever I remember.

        Thing is, wearing retinol itself in sunlight won’t make your skin more likely to burn; but the actually ingredient breaks down in the light, which is why it IS best to wear it at night. That way you’ll get more bang for your buck. Still, there’s nothing stopping you from wearing it at night and them slapping it on in the day during the day too (provided you’ve used it long enough to tolerate it) especially if you live indoors like I do. It might not be as effective but it’ll still help.

        This is a fab piece to read:

  3. Okay so in the interests of not wasting my money on anti-aging face washes, but not using ones aimed at teenage skin that leave you all dried up…what face wash would you recommend?

    1. Ag there are loads of very good inexpensive ones to try. Neutrogena and Cetaphil are both fab. Re the former, just pick one for ‘normal’ skin as opposed to one that’s geared towards spot-prone skin.

  4. Hi! So I’ve been wearing the retinol during the day and AHA at night. But since you say that retinol breaks down in light, should I be using it at night together with my AHA? Because I had heard somewhere that AHA increases the sensitivity to sun?

    1. Hi Aditi

      So sorry to only get back to you now. I’m on leave at the mo so I missed your comment earlier due to end of year wrap up madness. I reckon see the link I posted in the comments section for another reader, Ingrid. It’ll help clear a lot of things up.

  5. Hi there,

    I’m a 30 year old male and looking at Retinol products for men and the only one I came across in South Africa is the Vita lift by L’Oréal for Men. It has Pro-retinol. Is it any good?


    1. Nope, Pro-Retinol is a very weak version of retinol. For results, rather buy a ‘unisex’ or female focused retinol product. Great brands are Paula’s Choice, Neutrogena and Environ.

  6. I have sensitive, combination skin,and I finally sound a serum with retinol that doesnt irritate my skin ! Its the Lady Soma Renewal Serum and it helps with the wrinkles but does not irritate my skin. I have used it for two weeks and though I don’t have deep wrinkles, it has helped with the fine lines around my eyes and mouth. I love it’s smooth texture – it feels wonderful going on!

  7. Hi Leigh, I don’t know if you’ll read this comment as this article was aaaaaaaages ago. I wanted to ask where the best place is to start on Environ’s Intensive Retinol Range. I’ve heard some people say 1 is too mild and I don’t want to spend loads of money on something that doesn’t work, but I don’t want to try 2 and then my face melts off. The concentrations aren’t available from Environ and I know retinol is only effective at 0.5 concentration (Paula’s choice info).

    1. Hi Shannon! I started on 1 ages back as a total newbie and found it waaaay to mild. I’d definitely use 2 and start out using it only every second day until your skin gets to a point where you can use it consecutively without any redness or peeling.

    1. Hi Merusha! As far as I’m aware BioNike products don’t make use of retinol, just retinyl palmitate which is a very mild version. Optiphi have a retinol serum but it’s quite a low percentage which is fine if you’re just starting out. The ideal, however, is to eventually move on to a 1-percent retinol serum which Optiphi don’t have in their line up.

  8. Hi Leigh,

    I realise this blog is very old, but just wanted to say thanks! Very informative. I’ve decided to try the Environ Retinol 2. Was wondering if you’ve tried the Baebody Retinol. I see it’s being sold by “Your Essentials” in SA. I’m wondering if it’s worth trying (scared of fakes) but it sure is getting rave reviews on Amazon.

    1. So glad you enjoyed it! Environ retinol 2 is pretty mild but a great way to introduce your skin to retinol. The goal is to work up to 1% if you can tolerate it. I hadn’t heard of Baebody before but a quick google revealed it’s an Amazon bestseller and not really a derm favourite which makes me skeptical. While it says 2% retinol its been shrouded in loads of other ingredients that lower it’s ‘real’ percentage which makes it difficult to know whether its a higher or lower percentage in comparison to something proven like Dermaceutic 1%. Hope this helps!

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