What retinoids do, best skincare products and why the anti-ageing star has a dark side

  • Retinoids are scientifically proven to battle the signs of ageing quickly and effectively but can cause severe reactions
  • We look at five of the best retinoid skincare products and whether they will suit you
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 January, 2019, 8:04pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 January, 2019, 8:46pm

Retinoids may be considered the gold standard in anti-ageing skincare, but they are also highly controversial.

Over the years they have been blamed for thinning the skin (in fact they do the opposite) and causing everything from breakouts and irritations to severe peeling.

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On the plus side they are scientifically proven to battle the signs of ageing quickly and effectively, which is why they remain popular with men and women looking to turn back the clock.

“Retinoids are great for people who are concerned with fine lines, wrinkles and loss of firmness,” says Brigitte Weber, an aesthetician and training director for French brand Algotherm. “Skin-cell turnover and renewal slows down as we age, and they improve the overall skin texture by speeding up cell turnover. They also have a powerful stimulating effect on collagen production, which are the building blocks of the skin.”

“Retinoids” is the general term used to describe the many derivatives of vitamin A. They are available in various forms, including retinol, retinol palmitate and tretinoin, which is recommended to treat acne. Then there’s retinoic acid. This derivative became popular in the 1980s and was prescribed by many doctors to alleviate conditions such as acne. It is also the most aggressive of the retinoids and, while effective, is responsible for much of the negative feeling still associated with them today.

Karen Aleksich, general manager of Protea Hong Kong, which distributes the popular retinoid skincare brand Environ, explains why vitamin A is so important when it comes to skincare.

“Vitamin A is depleted in the skin by environmental aggressors such as pollution and the sun,” she says. “Like any nutrient it needs to be replaced. Cells need vitamin A in order to reproduce, and if you don’t have replenishing levels it can cause photoageing and stop the rejuvenation process.”

Some retinoid products list the percentage of vitamin A they contain, but this is less important than the type of retinoid you choose to use. Retinoic acid, for example, can cause severe reactions and is usually only prescribed by a doctor or dermatologist. Retinyl palmitate, which is a fatty acid, is considered gentler and is easily absorbed by the skin. This, coupled with complementary ingredients such as aloe vera to soothe, vitamin C to assist with brightening and collagen production, and other antioxidants, also helps increase the effectiveness of a product.

Whichever formula you choose, how and when you use a vitamin A product is important in ensuring fast and safe results.

“At the beginning, only apply the product at night,” says Tamara Hockley, a therapist at The Strand beauty salon in Hong Kong. “Once your skin becomes used to it, start using it during the day. If someone goes in with too high a dosage, they may get a reaction because the cells can’t absorb the vitamin A as the skin is not healthy yet. You need to build up tolerance.”

If you use vitamin A during the day, it is essential you wear sunblock along with it. Women undergoing any form of laser treatment should stay away from retinoids as they make the skin highly sensitive.

Retinoids are not a quick fix. As with everything in life, consistency of application over months and years shows the best results
Brigitte Weber

Ideally, the product should be applied in stages, starting with every few days at first, before moving to alternate days, and eventually, daily.

Because of their volatile nature, most retinoids have a short shelf life. That means packaging is important. Exposure to oxygen can compromise the effectiveness of the formula, so airtight containers are recommended over traditional jars.

For those who are still wary, there are some natural alternatives that are said to mimic the magic effects of vitamin A without the side effects. Top of the list is evening primrose oil, often referred to as the poor man’s retinol, as well as rosehip oil.

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No matter your choice, be advised that results take time.

“Retinoids are not a quick fix,” Weber says. “As with everything in life, consistency of application over months and years shows the best results. The skin texture should become more even, pores become more refined and the skin should show a certain luminosity and glow.”

Five of the best vitamin A skincare products

AVST Moisturiser 1 by Environ (HK$446)

Available in Hong Kong at The Strand and Mandarin Oriental

Environ’s step-up system is designed to gradually introduce different levels of vitamin A into your skin. This light moisturising cream is great for those starting out and contains a variety of vitamins, including vitamin C, and antioxidants, making it ideal for sensitive skins.

Celestial Black Diamond Retinol Oil by 111Skin (HK$1,310)


Designed to be used at night, this potent serum contains 1 per cent pure retinol as well as retinyl palmitate. The addition of black diamond particles is said to help the ingredients penetrate deeper into the layers of the skin. It’s also free from parabens, paraffin and silicone.

Intense Night Oil by Votary (HK$1,450)

Available in Hong Kong from Joyce Beauty

For those looking for a gentler natural alternative, this soothing plant-based oil contains a less aggressive form of vitamin A that binds directly to retinoid receptors in skin cells. It also contains acmella flower, to firm the skin, and Australian sandalwood extract, which is said to reduce inflammation and fine lines.

Retinol Fresh Skin Treatment by Skin Design London (HK$990)

Available in Hong Kong from Joyce Beauty

Hailed as a cult cream, this anti-ageing formula contains retinol along with five other skin-soothing ingredients including redness-reducing aloe vera, green tea and rosehip. Hyaluronic acid also keeps skin plump and hydrated.

Granactive Retinoid 2 Per Cent in Squalene by The Ordinary (HK$115)

Cult brand The Ordinary promises clinical-strength formulas at affordable prices. This new formula contains an advanced retinoid complex that promises all the anti-ageing benefits of retinol without irritating the skin.