Buzzwords like “life-changing” and “wonder product” immediately make me as sceptical of a product as I am of things like Scientology, the concept of soul mates, and anyone who is unquestionably fine with Uggs becoming a socially acceptable garment to wear outside the house in 2017. Very. So when retinol crept onto the scene a few years ago — touted by every media outlet as the next big thang in skincare — I approached it with mild suspicion. I veritably took the idea that it could save me and tossed it in the bin, in much the same way as I did things like alkaline water and true love.

I recently decided to forego my cynicism-for-cynicism’s-sake approach to life (for once), and actually gave the super product, and by virtue my face, a chance. As a result of this ‘tude shift, you are now looking at the latest #blessed retinol convert. The first step on my path to spot-free enlightenment was to get educated, and for that I enlisted the help of super humans/super facialists, Melanie Grant and Jocelyn Petroni.

Let’s start with the basics: the difference between retinol and retinoid. Retinol is a gentler form of vitamin A that the skin needs to convert into retinoic acid to yield results, which can take up to several weeks. Retinoid, on the other hand, is a derivative of vitamin A that comes already formulated as a retinolic acid, which doesn’t require any conversion by the body. While results can be attained faster with retinoid, there’s a higher chance of side effects and irritation.

According to Melanie, Retinol is “one of the best skincare ingredients ever discovered. It’s tried, tested, and proven to treat many skin conditions including large pores, fine lines, wrinkles, acne, blemishes, pigmentation, and dull or uneven skin tone.” But how? “Retinol works by speeding up the turnover of dead skin cells, making way for fresh new cells to come to the surface.” Promising. “It also thickens the deeper layers of our skin by stimulating the production of collagen, as well as preventing collagen loss.” Electrifying.

Jocelyn recommends it to her clients who are concerned with “sun damage, ageing, pigmentation, and fine lines and wrinkles” and sees it as an “amazing skin booster that makes all skin types dewy, glowing and radiant.” Sign us up.

In terms of who should be using it, Melanie assures me that retinol is suitable for almost every skin type, except for “hypersensitive or compromised skins, and those who are pregnant or nursing.” When starting out — which can be “as early as your 20s” — she suggests that you slowly introduce it into your skincare routine “to avoid any irritation.” Jocelyn agrees, saying that “sensitive skin types should avoid vitamin A, as prescription-strength formulas can cause redness (unless you use one of Ultra MD’s Vitamin A formulas that are anti-inflammatory).” Retinol encourages cell turnover, in much the same way as an exfoliating scrub does, meaning that your skin becomes more sensitive to sun exposure. As such, it’s imperative that you wear an SPF if you’re jumping on the retinol bandwagon. But, since you should be wearing sunscreen every day anyway, that’s a no brainer, right?

If you’re new to the game, Melanie suggests you “try using a retinol serum after your evening cleanse two or three times per week before applying your night cream, eventually building up to every night.” She continues, saying that “retinol products have come a long way in recent times with lower dose, time release formulas being far gentler on the skin. So even those with sensitive skin can tolerate the gentler formulas that are now on the market.” Melanie’s pick for sensitive skin is Retinaldedyde, and in particular the Osmosis Calm Serum.

If you’re not plagued with sensitive skin, Jocelyn recommends the following retinol product as a standard: Ulta MD Ultimate A2 Anti-Ageing Serum — “The suspension delivers potent prescription strength vitamin A into the skin without the side effects of redness or flaking.” Melanie recommends almost all of her clients use a retinol serum at night after cleansing, and before applying their night cream. In particular, she loves Cosmedix Serum 16 and SkinMedica Retinol Complex .25.

And when it comes to usage, Jocelyn recommends the following:

“Vitamin A is applied at night before bed (best to avoid during the day, as vitamin A makes your skin sun sensitive). Always apply to clean skin. Apply two nights per week for 1 month, then increase to every second night for the second month and finally, in the third month, apply every night. You can follow with a moisturiser or oil if you have dry skin. Always wear a SPF 30+ sunscreen during the day when using a vitamin A product.”

Despite confirmation from two leading skin experts that retinol is probably/definitely the best anti-ageing product on the market, I couldn’t help but harbour slight concerns about the long term effects of using it on my ~precious~ face. Both ladies assuaged these fears. According to Jocelyn, “Vitamin A thins the superficial layers of the skin, however it thickens the deeper skin layers, which is the source of wrinkles — the benefits far outweigh any minor side effects.” V true. Melanie assured me there weren’t any adverse long-term complications, but said that it’s “important to remember that using too many active skincare products in the wrong combination can cause inflammation and sensitivity, so seek professional advice when devising a new skincare regimen.”

It’s safe to say that at this point in my research, I was all but cured of my retinol-associated incredulity. And, after such glowing reviews, I’d have been a fool not to introduce my skin to this life-changing wonder product. The File HQ does not suffer fools, and so I put all the most in-demand over-the-counter retinol products out there to the test over the course of 12 weeks, so as to give my (oft-sensitive) skin a chance to adjust. These were were my findings…

Dermalogica Overnight Retinol Repair


I’m such a stage five clinger when it comes to Dermalogica. If it were up to me, I’d probably enter my skin into a prearranged marriage with their products for the rest of its life. The way I talk about my Dermalogica stash to friends is wrought with the kind of unbearable hyperbolic internet language that I usually detest: “No, you don’t understand! The UltraCalming cleanser actually saved my life!!!!”, “I can’t even deal with how much I GLOWING right now!”, “OMG yasss kween, literally dying RN, my skin is the softest anyone’s skin has ever been in history!” etcetera. Alas, my job does not allow for ongoing monogamous relationships with skin care products. But for a couple of blissful weeks, it was just my face and Dermalogica’s Overnight Retinol Repair, together at last.

Since this 0.5% serum was the one to take my retinol V-plates, I used it in conjunction with the Dermalogica Buffer Cream as recommended, just to be safe. After using the combo for two weeks, the fine lines I’ve picked up over my 25.5 years of earth-dwelling — from such activities as laughing and breathing — are definitely less visible. Bye, guys! Pls don’t come again! Like all the best products, this one gets to work on your face while you’re copping sleep. Guys, no joke, you will literally die* when you try this product.


Dr Dennis Gross Neck Emulsion


By this stage, I’d been using retinol as part of my daily skincare routine for 14 whole days, so you might call me a biiiit of an expert on the subject. Jokes! But Dennis certainly is, so I was pretty excited to rip the lid off his Ferulic Acid + Retinol Fortifying Neck Emulsion. And for justified reason. I have a fairly unhealthy obsession with keeping my décolletage forever young, and within a couple of weeks I noticed a big improvement in my skin’s texture and clarity. If you also wanna protect ya neck, I can’t recommend this more highly. 

My only concern? At this rate I’m going to look about 7-years-old at the end of this 12-week retinol experiment.


Eve Lom Time Retreat Face Treatment


This one gets bonus points, ‘cause 10 days into trialling it, the friendly dude at my local EzyMart told me that my skin was glowing as I was purchasing my bi-weekly block of Ritter Sport’s cornflake chocolate. If you’re reading this, thanks bud! Eve Lom Time Retreat made my skin feel positively effervescent, especially because it includes Allantoin — an anti-inflammatory ingredient that helps to get rid of redness — which is perf for my never-not-pink skin. Since it has a high retinol level, it’s especially imperative that you make BFFs with your sunscreen when using it.


Arcona A Vitamin Complex


I concede that my skin probably isn’t the best candidate for this test — I’m relatively young and have never had acne — but I do know that it’s never looked this good in its young, acne-free life. Arcona Vitamin A Complex took to my skin like Vegemite and butter do toast (read: swimmingly); it’s lightweight, absorbs quickly, and will brighten up your complexion tenfold. My skin is what you’d call “uneven”, and this product is what you’d call “my uneven skin’s saviour”. I used it 4 times a week, subbing in Dermalogica’s UltraCalming Serum on my days off, and noticed a pretty significant change in my dull skin. My thumbs are def up.


Verso Skincare Dark Spot Fix


While I’m not plagued with acne, I do get the occasional ~blemish~ and Verso Dark Spot Fix was an angel at helping to reduce the visibility of post-blemish scars. The price tag might be high, but definitely worth it, especially considering it’s not an all-over lotion. There was no irritation or flakiness to speak of, and my skin was beaming after using the product for two weeks.



Medik8 Youth Activating Cream


Ah, Medik8, you’ve done it again. My sensitive skin really appreciated the effects of their Youth Activating Cream; my fine lines were barely visible after two weeks, it was surprisingly v moisturising/easily absorbed, and the fragrance was light and fresh. Overall, my face looked way less like this and way more like this. The active ingredient was created in collaboration with a “superlab” in Korea, which goes a long way in explaining why the results are so bloody great. Koreans obvy know best when it comes to skincare.

Even though I know that Medik8 is at the forefront of anti-ageing skincare, the results of their cream still knocked my socks off.


Words, Madeleine Woon. Photography, Sarah Adamson. With thanks to Melanie Grant and Jocelyn Petroni