Now that the ravages of winter weather are fading and summer’s heat hasn’t fully kicked in, it’s the perfect time to get your skin into shape. During Skin Gym Week on bodyandsoul.com.au, we’re sharing the tips and tools improve your skin health- from face-friendly meal plans to the most effective professional treatments, to the best and buzziest products, it’s everything you need to get the best skin of your life – from the inside-out.

For a long time retinol has been the Holy Grail ingredient in skincare, a go-to for treating all types of skin conditions from acne and pigmentation to wrinkles and sagging skin. But aside from its benefits, retinol can be confusing, particularly because there’s so many variants on the market including percentages and prescriptions – along with a truckload of information (or in many cases, misinformation). All of which leads to it being misused, so you may not be seeing results or if you’re like me, seeing irritation.

I thought my first encounter with retinol would leave my skin looking like an actual baby’s bottom, but instead I woke up with a dry, flaky, red, itchy face and I bet I’m not alone. Retinol can be intimidating thanks to it’s powerful results, so let’s go back to beauty school and back to basics.

What is retinol and how does it work?

Derived from vitamin A (FYI celebrity facialist Jocelyn Petroni is a big fan), retinol is one of the many different kinds of ‘retinoids’ available. It’s a powerful nutrient with antioxidant properties that help reduce free radical damage (the bad guy that causes premature ageing).

Proteins found in our skin work as ‘retinoid receptors’ and distribute the ingredient into the skin triggering collagen production. Some skin types won’t have enough receptors, which can show up as a sign of irritation, the same goes for using a formulation that’s too strong. But with controlled use you can change the way your skin reacts.

What’s all the fuss about?

It’s fair to say that vitamin A is the most studied anti-ageing ingredient in the world, possibly the most studied ingredient full-stop. According to a Harvard Medical School article “retinoids reduce fine lines and wrinkles by increasing collagen production, stimulate new blood vessels to enhance skin tone and even fade pigmentation and spots.” The workhorse ingredient has also been applauded for treating acne, diminishing pores and smoothing skin. It really is a miracle worker.

What are the risks associated with retinol?

Using retinol requires acclimatisation and it’s important to start off slowly and work your way up. A good starting point is a pea-sized amount of a low percentage – around .01-.03%, once or twice a week. From there you can customise your strength and work your way up to a higher dose or frequency – with prescription formulas the strongest on the market.

If you’re like me and you’ve been too chicken to try it let me introduce you to buffering. It’s an application technique that combines retinol with moisturiser to dilute the formula and hydrate skin at the same time, resulting in less irritation. The next step up from that is picking up a bottle that uses a time-release formulation; ideal for skin prone to sensitivity. They work by releasing the retinol slowly over the course of a night instead of as one big hit as soon as you sweep it over your face.

Whatever option you prefer, sensitivity is a side effect, especially to the sun so be sure to apply at night and wear an SPF during the day. Luminous skin awaits!

Words by Kelsey Ferencak for Body & Soul