Oily skin hacks: My journey trying retinol

Okay, so if you’re anything like me, you’re more than a little obsessed with your skin. I actually had it relatively easy as a teenager, in that I had the normal break outs or whatever with all the hormones, but I never had acne, or any sort of persistent skin problem, you know?

But when I turned 21, just when I thought I had gotten away easily, it all came crashing down. My face and neck exploded. New spots around my jaw, chin, forehead and cheeks every day. I was completely bewildered. Where had this come from? How had it happened?


woman wearing gold-colored ring

I was facing into my final year in college and I’d always had a fairly basic skin routine – some would even say a bad one. I still used make-up wipes (*shudder*), I used whatever cleanser I liked the look of on the shelves and I used the same moisturiser I’d been using since I was fourteen – shout out to Simple!

Simply put, I’d never needed to research what my skin condition was, because it had never presented much of a problem. I was always vaguely aware I had oily skin, but the only reason that registered was because I had to invest in coverage powder to tamp down my foundation for a night out.

In short, I was very clueless and very unprepared when the skin monster did hit.

Side view of blond woman in white blouse standing in bathroom looking closely at face skin in small mirror

So I did what any skin-idiot would do – I researched. At first, I looked to natural remedies, and when those failed, I started researching the ingredients in my current face wash and moisturiser. I quickly realised all the important information and steps in my skincare routine that I was missing out on – toner, serum, exfoliator, to name a few – and how bad for my current skin condition my usual skincare was.

I promptly went overboard and completely overloaded my skin with about twenty different products in a frantic attempt to rid my skin of its demons. This, of course only irritated it further, the pores clogged, the oil production increased and the spots just kept coming. The one thing that did help to calm my skin a little was the Avène Thermal Spring Water Spray. It didn’t clear it by any means, but it did calm it down a little when it flared up.

Eventually, after many tried and failed skincare experiments, I went to a Dermatologist. Sometimes, you just have to leave it to the experts. I learned so many things in that session, with the poor Dermatologist who literally recoiled in horror when I told her my skin routine.

Man With White Powder on Face

I learned a lot and bought a ton of their products while I was there, which lasted for about four months. But it all cost an absolute bomb, which I simply couldn’t justify spending on skincare at that age and stage. My skin did definitely improve with the products and my breakouts and irritation were less severe. But they were still happening.

I was used to them by then, almost a year on from the initial break out, but what was becoming an infinitely worse problem was the leftover scarring. It showed up bright and evident and I couldn’t figure out how to get rid of it. I had found some alternatives for the expensive dermatology products, through much experimentation – this time with a much better skincare education – and found that natural products worked well with my oily skin. But moisturisers were still a problem. How did I find something that would sufficiently hydrate my skin but not be overwhelmingly creamy or oily? Products with citrus fruits that weren’t oil based were good solutions for a while but eventually it became clear that my skin wasn’t getting the hydration it needed. My scars and pigmentation were showing up like never before, my blackheads were unbelievably persistent and no matter what combo of products I used, nothing seemed to be working.

Serious young lady touching face while looking at mirror in bathroom

I had resigned myself to a life of semi-okay semi-bad skin, until I heard the magic word; Retinol.

Well, at first it wasn’t so magic. I heard it in relation to older women starting to use it to get rid of wrinkles and fine lines etc. I was twenty-four. I wasn’t quite there yet. But I began to hear more and more talk of it being used as a topical treatment, and then about it being beneficial to introduce it into your skincare routine in your mid-twenties.

It was time to research again.

(If you have sensitive skin, suffer from rosacea, eczema, psoriasis, inflammation, dryness, sensitivity or a delicate complexion, it is not advised that you use retinol as it may irritate already sensitive skin.)

Retinol is a form of retinoids, which varies in strength. It’s a derivative of Vitamin A and the strength of the form of retinoid depends on the concentration of the Vitamin A present. Their order of strength from strongest (top) to weakest (bottom) is;

  • Reinoic acid (also known as Retin-A or Tretinoin) which is prescription grade and is used to treat severe acne as well as ageing.
  • Retinaldehyde
  • Retinol
  • Retinol esters (like retinyl palmitate).

Young female with bare shoulders and towel on head holding small mirror and checking skin with it in bathroom

Because this derivative is a very strong substance, it needs to be mixed with something else, and shouldn’t be applied directly to the skin like a toner*. It’s much more powerful than that. Its benefits include;

  • Improved cell turnover
  • Collagen stimulation
  • Increased elastin production
  • Increase firmness and plumpness
  • Improve uneven skin tone
  • Treat pigmentation
  • Smooth skin surface

*Always do a patch test before applying to the face

Because it’s so strong, you need to give you skin time to adjust to the introduction of this product. It’s recommended that it’s only used once or twice a week at first in order to allow your skin to adjust and to avoid flaking, redness and drying out the skin. Avoid using it on places where the skin is thin, like your undereyes and around the nostrils.

So I have started my retinol journey, and have decided to take all of you along with me;

Week 1, Day 1: Tuesday

Woman in White Brassiere Sitting on Chair

I applied my new retinol serum from Olay last night, using just the recommended pea size amount and applied it to my face, avoiding thin skin areas. I had just cleansed and done a clay manuka honey face mask – something I do once every couple of weeks.

The Olay retinol serum contained one of the lower grade retinols, ‘retinyl propionate’. It described itself as a ‘non-greasy serum for daily use containing Vitamin B3 plus Retinoid Complex’. Its directions read; Use in the evening. Massage serum evenly over face and neck.

My mother – who I hadn’t told I was using retinol or making any changes to my usual routine commented immediately the next morning that my skin looked smooth and clear. She actually thought that I was wearing makeup. I had thought that morning looking in the mirror that the effects were pretty immediate, but I also wondered if it was just the hype and wondered if I had fallen victim to the placebo affect. But hearing someone else say it – someone who hadn’t known I was trying something new - made me think this must be doing something at least?

My skin felt plumper, more hydrated and firmer than it has in quite a long time. Some dead skin that has been around my mouth and chin that I couldn’t remove with exfoliators had greatly improved, the skin no longer feeling rough and looking dull, but actually felt smoother. My skin actually had a bit of a glow that wasn’t oil.

However, I did have a few new blemishes around my mouth – which isn’t that unusual – but I also had one on the side of the bridge of my nose, which is unusual for me. However, this could be put down to the fact that I had also tried a new moisturiser the night before, which was a little heavier than what I was used to.

I decided to wait until the weekend came around before trying the serum again, as experts recommend a slow introduction of it into your routine.

Week 1, Day 6: Monday

Free stock photo of acne, adolescent, adult

So last night (Sunday) I decided to try another round of the serum. My skin had felt and looked pretty good in the few days in between tries, but that first immediate glow was gone. The blemishes disappeared fairly quickly, seeming to be just surface kind of spots rather than the deep ones I used to get.

When I woke up Monday morning, I wasn’t overwhelmed. I guess maybe I was expecting super obvious results again this time, but I didn’t notice any significant change. There was however, another surface kind of spot on my chin again, though less this time than last time. Again, that disappeared fairly quickly.

The skin on my forehead and cheeks seemed a little smoother maybe, and I had noticed the skin along my jaw had lost some of the pigmentation and discolouration leftover from months of spots. Because my skin is quite fair, any pigmentation shows up very easily.

The next morning, Tuesday, however, was when I saw the real difference. I didn’t use any more retinol overnight, but I did do a gentle exfoliation the night before and woke up super smooth skin. What I really noticed was the lack of large pores along my nose and cheeks. Usually, those seem really obvious to me, though I know no one else notices them like I do, but they seemed to have shrunk or at least diminished a little.

My skin seemed to be taking in more moisture, rather than my moisturiser just sitting on the surface, not absorbing, so it looked healthy and hydrated. I don’t know if that was my new moisturiser or the layers of dead skin that the retinol was clearing, but either way, I was happy.

Week 2, Day 9: Thursday

woman in black shirt smiling

No spots this time! I woke up to clear skin – aside from my usual – and definitely noticed how much brighter my skin was this time around.

Across my forehead, which to be fair had never been a particularly problematic area, was especially smooth and clear. Again, my pores along my nose looked reduced and less blackhead-y and my skin was definitely changed from the dull and uneven tones of a week and a half ago.

The evening out of my skin tone is probably what I’m most excited by – I love makeup, but I also really love the natural glowy look, something that’s hard to achieve with a full face of foundation needed to cover up pigmentation.

Week 2, Day 14: Tuesday

woman holding white plastic bottle

We are at the end of this little experiment!

I am definitely so glad I discovered retinol, but I’ve also realised that this is not an overnight fix. It has 100% improved my skin tone, clearness and pigmentation, but my skin had its ups and downs with it. Retinol is something that needs to be built up to daily use with, and the first while – like these first two weeks – might be a little all over the place. Consistency is key with skin, so using this serum intermittently is perhaps not the way it is meant to be used, as the days in between using the retinol, I’ve noticed its effects in some areas, like brightness and smoothing fade a little.

However, at this point in my skin journey, I feel like retinol is exactly what I need. My skin was stuck at an in-between phase of being out of the worst of my breakouts, but still seeing the effects of them. I’ve noticed my scars fading a little bit with each use and that slow steady process is more valuable to me than a quick fix that will work for a day and then leave me in the dust, like some witch hazel products can. Retinol is most definitely a journey – and not one that will be complete after two weeks (!) – and I’m so glad I’ve discovered this fab skin helper!