Retinol Testing: Proceed With Caution

a-passioni review

I royally overdid it on the retinol-testing front over Christmas and New Year. Most people overdo it on the food and booze, but not me; I prefer to live life more dangerously and become the world’s most idiotic guinea pig. This guinea pig went in all guns blazing – squeak squeak! – and tried out a relatively high-powered retinol cream, neat, on four consecutive days, without reading the instructions properly.

My face pretty much fell off. It was Face/Off starring Nicholas Cage and John Travolta but with a special guest appearance from Ruth Crilly. Flaking, peeling, itching – I thought I had sunburn except that I hadn’t been in the sun. I thought that somehow I’d scorched my face opening and closing the AGA ovens when I was cooking Christmas dinner. (World’s most idiotic guinea pig actually Googled to see whether that was a possibility. It didn’t occur to me that I might have been enthusiastically basting myself in something that should probably be used quite carefully and in small amounts.)

And it isn’t the product’s fault – the product (the new A-Passioni retinol cream from Drunk Elephant) did exactly what it’s supposed to do; I just think it would have liked to introduce itself a little more slowly and demurely than the way I forced it to introduce itself.

Baby steps is what A-Passioni would have no doubt preferred; A-Passioni might have liked being buffered with a bit of face cream and given a cautious tester session on an inconspicuous area of skin. A-Passioni would no doubt have appreciated being diluted down a little and maybe only used twice a week for the first week instead of four whole days on the trot.

A-Passioni should have been treated like a girl in a Jane Austin novel who’s coming of age – sent to a few dances, taken to a couple of tea parties, pulled back from society for a day or two in between each outing to avoid overexposure…

I basically sent poor A-Passioni to a debutante ball wearing nothing but crotchless pants and a sex harness and got Brian Blessed to announce her arrival through a megaphone.

Oh dear. But at least this face product actually does something. Which is one in the eye for Mr AMR who likes to proclaim, regularly, that beauty products don’t do anything whatsoever and it’s all in my head. This opinion based on a documentary he watched in 1986 where a scientist said that all serums were just washing-up liquid in a tube and that they simply tightened your face to get rid of the wrinkles.

Not that the aim of retinols is to make your face itchy and flaky; retinol is something of a skincare superstar, really, hence all of the commotion surrounding it. It tackles multiple signs of ageing and does this very well indeed – fine lines, deeper lines, loss of brightness, uneven skin tone, scarring, acne, there’s pretty much nothing it won’t at least attempt to fix.

But it can be also be skincare dynamite, depending on how it’s used and at what strength. If you have no experience with it then it’s wise to be relatively cautious and follow whatever retinol product you’re applying with some kind of buffer – a rich-but-gentle face cream like CeraVe’s moisturiser or any of the sensitive skin creams from La Roche-Posay. Do this once and then leave it a few days before gradually increasing the frequency of the application and reducing the amount of cream you buffer it with.

It sometimes surprises me how many potent products there now are in the mainstream beauty offering. Acid peels that would just about strip paint, Vitamin C serums that will have you glowing as orange as an Oompa Loompa. For the people who have been out of the beauty loop for a few years, it’s almost terrifying how effective many of the (easily-obtainable, actually quite affordable) products are all of a sudden.

Proceed with caution, is what I say. With all of it. Peels pads, AHA toners, resurfacing serums, they work absolute wonders to brighten and smooth but if you’ve never used them before then start slowly and tentatively; imagine the skincare equivalent of trying to cross a creaky floor without waking a sleeping baby. It’s better to take it slowly, feeling with your toes in the dark for impending dangers – squeaky toys, animated battery-operated crabs, pieces of lego – than try to make a run for it all in one go.

Question, one that I’ve had on my mind for a few years now: do you think that products containing acids and retinol at a certain strength should have some sort of universal sign on them to make sure that people read the instructions? Not like a skull and crossbones sign or anything negative, because these are wonderful ingredients that give great, accessible, affordable results…but something else. The explosive emoji, perhaps – something positive but eye-catching enough to make people take note?

Because I do wonder what happens when someone with absolutely no beauty knowledge whatsoever goes home with some peel pads they’ve picked up, or an acid toner that they then use twice a day every day because they’ve replaced their normal, “so-inactive-it’s-basically-water” toner with it. You’d like to hope that people would read the blurb but I’d wager that many people don’t. Ahem…

a-passioni review

(links marked * are affiliate links, for more info see disclaimer below post)

Anyway, I’ll be back with a full review of Drunk Elephant’s A-Passioni* because it’s excellent, very effective stuff and I don’t think I’ve yet discovered its full potential. Apparently you can mix it with Drunk Elephant’s Vitamin C to form a knockout daytime serum and then mix with the brilliant T.L.C. Framboos* at night to form a supercharged night treatment…

I’m treading carefully at the moment because my face still feels a little fragile, but watch this space. I’m not sure whether it can get much brighter or smoother but I’m always up for a challenge…

You can find A-Passioni at SpaceNK here* – it’s £62.

retinol starter skincare

By the way, my best face-fixers when my skin was at its most angsty were the 10Balm from Indeed Labs (find it here*), the Cicaplast Baume B5 from La Roche-Posay (here*) and the Aloe Soothing Day Cream from The Body Shop (here*). I’ve also been testing out Dr Sam Bunting’s new moisturiser and though it’s not specifically targeting sensitive skin it’s actually incredibly gentle and has an almost matte finish, despite being nicely hydrating. You can find that online here.


DISCLOSURE POLICY. Posts published after 24th January 2019: if the post contains gifted items or affiliate links then it is indicated clearly beneath the title. Posts published prior to this will have a disclosure within the body of the post and then an asterisk * marking all affiliate links. If the content is a paid-for AD then it is marked as an AD in the title. For more information on disclosure please read here. 



  1. Nav
    June 19, 2019 / 7:57 pm

    Do not. I repeat do not mix it with the Framboos. My skin is a mess right now. Peeling, flaking, scarring. I cried one night after that happened and IT BURNT.

  2. Dawn
    January 25, 2019 / 8:02 pm

    Late to the party but I want to agree wholeheartedly with you about some type of coding or warnings on skin care products. I’ve been using TCA from Platinum Skin Care with great results but I read all I could before diving in. There’s skin prep that should be done beforehand and follow-up care as well. I imagine these acids could cause some serious damage if not used properly. I love that they’re available but, yeah, more info on the packaging could be valuable.

  3. January 20, 2019 / 5:44 pm

    Ruth, that made me cackle pretty hard! I have this too and even with baby steps, I’m still flaking and itching. The product itself doesn’t burn or hurt but stuff I use after the next day or two does if it’s actives. I’ve been using it once every 4 or 5 days! I thought this fifth time would be the charm but a still peeled a little. I’ve been using SR Luna for years and used regular old prescription in my teens so I figured I could take it.

    • January 20, 2019 / 6:11 pm

      Just peeled with the Kate Somerville one too!! x

  4. akanta
    January 15, 2019 / 4:18 am

    Your skin is truly glowing inside out. I had issues with uneven skin tone for a while till my friend introduced me to SkinbyEve. She has the best products I have ever tried and they are organic, all natural skin products. Black Soap, Body Lotion, Body OIl…ooooohhh that Body Oil. Please visit the site if you can

  5. Beth Mac
    January 12, 2019 / 5:07 pm

    I also just took delivery of the Drunk Elephant Retinol. Thankfully I read your post before ploughing in. I have used The Ordinary and La Roche Posay retinol products for around 12 months with no sensitivity or issues. Used a pea-sized blob of the DE stuff 3 nights ago and my usually robust skin was stinging the next day as soon as I put any other serum or moisturiser on and red and patchy. So I guess I’ll wait for it to calm down before I go in again. Secretly pleased it’s doing “something” but my husband thinks I’m bonkers!!! It should come with a health warning
    If you could let us know how you’re getting on now using it, that would be great!

    • January 13, 2019 / 10:13 am

      Honestly, I’ve yet to go back in. Maybe tonight…. : )

      • Beth Mac
        January 13, 2019 / 10:14 pm

        Good luck! Another few days off for me until my skin stops flaking. As if January wasn’t bad enough

  6. January 11, 2019 / 5:47 am

    Wonderful post! The worst is when retinol gets on the lips (or the lip corners…) So sensitive! and please update new post day to day , knowledgeable content , thankyou for sharing .

  7. Susannah
    January 10, 2019 / 8:38 am

    I came here for the comments, as usual it did not disappoint. A great source of entertainment and of course beauty content. Thanks Ruth.

  8. "Hilda Corners"
    January 9, 2019 / 11:05 pm

    I may have to shell out for this stuff.

    My face is what’s known as “resistant” … it doesn’t react to anything*. I can use Paula’s 10% glycolic, followed by TO’s 2% retinol emulsion, and have my face do the equivalent of a contented sigh.

    I’d never, ever recommend this routine to anyone else! Just because my skin can take it doesn’t mean anyone else’s will. And I started very slowly with a weaker retinol (and no acid), just in case.

    * Except for Tarte’s Maracuja concealer, which gave me puffy eyes … right before a job interview.

  9. Ros
    January 9, 2019 / 8:13 pm

    Oh Ruth – the same thing happened to me with the Murad retinol serum. I’ve used lots of over the counter products before – Ordinary, Pestle & Mortar, Elizabeth Arden to name a few, with no problems but no really noticeable results so I thought I’d try something stronger as recommended by Caroline Hirons. I looked like a lizard! It was SO sore as well & had to stop everything except cleanser & copious amounts of moisturiser. My foundation wouldn’t go on and I had big red dry patches all over! II messaged Caroline & she said ‘Stop’. My concern is that will I ever be able reap the benefits of retinol and see real results?

  10. Susan
    January 9, 2019 / 7:34 pm

    Well, that’s sorted my ‘what do I get with my Christmas space nk voucher’ dilemmas!
    Many moons ago, I got Ren’s Glycolic mask free with my vogue subscription. Left it on a little longer than recommended and burnt the face off myself. It did warn me not to leave it on for more than 10 minutes but I knew best…

    • January 9, 2019 / 9:36 pm

      Whooooooooo! Yes I imagine that was sore!

  11. Katerina
    January 9, 2019 / 1:30 pm

    The Jane Austin part made me laugh out loud, at the office no less!!!
    A retinol treatment has been on my mind for some time now and I’ve been watching out for a strong one to make sure there will be “visible results” and I’ve not just been a “marketing victim”, as my husband likes to call me. Was 1% ok or should I go higher? I saw something with as high as 3% in it, that’s what I’ll go for on my quite sensitive and allergy prone skin!!! After this post, I shall be starting with the La Roche Posay Redermic R 0.3% retinol, proceeding with caution and checking the instructions very very carefully. My face and I thank you!

  12. January 9, 2019 / 9:56 am

    I had the worst reaction to retinol when I was prescribed EpiDuo (adapalene & benzoyl peroxide) by my GP. It didn’t help that my GP told me not to use moisturiser! Next time I want to try something like that I’m going to ask a dermatologist because GPs (at least mine) don’t seem to know what they are doing with skin. Although it will be a few years before I’m looking in to retinol for anti-aging & my acne has cleared up since then. I’m remember to be cautious if I do decide to try retinol.

      January 18, 2019 / 6:12 pm

      I am looking at getting this for my son’s acne from the Boots website , did it work for you? He has awful blackheads and spots under the skin as well as fresh spots . I’ve been getting him to use azelic acid from The ordinary but the blackheads are so stubborn .

  13. Alex
    January 9, 2019 / 7:44 am

    Youch! As a teenager I had regular breakouts and always wished there was something that would make my face peel off, and a fresh unblemished one would reveal itself underneath, but this sounds pretty brutal!

    Do you know of a good retinol product for beginners that’s suitable for sensitive (ish) skin? I’d love to try one but I’m scared it’ll burn my face off Xx

    • January 9, 2019 / 1:20 pm

      Yeah the Elizabeth Arden capsules are lovely and I’ve found the Beauty Pie cream with vitamin C to be rather nice. In fact that’s my favourite so far! x

    • Marine
      January 10, 2019 / 6:12 am

      I’m using PCC retinol for sensitive skin and it is great! I started slowly with 2 a week and increased it every week. Now I’m using it everyday, my skin is transformed! I will be moving to 0.5 retinol next month!

    • Heather
      January 20, 2019 / 8:47 pm

      Hi Alex,
      There are a couple of super gentle retinols in oil that you might want to look into: Pestle & Morter or Jordan Samuel Skin. Good luck!

  14. Alice Bachini
    January 8, 2019 / 11:29 pm

    I’m used to retinol products but starting on Differin, and trying to get to sleep with random patches of face feeing like they’re being gently sandpapered is driving me nuts. When you say buffer, do you mean with the moisturiser on top or underneath the retinol? I’d really like to make this stuff work if possible. Thanks!

    • January 9, 2019 / 1:21 pm

      Mixed in or on top is what I do! x

      • Alice Bachini
        January 9, 2019 / 4:58 pm

        Thanks! Very useful post, I haven’t seen this tackled elsewhere and searching only led to a minefield of contradictions.

  15. Sarah
    January 8, 2019 / 9:59 pm

    So much this. I was prescribed Differin on New Year’s Eve. In this case I did actually follow the instructions religiously (even though I would normally build up, I applied every night as instructed) It did not even sting for around 5 days. Then it hit. Yesterday was my first day back at work and my face practically fell off. What a Monday.

  16. Elisabeth
    January 8, 2019 / 8:37 pm

    Regarding your thoughts on what happens when someone with absolutely no beauty knowledge whatsoever buys products with actives: I was recently browsing the website of a health and beauty retailer when I noticed a new toner and many, many one star reviews. It turns out the toner contains glycolic acid and the description advises to use twice daily!

  17. Abigail
    January 8, 2019 / 8:07 pm

    I’ve been using Retin- A/ tretinoin for many years now and people are constantly amazed when they find out my age! I have to admit, my skin does look great and it’s still firm and wrinkle free. If I could only have two skincare items, I’d choose tretinoin/ Retin – A and a sunscreen, that’s all I really need. Keep going with it Ruth, the earlier you start the better as it will keep your skin firm and glowing and as you now know, build up slowly! Even if just twice weekly, bend the skin, don’t break it was the best advice I had on starting, that you want a bit of a reaction but not too much and build up the use as your skin adjusts, then eventually you can use nightly or every other night.

    • January 9, 2019 / 1:22 pm

      Yes, definitely keeping on with this now. My skin feels so good! xx

  18. Sally Alexander
    January 8, 2019 / 7:14 pm

    I really did laugh reading this, you’re posts are very funny! Cheered up my dry January!

  19. Julie Peel
    January 8, 2019 / 6:47 pm

    62 quid!!!!??? Try a 1.0% retinol serum from The Ordinary. Does exactly the same for Under a Tenner. AND they do a 0.5% and a 2.0% version. 62 quid, I ask you?

    • river
      January 9, 2019 / 4:27 pm

      i absolutely love the ordinary overall, but my skin can only tolerate one of their retinoid offerings (the 2% emulsion) because all of the others are squalane based, and my skin hates squalane SO much. huge, angry, red cystic pimples emerge any time i use a product with any squalane at all, especially when it’s higher up in the ingredients list. also, half of their retinoid products are just that, granactive retinoid, and not traditional full-strength retinol. it has been useful for me to use these first to allow my skin to become acquainted before introducing full-strength (and full-irritation) retinol, but i’m going to have to branch out to another brand for that need soon because all of their retinol products are squalane based >__< i honestly LOVE the emulsion very much, and i wish they would make higher strength versions because i would use them forever if they did.

      the only DE product i use is the c-tango eye cream, and i think i’ve found my soul mate. it is absolutely worth the $$$. i’m thinking of splurging on a-passioni when this TO emulsion is empty because it contains a host of excellent complementary ingredients in addition to the retinol — three different peptides, vitamin F, and ceramides, to name just a few. that brand really does make absolutely excellent products and i will gladly venture out of my affordable obsession zone to use and benefit from them.

  20. Gail
    January 8, 2019 / 6:44 pm

    I got really confident using 0.05% prescription strength. Did I just enjoy the radiance? Nope. I ordered 0.1% prescription retinol. I have sat in meetings peeling strips off my face. I have had to ‘glue’ down my skin so I don’t look like a gecko shredding its skin!!! Lesson learned #goeasy

    • January 9, 2019 / 1:22 pm

      Hahaha. Oh God. Good description though! : )

  21. Terry
    January 8, 2019 / 5:54 pm

    I made the mistake of using the drunk elephant glycolic peel (can’t remember the exact name), the night after I’d used a retinol cream. Burned my face so badly, it took over a month to get rid of the alligator skin :( I still haven’t started using the retinol again! I need to get it out again. When this is gone, I’m trying the drunk elephant….

    • January 9, 2019 / 1:23 pm

      Crikey! I won’t be putting those on together then. TBH the mixing recommendations they give sound slightly scary!

  22. Elizabeth Milligan
    January 8, 2019 / 5:54 pm

    I made the big mistake of using the Drunk Elephant 3 days in a row on my neck, to sort of test te waters. Four days later I’m still itching! I’m going to use once/week for a month, then increase slowly. I LOVE that Cicaplast Balm by La-Roche Posay. Also the Clinique Redness Solutions cream is very soothing and really does bring down the redness.

  23. January 8, 2019 / 4:50 pm

    Retinol is such a wonder ingredient for me so I will definitely be grabbing A-Passioni in the future, while remembering to tread lightly with it. I’ve learned to really listen to my skin now, so we won’t be making it to third base for a while…thanks!

    Angela at Blush & Pearls

  24. January 8, 2019 / 4:24 pm

    Thank-you so much for the lovely mention, Ruth. Delighted you like it! Sam x

    • January 9, 2019 / 1:23 pm

      It’s great – well done! xx

  25. Johanna
    January 8, 2019 / 4:24 pm

    Hi Ruth,

    always a pleasure to read you, but I feel like some further tips for introducing Retinol slowly might be helpful (I am not a medical doctor, but I have used high concentration Retinol for a long time).

    Use it every four nights on top of skincare which had some time to absorb into the skin – this helps buffering the Retinol. Do this for the first month or so – skin needs more than a week or two to get used to Retinol, and you are really not doing your skin a favor by burning it’s surface off. Then slowly use fewer or thinner layers of cream underneath; do this again for a month or so. Then mix the Retinol with your cream and apply it like this for another month. Keep in mind, here we are still talking about using it every four nights! (if you use it less frequently though, your skin might simply not adjust to it)

    When you are at this point you can see whether you would like to stick to the ‘every fourth night’ rhythm, but apply the Retinol directly on the skin (then it is advisable that the skin is dry, not still wet from cleansing), or to speed up the rhythm to every third night. Either way, you should again give your skin a couple of weeks to adjust.

    Also, be careful with other actives while introducing Retinol; surely don’t use other actives with Retinol right away (you can try to do this once your skin surely is ok with Retinol).

    I know this sounds all super serious – but Retinol is very potent stuff and also not everyone tolerates it. So get to know it slowly. This does not mean that you have to wait for the benefits of Retinol, it will still work; but you won’t burn your face off.

  26. Sandra Miller
    January 8, 2019 / 3:06 pm

    If you use retinol you should always wear a sun cream during the day. I use a sun screen especially for the face. I don’t have any problems except in the winter it’s hard to buy the sun screen as chemists etc don’t seem to think people will want it during our winter time.

  27. Gillian Pidler
    January 8, 2019 / 1:08 pm

    Jane Austin and her crotchless panties bit made me laugh so hard I had to read it out to my daughter!!

    • January 8, 2019 / 2:01 pm

      I hope she’s of age! LOL xxx

    • January 8, 2019 / 2:01 pm

      Obscure but strangely right! x

  28. January 8, 2019 / 11:41 am

    This happened to me over Christmas with another brand of 1% retinol! I took to carrying Baume b5 around in my handbag and reapplying it throughout the day. I found Avene toleriane cream Riche good too and the matching cream face cleanser.

  29. Cath
    January 8, 2019 / 10:05 am

    I did the same thing!! Have used retinol before, and the first night I used DE I felt fine so then proceeded to use for another two nights! I also think because it’s a cream I slather it on instead of using like a serum…thus ending up ‘sunburnt’ across my cheeks! (I also used it a fourth night to just make sure that was the cause ‍♀️

    • January 8, 2019 / 2:03 pm

      Yes absolutely. The cream feels so comfortable to apply that you think it’s far more gentle than it is. It’s a lot more powerful than expected! x

  30. Helene
    January 8, 2019 / 12:52 am

    Wonderful post! The worst is when retinol gets on the lips (or the lip corners…) So sensitive!

    • Demigod
      January 9, 2019 / 1:37 am

      Ooooo…. Been there. Not fun, but sorta worth it in the end.

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