I tried No7’s controversial new retinol cream and here’s what happened

A few weeks ago I was sent an email from Boots saying their brand No7 was launching its first retinol product. Yes I absolutely did want to try a sample thank you very much.

I love No7, and I’ve had amazing results with one other brand’s retinol in the past. It gave me the best skin of my life – especially in one particular area of my face, which I call ‘The Swoop’, that in the past couple of months has looked really quite dire and unhappy.

*Said in your very best Marks Spencer’s advert voice*… This isn’t just a night cream review. This is a No7 Advanced Retinol 1.5% Complex Night Concentrate review.

Ah yes, I’m talking about that cream; the one splashed all over the media, plastered across social, picked on by influencers and their army of angry followers like it’s Khloe Kardashian’s weekly face transplant (which is no one’s business). We’ll come to that later. First: let’s chat retinols and what this little tube of cream is really all about.

You know that curve of cheekbone just beneath your eye, the lower orbital bone, which reaches up to your temple? That’s ‘The Swoop’, and it’s my obsession. I want it to look mannequin-smooth, springy and plump with a cellophane shine at all times, without having to buff, rub or dab on a highlighter. Recently it’s looked dry, bumpy and laced with a matrix of fine lines when I smile (and when I don’t). There’s a peppering of freckles of varying sizes caused by way too much sun. As the curve comes inwards towards the bridge of my nose, the pores get increasingly obvious.

Despite a really good skincare routine (hot-flannel cleansing morning and evening, anti-oxidant serums, eye cream and daily SPF50), I’ve been unwell, up and down on the anxiety rollercoaster for 12 solid weeks and I’ve drunk alcohol almost every single evening of lockdown. I’m exercising more than ever, but all that sweating and grimacing can’t be helping. So it’s all contributed to a very, very un-glowy Swoop. I need to add some serious clout in there and a punchy little retinol is just the thing.

Why retinol? It’s the gold standard in anti-ageing and skin conditioning and from past experience it’s the one product I know will rectify all my niggles currently sitting on my Swoop zone – fine lines, pigmentation, rough texture and dehydration. In a nutshell, retinol is a powerful member of the Vitamin A-based ingredients family called retinoids. Within the family there are milder versions (for instance retinyl palminate and granactive retinoid). Brands usually blend a bespoke cocktail of retinoids and often add a percentage to show how potent the formula is, usually between 0.2% and 1%.

However, high percentage doesn’t mean better. The Inkey List Retinol Serum is the one I had incredible results with: it has 1% RetiStar (a ‘stabilised’ retinol that’s not as powerful as 1% retinol) and 0.5% granactive retinoid, and my dry skin handled it perfectly.

Meanwhile Drunk Elephant’s A-Passioni Retinol Cream with a full 1% retinol was just too much for me and I couldn’t stand the flaky, sensitive skin phase that can occur in the first few uses. Had I kept with it a little longer I may have seen the same benefits as colleagues who rave about it, but I found no joy in using it.

So, here we are now and news of No7’s upcoming launch felt like sublime skincare serendipity. This is a brand I really trust: they run thorough clinical trials and are at the forefront of formula technology. I’ve met some of their scientists and practically handed over my CV they were so inspiring to be around; and every product I’ve used from their ranges has been impressive. The formula sounded ideal too. It’s 0.3% retinol (a percentage specifically chosen because No7’s trials showed it produced effective results with little irritation) mixed with other milder retinoids and active ingredients.

For the first week I used it one night on, one night off, and although my skin felt warm and a touch ‘flare-y’ in the initial few minutes after application, I didn’t apply anything on top as I wanted to trial it as thoroughly as possible with no interference.

However, the packaging states you absolutely can layer on your usual serum and cream and it won’t affect the retinol’s efficacy. I didn’t see any difference after week one, which I fully expected: retinol works at the same rate as your natural cell turnover, so visible improvement doesn’t show up for at least a month.

By week two, I was using it nightly. My skin felt comfortable each time and once I got my head around not flooding my skin with my usual night products, the lack of quenchy comfort didn’t matter anymore: I was on a one-way retinol train and I wasn’t going back. Faster than expected, I could see my Swoop getting noticeably fresher. Not glowy or reflective yet, but less dull and dry.

And then, suddenly, in the midst of my trials, this little tube of excellent cream got the shit kicked out of it in a very political playground. Most of the rage was aimed at questionable ‘waiting list’ of 100,000 people (which was actually a prize draw), as well as the rather misleading name of “Retinol 1.5% Complex”. I agree this marketing ploy fools customers into thinking they’re getting a hard-core retinol product, when in fact they’re getting just 0.3% retinol. And in the skincare world, details are everything. Whether it’s percentage, packaging, ethical practice or ingredients transparency, they’re the things that get torn apart very publicly and viciously, especially on social media.

But you know what? Every single beauty brand out there plays a marketing speak game in some way or another, and this product is currently selling at a rate of 1 tube every 1.8 seconds so it’s paid off pretty well.

It’s a perfect starting point for new retinol users, as it’s not too strong, and it’s potent enough to make a difference within an advanced skincare routine. I’m disappointed by the £34 price tag when Inkey’s retinol is just £9.99; but the sleek tube and hygienic nozzle make up for it.

Now, three and a half weeks in, I don’t know why they tried so hard with waiting lists and the inflated percentage. This product is excellent and could have rested on its impressive formulation laurels alone. Some of the small pigmentation marks have faded slightly, the fine lines aren’t quite so papery, I’m using less concealer all over my face too. As for The Swoop? I looked at myself in the mirror yesterday and, thanks to some gorgeous morning light, it was if I’d smudged a dot of glossy Vaseline on the tops of my cheekbones. That’s what I’m after. That real skin ‘glow’ that equals refined toned, better hydration and invigorated cells. 1.5%… 0.3%… Whatevs. I’m 100% obsessed.

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