"I fix people's skin," esthetician Shani Darden told us simply when we asked about when we asked about the ins and outs of her high-profile gig earlier this year. It's a concise (and modest) way of putting her role as Hollywood's go-to guru for an ageless complexion. For an industry that still stays relatively hush-hush about how to maintain lasting visible youth, fresh-faced celebs like Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Jessica Alba, Chrissy Teigen, Lea Michele, January Jones, and countless others are quick to credit Darden for their glow. "As a client, I want the skin of whomever I'm working with," Huntington-Whiteley explained in an interview with Darden last year. "When I saw yours, I realized you know what you're talking about."
That's true. Darden makes it her mission to stay up to date on the world's most powerful active ingredients and technology—and RHW's own face should serve as proof that she gets mega results from this science-driven approach. The good news is that the facialist's practices extend beyond her star-studded appointment book into an eponymous skincare line so that we mere mortals can experience the red carpet treatment at home. And within this range, no product has been awarded quite the holy grail status of Darden's Retinol Reform ($95).
This is the part where we admit that retinol can be a little confusing. Consider me an example: My earliest associations with retinol are the tubes of retinoid cream I remember spotting on my mother's vanity growing up—a foreign ingredient that I could certainly ignore for many more years. That childish observation stuck with me even as said years have continued to pass, and as I settle into my mid-20s, retinol has admittedly remained in the most overlooked reaches of my mind—something far too potent for my still relatively young skin.
So I was a little shaken when I learned that in truth, I should have begun using it a few years ago. Retinol is coveted as an anti-aging formula because of its powerful ability to stimulate collagen production and skin cell turnover, effectively resurfacing the complexion's surface area to uncover brighter, tauter, and more even skin. Because it's so potent, it's something to be used in moderation, particularly if you have sensitive or dryness-prone skin. But it's nonetheless an effective preventative product, helping stave off fine lines before they even begin. (Not to mention that it targets hyperpigmentation and other signs of existing damage as well.)
So if I was going to start using a retinol, why not make it the one that RHW says helped cure her problem skin? The one that Lea Michele says she "can't live without"? And that is the prequel to the story of how Darden's Retinol Reform earned a permanent spot on my vanity.
Instagram user @rosiehw
Instagram user @shanidarden
I'm typically a little wary when I try new products, mostly because I never want to overhype something that couldn't possibly deliver everything it says it does. In this case, my expectations were high—a product can't have that many high-profile endorsements and not be the real deal—though I worried that it might be too much for my dryness-prone skin. So I started slow, applying just a drop or two during my nighttime skincare routine a few nights a week and taking all other necessary precautions: doubling down on SPF (retinol can leave skin extra sun-sensitive) and never using other highly active ingredients like vitamin C or AHAs at the same time.
I would say my diligence paid off, but really, it's just the product. The improvements I saw in mere days were subtle in and of themselves: the sort of thing that I notice when I've spent a little too much time with my magnifying mirror. But they amalgamated to a very obvious boost to my overall complexion. The teeny whispers of forehead lines that I had first noticed a few months prior all but dissolved entirely. The stubborn acne scar on my chin disappeared within a week. There's an overall brightness to my skin that has edged me from using minimal foundation to ditching it altogether.
The funny thing is I recognize the glow. It's the lit-from-withinness that inspires me to google "January Jones diet" every time the actress posts yet another makeup-free selfie on Instagram. (It's not salmon; it's Retinol Reform.) When I interviewed Jessica Alba last year, it was immediately apparent to me that her airbrushed-looking skin was not just the result of great makeup. (Coincidentally enough, Alba went on to emphatically refer me to Darden during our chat. "[She's] changing people's lives," she said.)
It's a distinctive look—the look of a complexion meeting its full potential.