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Retinoids are one of the most widely researched ingredients for caring for maturing skin. Given this, it’s no surprise that this class of vitamin A derivatives is often touted as the gold standard for reducing the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, large pores, and more.

But before you head to your local drugstore, it’s important to understand how retinoids work and which retinoids are best suited for your skin care goals. Although many retinoids are available over the counter (OTC), your dermatologist can prescribe stronger formulas tailored to your needs.

Keep reading to learn how these products work, potential side effects, and more.

Retinoids are vitamin A derivatives. They work by neutralizing free radicals in the skin that may be causing collagen damage, overall reducing oxidative stress on the skin.

Retinoids also increase cell turnover in the skin, making way for new cell growth. According to an older but well-cited 2006 study, they can boost the production of hyaluronic acid and collagen in the skin and reduce the breakdown of collagen that already exists in the skin.

Collagen is essential to strong, youthful-looking skin. As you mature, your body begins to produce less collagen and elastin. Your body also begins to break down your collagen, elastin, and fat stores. This can contribute to more thin and sagging skin, fine lines, and wrinkles.

In addition to preserving your collagen stores, retinoids can also promote new collagen production.

This may help “fill in” or reduce the appearance of existing wrinkles and help prevent new ones from forming.

You may also see improvements in:

  • skin texture
  • hydration levels
  • tone
  • age spots
  • overall pigmentation

For retinoids to work, you must use them on a continuous basis. You may also need to switch products over time.

Remember

Retinoids are used to help reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. These types of wrinkles develop in the surface of your skin. If you’re trying to address deeper wrinkles, talk with your dermatologist to discuss the different options available to you.

The terms retinoids and retinol are often used interchangeably. Despite being fairly similar, there are a few differences between the two.

Retinol is a milder OTC class of retinoid. Retinol works in the same way that prescription retinoids do but is milder than its prescription counterparts.

While retinol can be very effective, it can take longer to yield results. This means that retinol is slightly weaker than prescription retinoids but still works to reduce the appearance of wrinkles and treat mild forms of acne and hyperpigmentation. It might just take longer than a prescription retinoid-based formula would.

There are 5 main types of retinoids used in the treatment of wrinkles:

  • Retinyl palmitate. This is the least-potent OTC retinoid. You may want to consider this option if you have sensitive or excessively dry skin and minimal wrinkling.
  • Retinaldehyde. This is an OTC retinoid that’s stronger than retinol. If you have sensitive or delicate skin, but still want to see more effects without a prescription, this may be a good option for you.
  • Retinol. This is the standard ingredient found in OTC retinoid products.
  • Tretinoin. This is a potent retinoid available by prescription only. You may want to consider this option if you’ve tried retinol and are seeking stronger pro-aging support.
  • Tazarotene. This is the most powerful retinoid, available by prescription only. If your skin tolerates retinoid products well and you’re looking for enhanced results, you may want to consider this option.
  • Adapalene. This retinoid is now available OTC. If you’re looking for an effective, affordable treatment without a prescription, you may want to give this option a try. It’s also the first FDA-approved OTC retinoid for acne.

How a retinoid is formulated can also affect how effective it is. For example, alcohol-based gels are considered the most effective formulations because of how easily the skin absorbs them. They’re often used for oily or acne-prone skin, though they can be drying.

If you have more mature or dry skin, you may react more favorably to the nourishing effects of cream-based retinoids.

You should always do a skin patch test before adding a new product to your routine:

  1. Apply a small amount of the product to your lower cheek or jawline every other night for a week followed by a moisturizer.
  2. If there’s no irritation or redness after a week, you can begin to use the product on a regular basis.
  3. Since retinoids can be irritating, you should start slowly (3 nights per week) and, after about 2 weeks, you can begin to increase your nightly usage.

Once the product has passed your patch test, begin applying a pea-sized amount every other night. Use it after cleansing and toning but before your nighttime moisturizer.

Retinoids are only used at night because of their strong effects and UV sensitivity. Make sure you wear sunscreen during the day to reduce your risk of side effects.

There is no shortage of skin care products on the market that include retinoids. Here are some of the different types of products that incorporate retinoids:

  • moisturizers
  • serums
  • face oils
  • intensive night treatments
  • eye creams
  • neck repair creams
  • hand serums
  • resurfacing treatments

Although retinoids are effective, their strength also has a downside: potential side effects. Dryness and irritation are possible, especially when you first start using the products.

Because of their ability to promote cell turnover, retinoids can cause some dryness and subtle peeling of the skin. Some retinoids can also make acne slightly worse before it improves. When new, healthy cells are brought to the surface of your skin, it can cause pores to clog and worsen breakouts. The purging process tends only to last a week or two.

You’re also more likely to experience side effects if you’re using multiple products for mature-looking skin at one time.

You should always do a patch test for any new products and introduce them into your routine one at a time. Try to space new additions out by 2 to 3 weeks at a time to allow your skin to adjust.

When introducing a new product, you may be able to reduce your risk of side effects by applying the product every other night and gradually working up to a nightly application.

You may also reduce your risk of side effects by using products with lower retinoid concentration and gradually increasing the strength as needed.

If you’re new to retinol, it’s recommended that you begin with an OTC product since they come in many concentrations. These products are generally less irritating and come in milder formulas. You can eventually work your way up to prescription retinoids from there.

If your side effects continue, you should stop using the product. You may need to switch to a different retinoid or try a different method to get the results you want.

Sunburn is another possible side effect of using retinoids. You can counteract these risk factors by wearing broad-spectrum sunscreen daily.

You also shouldn’t use retinoids if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding.

When beginning a retinol regimen, it’s best not to combine retinol with other potentially irritating treatments. Ingredients like alpha or beta hydroxy acids (AHAs or BHAs), benzoyl peroxide, and salicylic acid can further irritate dry, sensitive skin.

Once your skin has had time to adapt to adding retinoids into the mix, you may try using other acne treatments during the daytime and retinoids at night.

Dermatologists may use retinoids with oral antibiotics to combat acne. Retinoids can also be prescribed with other topical acne medications.

Before you combine treatments, consider talking with your dermatologist, especially if you have sensitive skin.

OTC retinoids are widely available at your local drugstore or beauty product outlet.

Here are some of the options to consider:

  • Murad Resurgence Retinol Youth Renewal Night Cream: Ideal for drier skin, this cream-based retinol helps reduce wrinkles while also improving skin tone. It also contains soothing peptides to decrease the risk of irritation.
  • RoC Retinol Correxion Night Cream: This daily use cream aims to provide a solution to reducing the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and dark circles. The non-comedogenic formula has been tested by dermatologists, and is reported to provide ample hydration to the skin.
  • Absolute JOI Skin Refining Night Oil: This oil contains a hydrating blend of vitamin C, vitamin E, and retinol to combat the appearance of aging. According to the brand, it’s best recommended for those who are looking to minimize mild acne, dark spots, and hyperpigmentation. But it can be used on all skin types, including sensitive skin.
  • Olay Regenerist Retinol 24 Facial Moisturizer: This formula uses a blend of vitamin B3 and retinol to penetrate the skin for 24 hours of hydration. It claims to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles and dark spots while also promoting smoothness and brightness.

If you’re not seeing any results after a few months of using an OTC retinoid, it may be time to see your dermatologist for a prescription version.

Prescription retinoids are stronger and may be more effective than their OTC counterparts at reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. This means they’re also more likely to cause side effects.

Your dermatologist may prescribe one of the following prescription retinoid treatments:

  • adapalene (Differin) (also available OTC)
  • tazarotene (Tazorac)
  • tretinoin (Retin-A)

Tretinoin is considered to be the most widely used prescription retinoid treatment for wrinkles. It comes in the form of a gel. During use, you must wear sunscreen daily to protect your skin from sunburn and photoaging.

Retinoids are promising products in the world of pro-aging support, cosmetics, and drugs. But patience is key. It may take up to 6 months for wrinkles to improve after using retinoids, and you may not see full results for up to 1 year.

If you fail to get the results you want after several months of use, it’s time to see your dermatologist — your best resource for all of your skin-related questions and concerns.

They may be able to recommend prescription retinoids or other methods, like botox or fillers, to help you reach your skin care goals.