How to Use Retinoids for Wrinkles

Medically reviewed by Catherine Hannan, MD on February 1, 2018Written by Kristeen Cherney on February 1, 2018

What are retinoids?

Retinoids are one of the most widely researched anti-aging ingredients available. Given this, it’s no surprise that this class of vitamin A derivatives is often touted as the gold standard for reducing 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.

How do retinoids work?

Retinoids are made from vitamin A derivatives. They work by neutralizing free radicals in the skin that may be causing collagen damage.

Collagen is essential to strong, youthful looking skin. As you age, 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 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.

RememberRetinoids are used for fine lines and wrinkles. These types of wrinkles develop in the surface of your skin. If you’re trying to target deep wrinkles, talk to your dermatologist to discuss the different options available to you.

Which retinoid is right for you?

There are five 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 slightly stronger than retinyl palmitate.
  • Retinol. This is the strongest ingredient found in OTC retinoid products.
  • Tretinoin. This is a potent retinoid available by prescription only.
  • Tazarotene. This is the most powerful retinoid, available by prescription only.

How a retinoid is formulated can also affect how effective it is. For example, alcohol-based gels are considered the most effective of all formulations because of how easily the skin absorbs them. They’re also suitable for acne-prone skin.

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

How to add retinoids to your skin care routine

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

  1. Apply a small amount of the product on the side of your forearm.
  2. Cover the area with a bandage and wait for 24 hours.
  3. If you begin experiencing any irritation or inflammation, you shouldn’t use this product. If you haven’t experienced any symptoms within 24 hours, it should be safe to apply elsewhere.

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

After a week or two, you may begin applying the product every night.

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.

Possible side effects and risks

To reduce side effects

  • Always do a skin patch test before applying new products.
  • Only introduce one new skin care product at a time.
  • Wait two to three weeks before adding another new product to your routine.
  • Apply the retinoid every other night for the first week or two and then adjust to nightly.
  • Start with a lower retinoid concentration and increase the strength over time.
  • Wear sunscreen every day.

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.

You’re also more likely to experience side effects if you’re using multiple anti-aging products 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 two to three 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 your side effects continue, discontinue use. You may need to switch to a different retinoid or try a different anti-aging method.

Sunburn is another possible side effect of using retinoids. Over time, you may also put yourself at risk for age spots. You can counteract these risk factors by wearing a broad-spectrum sunscreen daily.

Don’t use retinoids if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding.

Over-the-counter retinoids to consider

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

Here are some of the options to consider:

  • Body Merry Retinol Surge Moisturizer. Made with retinol and other types of antioxidants, this is a multipurpose lotion that promises to decrease the appearance of both wrinkles and pores.
  • Derma-E Anti-Wrinkle Renewal Cream. This retinyl palmitate-based cream is suited for dry skin that that may be exhibiting early signs of aging. It may also help combat dull skin.
  • Eva Naturals Skin Clearing Serum. Containing 2 percent retinol, this nightly serum may help with wrinkles, acne, and age spots. It also has 20 percent vitamin C and 2 percent salicylic acid to help decrease hyperpigmentation.
  • Exuviance Super Retinol Concentrate. This nightly gel contains retinol and citric acid, a type of anti-aging alpha hydroxy acid. Aside from the wrinkle-fighting benefits, this retinol gel goes a long way — use a drop over your entire face and only add more as needed.
  • 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.

Prescription retinoids to consider

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 decreasing 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 (Differen)
  • 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 cream. During use, you must wear sunscreen daily to protect your skin from sunburn and photoaging.

The bottom line

Retinoids are promising products in the world of anti-aging cosmetics and drugs. Patience is key, though. It may take up to six months for wrinkles to improve after using retinoids, and you may not see full results for up to one 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, such as fillers, to help you reach your skin care goals.

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