Dermatologists often say retinoids are a critical component of any skincare routine. Studies show these compounds diminish fine lines and wrinkles. They may even brighten the skin and reduce the appearance of age spots.
But what are retinoids anyway? “Retinoids are derivatives of vitamin A,” says Donna Tepper, M.D., a plastic and reconstructive surgeon at Henry Ford Health. “The most potent skin enhancers contain vitamin A derivatives like retinol and tretinoin.”
How Vitamin A Creams Work
After age 25, we begin to see unwanted changes in our skin. Maybe we notice crow’s feet forming around our eyes. Or the lines on our forehead become more prominent and a porcelain-like complexion may sprout blemishes.
“The reason this happens is that the supporting layer of skin (called the dermis) tends to thin with age,” says Dr. Tepper. “Add UV light from the sun, and you’re bound to get more age spots, fine lines and wrinkles as time goes on.” The good news: Retinoids can help counteract some of that damage.
“Retinoid” is an umbrella term for molecules that increase cell turnover in the skin, prevent discoloration and age spots, and increase collagen and elastin to promote younger-looking skin.
Depending on your skin type and the issues you’re trying to correct, your doctor may suggest an over-the-counter retinol formulation or a more effective prescription treatment (for fine lines and discoloration). “Over-the-counter products are less potent, so they don’t produce the same benefits as prescription creams,” Dr. Tepper says. “But they’re also less likely to cause side effects, such as skin irritation and flakiness.”
Types Of Retinoids
Given vitamin A’s benefits, it’s no wonder that retinoids play a starring role in many of the most effective anti-aging products. But with so many different derivatives to choose from, knowing which type is best for your skin care needs can be a challenge. A few of the standouts:
- Retinoic acid: Retinoic acid is the broken-down form of vitamin A that stimulates collagen and elastin production in the skin. It can reduce the appearance of brown spots and fine lines.
- Tretinoin (also known as Retin-A, Renova): Doctors prescribe Tretinoin to diminish the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles and treat acne. “It is arguably the single most effective component of a skin care regimen,” Dr. Tepper says. “Most patients notice changes in their skin within two to three months, with effects reaching their peak at four months.”
- Retinol: Among the most sought-after skin care ingredients, retinol is a key ingredient in many anti-aging skin care products. It’s less potent than its retinoic acid cousins, but it can still promote skin cell turnover and boost collagen and elastin production.
- Retinal/Retinaldehyde: Retinal and retinaldehyde are used in cosmeceuticals (cosmetics that claim to have medical benefits) but have limited effectiveness. They’re less irritating and deliver mild correction of skin texture and wrinkles.
Side Effects Of Retinols
While there’s no doubt that retinoids can produce noticeable benefits in the skin, they can also cause irritation, particularly if you use products with higher concentrations. Creams with 0.05% to 0.1% retinol are most likely to produce side effects, such as redness, itchiness and flaky skin, and people with dry skin are generally more susceptible to irritation, Dr. Tepper cautions.
To help patients tolerate retinoids, doctors recommend starting with a lower strength, such as 0.025%. “The way your skin responds to vitamin A-based creams will change over time,” Dr. Tepper says. Your best bet is to start slowly, with ½ gram (about ½ inch) of retinoid cream once or twice a week at night, and gradually increase the amount and frequency over several weeks.
Apply products at night, since sun exposure can deactivate the effects of retinoids. Also make sure your skin is dry when you use retinoids. Applying these products to wet skin can cause irritation, particularly near the corners of the mouth.
Be aware, too, that retinoids can make your skin more sensitive to the sun when you first start using them. So don a hat and wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher during the day. .
Finally, keep in mind that vitamin A derivatives are off-limits during pregnancy or while you’re nursing. High levels of vitamin A have been linked with birth defects and developmental delays. If you have any questions, don't hesitate to reach out to your doctor.
Donna Tepper, M.D., is a plastic and reconstructive surgeon at Henry Ford Health. She sees patients at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, Henry Ford Medical Center--Cottage, Henry Ford Medical Center--Fairlane and Henry Ford Wyandotte Hospital.