Is Retin-A the Secret to Youthful Skin?

Retin A cream 0.05% 20 g
Sarin Pongladakul/Flickr

A few years ago, a friend told me both she and her mother had discovered the secret to anti-aging—Retin-A. "Why in the world would you use that stuff? You have flawless skin!" I told her. "Honey," she said, "This is WHY I have flawless skin."


Type of ingredient: Exfoliant

Main benefits: Increases cell turnover, antioxidant, soothes irritation

Who should use it: In general, anyone who wants to prevent bad acne or wrinkles.

How often can you use it: Once a day, maximum. Any more and you're risking serious irritation.

Works well with: Hydrators, antioxidants

Doesn't work with: Vitamin C, physical and chemical exfoliants, other retinol formulas.

What is Retin-A?

My friend was about a few years older than me—in her mid-30s—and she wasn't the first woman I would come to know whose dermatologist prescribed a Retin-A (or tretinoin) as a way to combat fine lines and wrinkles. Now that I'm in the business of beauty and skin care, I've done a ton of research on anti-aging products and what I've found is that dermatologists agree on one thing: The only anti-ager on the market that has proven again and again to reduce fine lines and wrinkles is retinoids, such as tretinoin, a derivative of Vitamin A.

Although Retin-A was the first and most famous vitamin A derivative used for anti-aging, other vitamin A products have since popped up including Tazorac, Renova, and Differin. A host of over-the-counter medications containing lower doses of Vitamin A have also hit the market.


Collagen is the key to healthy skin that tends to age well. The change in the pH level of the skin caused by just a few uses of a vitamin A product such as Retin-A can help generate collagen. "Collagen is the skin's structural fiber," dermatologist Dennis Gross said in O Magazine. "As we get older, it breaks down, creating lines and large pores."

The best way to keep collagen from breaking down is to avoid the sun. Dermatologists warn that up to 90 percent of wrinkles, dark spots, and sun damage are caused by sun exposure. This is why sunscreen is one of the most important and effective anti-aging treatments.

Benefits of Retin-A for Skin

You can choose to see your dermatologist for a prescription, or try a prescription strength retinoid like adapalene, which is available over the counter. Ask your doctor for a prescription for Retin-A, Renova, or Retin-A Micro (Retin-A can be purchased over-the-counter in Mexico, Canada, and some European countries, so if you live or are visiting there, you don't need a prescription). These contain the tretinoin, which is proven more effective on fine lines and wrinkles than retinol, found in most OTC products.

There are some over-the-counter retinols which are less harsh on the skin (in fact, my dermatologist recommended I use OTC instead of my usual Retin-A). I have researched the best OTC retinoids and come up with this fantastic list, Best Over-the-Counter Retinol Products.

Side Effects of Retin-A

Keep in mind that you shouldn't expose skin to the sun when using retinoids or retinols. You'll want to cover up with sunscreen and a hat. Vitamin A makes skin a little more susceptible to sun damage. You should avoid tretinoin products if you are pregnant or trying to become pregnant because it could cause birth defects. Also, start slowly with this product, which initially can cause redness, peeling and flaking. Too many women give up after just a couple weeks because they are alarmed by the initial effects of tretinoin. Start by using it twice a week, then slowly move to every other day until your skin adjusts.

Because skin can become irritated while on Retin-A, if you find your skin has become dry and reddened, stop your skin care regimen and slather on an oil-free moisturizer. See our article on using Retin-A and other retinoids safely for more detailed information on how to properly use them.

How to Use It

Consider Adding an Antioxidant Serum to Your Routine

While retinoids and retinol creams (Retin-A basically), work beautifully to minimize the signs of aging, antioxidant serums are like vitamins to the skin. Used in tandem, you can have incredible skin. 

Be Careful About Products That Over-promise

The beauty industry is full of buzzwords that overpromise and under-deliver. Walk down the aisle of any drugstore and you'll see products promising to turn back the hands of time and turn your face line-less with a few applications. Make sure to do your research before buying a product that has a ton of claims that seem too good to be true.

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