You Really Should Be Using a Retinoid

Julissa Treviño | January 5, 2017

Skincare trends come and go, but retinoids are among the few proven to work.

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Skincare trends come and go, but retinoids are among the few products proven to give you better- and younger-looking skin. They remain the gold standard for anti-aging, and according to the three dermatologists I spoke to (as well as the American Academy of Dermatology), basically anyone can and should use one.

“Every non-pregnant person should use sunblock and sun protection during the day and apply retinol or retinoids at night,” says board-certified dermatologist Dr. Sandy Johnson.

Here’s why.

Retinol, retinoids and prescription Retin-A: What’s the difference?

All are derivatives of Vitamin A. “Retinol is an over-the-counter form of Retin-A, and Retin-A is a prescription item. Retinoid is an overarching term used to describe all of all of these products,” including various retinol derivatives, says Dr. Joel Schlessinger, an Omaha-based dermatologist, cosmetic surgeon and RealSelf contributor.

Retinoids come in various strengths and formulations. Nearly all, he said, significantly improve skin. As far as who can use what, that often depends on access, says Schlessinger. “Many patients don’t have access to Retin-A or Accutane” because they can’t see a dermatologist, he says. “What is available to them is an over-the-counter retinol.”

Retinoids promote cell turnover. Essentially, they exfoliate and build collagen (the stuff that keeps your skin firm). By exfoliating, they clear clogged pores and reduce the appearance of fine lines, according to the AAD. They also prevent wrinkles from forming; some studies have shown retinoids can even prevent skin cancer. Pretty amazing, right?

“Retinol/Retin-A and other retinoids are the best creams to prevent skin cancer and aging changes to the skin,” Johnson says.

you-really-should-be-using-a-retinoid-man-repeller-collage1 Obagi360 Retinol 1.0NeoStrata Skin Active Retinol + NAG ComplexPCA SKIN Intensive Clarity Treatment

A brief history of Retin-A

Tretinoin, the generic form of Retin-A, was originally patented as an acne treatment by dermatologist Albert M. Kligman in 1967. When Kligman’s older patients noticed that the drug also improved their pigmentation and wrinkles, it took on new life as an anti-aging product.

“This was the first designer drug for cosmetic treatments,” Schlessinger says. “[Before it], there was nothing on the market that truly made a difference [on] fine lines, wrinkles or pigmentation.” Klingman received a new patent for the drug as a wrinkle treatment in 1986. He is also considered the first dermatologist to make the connection between sun exposure and wrinkles.

Since then, dermatologists and skincare brands have issued derivatives that are effective but without the typical side effects of irritation and flakiness. “There’s been a huge push to make products more consumer-friendly. Even with prescription formulations, there has been a dramatic improvement of side-effect profiles,” Schlessinger says.

The time to use retinoids is now

Dermatologists agree that for adults, it’s never too early to start using retinoids. Johnson says her two children starting using topical retinoids at 12 years old. Adds Schlessinger: “I tend to think that almost anyone over teenage years is probably a good candidate. The amazing thing is we have an entire generation of people that has been raised on retinoids. Anybody who is a teenager starting in about ‘90s and has acne issues has probably been on retinoid of some sort. It’s not a foreign concept.” (Accutane is a prescription form of Vitamin A.)

If you have no skin problems but want to begin an anti-aging routine, dermatologist Michele Green says “it’s best to start in your early 20s.” Whereas formulations may have been too harsh for some skin types before, there is a wide range of products available now to suit just about any skin type, Schlessinger says. “There are [even] products focused on the eye area, or on the décolletage.”

If you have sensitive skin or rosacea, there’s a chance retinoids aren’t for you. (Pregnant women should also not use retinoids.) If you don’t know where to start and seeing a dermatologist is possible, he or she can help you come up with a skincare routine.

you-really-should-be-using-a-retinoid-man-repeller-collage2 Avene RetrinAL+ 0.05SkinMedica Retinol Complex 0.5 and SkinMedica Retinol Complex 1.0Peter Lamas Supreme Radiance Complexion Booster

Where to start

When you’re ready to give retinoids a shot, remember that there’s usually an adjustment period, Schlessinger says. Retinoids can cause flakiness, dryness and irritation. These signs are normal for first-time users, especially for those using prescription retinol.

To minimize any side effects, dermatologists recommend a gentle cleanser and avoiding products with alcohol. Use only a pea-sized amount, or the recommended amount prescribed by your doctor or on the label. If your skin is overly red or irritated, cut back. If you’re using other acids (salicylic, glycolic, hyaluronic), you may want to put those products on hold and reintroduce them slowly after your skin has adjusted to the retinoid. And finally, because retinoids make your skin more sensitive to sun exposure, always wear sunscreen even if you’re only outdoors on your way to work.

Know that just because a product at Sephora is marketed as a retinol does not guarantee that it will give you the kind of results you get from prescription Retin-A. Johnson suggests doing your research. “Not all retinols are created equal. You should use one that is physician-grade. The FDA monitors prescription retinoids like Retin-A (tretinoin), adapalene (which will be available over-the-counter very soon) and Tazorac (tazarotene),” all of which are proven to show results.

Worried about what this stuff might to do your face in 20 or 30 years? Fret not. “We now have close to 30 years of experience and studies of Retin-A, and other than normal side effects, there have been no long-term negative effects,” Schlessinger says.

For proof, just turn to Melissa55, who vlogs on YouTube about skincare (and looks like she’s in her early 40s). “I started using Retin-A when I was around 33. I am now 61, so I’ve used it about 28 years,” she says. “There is nothing on the market (in my opinion) that works as well.”

If you can’t see a dermatologist for a prescription retinoid, there are many over-the-counter options. The specific retinoid you choose, as Schlessinger says, will come down to what’s available to you, but here are his recommendations:

  • If you’re in your early- to mid-20s and you’re just getting started on this whole “skincare routine” thing: Obagi360 Retinol 1.0 is a great retinol for younger patients starting to incorporate retinol into their routine. This retinol is suitable for most skin types because its time-release formula causes minimal, if any, irritation.”
  • If you’re a skincare junkie and expect to see results right away: NeoStrata Skin Active Retinol + NAG Complex helps minimize the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, large pores, dark spots and sagging skin with time-released microencapsulated retinol. This treatment contains NeoGlucosamine to build collagen and improve the skin’s surrounding support matrix. NeoGlucosamine also helps to enhance the volumizing and firming effects of retinol for improved anti-aging benefits.”
  • If you suffer from acne: PCA SKIN Intensive Clarity Treatment is specially formulated for acne-prone skin to clear breakouts and increase cell turnover, revealing clear and healthy skin. Retinol also helps to lighten hyperpigmentation issues due to sun exposure, acne inflammation and other stressors.”
  • If you have sensitive skin: Avene RetrinAL+ 0.05 is an excellent option for those with sensitive complexions. This serum contains retinaldehyde, which smooths the appearance of wrinkles and brightens skin. The formula contains soothing Avene Thermal Spring Water, which calms skin irritation and inflammation. It’s also available in a 0.1 concentration.”
  • If you’re in your late- to early-30s with no major skin issues (lucky): “I like SkinMedica Retinol Complex 0.5 and SkinMedica Retinol Complex 1.0 for their superior anti-aging benefits. In addition to retinol, these serums contain bisabolol to minimize inflammation and antioxidants to protect skin.”
  • If you want more than just anti-aging benefits: Peter Lamas Supreme Radiance Complexion Booster features a potent blend of retinol to smooth wrinkles and salicylic acid to prevent blemishes and improve uneven skin texture. This formula is also infused with light-reflecting minerals to give skin a radiant and youthful glow.

Collage by Emily Zirimis; photo via SSPL/Getty Images.

  • tmm16

    Thank you sooo much for writing this Julissa! I’ve been researching retinol creams for the last couple months, trying to decide which one I should buy. Your recommendations were great! 🙂

  • cuffers27

    Love Retinol. For those who want to try without such a significant financial outlay I would recommend checking out The Ordinary by Deciem

    • Julissa

      Does that stuff work? I’ve been wanting to give it a try for my non-Retin-A nights. 🙂

      • cuffers27

        Have a google – there are quite a lot of reviews out there (especially Reddit) and I think the general consensus is that you can’t fault it for the price. I have the 2% Retinoid which I like although haven’t used it consistently enough to know if it has a lasting impact. I also like the Lactic Acid (allegedly dupe for Sunday Riley Good Genes), Niacinamide & Zinc and the Rosehip Oil.

        • Mae

          Just wanted to add somewhere here that I have found layering The Ordinary Niacinamide + Zinc underneath my Differin .3% has been doing wonders at clearing up hyperpigmentation (post inflammatory). I don’t know why or the science behind it, but if you have the Niacinamide and a retinoid I’d give it a whirl.

      • ankuchma

        I’ve been using The Ordinary Retinol for four months – along with a few other Ordinary products and the NIOD core regimen also created by Deciem – and my skin is pretty damn happy! I’m 38 and I’ve always taken pretty good care of my skin, but I’d say this retinol is the most effective skincare product I’ve used. I’ve been a pretty devout sunscreen user since my teens, I just wish I’d discovered retinoids sooner!

  • icedbergs

    Differin (adapalene) IS available over the counter at Walgreens, CVS, and Duane Reade, at least in NYC, at a prescription strength. It’s around 13.99 for a 30 day supply or ~30-40 (I forget) for a 90 day supply.

  • wass

    Another user of The ordinary’s retinoid. Seriously great product, been using it for three months now, my acne has basically disappeared. But use it only if you’ve made your peace with wearing sunscreen – I once forgot to put it on and it kinda felt like it was burning my skin

    • MT

      I’m a big Ordinary fan, but I haven’t tried the retinoid yet. Definitely going on my next order. Do you use Buffet, too?

      • Sarah Johnson

        I use both the Buffet and their retinoid! If you’re a noob (like me) they have guides you can follow depending on what you’re after skin-wise and I follow it to a T (tee?). Nightime: Buffet, retinoid, rosehip oil, say goodnight moon, and zzzzz. I use Buffet in the am, too.

        • MT

          Their reasonable prices and free shipping over $25 mean I have collected about half their offerings. I CAN’T HELP MYSELF. It also means their guide to use is super helpful for people using three products but I have like ten and it gets confusing. I use Buffet and Niac + Zinc in the AM and those plus the Azelaic Acid in the evening and that’s before I moisturize which is 3 products minimum because I have embraced the many-step skincare trend quite thoroughly.

        • traces of light

          So you use the Buffet first, before the Retinoid? How long do you wait in between application? I have the Hylamide SubQ Anti-Age serum, which is supposedly like a stronger version of the Buffet, but I don’t know how to use it together with the Ordinary Retinoid.

          • Sarah J.

            Hi bebe, yes I use Buffet first! I pat it on and then will usually do something else like brush my teeth or inspect my pores or whatever weirdness goes down in the bathroom at night and then once it’s absorbed I’ll put on the retinoid. I haven’t tried the Hylamide serum but assuming if it’s a peptide serum like Buffet should be fine to use in conjunction?

          • traces of light

            Thank you, I’ll give that a try tonight! Btw, while I haven’t tried the Buffet, I cannot recommend the Hylamide Serum enough. I stopped using it for about half a year and just recently went back to it and saw a change in my skin the NEXT DAY! Witchcraft!

        • emelex

          are you using the 2% retinoid or 1% retinol?

          • Sarah J.

            2% Retinoid 🙂

    • Lyndsay

      Came here to say how excellent the ordinary’s retinoid is! 10/10 would recommend to a friend

  • noodle

    I’ll add that Paula’s Choice makes great retinol products for all skin types (and also available on Dermstore.com). Their Resist line has moisturizers with a touch of retinol for newbies, plus serums for the retinol enthusiast. All of their products are really affordable so it’s a great way to try out retinol without breaking the bank.

    • Alessia

      I have literally just placed an order on their website to try a few retinol products, can’t wait!

  • JoMama

    Just face? Or neck too?

    • Julissa

      I apply all of my skincare to my neck

    • Anna Honor

      I can’t speak for OTC retinol but If you apply prescription tretinoin to your neck it will need to be avoided when you wash your body in the shower (no harsh body wash on the neck!) and you will need to use your gentle face cleanser on it instead.

  • Lindsay D

    I use tazorac for my decades battle with acne. It evens out my skin tone and shrinks my pores and as a perk I have no fine lines. It does not help breakouts but my skin will recover quicker.

  • Shelby Nicole Scott

    I’m a PCA SKIN die-hard! Intensive Clarity is one of the only retinols that uses salicylic acid in the same formula and it’s done wonders for my acne!

  • Aubrey Shade

    Would anyone have a recommendation for when to include this into your skincare routine? Where would it fit best into cleansing, toning, moisturizing, serums, etc…

    • Julissa

      It should be the first thing you apply to a clean face!

      • Aubrey Shade

        thank you!

    • Debbie

      Make it one of ur serum deciem.com makes a retinol oil at 8usd

      • Aubrey Shade

        thank you for the rec and info where to buy!

    • amycjes

      I use Epiduo every night and have for about the last 5-6 years. When I used to apply it directly to my skin I was left with what looked like a sunburned face every day (though it did help decrease acne). I started applying a facial oil (Sunday Riley UFO) before the retinoid and this works so much better for me as far as redness/ dry, flaky skin. Just a thought if you’re new to retinoids.

  • Al

    OK I was in desperate need of this one. I started google-ing “best anti-age” when I hit 30, I’m 32 now and I’m still at it…
    I think I’ll start with the Avéne (the price/quality ratio is usually good and their products have done miracles to my skin before).
    Thank you!

  • Kathy Cappa

    Thank you so much for writing this great post!!
    http://www.kfashion.us

  • Jana Gr.

    Absolutely! I’ve use the Professional 3% Retinoid Plus by Peter Thomas Roth for almost three months now and can see a huge difference.

  • Morgan Siggard

    I used Verso Day Cream as my retinoids for 2 years before I got perioral dermatitis and had to stop use. One year without a retinoid and I definaltey notice less glow, youthful complexion, and subtle lines starting by my eyes (I’m almost 27). I’ve avoided for fear of a perioral dermatitis outbreak which turns the bottom half of my face into a red raw looking flesh, but I have been using Avenes extreme tolerance moursturixer for a year now and find it super great for my sensitive skin. Perhaps I will try there lowest Retinoid to see how my skin does. Anyone have experience with facial dermatitis and retinoids? I’d love to hear advice or tips.

  • Merillionaire

    Has anyone else used Retin-A micro diligently and NOT seen any results? I used it for close to a year and saw really no change in my acne, pigment marks, fine lines…THE MOST frustrating 🙁 can you even be nonreactive to retinol? lol

  • I’ve used Medik8, Peter Thomas Roth and now I’m trying out Skinceuticals. Retinoids, sunscreen and staying out of the sun are the only things that truly work. I’ll never say no to AHAs and BHAs but retinoid is where it’s at.

    I hope I can find NeoStrata. Sounds like a good one to try next. I seem to handle 1 and 1.5% just fine. Or maybe best to see a dermatologist for something stronger soon enough.

  • Csilla

    I would ad one more brand to this amazing list.
    Cosmedix it is the most amazing medical beauty product and the formulation won the Nobel Prize. I used the range and all of their product is amazing. Especially the defy skin management exfoliate, pure enzymes exfoliating mask and the A-Solution . Don’t forget to use sunscreen all year: serious protection SPF 28 sunscreen.
    http://www.crackthecodestyle.com/nobel-prize-inspired-beauty-product-cosmedix-resultrx/

  • iloveyouegg

    I’ve been intrigued by the stuff at The Ordinary (mentioned by others too) so I might buy some as a new year’s treat! I have a day cream with SPF 15, I’m a noob when it comes to sun protection (shaaame) so would that be enough when using a retinoid or would I need to amp up my protection levels (I’m in the UK, not a massive amount of sunlight this time of year)?

    • belle

      You should wear sunscreen with at least SPF 35. Skincare with SPF is not a substitution for sunscreen.

      • iloveyouegg

        I thought as much but was secretly hoping that I wouldn’t have to add yet another item on to my shopping list haha. Thanks!

        • rachel

          I highly recommend Neutrogena Clear Face sunscreen in SPF 55 uva/uvb. It’s oil free, works pretty well under makeup and comes in a liquid lotion rather than a cream, so it doesn’t feel heavy and absorbs quickly. I suggest using it over a moisturizer containing SPF, that way you know for sure all areas are covered. If you want to go crazy like me you can also get BB cream with sunscreen, though I don’t think it makes much of a difference haha. Using enough is also really important, since a little dab all over your face is getting you nowhere near the SPF on the bottle. Finally (I swear I’m almost done!), theres the reapplication challenge. Sunscreen breaks down due to sun exposure, which is why the bottle directs you to reapply every two hours. Now, if you’re in a cubicle all day away from windows, that probably isn’t an issue, but if you touch your face a lot you probably want to reapply. You can do this with the cream, but there are also powders with physical SPF that work really well (see: Bare Minerals). Okay, finally done with my symposium on SPF 🙂 hope it helps!

          • iloveyouegg

            Thanks for all your help, I’ll definitely keep this in mind!

        • belle

          Try some Asian sunscreens. I use Biore and get it super cheap on Amazon, works well for my oily skin and doesn’t get greasy under makeup.

    • Sarah

      I really like CeraVe’s daily moisturizer spf 30 for daily use (when I am not going to be out for a long time, just to protect me while going to work or walking the dog) but if I am going out in the sun for an extended period of time I always use a much stronger sunscreen with at least 45 or 50. You REALLY don’t want to skip sunscreen if you use a retinoid, you will get extremely burnt (has happened to me). Also, if I am going to the beach for a week or another high sun trip, I will cut my retinol use in half (going to every 3 days or something) 10 days before I go and then not use it while I am on the trip.

  • Elena

    I’m now 56 and started using RetinA when I was 35 on the advice of my cousin who is a dermatologist. I now use Tazorac. Most important thing she stressed was that she only prescribes it to women who are on a reliable form of birth control. You do not want to get pregnant while using this regularly as it can cause birth defects. That said, it is seriously the best thing you can do for your skin in addition to daily sunscreen. At 56, people who don’t know me assume I’m in my early 40s. When starting out, you can cut the strength of it by mixing it 1 to 1 with plain moisturizer and using it on alternate nights until your skin gets accustomed to it. If you start to get flaky, back off and take a break from using it for a a few days. I stop using it when I am on a beach vacation and getting a lot of sun exposure (even with 50 sunblock).
    I also stay away from any foundation or moisturizer that includes “skin renewing” or any kind of treatment ingredients as my skin gets irritated. Basically if you are using prescription Retin A, you don’t need anything else, so, while its expensive, it will save you money in the long run.

  • Natalie Redman

    I’ve got a few retinoid based products and they are so good. Really want to try The Ordinary range.

    http://www.upyourvlog.com

  • sanaa32

    Does anyone know a good retinoid to use for under the eyes?

    • Garnier’s Ultra Lift Anti-Wrinkle Eye Cream is amazingly good, especially for the price.

  • Catherine Bohner

    I read an article like this, buy something and never keep it up. Anyone know how old is too old for a retinoid? I got a neutrogena cream at a TJ Max or something…maybe 2 or 3 years ago?

  • Stacy Leigh

    After reading this post I bought Exuviance’s Super Retinol concentrate (after balking at the price for a bit) and have been using it for about two weeks now- I LOVE it. It has significantly reduced the appearance of the pores on my nose- something dozens of blackhead erasers and scrubs have been failing at for 10+ years. It’s also smoothed out my skin’s texture the stubborn dry spots around my cheeks. It’s definitely pricey, but I can see the results and feel the different it’s making, so if you’re looking for an anti-aging/skin improvement product, I think it’s worth it.

  • missmaddiecee

    One thing this article doesn’t mention is the effect retinoids have on skin after a few uses. I am on and off again with my 1.0% retinol purely because it causes my skin to get a little scaly looking. Not dry, and its not irritated/burining/sensitive…just scaly/patchy looking. Has anyone else experienced this? Have you just powered through? Or have you lowered %? Would love to hear someone talk about that side effect!