Retinoids smooth skin, reduce wrinkles, and fade brown spots.
This topical form of vitamin A has also shown promise in reducing the risk of some skin cancers.
So, I gotta ask - Why aren't you using them?
Here is what the Skin Cancer Foundation says about Vitamin A and skin cancer prevention:
"Retinoids, which are vitamin A derivatives, may prevent skin cancer in people particularly vulnerable to skin cancers. The oral retinoid isotretinoin (Roaccutane) improves wrinkles and other sun-induced skin damage, while actinic keratoses and basal cell carcinomas treated with the topical retinoid tretinoin, sometimes marketed as Renova or Retin-A, have completely regressed. Although such results may be temporary, tretinoin .05% does reduce some signs of skin aging (such as fine facial wrinkles, brown spots, and roughness) associated with chronic sun exposure. Used with topical DNA repair enzymes, it may help treat actinic keratoses and prevent basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas."
Applying vitamins (in this case, Vitamin A) to your skin will get the best result.
"The body delivers only a certain percentage of vitamins to your skin, no matter how much you ingest," says Dr. Mary Lupo. "Plus, there's no way to send them straight to your crow's feet or brown spots."
There are lots of different forms of Vitamin A. Which one should you use?
Before retinol was available in drug stores, you could only buy prescription strength Retin-A. It was powerful, but harsh. Now the vitamin A products are not nearly so harsh. Many come mixed with antioxidants, sunscreen or moisturizers so that even people with sensitive skin can use them.
Note: People who are pregnant or nursing should not use retinoids. And if you have a skin condition like eczema or rosacea, be sure to talk to a dermatologist before using them.
Prescription retinoids work the fastest.
You should start to see results in 4 - 8 weeks. There are 2 forms of prescription Vitamin A / retinoids: tretinoin and tazarotene.
1. Tretinoin (also known by the brand names Atralin, Avita, Retin-A, Retin-A Micro, Renova)
2. Tazarotene (also known by the brand names Avage, Tazorac) Many dermatologists think that tazarotene is stronger (and possibly more irritating) than tretinoin.
Many prescription retinoids are irritating. They can cause redness, scaling, and flaking that may last for weeks. (BUT there are ways to minimize these side effects. Keep reading to learn how.)
Non-prescription products are best for beginners.
- Adapalene (brand name, Differin) is a kind of retinoic acid that used to be available by prescription only. Now it's available over the counter at drug stores for about $14. It's thought to be the gentlest of the "prescription" retinoids. Adapalene is stronger than retinol. You should start to see results in 4 - 8 weeks.
- Retinol is more gentle than Adapalene and the prescription retinoids. It has fewer side effects because the vitamin A in it is slowly converted to retinoic acid, the active ingredient in prescription creams. Retinols do get the same effect, but it takes longer to see results - usually about 12 weeks. If you have sensitive skin, you might try AlphaRet by SkinBetter Science. It's a new formulation specifically made to minimize the side effects of retinoids. Read more about it in our post, AlphaRet: A New Retinol for Melasma, Aging Skin, Sun Damage, & Acne.
- Pro-retinols (retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate and retinyl linoleate) are Vitamin A derivatives that are best for people with very sensitive skin. These are the most gentle of the retinoids, but they are weaker than retinol. Pro-retinols have far fewer side effects than prescription retinoids because the vitamin A in them is slowly converted to retinoic acid.
How do you use retinoids?
Ideally, you should start using a retinoid (and antioxidants) in your mid 20s.
- A pea sized amount should be enough to cover your face - and the skin around your eyes.
- Apply to a clean, dry face at night because sunlight inactivates most forms of vitamin A.
- Apply a moisturizer on top of your retinoid.
- Use a broad spectrum SPF 30 sunscreen every morning before you put on your makeup.
- To avoid irritation, redness, and flaking, slowly build up your use of Vitamin A. Apply the retinoid every 2nd or 3rd night for 2 weeks. Then slowly increase to nightly use.
- Don't forget to apply it to your neck, decollete and the backs of your hands!
Tips From Dermatologists That Make Using Retinoids SO MUCH BETTER:
Eric Schweiger, M.D., a New York Dermatologic Surgeon says in a quote on RealSelf.com,
"Retin-A, and other retinoids, can be drying if it is not applied to your skin properly. I recommend that all of my patients use only a pea size amount, and begin by applying it every other night. I encourage them to increase the frequency as tolerated. It is important to use a moisturizer in combination with the Retin-A. For patients with very dry skin, they may apply a moisturizer both before and after the Retin-A. Other patients can simply moisturize on top of the Retin-A."
Dina D. Strachan, a New York Dermatologist agrees. In a post on RealSelf.com she says, "Studies have shown that it doesn't matter which one, the moisturizer or the Retin A, you put on first. It's just important that you use moisturizer with retinoids."
You can also put retinol creams around your eyes. "Not only can you, you really should—that's where most of the damage shows up, says Jonathan Weiss, an Atlanta dermatologist. "Studies have shown that people who apply retinoids right up to the eyes get the best results." And if you get it in your eye? "It may sting a little, but it won't do any harm," says Weiss, and the skin there is no more likely to get red or flaky than anywhere else on the face.
A Few Words of Caution:
Don't layer alpha hydroxy acids or salicylic acids with retinoids. "This duo is a recipe for redness and irritation," says Ranella Hirsch, a dermatologist in Boston.
Mixing benzoyl peroxide with retinoids doesn't work either. "The two ingredients have been shown to deactivate each other,"says dermatologist, Dr. Fredric Brandt.
(There are other skincare ingredients that can create a recipe for disaster when mixed. Learn more here: The Skincare Products You Should & Shouldn't Mix.)
We like the SkinCeuticals Retinols:
SkinCeuticals makes both a .5% and 1% retinol cream. The Retinol 0.5 has about 20 times the amount of retinol found in drug store brands. BUT this is hard to prove because most companies don't list the retinol concentrations in their products.
SkinCeuticals lists the exact amount of retinol in the products. Their Retinol 0.5 is 0.5% retinol - and according to my SkinCeuticals rep - comparable to 0.05% prescription Vitamin A (retinoic acid / Retin A). The SkinCeuticals 1.0 Retinol is 1% retinol. It is similar to 0.1% retinoic acid, but without the harsh side effects. Remember, the higher the dose of vitamin A, the better and quicker the result will be.
Don't just take our word for it. Here's what Nicki Sevola Benvenuti of FutureDerm.com says about these SkinCeuticals retinol products:
"In general, Neutrogena and RoC products tend to contain a low level of retinol. For instance, brands like Skinceuticals sell retinol in the concentration it is commonly used in studies, 0.5%-1.0%. In talks I’ve had with cosmetic chemists in the past, they have estimated the concentration of retinol in drugstore products like Neutrogena and RoC to be around 0.025% — about 20 times lower than Skinceuticals, but the cost is still only 4-5 times higher for Skinceuticals retinol products. So that’s not cool."
She continues: "That said, is there enough retinol SA (a slow-release, stabilized form of retinol found in relatively low concentrations) to see an effect with Neutrogena products? As someone who has tried them, I will go ahead and say yes. But the results are not equal to using a more concentrated version of microencapsulated retinol, like Skinceuticals."
There Are New Formulations - And More Are Coming!
Some of the new formulas combine retinoids with other ingredients. “The current trend today is using a combination of ingredients, such as retinol and stem cells. This combination allows a sensitive patient to experience the benefits of retinol while minimizing irritation and inflammation.” - Dr. Lu-Jean Feng, plastic surgeon, Cleveland
If you have sensitive skin, there's a new form of retinol available from SkinBetter Science that's much less irritating. It combines retinol and lactic acid in one molecule. Together, the 2 work synergistically to repair damaged skin. Read more about it in our post, AlphaRet: A New Retinol for Melasma, Aging Skin, Sun Damage, & Acne.
Other formulas encapsulate retinols. “This enables a safe, stable and targeted delivery and has been the most advanced innovation recently. You basically enclose the retinol molecules within a microscopic sphere to protect it from light, oxygen and other aggressors. This not only stabilizes the retinol molecule and ensures its maximum potency, it also facilitates a controlled delivery and drives the active ingredients deep beneath the skin.” - Amandine Isnard, head of product development for EVE LOM
And plant based alternatives are being developed.
Bakuchiol is one such ingredient. It comes from the from the babchi plant which has been used in Chinese and Indian medicine. Bakuchiol gets your skin to behave in almost the same way that retinol does. And it's not a retinoid!
A randomized, double-blind, 12-week study study published in the 2019 British Journal of Dermatology (Dhaliwal S. et al) followed 44 patients. The study compared morning and evening application of 0.5% bakuchiol cream to nightly application of 0.5% retinol cream. High-resolution photographs of the patients were taken at the start of the study, then at week 4, week 8, and week 12. Patients also answered questions about the side effects of both creams. A board-certified dermatologist graded the patients photographs on pigmentation and redness.
What were the results of the bakuchiol study? Both bakuchiol and retinol both significantly decreased wrinkles and dark spots (hyperpigmentation), with no statistical difference between the compounds. The retinol users reported more facial skin scaling and stinging.
Another study published in 2014 in the International Journal of Cosmetic Science, found that after 12 weeks of treatment, patients had significant improvement in their lines and wrinkles, pigmentation, elasticity, firmness and overall reduction in sun damage. And there were none of the usual undesirable side effects of retinol!
So far, I've only found these 2 studies of this ingredient, but they do look promising!
If you want to learn more about quicker methods of skin rejuvenation, check out our blog posts, You've decided to do some skin rejuvenation, but how do you decide what to work on first? AND Micro-Needling Is Better Than Other Kinds of Skin Rejuvenation - 9 Reasons Why. And don't miss our post on niacinamide. It has some fantastic benefits for your skin!
Amy Takken is a registered nurse with 20+ years of experience helping people improve their health. Her in-depth skincare articles have been featured on Nazarian Plastic Surgery and The Palm Beach Center for Facial Plastic & Laser Surgery. Amy loves research and constantly watches for new products and treatments to help you improve your skin’s health – because healthy skin is beautiful! To reach Amy, visit our contact page.
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The Information provided on our website is not medical advice and should not be viewed as such. By law, only a medical doctor can diagnose or give medical advice. As a registered nurse, my goal is to educate, so I provide information on skin care, skin care products, and skin care treatments. If you have any condition that concerns you, please see a medical doctor. While most skin conditions are benign, some - like melanoma - can be deadly. If there is any doubt, please, please consult your physician. Thank you!
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