The Best Retinoid Products—and Why You Should Use Them

Anti-aging ingredients come and go, but retinoids have been major players for decades.

model-skin
Photo by Patricia Heal

Why Retinoids (Still) Rule

It’s no shocker that the number of anti-aging products appearing on shelves has skyrocketed over the years. (Between 2007 and 2010, product launches nearly doubled.) What is surprising is the active ingredient that’s touted in the vast majority of these potions: good old retinoids. This class of vitamin A derivatives has been used in skin care since the ’70s. The most famous product, Retin-A, is made with the retinoid tretinoin. It was developed in the late ’60s by Albert Kligman, Ph.D., a professor of dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania, as an acne treatment and approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). (Chances are, you used it on pimples back in the day.) Kligman and his colleague James Leyden, M.D., noticed that Retin-A also improved wrinkles and skin tone in acne patients. Kligman eventually patented Renova, a tretinoin in an emollient base, which was the first FDA-approved topical treatment for wrinkles and fine lines. That was about 18 years ago, and yet retinoids still star in everything from moisturizers and serums to eye and neck creams. Why is what’s old still so new?

“There is not a single class of ingredient that can rival the track record that retinoids have for proven scientific results,” says Macrene Alexiades-Armenakas, Ph.D., a New York City–based dermatologist. Other experts are equally enthusiastic. Susan Weinkle, a dermatologist in Bradenton, Florida, calls retinoids skin care’s heavy lifters. “I tell patients that regardless of how much time or money they have, sunscreen and a retinoid are the most important anti-agers to use,” she says. “This combo covers all your dermal needs: UV protection; smoother, firmer skin; a more even tone; fewer breakouts; and tighter pores.”
 

How They Work

Retinoids are amazing multitaskers. By acting directly on the DNA in skin cells, “they boost the many cell functions that tend to slow down once we hit 30,” says Alexiades-Armenakas. For one thing, retinoids increase cell turnover, so the skin is continually sloughing off damaged cells and healthy skin is always what you see on top. “This enhances radiance,” says Weinkle. Retinoids also thin the top layer of skin, the stratum corneum, while thickening the smoother second layer, the epidermis, which makes the skin look luminous and firm.

But the benefits don’t stop at the surface. According to Patricia Farris, M.D., a clinical associate professor of dermatology at Tulane University, in New Orleans, retinoids also boost the production of collagen (one of the skin’s primary support structures) and prevent its breakdown as they work their way into deeper skin layers. There is evidence, too, that retinoids foster the creation of glycosaminoglycans, substances found in the body that help keep tissues hydrated. And, wait, there’s more: Retinoids help clear dead skin cells, oil, and debris from pores, leaving them less distended; retinoids even decrease oil production—a boon to those prone to breakouts.