The Best Retinoid Products—and Why You Should Use Them

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

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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.

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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.

Which Retinoid Is Right for You?

For first-timers, over-the-counter (OTC) formulations, like the dermatologist-recommended products listed on the next page, are the mildest and the best way to start. “The most common retinoids on these labels are retinol and retinyl palmitate,” says Chris R. Stahl, the director of research and development at Raffaello Research Laboratories, in Torrance, California, a skin- and hair-care formulation company that produces many of the retinoids used in commercial preparations. (You might also see retinaldehyde, which is used less frequently.) These ingredients convert to retinoic acid in the skin and then work their magic.

In contrast, prescription retinoids contain pure retinoic acid (or the related compound all-trans-retinoic acid). Some experts estimate that these can be up to 20 times stronger than over-the-counter varieties, because the retinoic acid is applied directly to the skin and doesn’t lose potency through conversion like OTC retinoids do. Prescription retinoids appear on the ingredient label as tretinoin (found in the wrinkle creams Retin-A, Retin-A Micro, Renova, Atralin, Avita, and Avage), tazarotene (found in the acne cream Tazorac), and adapalene (found in Differin, an acne gel).

“The higher levels may provide a quicker benefit,” says Stahl. “But this can be accompanied by increased redness, drying, peeling, and flaking, the most common side effects of retinoids.”

OTC formulations may bring on a brighter complexion within a few days. Give them at least six weeks to start smoothing out fine lines. In most cases, results plateau in six months to a year, after which you might consider moving on to something more intense, such as an OTC serum (to layer under your retinoid cream) or a prescription product. If your skin feels comfortable before the six-month mark and you would like more dramatic results, you may consider progressing sooner.

Because vitamin A is prone to breaking down and losing potency, choose formulas labeled as “stabilized” or “encapsulated,” which won’t degrade in the presence of other ingredients. Packaging is also important. “Retinoids are sensitive to light, heat, and oxygen,” says Stahl, “so look for an airtight system,” such as a plastic or aluminum tube or an airless pump. Jars will not keep retinoids as fresh and effective.

A Skin-Sensitive Plan

Besides the right formulation, a smart regimen is key to optimizing results and minimizing irritation. Without that extraneous layer of dead skin, your newly exposed healthy cells may be vulnerable to sunburn. So it’s best to apply a retinoid only at night. (Unless, that is, you’re using a day-specific formulation. Of course, always apply an additional layer of broad-spectrum sunblock.) Intensify the treatment only gradually. With proper technique and regular use, says Weinkle, you’ll eventually become “retinized”—that is, tolerant of retinoids and capable of ramping up to higher concentrations more quickly. Here’s how.

  • Wash your face before bedtime with your usual cleanser. “Cleansers with alpha hydroxy acids or salicylic acids are OK,” says Farris, but avoid the unnecessary roughness of granular varieties. Wait about 20 minutes before applying a retinoid to avoid stinging.
  • Take a dime-size amount of your retinoid product (less is more) and smooth it onto your face, including around the eyes, as well as on your neck, hands, and décolletage.
  • Follow up with your usual nighttime moisturizer. For extra-sensitive skin, apply moisturizer before the retinoid to reduce tenderness. Don’t worry—you won’t compromise results.
  • Can’t tolerate the burn? Wash the retinoid off after 15 minutes, suggests Alexiades-Armenakas, who calls this the “short contact” method. This will greatly increase your comfort while only slightly lessening the benefits.
  • Whatever the formulation, use it twice weekly for two weeks, then increase to three times a week. Back off if you notice irritation. You may work up to a nightly application. But if your skin feels most comfortable at three times a week, stay there.

Great Retinol Products to Try

RoC Retinol Correxion Sensitive Eye Cream, $13, amazon.com.

Philosophy Help Me Retinol Night Treatment, $35, amazon.com.

Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Serum, $19, walmart.com.

StriVectin-AR Advanced Retinol Day Treatment SPF 30, $99, birchbox.com.

Peter Thomas Roth Retinol Fusion Alternative, $85, amazon.com.

SkinCeuticals Retinol 0.5, $57, dermstore.com.

La Roche-Posay Redermic R Eyes, $47, amazon.com.

Vichy LiftActiv Retinol HA Concentrate, $45, target.com.