The powerful retinoid is normally used to treat acne, but tretinoin battles early signs of aging, too.

By Kelsey Ogletree
Updated: March 28, 2019
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When it comes to skincare, a slew of serums, creams, lotions, and high-tech tools exist that all promise to treat fine lines, dark spots and wrinkles (oh my!). Anti-aging creams and gels with tretinoin are rising in popularity though, and for good reason.

Tretinoin, a type of retinoid frequently used to treat acne, is getting new life as an anti-aging ingredient, and dermatologists say it can be extremely effective in reversing signs of aging like fine lines and dark spots. To understand why (and to determine if it could be for you), you first need to know how it actually works.

“Although people often think of retinols and retinoids interchangeably, they are not exactly the same,” says Marisa Garshick, MD, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist at MDCS: Medical Dermatology & Cosmetic Surgery in New York City.

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Retinols can be found over-the-counter and are generally considered more tolerable for those with sensitive skin, while retinoids typically require a prescription and are a stronger treatment.

“Both retinols and retinoids are considered an essential ingredient in any anti-aging regimen, having been studied as one of the most effective ingredients to both treat and prevent wrinkles,” says Dr. Garshick. Tretinoin is commonly used to treat acne due to its fast-acting, pore-clearing abilities, and according to Amanda von dem Hagen, International Educator of Glo Skin Beauty, the powerful ingredient can help to reduce your skin's oil level. "A benefit of Tretinoin is that it alters the behavior of aged cells so they act in a more youthful manner by accelerating cell turnover to help smooth and refine skin texture," she says.

Tretinoin, a topical (read: applied to the skin) vitamin-A derivative that falls under the category of retinoid, goes by various brand names like Retin-A, Retin-A Micro, Renova, Tretin-X and Atralin, explains Anthony Terrasse, MD, owner of Terrasse Aesthetic Surgery and Erase MediSpa in Lake Forest, Illinois.

Scientists have developed formulas of varying strength of the active ingredient tretinoin, which allows pharmaceutical and cosmeceutical companies to include them in their skin care lines, he says. A plethora of new tretinoin products have emerged that report success in reducing wrinkles, diminishing hyperpigmentation, and creating a youthful and refreshing complexion.

“[Using tretinoin] results in irritation of the skin that causes skin cells to divide, grow and die more rapidly, and more frequent turnover of the cells helps preserve your skin’s collagen component—and in fact, promotes new collagen formation,” says Dr. Terrasse.

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That means tretinoin creams, gels, and lotions work on both acne and wrinkles for a couple reasons. First, for mild to moderate acne, newer cells replace the blemish cells, and quick cell turnover limits new pimples from forming, says Dr. Terrasse. Similarly, these smooth new cells help even out areas of irregularity and color, and also reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, he notes.

Since tretinoin is a retinoid, it’s available via prescription only (see brand names above), as a gel, lotion or cream. This is helpful to individualize the treatment for your skin type, says Dr. Garshick, as gels work best for oily skin, and creams and lotions better suit more sensitive skin.

If your dermatologist thinks it could be a good fit for your skin type, it’s important to start slow. “Less is more when it comes to a retinol or retinoid,” says Dr. Garshick. “Start off by applying a pea-size amount to your entire face, and if you’re just getting started, use two or three times a week and increase frequency as you tolerate it.”

The reason for this? Tretinoin, like many retinoids and retinols, is known to be drying and irritating, especially at first, says Fran Cook-Bolden, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and cosmetic surgeon and founding director of Skin Specialty Dermatology in New York City. Altreno, the first formulation of tretinoin in a lotion, was approved by the FDA in August 2018. “It is reported that this new lotion helps hydrate your skin,” says Dr. Cook-Bolden, “which should make this new tretinoin more tolerable in those with sensitive, dry, mature, and irritable skin.”

Tretinoin also makes your skin more susceptible to sunburns, so make sure to slap on SPF every day if you're not already.

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