Dermatologists often say that sunscreen is the number-one anti-aging product because it prevents the damage that eventually appears as visible signs of aging. But when it comes to anti-aging products that improve existing signs of aging, my product pick is retinol (and retinoids). Best, you can find effective products at all different price points at the drugstore, department store and your dermatologist’s office.
Understanding the difference between retinol and retinoids can be confusing, so here are the basics. Retinol (which is available over-the-counter) is part of the retinoid family of compounds. The retinoid family also includes prescription-based tretinoin, tazarotene and adapalene under a variety of brand names (such as Retin-A, Tazorac and Differin). These medications bind to retinoic acid receptors within the skin, where they turn on good genes (like the ones that promote collagen production) and turn off bad genes (such as the one that prompts the production of an enzyme that breaks down collagen).
It’s never too early to start using a retinol or retinoid product. Many teens use prescription-based retinol to improve acne, and this may help keep their skin looking younger and healthier longer. Even if you’re not acne-prone, the 20s are a great time to start using these products. Collagen production starts to slow in this decade, so it’s important to keep your skin’s production going strong.
You’re also likely to still be experiencing breakouts at least occasionally, and retinol helps promote the skin’s natural exfoliation process so dead skin cells don’t stick around and clog pores — a main trigger for acne. In the 30s and beyond, retinoids’ collagen-stimulating effect helps smooth fine lines and wrinkles, and its exfoliating effect helps maintain the skin’s radiance.
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Although retinoids are widely prescribed for anti-aging purposes, they were originally studied for their effect on acne. Dr. Albert Kligman performed the Retin-A research trials for acne in the 1970s along with another dermatologist named Jim Leyden. They noticed that as their research subjects aged, they had less wrinkles. They were able to prove to the FDA that retinoids improve wrinkles, and that’s extremely difficult to do from a scientific standpoint. This eventually led to the approval of Renova, the first prescription topical for wrinkles caused by photoaging.
Anyone using a prescription-based retinoid for anti-aging knows that these products can cause some sticker shock at the pharmacy—but there was an exciting retinol development over the summer. The Food and Drug Administration approved the over-the-counter sale of Differin, which had only been available by prescription. This is great news because now everyone can reap the anti-aging (and anti-acne) benefits of this topical skincare product without a trip to the doctor’s office.
Just remember to start slowly, and only apply every third night at first. Then, increase to every other night, then every night once you know your skin can tolerate it. Dryness and flaking are common side effects when starting to use a retinoid, but if you stick with it, you’ll see the skin improvement is well worth it.
Dr. Leslie Baumann is a board-certified dermatologist and CEO of Baumann Cosmetic & Research Institute in Miami.