The Skin We’re In: Because sometimes beauty really is skin deep.
You might have heard that retinoids are good for your skin and that they’ll magically get rid of all your pimples, but you might not know exactly how. Retinoids are that mysterious skin-care ingredient that’s now in practically everything. As New York dermatologist Dr. Paul Jarrod Frank puts it, they’re “the most useful anti-aging ingredient around.” Dr. Anne Chapas considers them to be “a first-line agent for acne.”
But how effective are they? In order to whack through the weeds of skin-care folklore, the Cut called dermatologists to find out exactly how retinoids work and how to tell if you need them.
Retinoids Are Basically Vitamin A
All retinoids are derived from Vitamin A, but the names and branding can vary. Depending on how it’s formulated, a retinoid will appear over the counter with names like “retinol” or “retinaldehyde.” The prescription-strength version is known as tretinoin and marketed under popular brands like Renova and Retin-A. Until recently, you could also get the synthetic retinoid adapalene (also known as Differin) via prescription, but now you can buy it over the counter – although the highest dose of Differin (0.3% adapalene) still requires a prescription.
Confused yet? What’s important to know is that all retinoids, whether over-the-counter or prescription strength, can help your skin get smoother. Overall, it takes at least a month to begin to notice any skin improvement. Some people may need to wait as long as two months.
Retinoids Prevent Acne
Acne develops when dead skin cells clog pores. Retinoids increase skin cell turnover, which makes it harder for oil to block pores. Dr. Chapas recommends applying a pea-size amount of topical vitamin A to the face at night. Try Avène’s TriAcnéal, an intense blend of retinaldehyde (a form of vitamin A that’s more potent than retinol, but not as powerful as a prescription) and glycolic acid. The retinaldehyde works to prevent pimples, while the glycolic acid reduces the appearance of existing acne scars. You should consult with a dermatologist first, though, as they may recommend a synthetic form of vitamin A like Differin, which is proven to stop acne over time.
Retinoids Also Reduce the Size of Wrinkles
The same retinoid process that reduces acne also helps produce collagen, which will help you get firmer, plumper skin. Because vitamin A increases the rate of collagen production, thin lines and wrinkles are visibly reduced in a matter of weeks. Dr. Alexiades-Armenakas says that anyone looking to lessen the appearance of wrinkles should expect to notice a difference in about a month. For fast over-the-counter results, try Clinical 1% Retinol Treatment by Paula’s Choice, or consult a dermatologist to see if prescription strength is a better fit for you.
Retinoids Help Get Rid of Skin Blotches, Too
Retinoids indirectly assist with hyperpigmentation — darkened spots on the skin caused by acne or general aging. The skin-peeling effect of vitamin A can diminish the appearance of those spots over time. Just don’t expect results immediately. “It’s like taking an Advil and expecting it to work in a minute,” Dr. Frank says. Try RoC’s Retinol Correxion Max Wrinkle Resurfacing System, which in addition to reducing fine lines, also brightens skin.
And Now For the Bad Part
Retinoids can cause redness, peeling, and overall skin irritability. If you have sensitive skin, you should be especially careful. Dr. Alexiades-Armenakas recommends applying a retinoid at night to limit sun sensitivity. If you want to try one out, it’s best to begin with the less potent over-the-counter forms of retinoids before launching into a prescription to see how it may affect your skin.
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