Few skincare ingredients have as storied a history as retinoids. These vitamin A derivatives first found fame as a novel and effective treatment for acne in the early 1970s, until older patients found it to have aesthetic anti-aging benefits as well. As a result, Retin-A received the FDA's first anti-aging approval in the early 1990s. Today, retinoids are considered by many dermatologists to be one of the most effective topical ingredients for treating symptoms of sun damage. Found both in prescription and over-the-counter creams and gels, retinoids are available in multiple strengths and under a variety of names, including tretinoin, retinol and retinaldehyde. There are also retinoid analogues such as adapelene and tazarotene.
Scientifically speaking, all retinoids are derived from vitamin A, which plays a vital role helping our skin grow and act the way it's supposed to. Regardless of the strength, name, or brand, all retinoids are converted to retinoic acid when they are absorbed by the skin. By normalizing the skin's natural shedding process, retinoids prevent skin cells from sticking together inside of pores and hair follicles, thus preventing the formation of acne. In sun damaged and aging skin, retinoids help repair the architecture of the skin that begins to falter with time. Retinoids thin the upper layer of the epidermis (stratum corneum) where visible damage accumulates while thickening the lower layer of the epidermis and dermis, in turn increasing blood flow and collagen production within the skin. This action is referred to as a "normalization" of the growth pattern.
From an aesthetic perspective, the prevention and improvement of acne speaks for itself. But the beauty benefits can be equally as profound in mature skin. Retinoids work to speed the rate at which skin cells turn over, helping to keep fresh, healthy, younger-looking skin on the surface. Retinoids also fade the excess pigment that accumulates in the lower layer of the epidermis. Furthermore, retinoids work to improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles by helping the skin produce healthy collagen and elastin. The longer a patient uses retinoids, the better their skin will look, and over time retinoids deliver pink, smooth, healthy skin with even tone and texture.
Since all skins are different, some patients experience irritation when starting to use retinoids. Though over-the-counter versions are less concentrated and usually well tolerated, dermatologists often recommend applying prescription retinoids every other night until the skin adjusts. Though oilier skins tend to tolerate retinoids better, one common side effect is increased dryness, especially if too much of the cream or gel is used. But this side effect can be easily improved with a hydrating moisturizer. There is also some concern about increased sun sensitivity when using retinoids, which is why they are best applied at night and used in conjunction with sunscreen during the day.
As a dermatologist, I see patients who are concerned about visible signs of aging every day. In my practice, I often recommend SkinMedica Retinol Complex because it contains three forms of vitamin-A derived retinoids. Its unique microparticle delivery system releases the active ingredients over time, which helps minimize irritation. This one product alone enhances the skin's appearance and texture by promoting exfoliation and skin regeneration. And to protect the skin from further damage during the day, SkinMedica Environmental Defense Sunscreen SPF 50+ is a perfect complement.
No other skincare ingredient does the full spectrum of what retinoids can do. In the field of dermatology, tretinoin (the active ingredient in Retin-A) has a reputation as the granddaddy of all anti-aging products. Whether over-the-counter or prescription, all retinoids work similarly, and have anti-acne and anti-aging benefits that are unique to this class of ingredients.