Retin-A is considered by many to be the “Gold Standard” of anti-aging topical treatments so I started using it a few years ago to see if I could reverse some of my sun-damage and have younger looking skin. I had a few false starts with it, but once I learned to use it properly, I was amazed at the changes I saw! For me, it’s been the single most effective topical treatment that I’ve used.
Retin-A is a brand name of a Vitamin A derivative called tretinoin (all-trans retinoic acid) that’s FDA approved to treat acne and photo-aging. It’s only available by prescription in the US and comes in varying strengths and formulations. Your doctor can recommend the right strength and carrier based on your skin type and level of sun damage.
Tretinoin has been in use since the 1970s to treat acne, but it only started being studied as an anti-aging treatment after elderly acne patients reported improvements in their age spots and wrinkles. Results were verified in a 1986 study that showed tretinoin to be effective at increasing cell turnover, fading discolorations, and new collagen formation. Between 1986 and 2004, there were more than 15 studies done on tretinoin for photo-aged skin to better understand how it works, the benefits and side-effects of different strengths, how long each strength takes to work and how long the effects can be maintained.
What these studies found is that tretinoin:
- Works at the cellular level to partly reverse the structural damages of ultraviolet sun exposure
- May be useful in decelerating the photo aging process
- Causes thickening of the epidermal layer of skin
- Improves fine and coarse wrinkles
- Improves tactile roughness, and sallowness
- Fades discolorations (age-spots)
Later studies comparing strengths found that weaker concentrations of tretinoin were also effective, but produced fewer side effects. It was also discovered that after achieving initial results, decreasing application to 3X a week can maintain the effects. Results were generally seen in 6-12 months with side-effects decreasing over time. So it does take quite a while to work, but your skin will acclimate to it eventually.
Side-effects associated with Retin-A use are dryness, redness, peeling, inflammation, irritation and burning (lovely right?) Not surprisingly, many people stop using the medication because of the side-effects. Scientists initially thought the irritation could be responsible for Retin-A’s effectiveness, but studies have since shown that the irritation is not necessary and in fact should be avoided if possible.
Tretinoin also thins the outer dead layer of skin (the stratum corneum) which makes the skin more photosensitive and more prone to increased sun damage so it’s very important to protect the skin with sunscreen while on Retin-A. In my opinion, there’s no point in using Retin-A if you’re not going to commit to using sunscreen every day. It would be like scrubbing a stain off the wall with one hand and marking up the wall with new stains with the other hand… just pointless, right?
The more you understand about anti-aging ingredients in topical creams and serums, the better you’ll be able to decide what to use, how to use it, and what results you can expect to see.