If ever a skin-care nirvana were to exist, my money is on it being a retinoid. A brief refresher: Retinoids are the catchall term for the topical vitamin-A derivatives that do everything from attack acne before it starts (the original purpose, since 1971) to fend off the formation of fine lines and wrinkles. There’s more: Retinoids unclog pores, reduce inflammation, fade age spots, smooth skin texture, and stimulate cell turnover—basically, they keep you looking younger for longer, without the blemish-prone downsides of youthful skin.
There are prescription-strength retinoids, like tazarotene (found in Tazorac) and tretinoin (like Atralin and Retin-A), which have an active ingredient of retinoic acid and can cost a pretty penny if your insurance isn’t so hot on the coverage, and then there are over-the-counter options. Over-the-counter formulations all contain retinol, which is similar but tends to be a little less potent and thus work a little slower than their prescription-strength counterparts. A minor difference, really—retinoids are super-powered, and retinol takes it easy.
Because retinoids are such a powerful antiaging ingredient, it’s easy to adopt the notion that they are strictly for the 30-and-up crew who want to stop skin aging in its tracks, or people who are fighting moderate-to-severe acne. This is inaccurate. If you want to reap the full benefits, regardless of your skin type, you should be using them right now. Like, currently. At this very moment. Yes, even in your early 20s.
“It’s never too early to incorporate retinol [or retinoids] into an antiaging regimen,” says dermatologist Dr. Craig Kraffert, MD. His motto? “Start young, stay young.”
The belief that these products are best used when wrinkles have already started to form is “erroneous,” says Dr. Kraffert. “There’s an increasingly solid body of evidence that retinol regulates skin function in a positive way,” regardless of which specific improvements you’re looking for. Enlarged pores? Not for long. Rough, uneven texture? Ditto. Acne scars? Crow’s feet? Collagen loss? Those little fine lines you get between your brows from frowning too much? Got you covered, on all accounts.
Not only do retinol and retinoid formulations act as an aesthetic panacea, but they have legit benefits beyond pure vanity. “[They’re also] well-known to correct pre-cancers, slow growth of existing skin cancer, and decrease the risk of developing new skin cancer,” Dr. Kraffert confirms. But, you know, they still perform best in conjunction with other good lifestyle and skin-care habits that emphasize daily SPF 30 or higher along with “complete avoidance” of cigarettes and secondhand smoke, which, like everything else that’s fun, are the best shortcuts to premature aging. Oh, and feel free to slather on antioxidant skin care like your life depends on it.
Retinol treatments and retinoids alike do have the potential to be irritating—but not so much as to be intolerable for sensitive skin—so Dr. Kraffert says, “a key goal is maximum retinol effectiveness with minimized potential for irritation.” When you’re in the market for an OTC retinol that hits all the marks, look for formulations with multiple benefits aside from the retinol alone. Work some hydrating ingredients and antiaging antioxidants into the mix, too, and you’re well on your way to achieving full-on Meryl as Madeline status.