The Ins and Outs of Retin-A

Janell M. Hickman
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Unfortunately, prominent skincare ingredient Retin-A continues to receive mixed reviews. From reports about the inital “uglies” to the glowing benefits of eliminating acne, the jury is still out on if a Retin-A is truly a must-have for beauty mavens. To help you decipher the murky waters, we’ve gathered four top skincare experts and dermatologists to address and uncover the myths associated with this unique ingredient.

Learn How It Works
“Retin-A  (the medication known generically as retinoid acid or tretinoin) is derived from vitamin A,” shares board-certified dermatologist and founder of Derma di Colore, Carlos A. Charles, MD. “Skin cells contain retinoid receptors that help normalize how the cell functions. As we age, the cells begin to act more erratically, but consistent use of Retin-A helps to regulate the cell’s behavior by interaction with these retinoid receptors,” he shares. “Retin-A also helps increases skin cell turnover. By doing so it gradually helps to improve skin texture and even skin pigmentation and blemishes.”

Retin-A Has Multiple Benefits
“[Retin-A] is beneficial in treating acne, aging skin and wrinkles, dark spots and uneven skin tone and keratosis pilaris, a skin condition affecting the upper arms, thighs and back,” explains Dr. Fran E. Cook-Bolden, MD, a director at Skin Specialty Dermatology. “It also increases the amount of new collagen formed as well as prevent the breakdown of collagen damage by the sun. Collagen is what the skin is made of—it gives our skin it’s structure, firmness and tone. This anti-aging effect helps the dermis appear more youthful.”

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SPF Use Is A Must
“One of the side effects of Retin-A is that is causes excessive redness, swelling, blistering which can be more irritated by the sun,” explains Margo Marrone, co-founder and chief pharmacist at The Organic Pharmacy. “However the main reason [to wear sunscreen is] that Retin-A increases photo-sensitivity and more likely to burn. Its essential to wear a hat and high SPF and avoid the sun where possible.”

Consider Your Skin Product Mix
“You shouldn’t use too many abrasive substances at one time, for example using Retin-A, AHA and glycolic acids together,” warns Valmont International Training Manager, Celine Gudit. “Together, these abrasive ingredients can create excess sensitivity and lead to skin dehydration. To counteract this, opt for more hydrating products to help add resilience and reinforce the dermis like those designed for sensitive or dry skin.”

Follow The Directions
“Retin-A should only be applied at bedtime since immediate sun exposure [could cause] degradation of the active ingredients—application at night ensures that the active product has time to work,” advises Dr. Charles. “Almost all users of Retin-A will initially experience some drying and mild irritation. I counsel my patients to only use a pea size spread evenly over the entire face. Additionally, they should only apply the product 2-3 times per week for the first several weeks. Then, they can slowly increase application frequency as tolerated.”

Select The Right Formula
“Cream formulations are useful for those with dry and sensitive to normal skin, whereas gels are useful for more oily to normal skin,” shares Dr. Cook-Bolden. “Retin-A can be used in all skin types and tones, however it is better tolerated in those with oily skin. A micronized formulation [has] also slower absorption over time and makes it overall more tolerable by all skin types.”

Look For Alternatives in Retinol
“Retin-A is retinoid acid which is highly active and therefore causes severe skin irritation,” explains Marrone. “[On the other hand] retinol is related to retinoid acid but does not have a direct effect on the skin. It first needs to be converted to retinoid acid in the skin so its more gentle and takes longer to act with a more gentle action. Retinol can still cause irritation but much less than Retin-A.”

There’s No Set Age for Retin-A
“There is no absolute age to introduce retinoids into your regimen,” shares Dr. Charles. “For those with significant lifetime sun-exposure, starting a retinoid will be beneficial in the late twenties,” he adds. “However, I usually will introduce the conversation of retinoids as anti-aging products in the late 20’s to early 30’s.”

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