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Is Retin-A the Secret to Youthful Skin?

Why Women are Turning to Retinoids & Alpha Hydroxy Acids


Retin A cream 0.05% 20 g
Sarin Pongladakul/Flickr

A few years ago a friend who was a few years older told me both she and her mother had discovered the secret to anti-aging -- Retin-A. "Why in the world would you use that stuff? You have flawless skin!" I told her. I had always thought of Retin-A as something found only in the medicine cabinets of pimply teens. "Honey," she said, while taking a drag on her cigarette, "This is WHY I have flawless skin."

My friend was about a few years older than me -- in her mid-30s -- and she wasn't the first flawless-skinned woman I would come to know whose dermatologist prescribed a Retin-A (or tretoinin) as a way to combat fine lines and wrinkles.

Now that I'm in the business of beauty and skincare, I've done a ton of research on anti-aging products and what I've found is that dermatologists agree on one thing: The only anti-ager on the market that has proven again and again to reduce fine lines and wrinkles is tretinoin, a derivative of Vitamin A. Although Retin-A was the first and most famous Vitamin A derivative used for anti-aging, other Vitamin A products have since popped up including Tazorac, Renova and Differin. A host of over-the-counter medications containing lower doses of Vitamin A have also hit the market. While Retin-A remains a medication to treat acne, all of these new products were created specifically to fight wrinkles.

The Secret to Youth: Collagen

Collagen is the key to healthy skin that tends to age well. The change in the pH level of the skin caused by just a few uses of a Vitamin A product such as Retin-A can help generate collagen. "Collagen is the skin's structural fiber," dermatologist Dennis Gross said in the October 2005 issue of O Magazine. "As we get older, it breaks down, creating lines and large pores."

The best way to keep collagen from breaking down is avoiding the sun at all costs. Dermatologists warn that up to 90 percent of wrinkles, dark spots and sun damage are caused by sun exposure. This is why they're always preaching the use of sunscreen. However, if the damage is done, you can try to recoup the gorgeous skin you once had. To find out your best option, read on.

Vitamin A

Vitamin A really cuts down on the wrinkles, perhaps better than any other type of skin product. I would recommend skipping the over-the-counter vitamin A products, which have not yet been proven to be as effective as prescription strength products. Ask your doctor for a prescription for Retin-A, Renova or Retin-A Micro (Retin-A can be purchased over-the-counter in Mexico, Canada and some European countries, so if you live or are visiting there, you don't need a prescription). These contain the tretinoin, which is proven more effective on fine lines and wrinkles than retinol, found in most OTC products.

Keep in mind that you shouldn't expose skin to the sun when using Retin-A, Renova or Retin-A Micro. You'll want to cover up with sunscreen and a hat. Vitamin A makes skin very susceptible to skin damage. You should avoid tretinoin products if you are pregnant or trying to become pregnant because it could cause birth defects. Also, start slowly with this product, which initially can cause redness, peeling and flaking. Too many women give up after just a couple weeks because they are alarmed by the initial effects of tretinoin. Start by using it twice a week, then slowly move to every other day until your skin adjusts.

Because skin can become irritated while on Retin-A, if you find your skin has become dry and reddened, stop your skincare regimen and slather on extra virgin olive oil at night before you go to bed. According to Dermatologist Jessica Wu in Harper's Bazaar, olive oil contains fatty acids comparable to those found in your own skin, so it makes for a very gentle and incredibly moisturizing moisturizer. See How to use Retin-A and other retinoids safely for more detailed information on retinoids and how to properly use them.

The Brilliance of Alpha-Hydroxy Acids

So much of skincare is science and it took me years of research and learning to figure out what really works and what doesn't when it comes to those lotions and potions that are on the market today. One buzzword I kept reading and hearing over and over in my research was "alpha-hydroxy acids." Beauty experts, skincare experts and real women who are deeply into their skincare were raving about them. What I wanted to know was if they really worked. Turns out they do.

AHAs are the acids derived from natural products including milk, sugar cane and tomatoes. They work as a mild exfoliant, breaking down dead skin cells and helping create new cell turnover. They won't erase wrinkles or magically make you 20 years younger, but if used often and correctly, your complexion will improve, becoming smoother, clearer and with fewer blackheads.

Get the full scoop on alpha-hydroxy acids in this extensive article: What are Alpha-Hydroxy Acids & How Do They Work?

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