anti aging 101 retinol dr erum ilyas

May 15, 2021


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What is Retinol ?

Retinol gets a lot of love in the over the counter anti aging skin care product world. Retinol itself is a form of vitamin A found in foods and products. It’s naturally occurring. Retinol by itself is actually not directly active in the skin. It needs to be converted into its active form retinoic acid by the skin.  The ability of our skin to convert retinol into its active form varies person to person.  This can also lead to variable results between users.

How does Retinol work?

When applied to the skin, retinol is converted into retinoic acid which is considered an active retinoid. Retinoids are known to improve fine lines and wrinkles by boosting collagen production in addition to retaining water in the skin. They can help actually reverse the signs of aging that comes from sun damage. They can also work to minimize discoloration in the skin and give the skin more of a glow. 

This is in contrast to most OTC products for anti-aging.  Ingredients such as Hyaluronic acid applied topically do not directly boost collagen production. These products actually just minimize the appearance of fine lines by retaining moisture in the superficial layers of skin to make it appear less wrinkled.  These products do not provide a long term benefit from actual collagen production. As soon as the product is gone- it’s effects are gone too!

Retinol is found over the counter so it’s widely available for consumers. There are a few things to point out with retinol  when compared to the prescription tretinoin and tazarotene which are active retinoids and much stronger than retinol.  Because retinol relies on our skin’s ability to convert it into the active retinoic acid, this may not always give quick or consistent results.

The amount of active retinoic acid formed by your skin is based on : 

  • The amount of retinol in the product 
  • Our skin’s ability to convert retinol into retinoic acid
  • The time for this process to occur

How can I find the best retinol for my skin type?

Retinol has a love-hate relationship for some people simply because it can be so drying and even cause irritation.  Finding the right balance can be difficult.  If you are struggling I have tried to go through each option to find one that may suit your skin better than others.


Retinol for Dry Skin


For my patients with dry skin, I tend to favor the CeraVe line of products. 

Cerave Skin Renewing Cream Serum is an excellent combination of retinol for anti-aging with ceramides to hydrate the skin.  It’s a nice balance to strike when you want to have the benefits of retinol for anti-aging but struggle with excess dryness these products can cause.






Retinol for Oily Skin


 Roc Deep Wrinkle Serum works so well with oily skin that I sometimes switch my younger acne patients to this product when they are looking to maintain skin clearance without prescription products.




Retinol for Combination Skin

Olay Regenerist Retinol 24 Max Moisturizer rejuvenating retinol that is moisturizing without feeling too greasy. It is a great product for combination skin because of the hydration it offers.  






Retinol for Sensitive Skin 


The Inkey List Bakuchiol uses a phyto-retinol called bakuchiol.  This is a retinol alternative.  It’s a functional analog of retinol meaning it actually has the exact same effect as retinol topically in studies with one huge advantage- it’s less irritating because it’s also an anti inflammatory agent.  This is an excellent option for our sensitive skin patients.

Related : Learn about your skin blog | Bakuchiol 




    • Retinol for Acne Prone Skin : Peter Thomas Roth Professional 3% retinoid plus has the benefit of anti aging and being lightweight enough to avoid triggering acne. If you are looking for an option but do not want to risk breakouts, this is a nice option to try.


    • Retinol for Mature Skin : Anti aging, thinning of the skin, discoloration, tissue paper like wrinking of the skin—there are so many factors to address that choosing the right product to multitask as much as possible is important.  The Kate Somerville retinol vita c power serum combines both retinol and vitamin C to boost its effectiveness at addressing multiple issues such as fine lines and discoloration.

    What is tretinoin?

    Tretinoin is an active retinoid and does not require this conversion process.  It’s response is more predictable and more effective as a result of this.

    Retinoids work by acting on receptors in our cells to increase cell turnover.  This initially will help in chemical exfoliation of the skin allowing it to renew itself, fade discoloration, contribute to softening or smoothing of the skin, and increase collagen production to improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.  Tretinoin can also play a role in chemoprevention of skin cancer.

    Retin A, a name brand version of the generic tretinoin, was developed in the 1960s in Philadelphia.  It is truly a revolutionary product and has retained its place in our toolbox as Dermatologists for decades.  I was given my first prescription for Retin A when I was 14 and I have personally used it for over 30 years. I have prescribed it thousands of times over the years.

    What are the benefits of tretinoin?

    There are a number of benefits to the use of tretinoin.  In practice, on a daily basis, below are the most common reasons I prescribe it.

    Tretinoin is an important foundation to acne therapy. It regulates oil or sebum production, assists in exfoliation of the skin and accelerates the improvement of pigmentation from acne evening the skin tone.

    Actinic or sun damage: 
    Tretinoin helps with discoloration in the skin from sun damage, improves the thickness of skin and accelerates cell turnover.

    Tretinoin can improve pigmentation and, when combined with hydroquinone and a mild steroid can improve discoloration from melasma in as little as 8 weeks. 

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