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Retinol: The Anti-Ager Everyone Should Be Using

What's the best wrinkle cream out there? Top dermatologists say it's anything that contains topical retinoids (i.e., retinol). Find out how they work and how to find the formula that's best for you. Then get ready for your smoothest, most youthful-looking skin ever.

Ask five dermatologists the same question and you'll very likely get five different answers. But the one thing that almost all skin docs can agree on is that topical retinoids are the gold standard for preventing -- and reversing -- the visible signs of aging. "Vitamin A products, such as topical retinoids, help to stimulate collagen production," says David E. Bank, a dermatologist in Mount Kisco, NY.

 

Collagen, skin's structural fiber, breaks down with age, which leads to lines and wrinkles. Studies show that regular use of retinoids (at least two-to-three times a week for two-to-six months) helps to rebuild that lost collagen, leading to more youthful, firmer-looking skin, he says. And it's not just about lines; because they speed up cell turnover, topical retinoids can also help fade sunspots and acne scars.

Choose the Right Retinol

So are all retinoids created equal? Not exactly. "There are so many variations and each one has its own active ingredient," Bank says. Use this guide to pick the vitamin A derivative that's right for you:

  • For the fastest results: See your dermatologist. The most potent retinoids are available in prescription strengths and have been shown to reduce fine lines, smooth skin texture, and help normalize pigmentation, Bank says. The downside? Irritation. Dryness, flaking, and redness are often short-lived side effects that occur as skin adjusts to the new treatment. If you go the Rx route, start off slow, using it every few nights until skin can tolerate it daily. For dry, wrinkle-prone skin, the emollient-based Renova, which contains the most active form of tretinoin (trans retinoic acid or retinoic acid), is a top choice. Avage and Tazorac contain tazarotene, a retinoid that some dermatologists claim to be slightly stronger than tretinoin. Differin Gel contains adaplene, the mildest (but possibly least effective) prescription retinoid of the bunch.
  • For the novice: Try over-the-counter retinoids such as retinol and retinaldehyde. They tend to be less irritating than prescription strengths, so they're good for the beginner. Once they're in the skin, these ingredients are slowly converted to retinoic acid. They work in the same way that prescription strengths do, only it may take longer to see results, explains Bank. Try RoC Retinol Correxion Deep Wrinkle Night Cream ($23; rocskincare.com).
  • For sensitive skin: Look for retinol's OTC cousins, retinyl palmitate or retinyl propionate. "They have to be converted to retinol in the skin (which is then further converted to retinoic acid)," says Joshua Zeichner, M.D., a dermatologist in New York City. "This extra step makes these perhaps even weaker ingredients than retinol." Find retinyl propionate in Olay Pro-X Deep Wrinkle Treatment ($30; olay.com). Another option: new, engineered molecules that act just like a retinoid, without any of the harsh side effects. Find one in Philosophy Miracle Worker Miraculous Anti-Aging Moisturizer ($58; philosophy.com).

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