How to use tretinoin for wrinkles and anti-aging
No matter our biological age, feathery lines, wrinkles, or an imperfect complexion all deserve to be worn with pride. But those first visible signs we’re getting older are also an invitation to adjust our self-care regimen to the new needs our skin has in this next phase of life.
Tretinoin, or retinoic acid, is a skin ally when it comes to giving our skin the royal treatment at every age. It’s a vitamin A derivative known for its ability to inspire cellular regeneration when applied topically, making it a staple agent in any anti-aging skincare regimen.
That said, tretinoin is powerful, which is why you’ll need a prescription to lock it into your skincare routine. Typically, with a little guidance on how this ingredient works—and how to use it—the best is yet to come (for you, and for your skin).
The aging process: how wrinkles and signs of aging develop
Most of us accept our skin’s signs of aging as par for the course when it comes to getting older. But it turns out that skin aging isn’t just about putting more years under our belts.
Researchers recognize two types of aging when it comes to the skin:
Chronological aging, also known as intrinsic aging, refers to the effects of time on the appearance and function of the skin and every other organ in the body. Chronological aging is inevitable.
Photoaging refers to the degradation of skin’s appearance caused by ultraviolet (UV) exposure to sunlight. Photoaging is, to an extent, within our control.
Nested inside both of these categories are four factors responsible for the marks our skin bears with time:
UV light exposure – While long-term exposure to sunlight is chiefly to blame for photoaging, some skin types are less visibly impacted by the sun than others. For instance, people with light-toned skin are known to be more susceptible to fine lines and wrinkles than people with darker-toned skin due to the differences between skin’s melanin content.
Genetics – Gene expression may play a significant role in how our skin looks as we get older. That said, nurturing our skin with a healthy diet, sun protection, and even learning to de-stress can all help our skin look its best no matter what plans our DNA holds for our aging journey.
Environmental pollutants – Smoking is one of the main catalysts for premature skin aging apart from UV radiation. Research suggests that smoking diminishes our skin’s collagen production and supply, which depreciates skin elasticity and can cause wrinkles to arrive early. In addition to tobacco use, routine environmental pollution we encounter each day (e.g., automobile exhaust) can also speed up our skin’s aging process.
Facial pulling – Every time we make a facial expression, the muscle tension and release engraves creases into the deepest layers of our skin. Because skin loses its ability to bounce back with time, these creases eventually become permanent.
While we can’t hack our DNA or disrupt the flow of time, we know that behavioral measures like keeping our skin covered and wearing SPF can help to stall the effects of photoaging. But what’s physically occurring in our skin—down to the molecular level—that changes its appearance and texture?
What causes wrinkles and skin aging?
The overall structure of the skin is composed of three layers, and each of them has a role to play in the aging process:
The hypodermis – The hypodermis is the bottommost layer of skin. One of its main constituents is fat, which is responsible for thermoregulation and cushioning your muscles and bones from injury. Over time, the fat in the hypodermis diminishes—one of the leading causes of slack, wrinkle-prone skin.
The dermis – The dermis is the middle layer of your skin. This is the layer that contains sebaceous glands, which keep your skin moisturized, and blood vessels, which supply your skin’s top layer with nutrients. The dermis also contains reserves of collagen and elastin: the two proteins that give your skin its strength and flexibility. With time, our skin’s collagen and elastin content decreases, leading to fine lines, wrinkles, and dull-looking skin.
The epidermis – The epidermis is the topmost layer of skin that we can see. Its primary job is to protect us. To stay resilient, the epidermis is responsible for skin cell turnover—an action written into our DNA. When we age, however, our skin isn’t able to take these instructions as well, slowing our skin cells’ renewal processes and contributing to noticeably older-looking skin.
The facial creases we see in the mirror are the visible result of all the changes to our skin’s composition and function.
When it comes to contending with them, skincare shouldn’t solely focus on the topmost layer. It must also target the dermis, which comprises 90% of our overall skin. And it’s here that tretinoin can start to do its work.
How does tretinoin work for wrinkles and aging?
Tretinoin is a derivative of vitamin A in the retinoid family. Although similar, there is a difference between retinol and tretinoin, when it comes to benefits, strengths, and how they work. In the skincare universe, tretinoin is chiefly used for four purposes:
To temper signs of aging (e.g., wrinkles)
To combat hyperpigmentation
To achieve a smoother skin texture
Researchers believe that tretinoin works to combat signs of aging by working with retinoid-specific receptors in our skin. When used topically, it not only boosts the dermis’s collagen volume, but it also expedites shedding dead skin cells, hastening the epidermis’s natural renewal process.
It’s these two dual actions that work in tandem to build resilient, youthful-looking skin from the inside out—and the outside in.
How to use tretinoin for anti aging
Tretinoin is a safe, effective treatment for aging and a host of common skin complaints, and it’s relatively easy to incorporate into your skincare routine.
You only need a small, pea-sized amount of product to use tretinoin for wrinkles. You’ll spread a thin layer over the entire surface of clean, freshly-washed skin before going to bed. Tretinoin should only be used once per day. It should not be applied in combination with other topical treatments or cosmetics, which can combine with the treatment and lead to skin irritation.
Additionally, there are some important ground rules when it comes to using tretinoin:
Tretinoin should only be applied at night. This is because wearing tretinoin during the day can make skin more photosensitive when exposed to sunlight, which could lead to redness and irritation.
When applying tretinoin, be sure to avoid your mouth, nose, and eyes to avoid ingesting it. Retinoids like tretinoin can be toxic if consumed without a prescription, so be sure to navigate carefully while applying. If you do venture off course, flush the affected area with water immediately.
Tretinoin should never be applied to damaged or sunburned skin.
How long does it take to see results from tretinoin?
Most people using tretinoin for wrinkles begin to see an improvement in their skin as early as 8 weeks into their treatment protocol.
That said, tretinoin is regarded as an integrative topical treatment—it’s a medicine that can support anti-aging efforts, but it can’t combat signs of aging on its own. You’ll see the most marked changes in your skin quality if you combine tretinoin with some behavioral changes (like wearing sunscreen, eating healthfully, and moisturizing) to protect your skin for the long haul.
If you're curious about using tretinoin to reduce wrinkles and age spots, here's a quick overview of how it works:
The tretinoin timeline: what to expect
Weeks 1-3 – For many, the first three weeks of tretinoin are the least comfortable. As your skin becomes accustomed to your new routine, you may experience some mild irritation, flakiness, or wake up to slightly blotchy-looking skin (it’s temporary!). It’s important to keep your skin protected from environmental stressors (e.g., sun and wind) during this time. If you experience any side effects, rest assured they should abate soon—if anything, a little discomfort means your tretinoin has started doing its job.
Weeks 4-8 – By the first month or two of using tretinoin for wrinkles, your skin will have begun to settle into its new routine. With a little patience, any pesky side effects you may have experienced should start to recede. While the full effects of the medication haven’t locked into place, you may begin to notice a smoother skin texture and a more even skin tone.
Weeks 8-12 – If you struggle with acne, you may notice your blemishes start to clear in weeks 8 through 12 of your treatment protocol. Around this milestone, it’s important to ensure you’re moisturizing adequately and protecting your skin from the sun, whether with sunscreen or covering up when you spend time outside. By reinforcing your overall skincare routine, you’ll be encouraging your tretinoin to work to its fullest anti-aging potential.
6 months – Studies on the anti-aging effects of tretinoin suggest that 6 months is when you’ll start to see a significant improvement in the appearance of your skin. In one trial, individuals whose skin regimen included tretinoin, moisturizer, and sunscreen achieved a higher collagen quota in their skin by the 6-month mark. With a collagen boost, you may notice a significant reduction in fine lines and skin elasticity, in addition to reduced discoloration and dullness.
A few notes to keep in mind: tretinoin requires patience and you might experience side effects like skin dryness and purging on the way to glowing skin.
How to choose the right form of tretinoin
If you’re ready to start using tretinoin for anti aging or considering it when choosing an acne treatment, it’s important to choose the type of medication best suited to your skin. Let’s take a look at how tretinoin is categorized so your dermatologist can make the right selection for you.
Types of tretinoin
Because tretinoin is a potent vitamin A derivative, you’ll need a prescription to use it. Most tretinoin comes in the following doses:
In general, the more concentrated your tretinoin, the more significant your side effects may be. While tretinoin is traditionally applied once per evening, you may need to space out your applications if you’re prescribed a higher dose. It’s important to work with your dermatologist to come up with the right dosage to balance long-term anti-aging benefits without overtaxing your skin in the short term.
Aside from dosage, there are four common ways tretinoin is delivered topically to the skin. These include:
While gels and creams have a thicker consistency, lotions and solutions are runnier. The type of vehicle you choose largely comes down to personal preference and how important ease of application is for you.
Don't forget that your skin type can play a role in how a topical tretinoin is received. If you have sensitive skin, for example, you may experience purging from a skin care product as potent as this one. Purging is a temporary skin reaction to specific ingredients that may cause breakouts, skin dryness, flaking, and peeling. If you want to introduce topical tretinoin into your skin care, you can apply it after moisturizer or sandwich between two moisturizer applications to prevent purging.
The bottom line for using tretinoin to treat wrinkles and aging
Getting older is all about getting to know yourself and your body better—and the allies you have at your disposal who can help you live your best life at every age.
If you’re ready to enlist tretinoin in your skincare routine, Favor has your back. A subscription with Favor includes access to telemedicine consultations, prescription fulfillment services, and your entire skincare arsenal delivered to your door.
Join Favor through your insurance or check out our out of pocket options. From up-leveling your daily birth control to upgrading your skincare routine, how you choose to use Favor is up to you. It’s our job to support, advise, and deliver what you need.
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