Tretinoin Cream Is the Unsung Hero of Skincare Products—Here's Why

Updated 01/31/18
Margo & Me

Reading through a list of skincare ingredients is like reliving a chemistry exam in high school. And even though balancing equations can be fun, we'd rather not do it during our skincare routine. That said, we're always hungry for more information about what we're putting on our skin. Besides, there's nothing wrong with taking health precautions and making sure we're spending our money wisely on effective products.

Recently, we reached out to leading retinoid expert Melissa Levin, MD, to ask her what ingredients the best anti-aging and acne-clearing moisturizers have in common. "As a dermatologist, one of the most common questions I get is, 'What is the best anti-aging product?' First and foremost, having a daily sunscreen to avoid wrinkles, brown spots, and broken capillaries from forming is important," she tells MyDomaine.

The next best thing you can use? Retinoid. Levin says, "Of all the retinoids available, tretinoin still remains the most studied and proven for its anti-aging properties." If you aren't familiar with tretinoin, know that it's a retinoid derived from vitamin A. To learn more about the differences between tretinoin and retinoids (and why they've become so popular), keep reading.


Tretinoin is "the most studied retinoid for the treatment of aging of the wrinkles," Levin tells us. "Retinoids have been long studied, and since the 1980s, it has been proven to improve the appearance of wrinkles, diminish brown spots, and even out discoloration in the skin," she says. Diving into the nitty-gritty cellular level, Levin explains that "tretinoin works by increasing collagen formation, decreasing the breakdown of collagen, and normalizing cell turnover."

So who should use tretinoin? According to Levin, use of the product is safe for "every non-pregnant person who is interested in an anti-aging routine. … From an anti-aging standpoint, I start my patients as early as their early 20s." Since cell turnover is a natural process, Levin says to be patient and expect the benefits to appear over time.


"Since tretinoin promotes skin-cell turnover, retinoids such as tretinoin are the absolute backbone of an acne treatment—whether it's for treating blackheads, whiteheads, mild, moderate, or severe acne," says Levin. "Retinoids are the foundation of treating acne since they unclog pores. … Third-generation retinoids such as Differin or Adapalene also have anti-inflammatory activity," she continues.

If you're using it for acne prevention or treatment, you can start at an even younger age. "For an acne standpoint, we use topical retinoids starting at the age of 12 years old," says Levin.


As with any prescription, there are some side effects to look out for. "One of the biggest limiting factors of tretinoin is retinoid-related adverse effects like irritation, redness, scaling, dryness, and burning," warns Levin.

"For some—especially those with sensitive skin or skin conditions such as rosacea—a prescription-strength retinoid may be too irritating, and an over-the-counter retinol can be a great alternative," she says. Of course, a non-prescription retinol might not deliver results as quickly, but it can definitely improve discoloration and fine lines, according to Levin. Plus, you won't have to go to your dermatologist to get it.

If you do choose to use a prescription retinoid cream, Levin recommends using it in conjunction with a gentle cleanser and your usual moisturizer. She also advises avoiding products that contain salicylic acid, glycolic acid, and benzoyl peroxide if using a retinoid. And if you've got particularly sensitive skin, it might be beneficial for you to start off using a pea-size amount every other night to ease yourself into the treatment.


Not all retinoids are created equal. According to Levin, if you want to speak with your dermatologist about getting a prescription, the retinoids to know are tretinoin (the generic form of Retin-A or Retin-A Micro), tazarotene (the generic form of Tazorac), and adapalene (the generic form of Differin). Retinoids can also be found over the counter in a weaker form called retinol.

If you're unsure of how to choose an over-the-counter retinol, opt for one that is physician-grade for best results. This is important to keep in mind. "Just because a product is marketed as a retinol does not guarantee that it will deliver the results similar to tretinoin," says Levin.


SkinBetter Science Regenerating AlphaRet Overnight Cream
SkinBetter Science Regenerating AlphaRet Overnight Cream $100

This is Levin's suggestion for those with sensitive skin.

Tata Harper Retinoic Nutrient Face Oil
Tata Harper Retinoic Nutrient Face Oil $48

Vegan and free of toxins, this is a great option for anyone who wants to detox their skincare routine while also introducing some anti-aging ingredients. 

Kate Somerville RetAsphere 2-in-1 Retinol Night Cream
Kate Somerville RetAsphere 2-in-1 Retinol Night Cream $85

Designed to infuse skin with pure retinol, this two-in-one night cream will even out texture and smooth fine lines and wrinkles. 

DermaDoctor Poetry in Lotion Intensive 1% Retinol
DermaDoctor Poetry in Lotion Intensive 1% Retinol $75

This lotion contains 1% retinol, so it's effective but also stronger than some of the other over-the-counter options.

100% Pure Retinol Restorative Overnight Balm
100% Pure Retinol Restorative Overnight Balm $48

This moisturizer contains 2.5% retinol and improves the elasticity of your skin. It's also organic certified. 

MZ Skin Hydrate and Nourish Age Defense Retinol Day Moisturizer
MZ Skin Hydrate and Nourish Age Defense Retinol Day Moisturizer $145

Rich in vitamins A, C, and E, this moisturizer encourages cell renewal, corrects imperfections, and evens out skin tone.

Verso Day Cream
Verso Day Cream $100

This one's a moisturizing and rejuvenating day cream that contains a retinol-8 complex and antioxidants for radiant, youthful-looking skin.

Luna Sleeping Night Oil 0.5 oz/ 15 mL
Sunday Riley Luna Sleeping Night Oil $55

When you're looking for an oil treatment to incorporate into your nightly routine, this one will do. It delivers intense hydration and plumps up your skin for a suppler look. 

Avène Retrinal Day Cream
Avène Retrinal Day Cream $70

This is another one of Levin's recommendations for someone with sensitive skin who wants to try a retinol cream.

Olehenriksen Counter Balance Mattifying Moisture Creme
Olehenriksen Counter Balance Mattifying Moisture Creme $40

Here's a great vitamin A packed cream for someone with an oily skin type. It absorbs oil, mattifies the skin, and helps reduce acne without drying you out. 

Differin Acne Treatment Gel
Differin Acne Treatment Gel $13

If you have acne-prone skin, try this treatment gel. Doctor's orders! 

Skin Medica Retinol Complex
Skin Medica Retinol Complex $43

This retinol cream is ideal for anyone with a normal skin type who wants to start an anti-aging regimen. There's also a version of the product with 0.25 retinol for more strength.

Zelens Power A High Potency Vitamin A Treatment Drops
Zelens Power A High Potency Vitamin A Treatment Drops $195

This one is formulated with a potent vitamin A concentrate.

Ren Skincare Bio Retinoid Anti-Ageing Cream
Ren Skincare Bio Retinoid Anti-Ageing Cream $65

For sensitive skin, this anti-aging cream is ideal. It boasts the same effect as retinol without the irritating side effects. 

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