Reading through a list of skincare ingredients can be like reliving a high school chemistry exam. And while balancing equations can be fun, we'd rather not work so hard during our skincare routine. That said, we're always hungry for more information about what we're putting on our skin 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 says.
Meet the Expert
Dr. Melissa Levin, MD, is a dermatologist based in New York City. She graduated from the University of San Francisco School of Medicine in 2011 and has been practicing, specializing in dermatology, for the last eight years.
The next best thing you can use is a 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, it's a retinoid derived from vitamin A. Read on to learn more about the differences between tretinoin and other retinoids and what they can do for you.
What Is a Retinoid?
A retinoid is any of a group of compounds that have effects in the body like those of Vitamin A. They are commonly used in skincare products to reduce fine lines and wrinkles and improve skin color.
Tretinoin for Anti-Aging
Levin says retinoid studies started during the 1980s and the compound is proven to diminish the appearance of wrinkles, fade brown spots, and help even out skin tone. On the nitty-gritty cellular level, Levin explains that "tretinoin works by increasing collagen formation, decreasing the breakdown of collagen, and normalizing cell turnover."
As long as you're not pregnant or trying to get pregnant, Levin says it's safe for all women interested in anti-aging skincare. "From an anti-aging standpoint, I start my patients as early as their early 20s." Since cell turnover is a natural process, she says to be patient as the benefits appear over time.
Tretinoin as an Acne Treatment
"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 ... unclog pores." She said newer third-generation retinoids such as Differin or Adapalene also have anti-inflammatory properties.
And since tretinoin is considered a safe retinoid, it's even prescribed to treat acne in 12-year-olds, according to Levin.
Tretinoin's Side Effects
Any prescription can have side effects and retinoids can dry out the skin. Besides dryness, Levin says some of her patients on tretinoin have had irritation, redness, scaly patches or burning, so she suggests these workarounds.
"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. 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.
Where to Find Tretinoin
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, choose something from our dermatologist-approved list.
Shop our Over-the-Counter Picks
Levin suggests this gentle-yet-effective cream for people with sensitive skin. The hyaluronic acid in the formula draws moisture to the skin to offset dryness, and shea butter soothes.
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.
Designed to infuse skin with pure retinol, this two-in-one night cream will even out texture and smooth fine lines and wrinkles.
This lotion contains 1% retinol, so it's effective but it also treats the skin gently thanks to hydrating ingredients and botanicals like meadowsweet, oats, and turmeric in the formula.
This certified organic moisturizer contains 2.5% retinol and improves the elasticity of your skin thanks to a supporting cast that includes vitamins C and E.
Rich in vitamins A, C, and E, this moisturizer encourages cell renewal, corrects imperfections, and evens out skin tone. And it includes SPF30 to help protect your newly acquired glow.
Created in Stockholm, this moisturizing and rejuvenating day cream contains a highly effective retinol-8 complex and antioxidants including turmeric for radiant, youthful-looking skin.
When you're looking for an oil treatment to incorporate into your nightly routine, reach for this brilliant one that gets its color and antioxidants from blue tansy flowers. It delivers intense hydration and that leaves your skin with a more supple look.
All of Eau Thermale Avène's products are infused with spring water with minerals that calm and soften skin. That's just one of the reasons Levin recommends this cream someone with sensitive skin who wants to try retinol.
Many dermatologists consider this former prescription treatment their go-to for patients with acne, and it might become yours too since it's so effective, available and affordable. If you have acne-prone skin, you'll want to keep some on hand.
Here's a retinol cream that's ideal for anyone with normal skin who wants to jumpstart an anti-aging regimen. SkinMedica also makes gentler (.25 retinol) and stronger (1.0 retinol) versions of this complex so you can find the one that's just right for your skin.
Thanks to a hardworking formula that includes encapsulated retinol and two retinoids, all you need are three to five drops each night to help diminish the appearance of fine lines, enlarged pores, and sunspots. Spinach, sweet potato, and tomato are among the good-for-you botanicals that smooth skin and get you glowing.
For sensitive skin, this anti-aging cream formulated with gentler retinoid from an exotic Brazilian flower is ideal. It boasts the same effect as retinol, sans irritating side effects, and you'll enjoy the subtle Damascus rose scent that's one of Ren's signatures.