Retinol is the first step on that pathway. And, as John G. Zampella, M.D., assistant professor in the Ronald O. Perelman department of dermatology at NYU Langone Health, told SELF previously, topical retinoids (including retinol) causes your skin to speed up its normal cell-turnover process, meaning that it will shed skin cells more quickly. That helps tackle issues like fine lines, wrinkles, dark spots, and acne. Researchers also think retinol can help increase collagen production, which reduces signs of aging.
The other major bonus of using retinol is that it’s basically everywhere. You can find retinol over-the-counter in drugstore and luxury products, so you don’t need a prescription for it.
However, because these products are regulated like cosmetics rather than drugs, you can’t necessarily be sure of what you’re getting. Although research shows that retinol is effective, there’s no way to guarantee that what you’re using in an over-the-counter product is as potent or effective as the retinol in those studies.
The other drawback of using retinol (or any retinoid, really) is that these ingredients are notorious for causing irritation, at least when you first start using them. That usually includes symptoms like dryness, itching, redness, and increased sensitivity. Not everyone experiences these symptoms, though.
If you do experience irritation with retinol, you can try products containing retinal (also called retinaldehyde), which is another form of retinol, or bakuchiol, a newer ingredient often touted as a natural retinol alternative. Both of these appear to cause less irritation than retinol.
Products to try:
- Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Retinol Oil, $28, Ulta
- SkinMedica Age Defense Retinol Complex, $93, Dermstore
- Avène Retrinal 0.05 Cream, $62, Dermstore
3. Retinoic acid
Retinol is eventually converted into retinoic acid in the body, Dr. Zampella told SELF, so it’s probably not surprising that some of the most powerful prescription acne medications we have, like tretinoin (Retin-A) and isotretinoin (formerly Accutane, taken orally), are forms of retinoic acid.
Plus, the way these medications work—by increasing the cell-turnover process—also makes them great antiaging ingredients. And, because these are usually available only by prescription, you know exactly what you’re getting. However, as these medications are more potent than over-the-counter options, they can also cause more intense side effects, including dryness, flaking, itching, and sensitivity. When using a retinoid like these, it’s super important to moisturize effectively and, as always, wear sunscreen.
In addition to retinol, retinal, and retinoic acid, there are a few synthetic retinoids out there, such as adapalene and tazarotene, which some research suggests are less irritating than tretinoin and isotretinoin.
Adapalene used to be a prescription-only medication but is now available over-the-counter as Differin ($28, Amazon) and in products from AcneFree ($12, Amazon) and La-Roche Posay ($30, Dermstore). On the other hand, tazarotene (Tazerac), is still only available as a prescription.
4. Vitamin C
One of the most common active ingredients in skin-care products today, vitamin C acts as an antioxidant to counteract and protect against free radical damage, Shari Lipner, M.D., Ph.D., dermatologist at Weill Cornell Medicine and New York-Presbyterian, told SELF previously. Plus, it can also be used to effectively brighten dark spots over time.
But it can also be a surprisingly tricky ingredient to use correctly. It’s sensitive to light, for instance, so it’s important to only buy vitamin C products that are in airless, opaque packaging that protect it from degrading. And it also comes in varying concentrations (between 5% and 20%), which means the effects—and side effects, like irritation—may vary greatly between products.
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