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UPDATE: Since this post was written further information has come to light about safety issues concerning retinols and specifically tretinoin.
The other day a friend of mine told me that her dermatologist had given her a retinol cream to try out. Given that she is young (early 30s), beautiful and wrinkle-free (all true Ms T, whatever you may think) and that retin creams are powerful things, I began to worry about whether this was a good idea.
Retinol is the name for the vitamin A family and prescription creams are marketed under the names of Retin-A and Renova (in the US; in the UK Renova is called Retinova). There is plenty of empirical evidence that confirms that tretinoin, the active form of vitamin A acid that is used in these creams, does work to diminish wrinkles. Despite this, I have two concerns: they can dry, irritate and thin the skin (sunburn becomes a severe risk); secondly, because they force new cell production, they might actually speed up aging because cells don't multiply indefinitely, but only about 50 or so times before they reach the Hayflick Limit.
So since Ms T doesn't even have wrinkles yet, should she be using retinol as a solution to a problem she doesn't have? I have devoted quite a few hours to researching this and, ultimately, the answer is yes. I do have some caveats, however, so here is my summary of retinol/tretinoin does and don'ts.
1. It is a good idea to start using tretinoin before wrinkles appear; there is at least one study that suggests that tretinoin might prevent photodamage to skin as well as treat it after the event. This study was positively reviewed by the respected doctor, Professor Chris Griffiths, who endorsed Boots No 7 Restore & Renew on a BBC documentary, saying it was almost as good as a prescription tretinoin.
2. On that note, consider a milder alternative to a prescription tretinoin, providing you are confident that it will work. Boots No 7 Restore & Renew is one such product (read my comparison review). I use it myself and, frankly, if I was Ms T I would probably use it rather than the prescription retinol that her dermatologist gave her.
3. If you are hellbent on using the stronger stuff, consider Renova rather than Retin-A. It is made by the same company and contains .05% tretinoin in a moisturizing base. Retinol creams are very drying, so one way or another, make sure you use a good moisturizer.
4. A side effect of retinols is thinning of the skin. This means you will be super sensitive to sunburn and must use a sunblock at all times. In turn, this means that you might become vitamin D deficient, so stock up on supplements. It also means no waxing.
5. Do not use if you are pregnant or trying to become pregnant. Retinol trials on mice produced offspring with skeletal defects.
6. Rotate retinol/tretinoin creams with other products that do different things, such as anti-oxidants or copper peptides. I don't know why I put this last because it seems to me to be possibly the most important. First, you don't want to speed up the Hayflick Limit. Therefore, other approaches that might help build collagen are potentially a good thing. Secondly, at least you are hedging your bets: there are no silver bullets in the wrinkle war. Thirdly, there are some studies that suggest copper peptides are better at building up collagen than tretinoin.
Five Best over the counter anti-wrinkle retinol creams
Over the counter retinol creams
Best for strength OTC products
Retinyl palmitate (not to be confused with retinol)