Does Tretinoin/Retin-A work as an anti-aging / anti-wrinkle cream? I’ve been using it for more than 16 years now, and I’ll tell you all about my personal experience with photos of the before and after! But first, a bit of knowledge about tretinoin: what it is, what it does, how to use it correctly, and much more. Read on!
What is Retin-A ( Tretinoin or Retinoic Acid), And How Does It Work For Anti-aging?
- 1) Increase of epidermal proliferation leading to epidermal thickening
- 2) Compaction of the stratum corneum
- 3) Biosynthesis of the glycosaminoglycans (GAGs)
GAGs are important for several reasons:
- Hydration: GAGs, particularly hyaluronic acid, have a remarkable ability to retain water, which helps keep the skin hydrated and plump, reducing the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines.
- Tissue repair: GAGs participate in tissue repair and regeneration by interacting with proteins, growth factors, and enzymes.
- Collagen support: GAGs play a role in maintaining the structure and stability of collagen, a protein that provides strength and support to the skin. By binding to collagen, GAGs help to protect it from degradation, thus contributing to the skin’s overall health.
In English: Tretinoin makes the skin thicker, helps with the formation of new collagen (and reduces the degradation of the old one), reduces or erases wrinkles and fine lines, as well as smoothing the skin surface, giving it a glowing and youthful look. It is also one of the most effective topical treatments for acne and scars due to its ability to regenerate the epidermis’s top layer with a quicker cellular turnover rate.
(1)Mukherjee, S., Date, A., Patravale, V., Korting, H. C., Roeder, A., & Weindl, G. (2006). Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: An overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clinical Interventions in Aging, 1(4), 327-348. https://doi.org/10.2147/ciia.2006.1.4.327
The difference between Tretinoin and Retinol:
Retinol is the weaker derivate of Vitamin A, and converting it into Retinoic Acid (Tretinoin) requires 2 steps (losing part of its power in the process). That’s why it’s widely used In cosmetics and doesn’t need a prescription.
Here is an article where I talk more in-depth about the differences between tretinoin/Retin A and Retinol (Soon available in English as I’m translating it from Italian. Subscribe to be alerted when the post is up!).
My Experience with Tretinoin / Retin A as anti-aging ( after 17+ years of usage)
I have used 0.1% tretinoin cream, the highest concentration (not available in most of Europe), since age 29. So, to date, I’ve used it for 17 straight years, and I can say with certainty, supported by scientific evidence, that:
Tretinoin / retinoic acid (the active ingredient in Retin-A) is the only pharmaceutical cream with real anti-wrinkle and anti-aging properties on the market. There are dozen of studies about its efficacy and safety.
Here is an interesting Harvard study, “Do retinoids really reduce wrinkles?“ (spoiler alert: Yes, it does 🙂 )
When I say that Retin-A has erased my wrinkles, I don’t mean I have a mummified face.
I have dynamic wrinkles like anyone else if I’m surprised, laugh, or get angry, but they’re not as pronounced as they used to be. That’s thanks to tretinoin, which made my skin more elastic, similar to younger skin.
When my face is “at rest,” the wrinkles leave no permanent signs (yet), and at 46, it’s quite remarkable, given that I do not use Botox on my forehead. I tried once at age 30, and it gave me a heavy sensation in my eyelids, so I never did it again.
That’s why I swore eternal love at Tretinoin and even took it to the Namibian desert. I never skip a night, not even when I had malaria! (Yep, no kidding!)
I could go into even more scientific details about why Retin-A (retinoic acid/tretinoin) is so powerful in fighting and preventing skin aging.
However, I prefer to refer to scientific articles supported by decades of studies and by clinical trials, which have definitively proven the effectiveness and safeness of Retin-A if adequately used. Bottom line: you don’t have to trust me. Search for tretinoin academic studies on Google. There are plenty of them!
I haven’t started using Retin-A for anti-aging purposes. A doctor prescribed it for me to treat a heavy episode of nodulocystic acne, which has disfigured me for more than a year (more on this in a separate article).
The side effect I wasn’t aware of was that it cured my acne and set my skin’s biological clock back years. Tretinoin erased the wrinkles I had and prevented new ones from forming. The more you use tretinoin consistently, the more remarkable the results will be.
Retin-A is a drug, not a wrinkle cream to spread on the face. You can’t use it lightly. There are contraindications and side effects that you need to be aware of. Remember that it should not be used if you are pregnant and do not plan to use sunscreen every day.
Tretinoin is also an excellent ally to prepare the skin for strong peels, such as TCA and other chemical peels. You can read related articles by clicking on the links.
Tretinoin: The Before And After Photos after Using it for 17 Years
Recently I was trying to organize my old photos, and, to my horror, I found these from when I was 30 years old (before a procedure where I injected a small quantity of hyaluronic acid into my under-eye area).
Please note that on the after photos, there is no trace of it anymore, as it’s been more than 16 years after this procedure, and the Ialuroinic acid lasted around 2 years under my eyes.
I had just started using tretinoin and was over the purging/flaking stage, but I still couldn’t imagine what Retin A would have done for my face more than a decade later! See for yourself in these before and after photos! I showed them to my husband recently, and he couldn’t believe his eyes.
I confess I was also a bit in shock because I only saved the most flattering photos of when I was younger and totally forgot how bad my skin was before using tretinoin!
I Can’t believe how much my skin has improved over the years thanks to Retin A! The texture at 30 was terrible, and after years of sunbathing without sunscreen, I had extensive photodamage, hyperpigmentation, and uneven skin even when using foundation. For my age, terrible.
Now I can go out with my favorite sunscreen, a bit of blush, and under-eye concealer (tretinoin can’t do much for dark circles), and I’m good to go!
The Drawbacks Of Using Tretinoin/Retin A: The “Retinization” Process
Tretinoin is indeed effective, but its potency comes with side effects:
- Initial dryness and flaking
- Purging (an increase in acne for a period of time)
These side effects are very common if you use tretinoin properly (more on this later), and they are now referred to as the “retinization process”, meaning the skin is getting used to tretinoin.
Here is an easy and interesting study about it: High-Strength Tretinoin for Rapid Retinization of Photoaged Facial Skin
On top of this, even if tretinoin helps the skin to thicken and get better, it compacts the stratum corneum (the upper layer of dead skin ), so you need to take extra measures to avoid sun damage.
If you are serious about using tretinoin, you can forget that beautiful natural tan on your face. Exposing yourself to the sun without sunscreen is dangerous, even if it is cloudy or inside the house near the windows.
Tretinoin, once started, becomes a “way of life”, so think carefully if you want to start it and be consistent with it. If you don’t think you can handle it, don’t start tretinoin.
There are ways to reduce the retinization process and the side effects if that’s stopping you from using tretinoin. I speak about it later in the article and in a more detailed one, I’m currently working on.
How Long does it take to see results from Tretinoin?
It depends on many factors: How consistent you are, the strength of the product, and how long the Retinization process will last. Also, it largely depends on what you mean by “seeing results”.
How long does it take for tretinoin to help with wrinkles and hyperpigmentation?
If you use tretinoin for deep wrinkles and expect them to disappear or get reduced visibly in just a few weeks or months, you are up for disappointment. Tretinoin takes time to work. Especially when the photodamage is extensive, you might use tretinoin for years before seeing concrete results.
In my case, it took around 3 years to get rid of the two horizontal lines on my forehead. Please note that this was my experience. Every skin is different, so you might see results in a shorter or longer period of time.
For Hyperpigmentation (darkening of the skin), it depends on your starting point. But overall, it takes at least 4/8 months (or more) to see clear changes in your skin.
How long does it take for tretinoin to help with Acne?
Gladly, a lot less than to see any anti-aging properties. I had a serious case of nodule cystic hormonal acne, and (also taking hormones for a few months) it took at least 4 months for me to clear my acne. But as I said, it was bad. To give you an idea of how bad, this is how my skin looked before the treatment (the photo is not mine because I was so horrified that I deleted all of them).
Source: Daily Mail
How Long Does it Take to see skin texture improvements from Retin-A/ Tretinoin?
Here is the good news! Tretinoin compacts your skin, making it smoother and quickly improving its texture. No more dullness, but a healthy complexion in just a few months (after the retinization process is completed).
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How much does Retin-A cost:
Prices (and Brand Names By Countries)
Tretinoin Prices may vary by country. I lived in Mexico for three years and bought 0.1% Retin A at about $ 20-30 for a 40g tube (which lasted about a year).
In the United States, Retin-A / Tretinoin costs $ 50 to $ 100 depending on the type of cream prescribed; in Canada slightly less.
If you want to buy Retin-A online, you must find a safe pharmacy, and it’s not always located in your country, so you should know the commercial names used abroad. Here is a list:
US Tretinoin commercial Names:
- Retin-A /Retin-A Micro
UK Tretinoin Commercial Names:
- Tretinoin (generic tretinoin medication, identical to Retin-A)
- Iso Tretinoin gel (Slightly different molecule but with comparable results. I tested it at 0.1% and personally found it stronger than regular Tretinoin, not sure if it’s still available in the UK as of 2023). Not to be confused with ORAL ISOTRETINOIN or Accutane/ Roaccutane.
Canada Tretinoin Commercial Names:
- Stieva-A Cream/Forte/Gel/Solution
- Vitamin A Acid
Spain Tretinoin Commercial Names:
- Retirides (Until recently, they sold the medicine without a prescription in Spain, try to ask people who live there or have bought Retin A in Spain in the past few months)
Italy Tretinoin Commercial Names:
- Tretinoina Same crema/gel
- Isotrex (Isotretinoina)
- Airol crema
Where To Buy Tretinoin Online
Important Notice: Only evaluate online pharmacies if you are fully aware of this medicine’s risks and side effects.
Due to abuse by irresponsible consumers, it is now very difficult to find Retin-A online. I advise you to consult your family doctor/dermatologist and read carefully about how to use Retin-A correctly.
It’s easier to find Retin-A / Tretinoin in online pharmacies in Canada, America, Asia, and Spain, but check if the companies are legitimate and consider the shipping costs.
Considering the durability of the product, I think it is still worth it, but the price goes up. Check the user reviews first and read the dedicated forums.
Tretinoin is a strictly controlled cream used for medical purposes (mainly for acne) and is usually not prescribed if you ask for it as an anti-wrinkle.
When you find your favorite pharmacy, online or not, do not change it because you are sure of the seriousness of the seller.
If you go to Mexico (or know someone who lives there), take advantage of it! Retin-A costs much less than other places, and the quality is top-notch (I’ve tested it myself). You don’t need a doctor’s prescription if you pay a surcharge (which costs $ 10 to $ 20, depending on the pharmacy). You can find it in almost all pharmacies at low prices in tourist areas.
Advice on Online Pharmacies:
Be very careful and be patient. The online pharmacy business is a jungle full of scams! To find a serious pharmacy, follow these tips:
They should require a prescription:
Sometimes, they make it for you from their certified doctor for a higher cost. These are the sites, in my opinion, where you have a better guarantee, even if you spend a bit more.
Be wary of companies who don’t ask for a prescription
A serious online pharmacy will not sell potentially harmful drugs without a prescription. That said, some sell legitimate products and are trustworthy.
How to Use Retin-A, Reducing The Side Effects & Getting Results Faster?
I remember the first time I had to apply Retin-A for acne. I was terrified by online reviews about inflammation, flaking skin, redness, heavy peeling, and worsening acne in the first few months. It took me two weeks to find the guts to apply it (and luckily, I did).
Everything I read was more or less accurate, at least in the first few months. But, and that’s a big but, you can minimize the side effects of tretinoin (detailed article coming soon) and get through the weeks your skin needs to adapt (and could look not exactly pleasant) without any issues.
1| USE THE LOWEST CONCENTRATION AVAILABLE:
Patience is key. Retin-A is a marathon for the skin, not a sprint. In Italy, the concentration on the market for both cream and gel is (in 2023) 0.05%.
When I started, there were lower concentrations, but we can get around this issue if you don’t find a lower % in your country.
The one I use now after years is 0.1 % and is the strongest ever, but it is not sold in Italy or Europe. Don’t worry; when the skin is not used to tretinoin, a lower % is OK. If you have never applied Retin-A, start with the lowest concentration you can find.
I don’t advise mixing a higher strength of Retin-A with moisturizer; you won’t know how much you’re applying and can’t control the process to accustom your skin to it.
2| USE VERY LITTLE (A TIP ON ONE FINGER IS ENOUGH FOR THE WHOLE FACE)
Almost everyone is wrong in thinking that the results will come sooner if you use more product. Wrong! It is also counterproductive because it creates irritation, and it is necessary to leave the skin alone for a few days, disturbing the continuity of the treatment.
I use a small amount all over my face. Retin-A, if stored well, lasts up to a year or more. The results will come, don’t worry!
3|INITIALLY, DON’T APPLY TRETINOIN TO THE NECK AND UNDER THE EYE AREA
These areas have the most delicate and thin skin, so you should not apply Retin-A to them initially.
Some people never apply Retin-A to the eye area. I try it sporadically, but I am hesitant because the result is not nice initially: The skin under my eyes gets very dry and wrinkly.
I first apply a light moisturizer around the eyes to avoid this side effect and then massage the Retin-A closer to my under-eye area. It will not have the same strong effects, but I can see results. Initially, however, you should avoid the eye area.
Another solution I’m currently testing is to apply either retinol or Bakuchiol. Retinol is weaker but still poses a risk of irritation, so I’m testing one eye with Retinol and one with Bakuchiol. However, remember that they are NOT in the same category (let alone compared to tretinoin). Anyway, by trying these solutions, I might avoid stressing my under-the-eye area. I will keep you posted about the results.
I’m preparing a few posts about Retinol and Bakuchiol creams I’m testing, and they should be ready soon! If you don’t want to miss them, you can click and subscribe to my newsletter!
4| START WITH 2 TIMES A WEEK TO LET THE SKIN GRADUALLY GET USED TO IT
Again, slow and steady wins the race. Don’t use it every night. Test how your skin reacts; it takes several days to see it, even after just one application. So if you don’t immediately see your skin reddened/irritated or flaky, don’t apply it again because “it doesn’t do anything to me.”
In the first month, try two times a week if your skin can handle it (minor or significant flaking is there at first anyway, which means the skin is adapting and the Retin-A is doing its job).
The following month increase the applications to 3 times a week until your skin can tolerate it every night without side effects.
I have been applying it every day for years and have had no (visible) flaking or redness because I have gradually become accustomed to it over many years.
5| IF SKIN BECOMES IRRITATED, DISCONTINUE 2 DAYS AND USE A SOOTHING CREAM
Despite all precautions, it sometimes happens that the skin is more sensitive or dry and gets irritated with the use of Retin-A. In this case, I stop for about two days and let the skin rest while I pamper it with the Connettivina Plus to avoid infection if the skin splits at the corners of the mouth.
Connettivina is AMAZING. It is pure Hyaluronic acid and helps the skin regenerate quickly, leaving it moisturized. It’s THE only thing I use, along with COSRX 96 snail mucin essence, if I have performed heavy procedures like chemical peels or when sometimes tretinoin irritates my skin. It is sold in pharmacies or on Amazon. Click on the Image to see and buy the products.
6| DON’T GIVE UP IF YOUR SKIN GETS WORSE!
You know what they say: You get worse before you get better. This is a valid concept when applied to Retin-A. Except in rare cases, with skin that will endure anything, yours might worsen for around two weeks to 2 months.
Dry skin, which flakes more or less markedly, preventing you from using foundation and powders without it being noticeable, and also a sudden worsening of acne. This is what you have to expect in the first few months.
Why does this happen? First, the skin is becoming accustomed to much faster cell turnover than usual, is more exposed to the elements, sun, and pollution, and tends to become irritated.
The surface layer of the skin is exfoliated daily, and for those with oily skin, there is also an acne problem. All the “dirt” covered by that layer of dead skin comes to the surface, giving you unsightly pimples and cysts.
Fortunately, tretinoin has the incredible power to speed up the healing process of pimples and blemishes. After a few weeks of “pizza face” you won’t even need to put on foundation if you don’t feel like it. The skin, when past the pimples and flaking phase, is almost perfect.
I remember my bad phase lasted four months because I already had horrible acne, then almost suddenly, the skin became so radiant that several people pointed it out to me. Never in my life had anyone made positive comments about my skin. EVER.
8| CLEAN YOUR FACE AND PUT ON RETIN-A ONLY WHEN IT IS COMPLETELY DRY.
Essential action, often forgotten. Why use tretinoin/ Retin-A only with super-dry skin? Because moisture residue causes more of the product to be absorbed, irritating the skin and making flaking more visible. This still holds true despite the new ways of using tretinoin I read on various forums (“sandwich method”, using a moisturizer with tretinoin, and more. See chapter below).
9| AVOID PUTTING CREAMS BEFORE OR AFTER PUTTING ON RETIN-A
Premise: I give you this advice based on my experience.
Some people apply moisturizers or serums before tretinoin, then wait about 20-30 min to completely absorb it, and then use their anti-wrinkle cream or moisturizer. This is called the “Sandwich Method.”
I carefully avoid it for a couple of reasons:
1) I have skin that tends to be oily, and although I initially feel that the Tretinoin is drying out my skin, as soon as I put it on, my skin balances it out by producing enough oil to compensate during the night. In the morning, I wash my face well with lukewarm water, removing any flaking, and treat my skin well with the creams and serums I talk about in the article about the best anti-wrinkle cream after 40 years
2) I don’t want to minimize the effect and benefits of Retin-A: Although the skin has absorbed it all, adding other products (depending on what you use) could affect the cell regeneration work that Retin-A is doing. So to be safe, I avoid mixing products.
I only do this when I put the cream in the eye area before the Retin-A. NEVER AFTER: I did this once, and some of the product migrated into the eye area, giving me beautiful, wrinkled skin the following day. But if it happens, don’t worry. It is a transient effect.
However, if your skin is truly irritated and can’t tolerate tretinoin (not even by reducing the applications), you can certainly use these alternative methods: a lightweight moisturizer 20 minutes before and then (if TRULY necessary) apply a moisturizer/cream/serum after.
The results will be a bit slower to show, but you’ll also have less irritation. I chose the hardest road because I wanted to get over the retinization process and reap the benefits as soon as possible. And it definitely worked!
10| USE SUNSCREEN. ALWAYS.
This step is the most important one. As already explained, Retin-A and the sun do not get along. I dare say they are bitter enemies. Remember that when you use Retinoic Acid, you are missing a layer of skin. (The “stratum corneum” gets thinner and compacted ).
Sun sensitivity increases exponentially, putting you at risk of burns, irritation, and more severe problems. So I highly recommend finding a sunscreen that is broad spectrum (blocks both UVA and UVB) and with a high SPF.
Any sunscreen is better than none until you find the right one for your face. ALWAYS use it even if it is cloudy or raining. The harmful rays, UVA, always come through the clouds and windows even without the sun. If you don’t feel like using sunscreen 365 days a year, then you better not use Retin-A.
You would do more damage to your skin than anything else. Using Retin A takes patience and dedication. It is a medication, not just any beauty cream (which is why, as an anti-wrinkle, Retin A is the unbeaten queen of anti-aging)
So Who Doesn’t Have Wrinkles at 40/50 Years of Age Uses Retin-A
Ok, the makeup and the proper lighting, but you can see that this woman’s skin is in excellent condition. It doesn’t take a scientist to figure that out.
When you see Hollywood stars like Jennifer Aniston still with fabulous skin at 50, their REAL secrets can only be listed below. In combination or individually:
- They won the genetic lottery (it’s rare, but it happens, lucky them, I have bad skin).
- They use Botox & Fillers (more or less extreme, in some cases not noticeable, in others terrifying).
- They have been using Retin A, probably for decades, with admirable consistency, every night.
- They undergo procedures like TCA peels, Lasers, Radio Frequency, Microneedling, PRP, and more.
- Consistent use of broad-spectrum sunscreen even in cloudy conditions or in winter.
- They had a facelift in combination with the previously mentioned points.
What About Other Anti-Wrinkle Creams & Serums? Don’t they work?
I didn’t write the article to tell you what to do or not in terms of creams or procedures. I know people who truly don’t give a damn about wrinkles and are even proud of them (okay…maybe the only believable one was my grandmother). Still, some women are not particularly concerned by them.
While others, like me, care about keeping their skin in good condition, as much as nature and genetics allow ( because sooner or later, we all get old, let’s face it :)) Why did I make this premise? Very simple.
Because all the miraculous creams, lotions and serums advertised as miracle cures for the wrinkles, they DO NOT CANCEL OR ATTENUATE THE ONES ALREADY PRESENT. FORGET IT. Only Tretinoin and good formulated retinoids can do that. That is, if the wrinkes are not too deep and the skin not irreparably damaged.
I know women who spend a fortune on expensive creams that promise to erase wrinkles and pull up the skin (seriously?!), maybe in a 15 mg chic vase, for “only” 150 euros. And then perhaps criticize those who have Botox. I find the reasoning behind this very hypocritical.
If you don’t love your wrinkles and a proven method (Retin-A and/ Botox/ lasers etc.) gives you proven results, why spend hundreds on “anti-wrinkle” creams and criticize those who use methods that work according to science? In the end, you spend MUCH less and get what you want.
Anti-aging creams and serums, the good ones, do work, and I recommend them to improve the appearance of the skin and prevent further damage/ wrinkles to appear. But they don’t erase anything, unfortunately. Better to buy a few targeted, but effective products to tackle other skin concerns.
And here we come to the end of this article. I wanted to post the Most frequently asked questions about tretinoin, how tretinoin helps clear acne, and the most common myths about retinoids, but I thought I would prepare separate articles to delve deeper into the topic. Otherwise, I risk confusing/ boring you!
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Have you ever tried Retin-A? If yes, leave me your experience in the comments, or if you have any doubts, leave a comment below, and I’ll try to answer you as best I can!