Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 2/8/2022
Search for wrinkle prevention products and you’ll find hundreds of different options, from topical creams, gels and masks to dietary supplements.
Like with other anti-aging products, not all wrinkle treatments are equally effective. While some are backed up by real scientific research showing that they work, others are heavy on promises and weak when it comes to results.
Some are sold as over-the-counter products, while others are only available with a prescription from a healthcare provider.
One of the most popular and effective anti-aging and wrinkle treatments available at the moment is tretinoin, a topical retinoid.
Below, we’ve explained what tretinoin is, how it works and why it’s one of the most effective skin care medications for dealing with fine lines, wrinkles and other common signs of aging.
We’ve also shared how you can use tretinoin as part of your skin care routine to slow down the effects of aging on your skin.
Tretinoin is a retinoid -- a type of medication that’s derived from vitamin A. It’s available in topical form as a cream and gel. Tretinoin works by increasing the speed at which your skin replaces its old cells with new ones as part of a process called epidermal turnover.
Epidermal turnover is an important part of maintaining your skin. Over time, the outermost layer of your skin -- referred to as the epidermis -- can become damaged by bright sunlight and other factors in the environment.
Producing new cells allows your skin to repair and rejuvenate itself, maintaining its function as a protective barrier. In most people, the epidermis “turns over” by replacing its old, dead cells with new ones once every 40 to 56 days.
So, how does tretinoin fit into this process? In addition to speeding up your skin’s production of new cells, tretinoin promotes the shedding of old, dead skin cells that can build up on the outer layer of your skin.
These dead cells not only give the skin a dull appearance -- they can also clog pores and lead to acne breakouts.
Tretinoin also stimulates the production of collagen -- an important structural protein that gives your skin its strength and elasticity.
These effects mean that unlike many of the other anti-aging treatments on the market, tretinoin really works. In fact, it’s approved by the FDA as a prescription treatment for fine facial wrinkles, rough skin and hyperpigmentation (dark spots that can develop on the skin).
Tretinoin is one of the most thoroughly researched anti-aging medications on the market, with numerous studies demonstrating its clinical efficacy as a treatment for wrinkles, age spots and conditions such as acne.
Below, we’ve examined several studies of tretinoin to show how and why it works for anti-aging and wrinkle prevention.
This study, which was published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology in the late 1980s, looked at the effects of 0.05% topical tretinoin as a treatment for photodamaged skin (skin that has been damaged due to sun exposure).
Participants were divided into two groups. One group received 0.05% tretinoin cream, while the other received a non-therapeutic placebo.
After six months, the people in the tretinoin group experienced significant improvements in “fine wrinkling, coarse wrinkling, sallowness, looseness, and hyperpigmentation.” The tretinoin group also had a smoother skin surface topography, indicating a reversal of some signs of aging.
This study of tretinoin lasted longer than the 1989 study, covering 24 weeks of treatment. The study participants were divided into several groups, with one group receiving a 0.05% tretinoin cream, the other a 0.01% tretinoin cream and the other a non-therapeutic vehicle.
After 24 weeks, 79 percent of the study participants given the 0.05% cream tretinoin displayed improvements in photodamaged skin, compared to 48 percent of people given the vehicle.
The tretinoin users also showed improvements in fine wrinkling, hyperpigmentation, roughness of the skin and skin laxity.
Another 1991 study, this study involved more than 533 participants across eight US research centers. Participants were given one of three concentrations of tretinoin cream (0.05%, 0.01% or 0.001%) and instructed to apply the cream daily over the course of 24 weeks.
After 24 weeks, biopsy specimens from the participants were compared using conventional light microscopy and computerized image analysis.
The researchers found that the people who were treated with tretinoin had “increased epidermal thickness, increased granular layer thickness, decreased melanin content, and stratum corneum compaction.”
Interestingly, this study also found that the weaker 0.001% tretinoin cream produced no changes when compared to the non-therapeutic vehicle.
This large-scale study into topical tretinoin involved 296 people with some level of photodamage to their skin.
Over the course of 24 weeks, the participants were given a 0.05%, 0.01%, and 0.001% tretinoin cream for daily use. After 24 weeks, people given the higher strength creams saw reductions in “fine wrinkling, mottled hyperpigmentation, and [skin] roughness.”
Like the 1991 study linked above, the researchers conducting this study did not find a significant difference in final results between the non-therapeutic vehicle cream and the weaker versions of tretinoin cream.
Beyond its effectiveness, one of the biggest advantages of tretinoin is that it’s an easy skin care medication to use.
Tretinoin is available as a cream, gel and as an active ingredient in prescription anti-aging skin care products, such as our Custom Anti-Aging Face Cream.
To use tretinoin, begin by thoroughly washing the target area with mild soap. Allow your skin to fully dry before applying tretinoin. Then, apply a small amount of tretinoin cream or gel (in most cases, a pea-sized amount is sufficient) to your fingertip.
Gently apply the tretinoin cream or gel to your face, creating a thin layer that covers all areas of your skin that have fine lines, wrinkles, hyperpigmentation or other visible signs of aging. After applying tretinoin, wash your hands to remove any excess medication.
If you use an anti-aging skin care product that contains tretinoin and other ingredients, follow the instructions on the product label.
Tretinoin is a safe and effective skin care medication for most people. However, there are a few things that you should be aware of in order to use tretinoin safely:
Avoid applying tretinoin to your eyes, ears, mouth or nostrils. When you apply any products containing tretinoin to your face, make sure to avoid these areas. Try to apply tretinoin using motions away from sensitive areas, not towards them.
If you have dry skin, moisturize after using tretinoin. It’s okay to use moisturizer with tretinoin. After applying tretinoin, wait for at least 20 minutes for your skin to fully absorb the medication before applying moisturizer.
Avoid using tretinoin with other topical skin care medications. Tretinoin should not be used with benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid or other skin care products that can cause dryness and irritation.If you use other topical skin care medications, make sure to tell your healthcare provider about them before using them with tretinoin.
Apply sunscreen after using tretinoin. Tretinoin can make your skin more sensitive to sunlight. Make sure to apply an SPF 30+ sunscreen after using tretinoin. It also helps to wear a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses and other clothing that offers sun protection.
Simply put, yes. If you’re interested in reducing the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles and other common signs of skin aging, tretinoin is one of the few medications that’s backed up by a large amount of real, high quality scientific research.
With this said, it’s important to understand that results from tretinoin aren’t immediate. For most people, it takes 12 to 16 weeks for tretinoin to produce a visible improvement in facial wrinkling, dark spots and other signs of aging.
This means that you’ll need to keep using tretinoin for several months before you’ll generally be able to see any changes in your skin.
It’s also important to keep in mind that, like other skin care medications, tretinoin can cause side effects. Common side effects of tretinoin include dryness, peeling, flaking, changes in skin tone, redness and an increase in acne sores.
These symptoms are commonly referred to as the tretinoin purge, especially when they occur in the first few weeks of tretinoin use.
Put simply, although tretinoin is effective at treating wrinkles and other signs of skin aging, there is a possibility that your skin might look slightly worse before it looks better.
To get the best results from tretinoin, be patient and use the medication for at least three months before making any assumptions about its effectiveness. If you experience side effects, ask your healthcare provider for assistance.
There’s no avoiding getting older, but the right mix of good habits and effective, science-based skin care products can certainly make the aging process easier to live with.
When it comes to preventing fine lines, wrinkles and other signs of aging, few medications are as effective as tretinoin. Try adding it to your anti-aging routine as cream, gel or with other skin care ingredients in our Custom Anti-Aging Face Cream.
Want to learn more about tretinoin? Our guide to using tretinoin to treat wrinkles and skin aging goes into more detail about how you can add topical tretinoin to your skin care routine for fewer wrinkles, smoother skin and a more youthful appearance.