Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 2/25/2021
Few aspects of aging are as noticeable, or as annoying, as the fine lines and wrinkles that can develop on your forehead, around your eyes and elsewhere on your face as you enter your 30s, 40s and fifties.
While it’s impossible to completely avoid wrinkles and other signs of aging, the right combination of good habits and science-based treatments can make wrinkles less of an issue as you age.
If you’ve looked into treatments for wrinkles and other signs of aging, you’ve no doubt heard of a class of medications called retinoids.
From over-the-counter retinoids to prescription medications such as tretinoin, retinoids are some of the most thoroughly researched medications available for treating wrinkles and other signs of aging.
Below, we’ve explained what retinoids are and how they work, as well as the scientific research behind their benefits for your skin. We’ve also talked about the different retinoids you can use to keep your skin smooth, youthful and healthy.
We’ve also touched on some of the other skin benefits of retinoids, from treating acne to making other signs of aging less visible.
Retinoids are a class of medications derived from vitamin A. In fact, vitamin A is often referred to as “retinol.” Retinoids play an important role in many biological processes within your body, including promoting and influencing the growth of certain types of cells.
Several different retinoids are available today. Some of these are sold as active ingredients in over-the-counter skin care products, while others are available as prescription medications for anti-aging, acne and other skin conditions. Common retinoids include:
Retinol. Retinol, or vitamin A, is a common ingredient in many over-the-counter retinoid creams and other skin care products.
Adapalene. Adapalene is a topical retinoid. It’s available in several over-the-counter skin care products and in a higher concentration as a prescription medication.
Tretinoin. Tretinoin is a prescription retinoid that’s used as an active ingredient in many medicated skin care products, including our Custom Anti-Aging Cream.
Tazarotene. Tazarotene is a prescription retinoid that’s used to treat acne, psoriasis and chronically photodamaged skin.
Isotretinoin. Isotretinoin is an oral prescription retinoid that’s used to treat acne.
To understand how retinoids work for anti-aging, it’s important to go over the basics of how your skin changes as you age.
Like other parts of your body, your skin keeps itself busy by constantly renewing itself in order to repair damage.
This process, which is often referred to as epidermal turnover, involves producing new skin cells to replace old ones. Every 40 to 56 days, your epidermis “turns over,” with new cells moving up to the surface layer to replace old, dead skin cells that build up on your skin’s surface.
As we’ve explained in our guide to skin cell turnover and aging, the epidermal turnover process slows down as you age, meaning dead skin cells tend to linger for longer on the surface of your skin before they’re replaced.
This can affect your skin’s appearance by making fine lines, wrinkles and other common signs of aging more visible.
At the same time as your epidermal turnover process slows down, numerous other age-related changes also occur in your skin.
Your epidermis (the outermost layer of your skin) becomes thinner, especially on your face and neck. Your skin also produces smaller quantities of elastin and collagen, both of which are key structural proteins that provide your skin with its smoothness and elasticity.
Finally, your skin creates significantly less sebum (a natural oil that lubricates and protects your skin), causing it to become drier.
Some of this process is a normal, natural part of aging that’s not fully avoidable. However, other aspects of the aging process can be worsened by certain habits and lifestyle choices.
For example, spending lots of time in direct sunlight can damage your skin and cause wrinkles and other signs of aging to worsen. Similarly, habits like smoking are associated with deeper, more noticeable wrinkles.
While retinoids don’t reverse all of the effects of aging, they can make certain parts of the skin aging process less severe.
For example, retinoids can stimulate the production of collagen, reversing part of the decline in collagen that occurs as you age. This increase in collagen production helps to keep your skin smoother and more elastic as you get older.
Retinoids also speed up your epidermal turnover process, meaning your skin is able to create new skin cells and replace dead cells faster.
Used regularly, retinoids also stimulate the production of blood vessels in your skin, improving blood flow and skin color. Retinoids can also improve your skin’s texture by smoothing rough, worn patches on your face and elsewhere on your body.
These effects combine to make the common signs of skin aging, including wrinkles, lighter and less visible.
Retinoids are some of the most well-studied, widely used medications in the world for treating wrinkles and other signs of skin aging.
You can find retinoids in countless over-the-counter and prescription anti-aging products, from moisturizers to creams, gels and more.
Although studies have shown that retinoids are effective for treating wrinkles, not all retinoids are equally effective. We’ve looked into the scientific research for several of the most popular retinoids below.
Retinol is a common retinoid that’s used as an active ingredient in over-the-counter anti-aging and acne products. It’s been used in skin care since the mid 1980s and gained attention for its potential anti-aging effects in 1995.
Several studies have found that products containing retinol are effective at lightning fine lines and wrinkles.
For example, one study from the late 1990s found that topical retinol improved skin contouring and made fine lines and wrinkles less visible.
A more recent study found that 12 weeks of treatment with retinol caused a significant reduction in facial wrinkles and an increase in epidermal thickness.
Tretinoin is a topical retinoid that’s used to reduce wrinkles. Unlike retinol, which is sold over the counter, tretinoin requires a prescription. It’s available in cream or gel from and is one of several active ingredients in our Custom Anti-Aging Cream.
As a prescription retinoid, tretinoin is approximately 20 times more potent than over-the-counter retinoids such as retinol.
Tretinoin is one of the most well-studied anti-aging ingredients, with numerous studies showing that it can significantly reduce the visibility of wrinkles.
In one study from 1991, tretinoin was used on more than 251 people with mild to moderate skin aging. At the end of the 24-week treatment period, people treated with tretinoin had significant improvements in fine wrinkling, skin texture, laxity (looseness) and pigmentation.
A second study from 1991, which involved more than 500 people, also concluded that daily use of tretinoin produced a significant improvement in fine wrinkling and other signs of aging.
A short study published in 2004 also showed improvements in wrinkles. In this study, 32 women used topical tretinoin on a nightly basis for one month. At the end of the study period, almost all of the women that took part in the study showed improvements in fine lines and skin texture.
Adapalene is a topical retinoid that’s typically used to treat acne. It’s available over the counter at a low strength and at a higher strength as a prescription medication.
Most scientific research into adapalene looks at its effects on acne breakouts. However, some research has found that adapalene may offer certain benefits for preventing wrinkles and other signs of aging.
For example, one study published in the European Journal of Dermatology in 2018 found that adapalene was equally as effective as tretinoin at treating forehead and periorbital (around the eyes) wrinkles.
An older study published in 2003 found that adapalene can improve certain signs of skin aging, such as solar lentigines (small areas of darkened skin) and actinic keratoses (scaly patches on the skin). However, this study didn’t look at the effects of adapalene on wrinkles.
Isotretinoin is a powerful oral retinoid that’s used to treat acne, particularly severe nodular and cystic acne. As an acne treatment, it’s effective but can cause certain side effects.
Some studies have found that isotretinoin may have anti-aging benefits. For example, a small study published in 2015 found that oral isotretinoin use increased collagen density and elastin fiber thickness in the skin -- two factors that may improve wrinkles.
Another small-scale study published in 2000 found that oral isotretinoin improved wrinkles and skin thickness in women.
Despite these study findings, isotretinoin isn’t approved by the FDA as an anti-aging treatment and generally isn’t used to treat wrinkles.
In addition to treating and preventing wrinkles, many retinoids also offer other benefits for your skin. Research shows that retinoids can improve and prevent:
Acne. Several retinoids, including tretinoin and isotretinoin, are commonly prescribed to treat acne. In fact, topical retinoids like tretinoin are widely viewed as a mainstay of acne therapy.
Our complete guide to using tretinoin for acne goes into more detail about how you can use retinoids such as tretinoin to control and prevent acne breakouts.
Skin pigmentation disorders. Several common disorders can affect the pigmentation of your skin, causing it to become darker in patchy areas. Research shows that topical retinoids such as tretinoin are effective at lightening hyperpigmented skin.
Other signs of skin aging. Topical retinoids such as tretinoin are also widely used to treat other common signs of skin aging, including changes in skin texture, sallowness, epidermal thickness and others.
Numerous studies have found that topical retinoids such as retinol and tretinoin can make fine lines, wrinkles and other signs of aging less visible.
Although retinoids are effective, results aren’t immediate. You’ll generally need to use a topical retinoid for at least two to three months before you’ll be able to see any visible improvement in your skin.
To get started with retinoids, you can buy skin care products containing retinol from your local drugstore or talk to a healthcare provider about using a prescription retinoid treatment such as tretinoin.
Our complete guide to using tretinoin for wrinkles and skin aging goes into detail about what to expect from tretinoin, how it works and how you can use it for optimal results.