Have you started to notice wrinkles developing on your face? From crow’s feet to frown lines and forehead wrinkles, facial wrinkles can develop in a variety of locations.
Most people begin to develop wrinkles in their mid to late 20s, with wrinkles becoming more obvious in their 30s and 40s. Although everyone is different, it’s normal to notice some level of wrinkle development as you get older.
Wrinkles develop for a variety of reasons. As you age, your skin starts to get thinner and dryer, making it easier for creases to form. Skin cell turnover — the process by which new skin makes its way to the surface of the epidermis — also slows down.
Add sun exposure, stress, a gradual reduction in collagen production and other factors into the picture and over time, wrinkles start to form with age in both men and women.
Luckily, there are a variety of options for reducing the depth and visibility of facial wrinkles. One of the most effective anti-aging and wrinkle prevention treatments on the market is tretinoin — a safe and powerful topical skin medication.
In this guide, we’ll explain how tretinoin works as an anti-aging medication. We’ll also share how you can use tretinoin to reverse the effects of aging, slow down the development of wrinkles and improve the appearance, health and quality of your skin.
Contrary to popular belief, wrinkles don’t develop overnight. Instead, most people only start to notice wrinkles after they begin to become deeper, more pronounced and obvious — a process that can often take years.
During your 20s and 30s, your skin starts to become thinner, dryer and less elastic. The amount of collagen produced by your skin declines and the skin cell turnover process becomes slower, meaning that your body replaces old skin with new skin at a less frequent pace.
Tretinoin, a topical retinoid, works by speeding up the skin cell turnover process, allowing your body to replace older skin cells on the surface of the skin with newer, fresh skin cells that form on the lower levels of the epidermis.
You can almost think of tretinoin as acting like a fast-forward button for your skin cell turnover cycle. Instead of sticking around, the superficial layer of your skin that’s exposed to sunlight, wind and pollution is cycled off more efficiently, giving you fresher, less weathered skin.
The end result is a significant improvement in the appearance of your skin, a reduction in visible wrinkles and even an decrease in acne.
Unlike other skin creams and tanning lotions, most of which you can buy over the counter, tretinoin is a prescription medicine that you’ll need to talk to your doctor about. It’s also far more effective than the creams and washes you can buy in most skincare stores, with a mountain of scientific data to back it up.
In one study, researchers found that 12 weeks of treatment with tretinoin resulted in “significant improvements in fine wrinkling around the eyes, crease lines around the mouth and cheeks, wrinkling on the dorsum of the hands and yellow discoloration.”
In another study, researchers noted that tretinoin caused a “statistically significant improvement in photoaging” in 14 out of 15 participants when compared to a non-therapeutic vehicle cream.
In short, tretinoin works by speeding up the rate at which your body replaces skin cells, giving your skin a fresher, more youthful appearance. It’s also very effective, with numerous studies dating back decades to back up its value as an anti-aging treatment.
Beyond its effectiveness, one of the biggest advantages of tretinoin is that it’s extremely easy to use.
Tretinoin is sold as a topical cream, gel or solution. To use it, all you need to do is apply a small amount of the cream to your face, typically in the evening. Below, we’ve covered all of the steps required to apply tretinoin cream to your face:
When you’re using tretinoin, it’s also important to make several small changes to your lifestyle and skin care routine:
Tretinoin comes in a range of different concentrations, from creams and gels with .01 percent, .025 percent and .05 percent tretinoin content, to stronger products with .1 percent tretinoin.
Like with most medications, the strength of the tretinoin cream you use can have an impact on the quality of your results. Most studies of tretinoin for anti-aging purposes show that the best results usually come from moderate strength tretinoin creams, such as .05 percent tretinoin cream.
In a 1991 study, 79 percent of the people given .05 percent tretinoin cream experienced a reduction in fine wrinkling, mottled hyperpigmentation, skin roughness and laxity, as well as an “overall improvement in photodamaged skin” over the course of 24 weeks.
In the same study, people given a cream with a weaker .01 percent tretinoin content didn’t experience the same benefits, suggesting that the amount of tretinoin can have a major effect on results. However, it’s also worth noting that lower strength tretinoin creams usually produce fewer side effects.
For the most part, dermatologists tend to prescribe a .05 percent tretinoin cream for patients, which provides a good balance between optimal results and a tolerable level of dryness, peeling and other side effects.
In general, the best approach is to work with your doctor to find a cream that provides optimal results for you.
On the whole, tretinoin is a safe medication. It’s topical, meaning it doesn’t need to pass through the liver like other skincare medications such as isotretinoin (Accutane®). It’s also easy to stop using, with a short half-life and none of the withdrawal effects of topical steroids.
However, like all medications, tretinoin does have some side effects when used for anti-aging and wrinkle prevention. Of these, the most common are skin dryness, irritation, peeling and an increased level of sensitivity to sunlight.
Tretinoin also has several less common side effects, such as a low risk of causing rapid onset dermatitis conditions such as blisters and vesicles. However, these effects are very rare — for most people, tretinoin is unlikely to cause more than minor dryness and skin irritation.
You can learn more about tretinoin’s side effects in our guide to the common and uncommon side effects of the medication. As with all medications, it’s important to be aware of — and ready for — any potential side effects from tretinoin before you start using it for anti-aging purposes.
While the anti-aging and wrinkle reduction benefits of tretinoin are real, they’re not an overnight effect. On average, it takes anywhere from eight to 24 weeks to see a noticeable improvement from tretinoin cream.
Most studies of topical tretinoin for anti-aging show a reduction in wrinkles after approximately three months, with the shortest study (which used a .025 percent tretinoin cream) resulting in a “statistically significant improvement” in wrinkles and pigmentation after 84 days.
The study linked earlier in this article showed significant improvements in “fine wrinkling around the eyes, crease lines around the mouth and cheeks, wrinkling on the dorsum of the hands and yellow discoloration” after 12 weeks of consistent tretinoin use.
It’s important to be aware that tretinoin can often make your skin look worse before it gets better, especially if you experience what’s called the “tretinoin purge” after starting treatment. The most effective approach is to be patient and give tretinoin the time it needs to start working.
Our guide to how long it takes to see results from tretinoin for anti-aging goes into more detail about the time required for tretinoin to work, with links to other studies documenting the results from long-term tretinoin treatment.
As always, patience is key. Take a consistent, disciplined approach to using tretinoin and you should notice a significant improvement in the appearance of your skin, with lighter wrinkles, better smoothness and fewer signs of aging in a few months.