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How Retinoids Actually Work

The process behind fewer fine lines and wrinkles explained.

Retinoids are highly-lauded by experts, editors, and everyday users alike—but how does the gold-star ingredient actually work? If you’ve ever asked yourself this question, well, you’re definitely not alone. And you’re also in just the right place. Here, board-certified dermatologist and bonafide retinoid expert, Dr. Joshua Zeichner, MD, breaks down exactly how retinoids work to benefit the skin in both the short-term and for the long haul. 

“Topical retinoids are related vitamin A compounds that are used to treat aging skin,” explains Dr. Zeichner matter-of-factly. “They work by helping to stimulate collagen and get rid of dead skin more quickly, which in turn allows the body to make new healthy skin, resulting in improved skin tone, texture, and the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.”

In other words, because retinoids aid in the removal of dead skin, this allows for new, vibrant skin to take its place. While it’s not the same, just think about how your skin looks after you’ve exfoliated for the first time in a while. It’s typically smoother, softer, and brighter, because you’re getting rid of old dead skin and seeing the new skin, right? Well, you can achieve the same benefits from retinoids, but with more visible long-term results because vitamin A is able to penetrate the dermis—aka the layer below your epidermis, or the outermost layer of skin—where collagen and elastin both live. And, as you may already know, maintaining collagen and elastin is key to keeping skin healthy and youthful-looking, especially as we age and these both begin to diminish. 

Dr. Zeichner notes that topical retinoids are available in both over-the-counter and prescription forms, with OTC options including pure retinol, retinaldehyde, and retinyl esters like retinyl propionate. 

“All of these undergo one or more conversion steps after being applied to the skin so that they can be turned into their active form, known as retinoic acid,” he explains. For context, Youth To The People’s new Retinal + Niacinamide Youth Serum contains .15% retinaldehyde, which is actually the most potent non-prescription retinoid available as it requires fewer conversion steps to reach retinoic acid.. 

Speaking of potent, Dr. Zeichner points out that topical retinoids can cause irritation when you first start using them, so it’s important to have a game plan in place in order to minimize reactiveness as much as possible. 

“I tell my patients to start slow, applying it every other night at first and only using a pea-sized amount for the full face,” he says. “ And always layer your topical retinoids with a moisturizer to keep the skin hydrated.”

Lastly, he stresses the importance of always—always!—using SPF in conjunction with a retinoid.

“Because topical retinoids thin out of the outer skin layer, it is important to wear sunscreen regularly to protect your skin from sunburn,” he explains. 

To recap, retinoids work by getting rid of old, dull skin and prompting the body to replace it with new, fresh, healthy skin. It reaches past the epidermis to the dermis to target collagen and elastin in the skin, both of which decline as we age. As a result, with continued use, skin looks and feels more youthful, with fewer fine lines and wrinkles and an overall more even-toned appearance. Sounds nice, right? 

To see the power of retinoids in action, shop Youth To The People’s new Retinal + Niacinamide Youth Serum. Learn more about retinoids here.

Written by Kaleigh Fasanella for Youth To The People

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