Chances are, you've already heard about the anti-aging benefits of retinol, a form of topical vitamin A. First prescribed by dermatologists as an acne treatment, as word of its skin-smoothing abilities spread, the demand for both prescription and over-the-counter versions soared, even among acne-free women. And with decades of studies proving these retinol benefits really can turn back the clock, it's now "the gold standard because it honestly decreases fine lines and wrinkles," says dermatologist Jeanine Downie, M.D.
How does it keep skin young? As we age, our cells become sluggish, "dead cells accumulate on the surface and new cells don't always replace them like they did in our youth," says dermatologist Francesca Fusco, M.D. Retinol gets new cells to the surface sooner and more efficiently so skin looks smooth. In addition, "regular use of retinol minimizes wrinkles by actually thickening the skin's outer layer," explains Dr. Downie. Plus, it decreases melatonin production, decreasing age spots and evening out skin tone. Another benefit: Vitamin A is an antioxidant that K.O.s damaging free-radical molecules before they can cause wrinkles and other signs of aging.
Do retinol's anti-aging abilities sound too good to be true? Dozens of studies prove the opposite. As far back as 1988 University of Michigan research proved that it significantly improves sun-damaged skin and follow up studies have shown time and time again that the stuff really works.
Is Rx retinol best? Prescription formulas such as ReFissa and Renova contain retinoic acid, the actual ingredient that fights visible aging, but because they're much stronger than the nonprescription alternative, they can cause redness and flakiness for up to eight weeks as your skin adjusts. For this reason, "I recommend starting with gentler over-the-counter formulations and slowly working up to Rx strength," says Dr. Fusco. Drugstore options include Olay Regenerist Advanced Anti-Aging Intensive Repair Treatment ($29.00; Jet.com) or RoC Retinol Correxion Deep Wrinkle Night Cream ($19.99; Target.com).
Apply your retinol at night — 20 minutes after first using a gentle cleanser (because the act of washing can irritate your skin) — advises Dr Fusco. Keep it away from the eyes, nose and mouth, and follow up with a moisturizer that's heavier than you normally use to counter retinol's drying effects. Most importantly, be aware that retinol can make skin more sensitive to sun, so be especially vigilant about wearing sunscreen.