If you’re keen on beauty products, you may be familiar with retinoids. But in my opinion, learning about the science of skin care never gets old. In any case, here’s a refresher: Retinoids are chemical compounds derived from Vitamin A. Retinoic acid, which is under the retinoid umbrella, is celebrated in the beauty industry for being one of the only ingredients that can actually reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.
Over-the-counter products typically contain retinol, a diluted retinoid that converts to retinoic acid after it’s applied to the skin. And yet, the good stuff can’t be bought on Amazon, Sephora, or at your local drug store. The most effective (and most studied) form of retinoic acid is only available with a prescription in the U.S., and it comes in an unsexy little foil tube. I’m talking about Retin-A, Retin-A Micro, Renova, and the generic tretinoin.
Retin-A has been researched for decades, and regular use of the product doesn’t appear to provoke any long-term negative effects. As a dedicated tretinoin user, I’ll happily tell you why I think every adult should get a prescription—but you don’t need to take my word for it. Retin-A is the skincare product of choice for most dermatologists. Here’s why.
Why Retin-A Is the Holy Grail, According to a Dermatologist
There’s no shortage of beauty and skincare advice floating around on the internet, but don’t you think dermatologists know exactly what to use to achieve the best possible skin? Not only is prescription Retin-A a clinically effective anti-aging product, but it also brightens your complexion, prevents breakouts, and minimizes the appearance of pores.
Avnee Shah, MD FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist at The Dermatology Group in northern New Jersey, has been using tretinoin for about 20 years. She initially got a prescription for acne as a teen and now uses the product for its anti-aging and complexion-boosting benefits. According to Dr. Shah, most dermatologists use some form of prescription-strength retinoid.
“As doctors, we love science. It is a well-proven fact that retinols increase skin cell turnover, allowing exfoliation and de-clogging of pores,” she says. “Paired with the ability to reduce fine lines/wrinkles and treat acne lesions, this is a powerhouse topical medication.”
So, what other all-star skincare ingredients does Dr. Shah use personally, and what products are most popular among dermatologists? She tells Taffeta that her three go-tos are tretinoin, Vitamin C serum, and SPF—a science-backed skincare trifecta that a majority of dermatologists can agree on.
“I do think most of us in dermatology use these three because we like evidence-based medicine, and these three ingredients have so much data behind them,” says Dr. Shah.
She explains that broad-spectrum sunscreen protects against UVA rays, which lead to wrinkles and brown spots, as well as UVB rays, which cause sunburns. Topical Vitamin C can safeguard your skin from UV rays, strengthen its barrier function, prevent hyperpigmentation, and promote collagen synthesis. Since SPF and Vitamin C protect your skin from sunlight, it’s best to apply them in the morning. Conversely, Retin-A should be applied at night, as it can increase sun sensitivity.
Getting a Tretinoin Prescription
If you’re ready to hop on the Retin-A bandwagon, make an appointment with your dermatologist ASAP. Just bear in mind that if your prescription is for anti-aging purposes, it’s regarded as cosmetic, in which case it probably won’t be covered by insurance. (Insurance companies typically only cover tretinoin for acne, which is considered medical.)
This doesn’t mean your dermatologist won’t prescribe it to you—it just means you may have to pay full price out of pocket. Without insurance, a Retin-A prescription can run upwards of $200. That being said, one tube of tretinoin may very well last you for six months or more since you only need to use a tiny amount.
Lastly, keep in mind that Retin-A is a strong medication, and it can be irritating at first while your skin gets acclimated. Although this is part of the process, Dr. Shah suggests starting slow. Begin by applying tretinoin two or three times a week, and slowly work your way up to daily use. In my experience, the first few months of regular use involve extremely dry and somewhat irritated skin. But after that, you’ll emerge with a brighter complexion and super-smooth skin that only gets better the longer you use it.