Is This the Only Product You Need for Younger-Looking Skin?

Maybe its because my mother’s idea of a complicated beauty regime was a dollop of Noxzema and a squirt of Oil of Olay, but I’ve always clammed up when it came to asking my dermatologist about anything but strange looking moles. I’ve certainly splurged on over-the-counter products, lured by exotic ingredients and extravagant promises, only to end up feeling more schmuck than swan. (Exhibit A: When my husband used an entire tub of guiltily purchased Crème De La Mer to remove his DIY clown makeup after our kid’s fifth birthday; served me right). There is something vaguely embarrassing and—gasp—vain about quizzing a brusque and efficient doctor on what might make my skin look younger and, dare I say it, more beautiful.

Last visit though, noting the Botox and filler pamphlets brazenly displayed in the exam room, I got over my qualms and mumbled, “So, at my age, is there anything I should be using on my face?” The dermatologist looked me in the eye conspiratorially and replied, “There’s only one thing that works: retinoids.”

One thing that WORKS? Umm, why hadn’t anyone told me about this before? I felt like calling every woman I knew and saying, “Forget the $150 oxygenated silk-protein-goji-berry-seaweed serum, just call your derm, stat.” Prescription retinoids are used to unclog pores, treat acne, reduce fine lines, fade age spots, enhance collagen production, and stimulate the growth of new blood vessels to leave skin with a rosy glow. Basically, everything most women want in a skincare product. The downside is that it takes at least three months for the results to be visible, and retinoids can be irritating at first, especially to sensitive skin.

To minimize potential peeling or redness, start by applying retinoid cream every two or three nights while your skin adjusts. More is not better—you only need a pea-sized amount. You can also mix with your usual moisturizer, which helps prevent over-drying and makes the thick cream easier to apply. There is some debate about whether retinoids increase sun-sensitivity, but we all should be applying sunscreen daily anyway, right? Work with your doctor to find the right strength and application process.

You can begin using retinoids as early as your 20s, although at that tender age, the smartest skincare strategy is shunning smoking and too much sun. 30-somethings should definitely discuss the benefits with their dermatologist. One caveat: If you are pregnant, nursing, or planning to become pregnant soon, consult with your OB-GYN about safety issues.

And what about drugstore or makeup counter products? Prescription retinoid products are many times stronger and more effective than over the counter potions containing their chemical cousin, retinol. However, starting with retinol cream and graduating to a retinoid can also reduce sensitivity and irritation. Be patient and stick with your regime—you’ll be rewarded with healthier, younger looking skin.