Topical Retinoids – Is this the magic elixir to prevent skin aging and reverse sun damage?

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There are many products available in the cosmetic surgery world that are advertised as the magic elixir. They often tell you that these cosmetic products will prevent the signs of skin aging, reduce wrinkles and make your skin look brighter. Many of these are simply moisturizer creams disguised as something special.  Retinol, when used properly however, can be a powerful medication and is an exception to the rule.

Retinol Cream for Wrinkles

Retinol Cream for Wrinkles

When considering the aging of the skin, people often fail to realize that sun exposure causes the vast majority of pre-mature aging.  Our “genetics” do play a role, however the sun is #1.  Facial Plastic Surgeons and dermatologists consider the effect of the sun as “extrinsic aging,” meaning something outside (extrinsic) that causes aging. The sun has profound effects on our skin and actually results in changes to our skin’s DNA. Ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun causes these changes in our DNA, as well as changes  in our mitochondria (the part of the cell that is like the energy center) and increases reactive oxygen (or oxidants, which are treated with anti-oxidants). If you add smoking into the equation, the effects of sun on skin aging are even more pronounced.


If you look at the skin on a molecular level, there are very specific changes associated with the sun. You see reduced and abnormal collagen production and damage to the elastic part of your skin (the elastin). These changes give skin the rough, wrinkled and leathery appearance associated with sun damage. Now stay with me, this next part is a bit technical but important. One of the main effects of the sun on the skin is that it increases a chemical called MMP in the skin. MMP is responsible for all of the above noted  changes in the skin.  Interestingly, research has shown that Retinol shuts down and blocks the increase in MMP and stimulates the skin to produce more collagen and better elastin, thus allowing the skin to become more youthful and reverse some of the sun damage. I have to add here however, that the most important and most effective method to improve your skin and prevent sun damages is sun avoidance and sun screen.

What is a Retinoid?

Retinoids are a group of products that are similar to Vitamin A. They all have an effect on the skin similar to what Vitamin A would have, however they can be real Vitamin A or synthetic products.  Retinoids were first developed to treat Acne and are still used for this purpose today.

How Do Retinoids Work to Improve the Signs of Skin Aging?

Interestingly, the effects of retinoids have been demonstrated in a large number of research studies. Retinoids effect the cells in a similar way as Vitamin D and thyroid hormones. They interact and turn on/off specific DNA signals within our skin cells. Because of this, you can consider Retinoids to be similar to hormones.

What are the Effects of Retinoids on the Skin?

  1. Improvement in the appearance of skin wrinkles
  2. Increased smoothness of the skin
  3. Improvement in the discoloration of the skin
  4. Reduced sun damage
  5. Reduced acne

All of these changes are due to a few important aspects of retinol. Retinoids result in increased elasticity of the skin, increased collagen production, improved ability of the skin to repair itself, increased bloodflow to the skin and reduced production of abnormal skin pigment.

As you continue using retinol, you will eventually see a reduction in the wrinkles on your skin. Over time you may notice fine lines fade and deeper wrinkles reduce in size.

What are the types of Retinoids?

There are many types. Most are applied to the skin as a cream but some are taken in pill form. The problem with the pill form is that side effects are possible. As a cream, side effects are much less an issue.

The most commonly used retinoid for general skin care are standard “retinol” or Vitamin A creams. People can purchase these over the counter at pharmacies however the dose or percentage of the retinol is often too low to have a positive effect. These products are often expensive and not very effective.

Medical grade Retinol products have a higher concentration of high quality retinol. This is why we recommend medical grade products. They are better in terms of safety and effectiveness. I use this treatment for my own skin.

There are also prescription retinoids that are often used for acne and other types of severe sun damage, however most people who use it for general skin care stick to the Medical Grade Vitamin A types.

What will I Notice When Using Retinol?

Retinol typically comes as a cream which you would put on your skin a few times a week. We often recommend people start slow as you can have a strong response the first few times you use it. Typically about 3-4 days later, you will see some skin peeling. This is proof your skin is producing more skin cells and more materials. The old aged portion of your skin is falling off.

It is important to use sun screen when using retinol as it can increase the risk of sunburns.



Retinoids and similar products are very effective medications for your skin. They are safe, inexpensive and have lasting effects. If you want brighter, softer skin with less wrinkles, retinoids are a product you may be interested in.  Please be sure to book a consult with Dr Bonaparte to discuss if Retinol is right for you.