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Why You Might Want to Use Retin-A

So many benefits in one little tube.

Retin-A's benefits include preventing acne AND wrinkles.

I always like you guys to be the first to know when I change something up in my skincare routine, so it's time to fess up: the Retin-A thing is ON. Again.

See, I first started seriously dabbling with a prescription-strength retinoid this time last year. After spending my entire beauty editor career interviewing dermatologists who would speak of this stuff like it was manna from heaven—a.k.a. the "gold standard" for anti-aging—I was determined to get my hands on some. Possibly this is because of a psychological state known as "wanting what you can't have." If it weren't for expiration dates, I could probably quite comfortably live to age 80 on my current supplies without ever needing to set foot in a store to buy moisturizer. And yet, I wanted to fork over my own money for a tube of cream that was going to make my skin shed like a snake before revealing a smooth, clear, glowy, poreless, lineless complexion.

At least that was the goal. I was consistent with the stuff for about six months until a seaside vacation where I was spending so much time outdoors that I thought I'd better give the retinoid a rest. (They make you way more sun-sensitive.) After that, I don't know what happened, but my usage sort of tapered off and then I got into into using rosehip oil, which is a natural vitamin A alternative, instead. I think it partially had to do with my skin feeling a bit dry and flaky, and as a closet hippie chick I'm constantly swayed by the siren song of natural products.

Fast-forward to 2013. I had a facial the other day (Dermalogica; lovely as usual) but as anyone who's ever had a Dermalogica facial will know, one of the signature parts of the treatment is a little feedback process called "face-mapping." Wherein the facialist helpfully and specifically points out all the problems on your face with a handy little chart!

Dermalogica's face-mapping chart.

It's quite traumatizing if you're having a shitty skin week. And what really shocked me—and sent me running back to the drugs—was how much more congested my skin had become since the last Dermalogica facial I'd had in May. (She had the chart for comparison.) While gunky pores weren't the reason I'd gone on the stuff (I was more interested in evening out skin tone and preventing future aging), clearer ones were an amazing benefit that I hadn't even noticed at the time.

So I did what any skin obsessive would do. Ran home and Googled like a mad woman. And then called my derm the very next morning to get him to renew my prescription. Side note: Did you know that there is currently a country-wide retinoid shortage? Apparently it's been, like, a year now that it's been in short supply. I was actually prescribed the cream because of my sensitive skin, but had to end up getting the gel, and not even the generic (Stieva-A) because it was the only med they had at that strength (I'm on 0.025 percent).

So I'm going to have to be even more careful about how I use it in order to minimize the dreaded peeling and redness and flakies. (One reason I think I quit before was because I'd become less diligent about how I was using it.) But let's save all of that for part two of this discussion. First, I want to tell you about the fruits of my labour... i.e. obsessive Googling. I knew all of this before but like I said, I get swayed easily by new, shiny things in beauty.

5 Reasons to Use Retin-A

(By Retin-A, I mean any retinoid: Stieva-A, Tazorac, Differin, etc. I'm using the term Retin-A like Kleenex—to describe the entire category.)

1. It Plumps Your Skin

So we can talk 'til the cows come home about all the great anti-aging creams and how they lift and firm and (my favourite line in "beautyspeak") diminish the appearance of lines and wrinkles. 

And sure, they might. But retinoids are actually proven to do so. 

They work by increasing your skin's stores of collagen and hyaluronic acid, which are the building blocks of firm, plump skin. Dr. Leslie Baumann, author of the great book The Skin Type Solution, cites a study where 36 people, median age 87 years old, were treated three times a week with just 0.4 percent retinol—which is the weaker, over-the-counter version of Retin-A. After 24 weeks the improvements were dramatic and clearly visible to the naked eye. So imagine what the good drugs can do on a nightly basis!

2. It Prevents Skin Aging

At the same time as Retin-A is boosting those stores of collagen and hyaluronic acid, it's also slowing down the rate at which you lose them with age, thereby warding off wrinkles that haven't even shown up yet. 

That's why it's best to start young (which was my line of thinking with this) before your skin is visibly in trouble. You do need to keep up with the treatment, though, to keep the results... if you stop using it, your skin goes back to where it was before.

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3. It Makes Skin More Even and Glowy

This is because it's exfoliating away all the dulling dead skin cells on the surface—and does a far better job of it than any over-the-counter scrub or peel can do. 

It may take a while to notice this side effect if you get the initial flaking and redness, but once your skin gets used to it (and with proper application procedures), you'll have smoother, more radiant skin. 

Plus, if you're dealing with sun damage, melasma or post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (a.k.a. those marks you get after a pimple heals up), retinoids speed up the healing/fading process so you can get your even skin tone back. And they're way cheaper than IPL (intense pulsed light treatments), which I had in the fall. Yet another benefit I kinda forgot about!

4. It Improves Acne and Slows Oil Production

Ick. Nobody likes acne, clogged pores or oily skin, and Lord knows I've tried various treatments over the years, both dietary and topical. My skin has been pretty much under control aside from annoying premenstrual blemishes that arrive on a monthly basis like clockwork. 

But you know what? I think I had less of them when I was diligently using Retin-A. And as my facialist pointed out, I definitely had fewer closed comedones. This is because of that powerful exfoliation—retinoids get rid of the dead skin cells that block pores and lead to acne. Plus, they also decrease oil production, an incredible benefit if like me you find powders and mattifiers a huge pain.

5. It's Cheap!

At least if you live in Canada, where a prescription will run you under $30. That's not too shabby for all of the benefits you get—especially compared to the average price of other anti-aging products, and their lack of proven results. That said, just because you want to use Retin-A doesn't mean you have to give everything else up. I am the biggest product whore of all and use it with various serums, moisturizers, masks, exfoliators and face oils. So there!

I'll tell you more about my specific routine, and how you can minimize irritation, in my next post on this. In the meantime...

Retin-A Testimonials

Here are a few testimonials I found on Makeup Alley that you might want to read:

"My skin is clear, tight, and the red marks from old acne are really fading fast. I've been on Retin-A for a month now and have only had one tiny pimple on my cheek in an unusual spot. And of course, the red mark from that blemish is fading super fast now. I usually breakout around my period and while on this regimen, I did not breakout at all this month."

"This product makes my pores look tiny, and I rarely have breakouts around my t-zone anymore."

"I can honestly say that I look like I'm in my mid to late 20s. I was a tanner up until my mid 30s. I grew up, and live in a sunny climate, and I've had some blister sunburns, too. I have no laugh lines, or crows feet..."

"In about four months it has gotten a rid of about 85 percent of my scars and has cleared up the acne itself for the most part!"

"It has done wonders on scars and marks, I now wear the least amount of makeup than I have in about a decade. I also, at 31, started to be asked if I'm 25 A LOT (it will be so sad when this stops happening, i can't look 25 forever). I now apply .05 to my temple area only, the rest of my face gets .025. I started doing this because I wanted better results on the lines in between my brows and it has worked VERY well. The lines around my mouth are basically gone now, I used to see makeup setting in them but not anymore."

Impressive, non? Compulsory disclaimer: Please don't take this as medical advice and talk to your doctor first about whether retinoids are right for you. Also, don't use them if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.

Read part two: How to use Retin-A (and not turn your face into a red, flaky, peely mess).