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Retinoids are great for treating fine lines and wrinkles. They’re also commonly prescribed as an acne treatment. But what exactly are they? And how do they work? Dr. Dhaval Bhanusali, a medical and cosmetic dermatologist in New York City, takes us through the basics.

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What are retinoids?
Simply put, retinoids are vitamin A derivatives that (deep breath): help with acne, decrease oil production, minimize redness, stimulate collagen (which slows the appearance of wrinkles), even out pigmentation, decrease the appearance of pores and improve the overall texture and tone of your skin. It truly is the best skin-care ingredient to aging gracefully.

What is the difference between a retinoid and a retinol?
Both are forms of vitamin A, but retinoids are much stronger and are only available with a prescription. Retinols, on the other hand, can be found over the counter and are commonly used in anti-aging products you’d find at a store (like serums and creams).

So how do I know which one to get?
It’s a great idea to start with retinols and work your way up to retinoids. After that, retinoids will be much easier on your skin. (More on that below.) 

What’s the difference between Retin-A and Tazorac?
Once you graduate to retinoids, you’ll find that there are many types (and varying strengths) available. All of them do the same function, but each has its pros and cons. Tazorac, for example, usually works the best but is also the most irritating and so many patients can’t tolerate it. Some of them are combined with other ingredients like benzoyl peroxide or clindamycin, which is great for acne patients. Your dermatologist will ask lots of questions, consider your skin type and then decide which one to prescribe.

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Are there any best practices for when you start using one?
After washing your face at night, take a pea-sized amount and dab it onto the nose, forehead, each cheek and chin before rubbing it in. Using more than that won’t make the retinoid more effective (and can actually increase the likelihood of dryness or irritation). Start off using it once or twice a week, and then gradually work up to every other night. Also, wear sunscreen (and be vigilant about this since retinoids make your skin more sensitive to the sun) and scale back on exfoliating to no more than once a week (since you have less oil on your skin now).

Are there any negative side effects?
Retinoids tend to be pretty drying and can cause irritation for some people—which is why we recommend starting slow. Also, if you’re currently pregnant or trying to become pregnant, you should talk to your dermatologist.

How long does it typically take to see results?
Usually it takes between four to six weeks for your skin to get used to the stuff. Shortly after that you’ll begin to notice the full effects. That said, if you’re trying to get your skin ready for a special occasion, like, say, your wedding, give yourself at least two to three months just to be safe (and to be at peak glow by then).

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