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How to use tretinoin for wrinkles: Benefits, risks, before and after

Is tretinoin for wrinkles a good substitute for Botox? Learn how this topical treatment can reduce, reverse, and prevent fine lines.

Aging is a natural part of life — and as much as we should embrace it, many of us want to maintain a youthful look for as long as possible. If you’re looking to combat visible aging signs but cringe at the thought of invasive Botox injections or fillers, there’s hope. Tretinoin for wrinkles could be your new holy grail.

This powerful prescription retinoid smooths out fine lines, boosts collagen, and improves skin texture — without the ouch factor. Keep reading to learn if the topical treatment is right for you, how to get the most out of it, and the results you can expect from consistent use.

What is tretinoin?

Tretinoin is a vitamin A derivative belonging to a class of drugs called retinoids. It comes in topicals like creams, gels, and lotions. Common tretinoin brand names include Altreno, Atralin, Avita, Retin-A, Refissa, and Renova.

This topical treatment improves complexion by:

  • Increasing collagen production
  • Speeding up skin cell turnover
  • Unclogging pores

woman applying tretinoin for antiaging

Source: Antoni Shkraba

How to use tretinoin for wrinkles

Incorporating tretinoin into your skincare routine can be daunting if you’ve never done it before. But with the right approach, it’s a simple, painless, and effective way to target aging signs.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you get the most out of tretinoin for wrinkles:

Step #1: Get the timing right

Always apply tretinoin at night as part of your evening skincare routine. Retinoids increase your skin’s sensitivity to UV rays, so using them before bed ensures maximum benefits without the risk of skin damage.

Step #2: Wash your face

Wash your face with a gentle, fragrance-free cleanser to remove dirt, oil, and makeup. According to Rachel Lee Lozina, New York State licensed esthetician, oncology skin specialist, and Founder of Blue Water Spa, “Proper cleaning and light exfoliation helps tretinoin absorb better and increase efficacy.” Avoid harsh scrubs, though, as these can further irritate your skin when combined with tretinoin. Pat your skin dry gently.

Step #3: Apply moisturizer and tretinoin

Apply a light moisturizer, then wait 20-30 minutes. Use a pea-sized amount of tretinoin, focusing on the areas most prone to wrinkling. This may include your forehead, around the eyes (crow’s feet), around the mouth (smile lines), and cheeks. A little goes a long way with this concentrated treatment.

Step #4: Give it time to absorb

Wait five minutes after applying tretinoin before moving on to the next step. This allows the medication to penetrate your skin and reduces the chances of it getting diluted or rubbed off by other products.

Step #5: Combat dryness with moisturizer

Layer on a rich, non-comedogenic moisturizer to keep dryness and flaking at bay. Look for ingredients like ceramides, glycerin, and squalene that support your skin’s protective barrier.

Step #6: Add an extra hydration boost

If you’re prone to dry skin or live in a low-humidity climate, follow up with a quality hyaluronic acid serum. This moisture-binding ingredient helps counteract the potential drying effects of tretinoin and leaves your skin plump and hydrated.

Step #7: Don’t forget to wear sun protection

Tretinoin can make your skin more vulnerable to sun damage. That’s why wearing SPF 50+ sunscreen every morning is non-negotiable. Be diligent about reapplying sunscreen throughout the day, seeking shade, and wearing protective clothing to keep your skin healthy.

How to use tretinoin for wrinkles infographic

When to start using tretinoin for anti-aging

Lozina suggests the optimal age to start using tretinoin depends on factors like skin type and specific concerns. “If you’re a teenager with acne, tretinoin might be something your dermatologist prescribes to treat it. If you’re looking for anti-aging results, your dermatologist can prescribe it as early as in your mid-20s to prevent wrinkles and speed cell turnover,” she explained.

While those in their teens and 20s reap the best results from tretinoin for anti-aging, it’s never too late to start. Even if you already have signs of skin aging, tretinoin can reduce, reverse, and prevent fine lines and boost your skin’s collagen production.

Where to apply tretinoin cream

Tretinoin is safe to apply on most areas of your face prone to wrinkling:

  • Around the eyes (crow’s feet)
  • Around the lips (smile lines)
  • Between the eyebrows
  • Cheeks
  • Chest
  • Chin
  • Forehead
  • Neck

Pro tip: The lips and nostrils are more sensitive to retinoids, so don’t apply tretinoin directly or too close to these areas.

What not to use with tretinoin

Certain skincare products may cause excess dryness and irritation when used with tretinoin.

Unless directed by your doctor, avoid using the following in the areas you apply tretinoin:

  • Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs)
  • Benzoyl peroxide
  • Harsh scrubs or exfoliating products
  • Lactic acid
  • Other retinoids like adapalene or tazarotene
  • Facials with peeling agents
  • Products with lots of alcohol
  • Salicylic acid

Who should use tretinoin?

If you’re looking for ways to prevent or reverse aging, you might wonder, “Is tretinoin for wrinkles right for me?”

Consider giving this topical treatment a try if:

  • You have fine lines, wrinkles, uneven skin tone, or rough texture: Tretinoin helps smooth out these imperfections. As a result, your skin looks more youthful and refined.
  • You want to boost your skin’s collagen production: Collagen is the protein that keeps your skin firm and elastic. Tretinoin stimulates its production for plumper, more resilient skin.
  • You don’t have overly sensitive skin: Tretinoin can cause initial dryness, flaking, and redness.
  • You’ll apply it consistently: As with any anti-aging treatment, results from tretinoin take time and regular use. It could be a great fit if you’re willing to apply it nightly and be patient.

But before starting tretinoin, it’s smart to talk about it with your dermatologist. Based on your skin type and concerns, they’ll help you decide whether it’s right for you.

Who shouldn’t use tretinoin?

Even though tretinoin can work wonders for many people’s skin, there are some situations where it’s best to steer clear.

Tretinoin may not be for you if:

  • You’re pregnant or breastfeeding: Though chances are low, retinoids may cause birth defects. Doctors advise against using it during this stage of life to err on the side of caution.
  • You have conditions like eczema or rosacea: Tretinoin isn’t the most gentle, especially when you first start using it. If your skin is already sensitive, it could lead to more redness, dryness, and flaking.
  • You spend a lot of time outdoors: Tretinoin can make your skin more susceptible to sun damage. It might not be the most practical choice if you work outside or enjoy outdoor hobbies. But if you decide to use tretinoin, be extra diligent about sun protection.

If any of these situations apply to you, don’t despair — plenty of other effective anti-aging treatments are out there. Talk to your dermatologist about alternatives like peptides, vitamin C, or gentler retinol formulas that may be better for your unique needs and lifestyle.

woman with youthful skin

Source: Andrea Piacquadio

Benefits of using tretinoin on your skin

Besides being one of the most effective topical treatments for reducing fine lines and wrinkles, tretinoin offers other beauty benefits such as:

  • Enhance skin tone and radiance: Tretinoin increases cell turnover, which helps to slough off dead, dull skin cells and reveal fresh skin underneath. This minimizes the appearance of age spots for a luminous complexion.
  • Fade dark spots and hyperpigmentation: Tretinoin inhibits the production of excess melanin, the pigment that gives skin its color. So, it can lighten dark patches and prevent new ones from forming.
  • Smooth skin texture: Tretinoin stimulates collagen production and increases dermis thickness. This softens the look of scars and indentations.
  • Unclog pores and reduce acne breakouts: Tretinoin’s exfoliating properties prevent the buildup of dead skin cells, oil, and bacteria that can lead to breakouts. You may also notice smaller pores on your face as a result.

What strength of tretinoin cream is best for wrinkles?

The ideal tretinoin strength for wrinkles varies based on personal skin type and tolerance. Lozina recommends starting with a low concentration, which most people tolerate well and can use long-term. “Start at the standard 0.025% and acclimate your skin slowly to a higher percentage [if you’re treating deeper wrinkles],” she advised.

Is tretinoin 0.025% effective for wrinkles and skin aging?

Yes, tretinoin 0.025% can be effective for wrinkles and skin aging if you have a consistent routine. A study published in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology found that this tretinoin cream strength produced a “statistically significant improvement” in fine wrinkling, hyperpigmentation, roughness, and laxity after 84 days of use [1].

Does tretinoin 0.1% give better results?

A higher tretinoin strength like 0.1% isn’t necessarily more effective for anti-aging. It may provide faster results for some initially, but 0.025% tretinoin is just as effective in the long run. A higher strength may also cause side effects and irritation, especially if you have sensitive skin [2].

Dermatologists recommend starting low and going slow. You can increase to 0.1% tretinoin later if needed — after your skin gets used to 0.025% and 0.05%.

Where can I buy topical tretinoin without a prescription?

In the United States, the only way to get tretinoin legally is with a prescription from a doctor or dermatologist. But you can order it online without one from sites like ReliableRX Pharmacy for less than $10 a tube.

The flat rate for shipping is high compared to the cost per tube, so it’s wise to stock up if you go this route. Just don’t go overboard because they do expire. For reference, one tube typically lasts me three to four months with nightly application. So, I order three to four tubes at once for a year’s supply.

order from reliablerx pharmacy

Source: Sharon Wu

Remember: Buying prescription creams without a doctor’s guidance comes with risks. It’s best to use tretinoin under medical supervision.

How much does tretinoin cost?

When my parents visit Malaysia, I ask them to grab a few tubes of 0.05% tretinoin from local pharmacies for me. They’re available over the counter at incredibly affordable prices — about $5 per 20g tube. The same tube costs $30 to $120 in the US, depending on where you get it and how much your insurance covers.

tretinoin cream and gel

Source: Sharon Wu

Tretinoin risks and side effects

While generally safe for most people, tretinoin cream can cause side effects — especially when you first start using it:

  • Increased sensitivity to the sun
  • Skin irritation, redness, dryness, or peeling
  • Temporary acne flare-ups

Speaking from experience, the saying, “It gets worse before it gets better” definitely applies to tretinoin — so be prepared!

To minimize irritation, start with the lowest strength (0.025%). Use it every other night for the first few weeks, and always wear sunscreen when you get up in the morning. 

When will I see a difference from using tretinoin on aging skin?

The timeline for seeing results from tretinoin for wrinkles differs for everyone. Lozina highlights that tretinoin stimulates cell turnover in the skin’s deepest layers, the dermis. This process leads to noticeable improvements in skin texture within a month of consistent use. “If you acclimate to the medication, you may start seeing results as soon as within two weeks,” she said.

However, it may take longer for some people to notice a difference. They might see subtle changes in skin texture after three to six months of consistent use. For most, dramatic transformations take about 12 months of regular application to manifest [3].

Tretinoin for wrinkles before and after: Real results

Seeing how tretinoin works in real life can be inspiring, especially if you feel you’ve missed the boat on preventative skincare.

This amazing before-and-after is from Cle, a 46-year-old woman who shared her transformation on Reddit after 16 years of daily tretinoin usage:

cle before and after tretinoin

Source: Cle on Reddit

Cle is from sunny Sardinia, Italy. Like many in the 80s and 90s, she got a lot of sun damage when she was younger because people didn’t use sunscreen much back then.

At 29, she started applying tretinoin 0.05% to treat acne. She used it as part of her daily skincare routine. Fast forward to age 46, and her skin looks better than it did at 30. The photos are completely unfiltered and she hasn’t had any cosmetic treatments like Botox or fillers.

Her results show that consistent tretinoin use can improve skin texture, minimize pores, and keep your complexion youthful — even if you start later in life.

The bottom line

Tretinoin is in a league of its own for fighting wrinkles without needles. This topical treatment has been extensively studied and proven to deliver impressive anti-aging results. With nightly use, tretinoin speeds up cell turnover, boosts collagen production, evens skin tone and texture, and visibly reduces lines.

While starting tretinoin earlier can help prevent fine lines before they form, it’s not too late to add it to your skincare routine and enjoy its anti-aging benefits. Consult with your dermatologist if you’re considering it for your skin concerns.

Frequently asked questions

Is it safe to use tretinoin cream for wrinkles daily?

Yes, tretinoin can be safe to use daily. But it’s best to start slowly and as directed by your doctor. They may suggest applying it every other night and gradually working up to nightly use as your skin adjusts.

Can I replace Botox with tretinoin?

For some people, starting tretinoin in their teens, 20s, or 30s may postpone the need for in-office wrinkle treatments like Botox. But tretinoin and Botox can also work well together for comprehensive anti-aging results. Consult with a dermatologist on the best plan for your skin.

Does tretinoin work on crow’s feet?

Tretinoin can soften the appearance of most fine lines and wrinkles, including crow’s feet. But Botox may be more effective if your expression lines are deep.

Do I moisturize before or after tretinoin?

Ideally, apply moisturizer before and after using tretinoin. Wait about 20 minutes after washing your face before applying tretinoin. Then, wait another few minutes before layering on a non-comedogenic moisturizer to prevent dryness and irritation.

Tretinoin vs. retinol for wrinkles: Which is better?

Tretinoin and retinol are both vitamin A derivatives that can improve wrinkles. But tretinoin is a more potent, prescription-only option that acts faster and gives more dramatic results. Retinol is a milder, over-the-counter alternative that may be better for sensitive skin or those new to retinoids.

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1. A double-blind randomized study comparing the association of Retinol and LR2412 with tretinoin 0.025% in photoaged skin, Wiley Online Library, 21 January 2015

2. Use of retinoids in topical anti-aging treatments: A focused review of clinical evidence for conventional and nanoformulations, Springer Link, 11 October 2022

3. Do retinoids really reduce wrinkles?, Harvard Health Publishing, 3 March 2022

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