At What Age Should I Start Using Retinol Creams and Anti-Aging Serums?

GoodRx /  Maryann Mikhail, MD

Key takeaways:

  • Topical retinoids help with breakouts and have anti-aging benefits. 
  • Skin irritation is common when you first start using a retinoid.
  • Beginners should use a lower strength, start slowly, and build up as tolerated.

Retinol is a vitamin A derivative in the retinoid family. Retinoids benefit your skin in many ways. They regulate oil production, prevent breakouts, and enhance skin turnover. Retinoids also boost collagen production, even skin tone, and prevent fine lines. 

Read on to learn when you should consider adding a retinoid to your skin-care regimen.

What are the ingredients to look for in anti-aging serums?

When starting an anti-aging regimen, retinol is the number-one ingredient to look for. Other ingredients to consider are:

  • Sunscreen: Protection from the sun’s aging rays is the most important thing you can do for your skin. Choose a product that is mineral based (zinc/titanium oxide). Apply your sunscreen daily and reapply every 2 hours when you’re outside.
  • Hyaluronic acid: Hyaluronic acid binds water and keeps skin hydrated. Well-hydrated skin looks more smooth and supple. You can find this ingredient in a variety of moisturizers, and it works well with a retinol. 
  • Vitamin C: Vitamin C is an antioxidant that undoes damage from sun and pollution. It can make skin look brighter and more even. If you use a retinol at night, vitamin C is a good addition to your morning routine. 
  • Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs): These exfoliate your skin to reveal smoother, fresher skin underneath. AHAs are a good option if you can’t tolerate a retinol or if you’re pregnant, planning, or nursing.

Retinol vs. retinoid: What’s the difference?

Retinoid is an umbrella term for all vitamin A derivatives. Retinol is a type of retinoid you can get over the counter. For it to work, it has to be converted to the active form, retinoic acid. Pure retinoic acid is 20 times stronger than retinol. It’s available by prescription as tretinoin (Retin-A). Other prescription retinoids are adapalene (Differin), tazarotene (Avage, Tazorac), and trifarotene (Aklief). Doctors prescribe them for conditions like acne, hyperpigmentation, and psoriasis. 

When it comes to anti-aging, retinol works as well as tretinoin and is easier to tolerate. It causes less dryness, redness, and flaking.

Who should use a retinoid?

You might want to start an over-the-counter retinol if you have mild acne, dark spots, or sun damage, or for anti-aging purposes. 

To be on the safe side, you should not use a retinoid if you’re pregnant, planning, or nursing. Oral retinoids like isotretinoin (Absorica) and acitretin (Soriatane) cause severe birth defects. Topical tazarotene is also considered dangerous. There are no human studies that have tested other retinoids on pregnant or nursing women, so we don’t have enough information to be sure they’re safe.

What age is it recommended to start using retinol?

There are no set rules on how old you should be to use retinol. For anti-aging purposes, you can start preventatively in your 20s. 

While over-the-counter retinol can help mild acne, many people with breakouts will need a prescription. Prescription retinoids, including oral isotretinoin and topical tretinoin, are approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for ages 12 and up. Dermatologists sometimes prescribe topical retinoids to children under 12 off label

Continue reading on GoodRx