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Retinoids Do Help Reverse Signs of Aging, but Overuse May Seriously Harm Skin

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Jan 22, 2020

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Image Credits: Adobe Stock

Over the past few years, we have acquired enough feminist conscientiousness to look down upon anti-aging products, as they both fetishize youth and openly devalue older women. When make-up was revealed as a tool of the patriarchy, a new ideal — fresh, dewy, glass-skinned women — took its place. And since we shot anti-aging in the face, a new, more potent contender quietly stepped in to take its place: retinoids.

While feminism created an aversion for anti-aging mainly due to the cruel, insecurity-inducing ways in which the products were advertised, becoming a feminist did not immediately translate to doing away with beauty standards at once, which is a longer, greyer battle. Therefore, products like retinoid serums seeped through the cracks — facilitated by making women feel like they must spend money to feel good (remember self-care?) — advertising merely the removal of fine lines and wrinkles, with the occasional ‘premature aging’ thrown in. In situations like these, it is good to know the good and bad of what one is putting upon their skin. Here’s what you need to know about retinoids.

What are retinoids?

Retinoids, a class of chemical compounds that has a very similar molecular structure as that of Vitamin A, are not new news. The product has existed long before it was a skincare sensation. In fact, Accutane, the last-resort cystic acne medication, infamous for its dangerous side effects like birth defects and breathing problems, is an oral retinoid.

The set of retinoids used for skin are retinol, tretinoin, adapalene, tazarotene, alitretinoin, and bexarotene. Similar to Vitamin A, they stimulate the cells that produce collagen, normalize enzyme activity to reduce pigmentation, and normalize oil production in the skin.

However, the problem with retinoids is that, in a way, they’re watered down versions of a potent dermatological medicine that requires a prescription. They’re not mere serums that one can pat on the face and expect a glow from — they’re potent antioxidants that promote the cells on the surface of our skin to die rapidly, making way for new skin cells. Plus, there has never been any large-scale, long-term observation of how frequent retinoid use affects the skin.

How do retinoids work?

Retinoids aid “intercellular communication, allowing signaling to nearby cells by binding the nuclear receptors, therefore regulating epithelial cell growth and rate of proliferation,” according to the American Osteopathic College of Dermatology. Translation: retinoids, which are an outside element, bind with certain proteins known as nuclear receptors — which control development, homeostasis, and metabolism — to quicken cell death turnover and significantly influence cell regeneration and the production of collagen, the protein that provides tightness and strength to the skin.

While some retinoids like retinol can be bought over the counter — thus fueling a skincare revolution — other retinoids like tretinoin need a prescription due to their strength. Retinoids can be orally ingested or topically applied.


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What can retinoids help heal?

Retinoids are known to aid in healing:


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What are the side effects of using retinoids?

Initial use of retinoids could cause the skin to become flaky, red, and uncomfortably tight, as the skin adjusts to the compound. This is a normal part of the process, with full effects of retinoid usage showing up around a few weeks to a month later.

Though retinoids are powerfully effective and quite popular in the skincare industry, some dermatologists still believe they might not be safe at the rate they’re being used. “The skincare industry is taking us into a massive experimentation of the population. … They’re just interested in the short-term marketing of the products. We don’t know what will happen with prolonged excessive use,” cosmetic doctor Mervyn Patterson told Business Insider.

Overusing retinoids could lead to lasting, increased symptoms of irritation, redness, peeling skin, and pain. Retinoid usage is also known to make the skin extremely sensitive to UV rays, which means the compound must be used in tandem with loads of sunscreen. Generally, pregnant women and nursing women should consult a doctor before considering using retinoids.

“Skin is no different to the human body — it requires a balanced array of essential nutrients all in their correct proportions,” said Dr. Patterson, stating that one only needs a tiny amount of retinol. Perhaps its time to heed that and let one’s skin age at its own pace.

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Written By Aditi Murti

Aditi Murti is the senior culture writer at The Swaddle, with an interest in cultural analysis, environment, and the science of mental health.  Write to her using aditi@theswaddle.com, or find her on social media @aditimurti.

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