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What do topical retinoids do?

Dr. Nancy Shannon

Medically reviewed by Dr. Nancy Shannon, MD, PhD on April 19, 2021

Retinoids are a topical Vitamin A-based cream used to reverse the signs of photo-aging, which is aging of skin related to sun damage, including fine and deep wrinkles, rough texture, mottled hyperpigmentation, and sallow color. Topical retinoids help to reduce some of the signs of photo-aging, by reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles and lightening uneven facial hyperpigmentation. They work by increasing production of hyaluronic acid, collagen, blood vessels, and speeding up turnover of the top-most layers of cells (called keratinocytes) on the skin, which results in the top layer exfoliating off. This can result in smoother skin, a rosy “glow,” decreased mottled hyperpigmentation, and decreased appearance of fine lines and wrinkles

The retinoids tretinoin 0.02 to 0.05% cream and tazarotene 0.1% cream are FDA-approved for use in photodamaged skin. This means that there have been research studies on these specific formulations of retinoids. 

Caveat: Retinoids should never be used on dark spots that are changing shape, size, color, or otherwise satisfy the ABCDEs of melanoma. For such cases, an individual should see his/her doctor to rule out melanoma. Learn about melanoma signs and symptoms.

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