Does Tretinoin Work for Wrinkles?

If you’re looking for an effective anti-aging treatment, tretinoin may be a good option for you.

Tretinoin is a retinoid that is derived from vitamin A. It works by increasing collagen production and speeding up the cellular turnover process.

Tretinoin can help improve the appearance of wrinkles, age spots, and other signs of aging and skin damage.

This article will discuss how tretinoin works and what makes it an effective treatment for wrinkles.

Does Tretinoin Work for Wrinkles - The Skincare Culture

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What are Wrinkles and What Causes Them to Form on the Skin?

Wrinkles are creases, folds, or ridges in the skin.

They naturally appear as people get older due to the skin becoming thinner, drier, and less elastic, which means it cannot protect itself from damage and bounce back to normal.


Wrinkles are primarily a by-product of the aging process.

As people age, skin cells divide more slowly, and the middle layer of the skin, called the dermis, begins to thin.

The dermis comprises a network of elastin and collagen fibers, which offer support and elasticity. This network loosens with time, creating depressions on the skin surface.

Facial expressions

Lines on the forehead, between the eyebrows (frown lines), and jutting from the corner of the eyes (crow’s feet) are likely to develop because of small muscle contractions.

Smiling, frowning, squinting, and other habitual facial expressions cause these wrinkles to become more prominent.

Over time, these expressions coupled with gravity, aging, sun damage, and bad lifestyle habits (like drug use) contribute to the formation of wrinkles.

Sun damage

Excessive exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun can result in premature aging of the skin, also known as photoaging.

Exposure to UV light breaks down collagen fibers and leads to the production of abnormal elastin.

When ultraviolet light damages skin tissue, an enzyme called metalloproteinase is produced. This enzyme creates and reforms collagen.

However, some healthy collagen fibers are damaged during the process, resulting in solar elastosis—the disorganized formation of fibers.

Wrinkles develop when the rebuilding process occurs over and over, less efficiently each time.

Lack of sebum production

Aging skin is also less able to retain moisture, less efficient in secreting oil, and slower to heal.

All these factors leave the skin dry and stretched thin and contribute to the development of wrinkles.

Lifestyle habits

Healthy skin constantly regenerates. Old collagen is broken down and removed, and new collagen is produced.

However, lifestyle habits such as smoking can play a role in reducing collagen production.

But besides decreasing collagen production and playing a direct role in developing wrinkles from the inside, smoking can also cause wrinkles around the mouth due to pouting while smoking and around the eyes due to squinting when protecting your eyes from the smoke.

What is the Recommended Tretinoin Strength for Treating Wrinkles?

How Does Tretinoin Work - The Skincare Culture

The best thing to do when first starting tretinoin for treating wrinkles is to start with a lower strength, such as 0.25%, and opt for a vehicle that includes emollients, such as cream-based tretinoin.

From then, you can slowly upgrade to 0.5% and eventually make it to 1%, which is the strongest option available.

Progressing takes time, so it’s not uncommon to take 2+ years of building up to get to the strongest option available.

Lower strength tretinoin will still give great results because results are achieved from using tretinoin over a period of time and not necessarily from how strong the tretinoin is.

Using it for a longer time will give better results, but starting from the strongest option will definitely cause dryness, irritation and can even push your skin into rosacea territory.

How Long Does Tretinoin Take to Work on Wrinkles?

While tretinoin starts working right away, long-term benefits and skin improvements will take some time to show.

Anti-aging benefits of tretinoin will require six months or more, depending on what you are trying to target.

Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, uneven skin tone, signs of sun damage (such as brown spots caused by sun exposure) should start fading after six months to a year of consistent use.

Fine lines and deeper wrinkles will likely take longer, and results could be seen after 1-2 years of consistent tretinoin use.

Additionally, any improvement seen requires continual use for maintenance. Assuming the treatment is well tolerated, the only reason to discontinue would be pregnancy.

How should Tretinoin be Applied to the Skin For Best Results?

Side Effects of Using Tretinoin - The Skincare Culture

The most efficient way to apply tretinoin for best results is by using the “simple method.”

Here’s how the simple method of applying tretinoin works:

  • Cleanse with a gentle cleanser.
  • Wait until the skin is fully dry (don’t pat or towel dry, let it dry naturally.)
  • Apply a pea-sized amount of tretinoin on dry (not damp) skin.
  • Wait 20-30 minutes.
  • Apply a moisturizer.

Waiting 20-30 minutes is necessary because you don’t want to move the product around while applying moisturizer, as this will give you uneven coverage.

Additionally, there are three most commonly applied methods of tretinoin use, which I talk about in my article How to Layer Tretinoin with Other Products.

Are There any Side Effects of Using Tretinoin for Wrinkles?

Although very efficient in improving wrinkles and other signs of aging, tretinoin definitely comes with its own set of troubles, which is why it’s advisable to take it easy and give your skin extra care when starting out.

Here are the most common side effects of using tretinoin:

Dryness & irritation

Tretinoin works by speeding up the skin cell turnover cycle, ridding of the old layer of skin faster than usual.

This causes your skin to become dry and flakey as your skin purges and peels to become accustomed to the retinoid.


Peeling and shedding is another common side effect caused by the increased skin cell turnover cycle.

The skin usually peels the most around the mouth, but this unwanted occurrence can develop in any areas where tretinoin is used.

It’s also very important to thoroughly wash tretinoin off your fingers and hands after applying it, as it will also cause these areas to peel, too.

Increased sun sensitivity

As your skin adapts to tretinoin, it will likely become more sensitive to the sun.

This happens because the rapid cell shedding will somewhat incapacitate the skin to protect itself from the sun, which is why you will start experiencing sunburns much quicker than it took you to experience them before starting tretinoin.

This is why wearing sunscreen is absolutely crucial while using tretinoin because the sun damage on the skin has the potential to be even more severe while the skin is vulnerable due to tretinoin.

So if you are experiencing a sudden warmth on your face, even if it’s not that hot outside, it’s a sign that your tretinoin is working and that you need to apply sunscreen ASAP.


As tretinoin works by speeding up cellular turnover, this action will push all those dead skin cells that didn’t shed properly and remained inside the pore, mixing with skin oil and causing clogs that led to acne in the first place, to the surface of the skin.

So what will happen when you start using tretinoin is your skin will basically purge all those clogs to the surface and turn them into pimples so that they can heal and disappear.

And because all of them will come out on the surface at the same time, instead of popping up as one or two pimples every few days or weeks, it will definitely look scary, but it is actually a good thing.

Lastly, while a purge usually lasts anywhere from 8-12 weeks, it’s not uncommon for it to stick around even up to six months or a year, especially if you are using skincare or makeup products that are continuing to clog your pores, because this way tretinoin will just continue to purge the clogs.

This is unlikely to happen to someone whose skin isn’t prone to acne, and if it does, it would usually be something mild.

However, since tretinoin is often prescribed to people whose skin is prone to acne, the purging stage is likely to be more intense in these cases.

Are There any Alternatives to Tretinoin That can Help Reduce Wrinkles?

If you don’t want to start with tretinoin right away, starting with something mild such as over-the-counter retinol, which will help your skin build tolerance to the ingredient, might be a better option.

Here are some of my favorite retinols that are suitable for mature and sensitive skin:

RoC – Retinol Correxion Deep Wrinkle Filler – $24

RoC – Retinol Correxion Deep Wrinkle Filler – The Skincare Culture

RoC’s potent Retinol Correxion Deep Wrinkle Filler is a product that has it all.

It’s inexpensive, effective, and packed with beneficial ingredients that work to reduce everything from signs of aging, lines, wrinkles, uneven skin tone, texture, hyperpigmentation, and even excessive dryness.

The creamy serum contains retinol, alongside vitamins C and E that help neutralize free-radical damage and infuse the skin with antioxidant benefits.

The formula also contains a specially-formulated mineral complex that offers a healthy dose of hydration and helps boost the retinol’s efficacy, resulting in skin that’s healthy and radiant.

L’Oréal – Revitalift Night Serum with Pure Retinol – $37

L’Oreal – Revitalift Night Serum with Pure Retinol – The Skincare Culture

L’Oréal’s Revitalift Night Serum is packed with 0.3% pure retinol to ensure it delivers significant results and targets not only superficial skin concerns, such as hyperpigmentation and uneven skin tone but deeper lines and wrinkles that occur as a result of the loss of collagen.

To balance out the retinol, the formula includes soothing and nourishing ingredients like glycerin and hyaluronic acid for added hydration.

Another great detail about this serum is that it isn’t sticky, and it absorbs amazingly well into the skin, which means your skin will be getting all the anti-aging and brightening benefits without it actually remaining on your pillow.

Paula’s Choice – 1% Retinol Serum – $58

CLINICAL – 1% Retinol Serum – The Skincare Culture

1% Retinol Serum from Paula’s Choice CLINICAL line is a lightweight, creamy serum that contains the highest percentage of retinol that you can get over the counter.

The retinol in this formula is encapsulated, which means it will refine pore size, diminish the appearance of wrinkles, fine lines, rough and bumpy texture, and even more stubborn hyperpigmentation.

It will also be released into the skin over time to prevent irritation and excessive shedding.

Besides that, the formula contains nourishing licorice and oat extracts and other soothing plant extracts to calm and soothe the skin, as well as hyaluronic acid to keep it hydrated.

Alastin Skincare – Renewal Retinol .5 – $60

Alastin Skincare – Renewal Retinol .5 – The Skincare Culture

Alastin Renewal Retinol 0.5 is beginner-friendly retinol that helps improve the skin’s elasticity, tone, and texture.

It contains encapsulated retinol, which means the active ingredient will be released slowly into the skin and won’t cause irritation.

Besides, the product also contains ceramides and niacinamide to strengthen and repair the skin barrier, as well as antioxidants to neutralize free-radical damage, and oat extract, which is a powerful soothing ingredient that prevents irritation.

Medik8 – Crystal Retinal 3 Serum – $60

Medik8 – Crystal Retinal 3 Serum – The Skincare Culture

Crystal Retinal 3 Serum by Medik8 is formulated with stabilized retinaldehyde (retinal), a next-generation form of vitamin A.

The ingredient is special because it works 11 times faster than retinol.

On the skin, retinol must first be converted to retinaldehyde before it is converted to retinoic acid, the active form of vitamin A in the skin.

Retinaldehyde only needs one conversion in the skin to retinoic acid, whereas traditional retinol needs two.

This means faster and more effective results, smoothing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles and visibly brightening the complexion.

The Medik8 Crystal Retinal 3 is also encapsulated in crystal complex cyclodextrin, meaning it’s slowly released into the skin throughout the night.

The brand also has Crystal Retinal 1, 6, and 10 (which is the strongest); however, having tried them all, Crystal Retinal 3 is a good place to start if you are dealing with early signs of aging and you have normal skin.

The product also has a beautiful, citrusy scent, a light orange color, and spreads on the skin like a dream.

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