Getting adequate vitamin A in your diet (by eating foods like citrus fruits, tomatoes, pumpkin and carrots) is essential to overall health, and a vitamin A deficiency can lead to both skin and eye problems. In the 20th century, doctors began exploring ways to use vitamin A to improve skin health, and the science of retinoids was born.

Retinoids are derivatives of vitamin A. Though available in oral formulations, they’re most frequently used directly on the skin in the form of a retinoid cream or gel. These topical retinoids may reduce wrinkles, splotchy pigmentation and rough skin, as well as treat acne and psoriasis.

How Do Retinoids Work?

Retinoids work in two ways. First, they cause skin cells to grow and die faster, increasing cell turnover and improving the skin’s appearance. At the same time, retinoids thicken the second layer of skin (the dermis), which is where wrinkles develop. As you age, the dermis loses collagen, elastin and hyaluronic acid, making your skin more fragile and thinner. The only proven way to increase production of these substances and thicken the skin is by using retinoids.

Types of Retinoids

Retinoid creams come in both prescription and non-prescription forms. According to the American Academy of Dermatology (2009), prescription tretinoin is the most effective way to use retinoids. Brand names of topical tretinoin include:

  • Atralin™
  • Avita