Ask just about any dermatologist about the single most effective way to prevent and correct signs of premature aging, and they'll tell you: sunscreen. Ask them about the second most effective way, and they'll no doubt point you toward retinol.
A quick refresher on retinol: It's a type of retinoid, the umbrella term for vitamin A derivatives that also include a form of the ingredient called "retinaldehyde." The prescription-strength version is called tretinoin and found in products like Retin-A. Then there's adapalene, a synthetic retinoid that can be found in a product called Differin, in both a prescription-strength 0.3 percent version and a milder over-the-counter 0.1 percent version. The latter is my absolute favorite.
The clear, thin gel is unassuming but mighty: It fights breakouts, yes (it was developed and marketed as an acne treatment), but it also goes a long way toward preventing and softening fine lines, deeper wrinkles and dark spots. Because retinol helps with cell turnover, it boosts skin's collagen production to give it better resilience in the future. I've been slathering it all over my face, up pretty close to my eyes (carefully, and at the advice of my dermatologist!) and on my neck for years at this point, and I can attest that it's one of the most results-oriented products I've ever used.
There are plenty of super-pricey retinols on the market, and people shell out for them because they work. But what you're really paying for with those fancy creams and serums is the added fragrance, packaging (which in some cases is actually compromising the efficacy of the formula inside; don't get me started on jars) and marketing schtick. Differin may not have those trappings of a luxurious skin-care product, but it works as well — and honestly, in many cases better than — those flashier options. And the real kicker? It costs $11, and you can get it at the drugstore.
A quick disclaimer that like with any retinol, there may be a bit of an adjustment period when you first start using this formula — so if you're new to the ingredient altogether, expect a bit of peeling or redness if you have sensitive skin (I don't and never experienced either). And because retinol can make skin hyper-sensitive to sun exposure, I direct you back to the first line of this post for a reminder to always! wear! sunscreen! dammit!
TL;DR: Retinoids are the most potent anti-agers you can buy, and there is only one derm-strength version you can buy without a prescription: Differn's 0.1 percent gel. I'm a big fan of it.
Differin Adapalene Gel 0.1% Prescription Strength Retinoid Acne Treatment, $11.19, available here.
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