Retinoids work by prompting surface skin cells to turn over and die rapidly, making way for new cell growth underneath. They inhibit the breakdown of collagen, the protein that keeps the skin firm, and thicken the deeper layer of skin where wrinkles get their start, Chicago dermatologist Carolyn Jacob says.
It is a common misconception, New Orleans dermatologist Patricia Farris, MD says, that retinoids such as tretinoin and retinaldehyde thin the skin and thus leave it more vulnerable to sunburn. They typically cause peeling and redness in the first few weeks of use -- but the topicals actually thicken the epidermis.
"It doesn't make you more sensitive to the sun -- that's anecdotal," Farris says. "But you still have to wear sunscreens when you're on prescription retinoids. You can't be treating sun damage and then not protect yourself from the sun.''
For brown spots that give the skin an uneven tone, retinoids slough them off and inhibit the production of melanin, the darker pigment produced by melanocytes, pigment-producing skin cells, Jacob says.
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