Step 2: Smooth Lines with Retinoids
Why this works: In studies dating back over the past 20 years, they have been shown to help soften the look of fine lines and brown spots by increasing collagen production and normalizing skin-cell activity. "These vitamin A derivatives have a better-established track record than any other wrinkle-reduction creams," says Dr. Glogau. Even the milder, nonprescription-strength retinol may reduce the effects of chronological aging — albeit more gradually. When University of Michigan researchers applied a .4 percent retinol lotion to one of the study participants' upper inner arms as many as three times a week for 24 weeks, skin biopsies revealed that that arm had more of the building blocks that make skin smooth and resilient than the untreated arm.
What to try: The biggest challenge with retinoids is dealing with the potential side effects, such as redness and peeling skin. Your skin will, however, build up a tolerance, usually within six to 12 weeks. Retin-A is still the gold standard in prescription strength, though there are several less-irritating options — costing $100 per tube on average — including Retin-A Micro, Differin, Avage, and Tazorac. Researchers continue to seek ways of making retinoids more tolerable; one theory currently being tested at the University of Michigan is that using an ultra-mild facial cleanser and moisturizer will help calm the irritation. (The study findings are still a few years away.) Dermatologists also suggest you ease into using one: Apply a pea-size amount at night (sun exposure makes retinoids less effective), and try it every second or third night until your skin handles it better. If that's still too irritating, go with an over-the-counter retinol. These formulas are less potent, but are still effective. Try L'Oréal Paris Advanced Revitalift Deep-Set Wrinkle Repair Night Creme ($20, drugstores) or DermaDoctor Poetry in Lotion Intensive Retinol 1.0 ($75, Sephora).
Years younger: 6-7. You should start to see an improvement in a matter of weeks with a prescription formula, but don't stop there. "Keep using it," says Dr. Dover, who claims he can always spot a woman on a prescription retinoid because her skin looks "too good" for her age. Over-the-counter retinol converts to the active form, called retinoic acid, at a lower concentration — but the benefits will start to show up after a few months if you stay with it.