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There’s No Magic Wand, But …

A number of ingredients in over-the-counter treatments may help your skin appear more youthful, but it’ll take time. You may see improvement within a few months. But you shouldn't expect to look like you’ve stepped out of a time machine. 

What will work best for you will depend on your skin, and the results you're trying to get.

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For Wrinkles: Retinol, Vitamin C

If you have fine lines, retinoids (which come from vitamin A) like retinol may make your skin smoother because they help your skin make more collagen. It’s easier on your skin than the prescription-strength version, tretinoin (Retin-A), which can dry your skin. Products with vitamin C may help take away fine lines, as well as help lessen the damage the sun does to your skin. That could help keep wrinkles away.

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For Sagging Skin: Peptides, Ceramides

Treatments with topical growth factors or peptides could help firm sagging skin. Peptides are groups of amino acids that help make proteins, including collagen. That's the main protein found in your skin. 

Daily moisturizer with ceramides -- fats found in the layers of your skin that you lose as you age -- are an option, too -- and they're usually cheaper..

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For Age Spots: Hydroquinone, Retinoids, Vitamin C, Kojic Acid

Hydroquinone, an over-the-counter drug that can bleach your skin, may fade dark spots. Retinoids may make your skin tone more even. One study says vitamin C helps  fade age spots when you use it for 12 weeks. Kojic acid -- a chemical that's often used as an skin-whitening ingredient in products -- can do it, too.

When you use any of these, make sure to wear sunscreen. Your dark spots may come back if your skin gets too much sunlight.

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For Uneven Skin Tone: AHAs, Retinoids

Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) remove dead skin cells. This could help to reveal new ones with a more even tone. Retinoids can do the same thing. Both can irritate your skin, so use them with caution if yours is dry or sensitive.

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For Dull Skin: AHAs, Retinoids

If you smoke or if your skin is dry, you’re more likely to have dull skin. A moisturizer may make it look fuller and firmer. Alpha hydroxy acids and retinoids (like retinol) could brighten your skin when they remove dead skin cells.

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Which Strength Do I Need?

Some over-the-counter products only come in one strength. Others have different levels of the active ingredient. If you choose something that might dry or irritate your skin  -- like retinol -- start with the lowest strength and get used to it before you try something stronger.

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When Should I Put These On?

There are products, including vitamin C, should be applied in the morning. Others, like retinol, should go on at night, because sunlight might stop it from working. Put moisturizer on every day if you have dry skin or if you want it to look more youthful. A good moisturizer will help to plump your skin.

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How Should I Apply Them?

If you use more than one anti-aging skin product, put the one with an active ingredient on first so that your skin absorbs it better. For example, in the morning, put a vitamin C product on first, sunscreen next, and makeup last. At bedtime, apply retinol first and moisturizer after that.

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Need Help With Your Decision?

If your skin care products irritate your skin, there are other options you can try. Having trouble finding the right combination? Talk with a dermatologist. They can help you find a safe choice that will make your skin look and feel better. 

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Sources | Medically Reviewed on 11/03/2021 Reviewed by Stephanie S. Gardner, MD on November 03, 2021


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Jason A. Clark, MD, board-certified dermatologist, Atlanta.

Adriana N. Schmidt, MD, board-certified dermatologist, Santa Monica, CA.

Harvard Medical School Harvard Health Publishing: “Do retinoids really reduce wrinkles?”

American Osteopathic College of Dermatology: “Hyperpigmentation.”

Journal of Drugs in Dermatology: “A Double-Blind, 12-Week Study to Evaluate the Antiaging Efficacy of a Cream Containing the NFκB Inhibitor 4-Hexyl-1, 3-Phenylenediol and Ascorbic Acid-2 Glucoside in Adult Females.”

Mayo Clinic: “Wrinkle creams: Your guide to younger looking skin.”

American Academy of Dermatology: “How to create an anti-aging skin care plan.”

Reviewed by Stephanie S. Gardner, MD on November 03, 2021

This tool does not provide medical advice. See additional information.

THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and should not be relied on to make decisions about your health. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the WebMD Site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.