Should I be using a retinoid?

Question:  As I’ve moved through my thirties and into my forties, I’ve noticed a marked change in my facial skin. I have some dark spots and discolorations and my face seems thinner overall and a little more sallow. I’ve heard about using a Retin-A cream but I thought that is for acne or wrinkles. Is it for me?

Answer:  Actually Retin A is not just for acne or wrinkles. It is a simple, inexpensive topical cure-all for all pre-mature aging and photo-aging (skin damage caused by sun exposure).

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How your skin looks and feels as you age is influenced by many factors such as genetics, environmental exposure (sun, medication, mechanical stress), hormonal changes and metabolic processes. All of these factors, some of which have to do with your lifestyle and some  you have no control over, cause a change in skin structure, function, and appearance as you age. Although, we dermatologists have studied and seen first-hand that solar UV radiation (sun exposure) is the single major factor responsible for  the unwelcome, premature  effects of skin aging on face, neck or back of  hands such as:

  • Coarser, rougher skin feel and appearance
  • Sallowness
  • Wrinkles
  • Irregular coloration and discolored spots or patches
  • Discolored brown spots called lentigines
  • Telangiectasias (little red visible blood vessels)
  • Benign neoplasms (abnormal, yet non-cancerous, masses of discolored or raised tissue)
  • Pre-cancerous lesions called actinic keratoses and lentigo maligna
  • Cancerous lesions such as basal and squamous cell carcinomas and malignant melanomas.

So, what’s a “retinoid?”

First, a little science lesson.  You may hear or read about a lot of terms that all have “retin” in them. That’s because the retinoid family comprises vitamin A (retinol) and its natural derivatives such as retinaldehyde, retinoic acid and retinyl esters, plus many other synthetic derivatives. Vitamin A cannot be synthesized by our bodies, so it needs to be supplied and is naturally present in foods as the compound beta-carotene. Retinoids are required for a vast number of biological processes inside the body such as embryo development, reproduction, vision, growth, inflammation and cell differentiation, proliferation and apoptosis (naturally occurring cell death for normal cell growth stages).

Retin-A (tretinoin) is the most popular retinoid for facial skin and is also the retinoid most studied for the treatment of chronological or photo-aging. I have tracked numerous studies which have repeatedly shown clinical improvement in photo-damage with tretinoin treatment, as well as with some other topically applied retinols such as isotretinoin and retinaldehyde (which are not my favorites because they are not as potent or stable.) Longer-term studies (6-12 months) on tretinoin were carried out once short-term studies showed that patients’ skin condition continued to improve in appearance over time. Additionally, most of these studies compared the use of the various strengths of tretinoin to arrive at the optimal concentration for the treatment of skin aging.

How do retinoids work?

Retinoids are known to speed up the cellular processes such as cellular growth and differentiation. Retinoids work on the skin surface by prompting surface skin cells to grow and die quicker and slough off faster, making way for new cell growth underneath. In this way, they cause discolorations and spots to lighten and they hamper the breakdown of collagen and thicken the deeper layer of skin where wrinkles start.

Interestingly, current studies have found that the mechanism by which collagen and elastin are lost after skin is exposed to UV radiation may be blocked when topical tretinoin is applied before sun exposure. More studies are ongoing.

What about side effects?

The most common and frequent adverse effect of topical retinoids is called the “retinoid reaction” which you may or may not experience as burning, peeling, reddened or inflamed skin at the sites of application or in skin folds such as around the nose or lips where additional product might be deposited by accident. It’s this reddening and peeling that occurs within the first two weeks of use which cause many patients to give up therapy before realizing any of the benefits which can take two to three months or longer to see and feel. What most people don’t know (or wait for) is that the skin builds up tolerance to the retinoid treatment and side effects eventually subside. Also, you can reduce application amount and days or try a lower potency formula to start if you experience these side effects. The most important factor in success with tretinoin is to follow the entire course of treatment not to give up!

The other side effect associated with tretinoin therapy is photo-sensitization (you will be more sensitive to the sun’s rays and burn easier), which normally occurs at the beginning of treatment. I always advise patients on tretinoin therapy to avoid excessive sun exposure and use a broad-spectrum sunscreen of at least SPF 30 (and a hat).  Your skin’s response to UV radiation should also return to normal after a few months of treatment.

We love combination creams

I have found that the way to counter the side effects is to use a retinoid combination cream containing a corticosteroid to reduce inflammatory response and if discoloration or brown spots is one of your problems, you might want to add 4% hydroquinone (a known skin bleaching agent). We think that this combination may be even more effective than the individual components alone.

Has tretinoin worked for you? How long did it take?

 

Allergic to sunscreen? Read labels!

Question:  My daughter is apparently allergic to many of the sunscreens I have tried on her and gets an itchy, burning rash. What is it in the sunscreens that is causing this reaction?

Answer: There could be many different chemicals causing a skin reaction.

Read those sunscreen labels!

Read those sunscreen labels!

Most commonly, allergic reactions to sunscreens are caused by one of the original UVB sunscreen protection ingredients called para-aminobenzoid acid  or PABA.

Read sunscreen labels and look for refined and newer ingredients called PABA esters (such as glycerol PABA, padimate A and padimate O) instead of the original staining, reaction-forming PABA.

 

New “broad spectrum” sunscreen ingredients

This year,  the FDA requires sunscreens to protect against both UVB and UVA rays (labeled “broad-spectrum”), so new sunscreen ingredients have been developed and included such as include Mexoryl SX (ecamsule) and  Parsol 1789 (avobenzone) which protect against UVA rays.

Physical sunscreens including  titanium dioxide and zinc oxide have been around for decades. Remember Zinc Oxide on the noses of lifeguards back in the day? These ingredients physically block and scatter UV rays. These singular sunscreen formulas have no other chemical ingredients and so may be a better choice for sensitive skins. They also go on thicker and appear “whiter,”  but they also stay on longer and are gentler to sensitive skins.

Despite advances in technology, formulating products with these ingredients without the skin-whitening effect has proven difficult.   Zinc oxide has recently been approved by the FDA, like titanium dioxide, in microsized or ultrafine grades as  an allowable active ingredient in sunscreen products with the ability to provide more full-spectrum protection. Zinc oxide is less whitening in this form than titanium dioxide and provides better UV protection. You  can now find sunscreen products that contain these ingredients in combination with other sunscreen ingredients to increase their stability in water and sun and decrease unwanted “whiteness.”

But remember sunscreen protection is all in the proper application.  And, a lot has changed in how we recommend sunscreen to be purchased and used, so it pays to stay up on the news about sunscreen so you don’t get burned (literally!)

Other buzz words for sensitive skin

You will notice  lots of colorful kids’ sunscreen products on store shelves you might want to stay away from. Try to  avoid any sunscreen products containing dyes or perfumes, which are known allergens. And, for acne-prone or oily sensitive skins, definitely check for specific products labeled, “non-comedogenic” or “won’t clog pores.”

I cannot stress enough how important it is to be aware of sunscreen ingredients, especially when allergic reactions are concerned, and take the time to stand in the store aisles and read those labels!

-Jodi

Check your spots!

Meet Snooki ... she has lots of spots!

As healthcare professionals, we are expected to do a thorough review of systems, assess your medication, evaluate your past medical and family history, equip you with health maintenance and, of course, conduct a physical exam. Examining the skin is the focus in dermatology, but this kind of exam should be part of any internal medicine visit.

Often people ask me, how do you do an effective skin exam and identify a mole that is suspicious?

When I examine a patient’s skin, I am very methodical, often starting at the head and working my way down a person’s body. Additionally, I am always looking out for the “ugly duckling”–the mole that stands out and looks different from the rest.

Don’t forget the ABCDE’s:

Asymmetry–is there a lack of symmetry in the color or shape of the lesion?

Border–is the edge irregular or jagged?

Color–what color is the lesion? Is it brown, black, gray, blue, red or a mixture?

Diameter–is the lesion larger than the size of a pencil eraser (> 6mm) or changing in size?

Evolving–is the lesion new, growing, spreading or changing? Can you affirm for its changelessness?

Most moles on an individual have a pattern, a “look”. The patterns or arrangement of moles on an individual’s skin are good; they serve as an example or point of reference when examining a patient’s skin. When a mole doesn’t fit the pattern, it deserves further investigation (e.g., biopsy, etc.).

When a patient says that a lesion is changing, I believe them, even if I am not alarmed by the way it looks. After all, you see your body every day. If you notice something is different, if some aspect about the mole seems to be evolving, say something. Get it checked.

And always question an inflamed lesion, with or without pigment.

My rule of thumb is one month. If something you notice does not resolve within a month, if the mole looks different and those changes last one month, get yourself to a dermatologist for a full skin check-up and have the lesion examined.

If you live in an area where access to a dermatologist is restricted, get to your primary care giver or internist, who may be able to do a biopsy or refer you to a surgeon who can.   As part of health maintenance (this goes for everyone), you should have a full skin exam by a dermatologic practitioner yearly. If you have more than 50 moles, have had skin cancer or pre-cancerous/suspicious moles or growths, have a family history of atypical moles or melanoma, you should have a skin exam performed more frequently.