11 Best retinol creams and retinol serums for acne and wrinkles

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What order should you apply retinol?

After cleansing and drying your skin at night, you can apply retinol, but only if it is tolerated this way, advised King. If it’s too irritating, then a thin layer of moisturizer can be applied first. “I generally don’t recommend combining a retinoid with a chemical exfoliant or benzoyl peroxide because it could be too irritating and it could decrease the effectiveness of the retinoid,” she said. “Some retinoids are deactivated by sunlight so I recommend using them at bedtime.” Frieling advised that when you spread a small amount of retinol over your face, you should avoid the eye area.

What’s the difference between retinoids, retinol and Retin-A?

You might have previously seen the term retinoid tossed around while consuming skin care content. According to King and Frieling, retinoid is an umbrella term for vitamin A-derived skin care products. Here we briefly explore the main differences between the three ingredients, based on the guidance from MDs we consulted.

Retinoids are vitamin A and other chemically-related compounds that are used in both anti-aging and anti-acne skin care products.

  • Popular over-the-counter (OTC) retinoid options falling under this blanket term include lower concentrations of adapalene and topical retinol.
  • Campbell prefers retinoids and her two OTC favorite options are from La Roche Posay and Differin.
  • Prescription-grade retinoid treatments can be topical (applied to your skin), such as adapalene 0.3-percent gel, tretinoin, tazarotene and trifarotene.
  • They can also be taken orally, including isotretinoin for acne and acitretin to treat psoriasis.
  • Both retinyl palmitate and retinaldehyde are also considered retinoids.

Retinol is a subdivision of a retinoid and is commonly found in OTC skin care products.

  • “It is a great start, as it is less irritating than the prescription strength,” said Frieling.
  • King added that retinols are less potent compared to Tretinoin, adapalene and tazarotene. “[Retinols] work the same way but it will take longer to see results and the potential for irritation is also lower,” she said.

Retin-A is also known as Tretinoin, a brand of prescription-strength retinoid.

“Retin-A can be thought of as reversing the outwards signs of aging on the skin,” wrote Laura M. Figura, MD, a board-certified plastic surgeon, in a blog post for the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. “Retin-A improves the cosmetic appearance of the skin, but it also helps treat some functional problems of the skin such as acne and precancerous conditions, such as actinic keratoses,” she continued.

  • Altreno lotion is one of Zeichner’s favorite prescription-strength retinol treatments that you could potentially get from your dermatologist. “It is safe and effective in treating acne and has been found to be particularly useful in addressing acne in adult women,” he said. “It uses a specialized delivery system that even distributes the tretinoin, enhances skin penetration and maintains the skin barrier.”
  • King noted Alreno lotion works with sensitive skin because it contains hydrators and moisturizers “to make it more tolerable.”
  • Other options include tazarotene and adapalene, a prescription medication that is FDA-approved to treat acne, said Freling, who added “Retin-A is more tightly regulated than OTC retinol.”

What age should you start using retinol?

As long as you are not pregnant nor are breastfeeding, then “topical retinoids are safe for long-term use,” said King. The general guidance from the experts we spoke with is: Start in your 20s for preventative anti-aging benefits — sooner if you’re dealing with acne.

More specifically, King, Campbell and Robinson all noted that you can use retinol to treat acne while you’re young to help banish breakouts and pesky pimples. Robinson advised starting retinol in your mid-20s or at the first sign of skin dullness. For anti-aging, you can consider incorporating a retinol into your beauty routine once you hit your late-twenties or early thirties. Why? That age group is when your collagen production starts to slow down, said King.

At the end of the day, the decision to use retinol is up to you and potentially based on a consultation (or several) with your board-certified dermatologist (or several) to determine whether retinol is the right fit for your skin care goals and lifestyle.

What does your lifestyle have to do with using retinol? According to the pros, there are a few reasons why you might need to make some adjustments and level up your commitment to your current skin care routine if and when you start using retinol. Here’s why:

  • Retinol plays nicely with gentle, non-irritating skin care ingredients, such as glycerin, niacinamide, hyaluronic acid and ceramides.
  • The pros advised that you avoid layering retinol with other potent ingredients, including L-ascorbic acid (vitamin C), AHAs and Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHAs).

If you’re not committed to wearing and reapplying sunscreen — most derms we previously spoke with advised you apply SPF even while indoors and exposed to sunlight — then retinol might not be the right fit for your lifestyle. Why do you need to wear sunscreen while using retinol? It lies in both the short- and long-term skin changes that crop up when using retinol.

“While retinol thins out the outer skin layer, or stratum corneum, it actually thickens the lower skin layer,” explained Zeichner. He said the stratum corneum thinning “occurs relatively quickly” and results in more radiant, glowing skin. “The improvements in fine lines and wrinkles is a longer term benefit that occurs.”

However, he was quick to point out that because retinol thins out the outer skin layer, it can increase the risk of sunburn, so he advises you wear SPF daily.

Retinol and acne

How can retinol help with acne? As previously mentioned, retinol targets acne. Zeichner noted retinol can “likely prevent and help treat” breakouts and address aging skin concerns at the same time.

How long does it take for retinol to work for acne?

Retinol takes several weeks to start to show any benefits in the skin, according to Zeichner. “It works by binding to retinoid receptors in the skin, which then turn on genes to rev up collagen production and encourage the cell to divide,” he said.

Zeichner also noted that retinol is not a good spot treatment for breakouts that you want to clear up overnight.

Is retinol or salicylic acid better for acne?

If you have ever suffered from pimples, then you’ve likely heard about salicylic acid. It’s a popular acne-fighting ingredient found in everything from face cleansers and scrubs to body washes and spot treatments. Salicylic acid is classified as a BHA and helps slough away dead skin cells and control excess oil. According to Zeichner, salicylic acid is cleared by the FDA as “safe and effective in treating acne.” “If you have an angry pimple or recurrent breakouts, I would recommend salicylic acid as your go to treatment over the counter instead of retinol,” he said. “At levels available over the counter, salicylic acid will give better anti-acne benefits than retinol.” However, he noted that prescription-strength retinols “are much more potent on the skin.”

Other retinol myths and expert tips

Can retinol make you look older or make wrinkles worse?

According to both King and Frieling, the answer is no, retinol will not make your wrinkles worse or make you look older. In the short-term, retinol may cause dryness, irritation or peeling that make the skin look more dried out and wrinkled. However, it is not a long-term outcome, according to King. Frieling added that retinol accelerates skin cell turnover, and retinol works at the cellular level to “truly resurface” your skin. “In doing so, your skin is more brilliant, youthful, smooth, clear, and softens fine lines and wrinkles.”

Is retinol the best skin care ingredient for aging skin?

According to Freiling, retinol is “one of the best” ingredients for anti-aging benefits. “It doesn’t just help with smoothing and preventing fine lines and wrinkles but also stimulates collagen and elastin production, which we lose with age,” she said.

Freiling noted that your overall skin tone will appear brighter and smoother, your pores will look smaller and your skin will get more plump. King said that while retinoids “are the most data-proven treatment for anti-aging other than sun protection,” you can also consider incorporating other ingredients into your routine, such as antioxidants, anti-aging peptides and growth factors.

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