If you’re keen on skincare, you’ve certainly heard of retinol before. It’s a key ingredient in many eye creams and night creams and is considered the gold standard of modern dermatology.
However, some people are skeptical to use prescribed retinol treatments for helping to treat acne or making the skin look more youthful (with consistent use). Luckily, many dermatologist-recommended formulas that are OTC (over the counter) and at-the-ready for you to shop online.
“OTC retinol goes through more conversion steps to provide benefits of retinoic acid, which makes them less potent than prescription retinoids,” Bruce Katz, MD, a board-certified dermatologist with more than 30 years of experience, told The Post. “The benefit of this is that OTC retinol is easier to adapt to than a prescription.”
However, be sure to speak to your dermatologist to see if using a prescribed retinol serum is right for you.
To transition you into retinol use, our three dermatologist experts answered common FAQs about retinol below, along with sharing the 20 best retinol creams and serums they recommend.
Click to jump to a specific retinol product:
First things first: What is retinol?
“Retinoids and retinol are chemicals that are derived from Vitamin A- both are available over-the-counter,” Rachel Nazarian, MD, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist practicing at NYC’s Schweiger Dermatology Group, told the New York Post. “They’re beneficial because they encourage the skin cells to make collagen, which makes skin appear more youthful, and can stimulate the surface cells to slough off, making skin smoother.”
Additionally, Dr. Katz notes retinol can help treat acne. As mentioned, the more conversion steps needed to convert retinoids to retinoic acid, the less potent the retinol will be, so a prescribed formula is “more powerful,” he said.
What are the benefits of using retinol?
“Retinol is one of the most powerful skincare ingredients available; nearly everyone should be using retinol daily, even if you don’t have acne, according to Dr. Katz.
“Retinol speeds up cell turnover on the skin, which in turn helps uncover and remove dirt, oil and debris stuck in the pores — which is why retinol is a great active ingredient to use if you have acne,” Dr. Katz adds. “For those who don’t have acne, retinol will help boost collagen production in the skin, which makes skin more supple, and helps reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.”
Retinol can also “help reduce signs of fine lines, pores and hyperpigmentation,” according to Jennifer Chwalek, MD, a board-certified and fellowship-trained dermatologic surgeon with 14 years of experience.
How often should retinol be used?
Ideally, retinol is used daily. If you are new to retinol, start by using it two to three times per week, and increase as your skin tolerates it, Dr. Katz recommends.
“Eventually your skin will adapt to the retinol, but it may take some time,” Dr. Nazarian adds, agreeing with Dr. Katz’s advice of beginning with a two-to-three-nights-a-week system. “Slowly increase frequency as tolerated, with the goal being every night.”
Note: As long as you are not pregnant or breastfeeding, retinol is safe to use in your skincare routine, unless suggested otherwise by your dermatologist.
If you’re not convinced, Bakuchiol is a good retinol alternative. “It can help treat signs of aging like uneven skin tone, fine lines and wrinkles and also helps increase cell turnover, which is why it is a good alternative to retinol,” Dr. Katz explains.
How much retinol should I use?
“Use a small, pea-sized amount and dot it around your face, neck and chest in a thin layer,” Dr. Nazarian said. Using a lot doesn’t increase the benefits and will only risk triggering dryness and irritation.
“After the first week, if your skin isn’t showing any signs of sensitivity, you can slowly increase the number of times weekly you’re using the product,” she adds.
Dr. Chwalek usually recommends applying “a small dab on the forehead, cheeks and chin” before gently massaging it into the area. “While retinoids can be used all over the face, I always caution patients to be careful (i.e. avoid over-applying) around the eyes, corners of the nose and mouth.”
How can I incoporate retinol into my skincare routine?
“It’s best to incorporate retinol into your evening skincare routine, as retinol makes the skin more sensitive to UV rays, and UV rays can break down the active retinol and make it less beneficial,” Dr, Katz explains. “If you use a product with retinol, it is essential you wear at least SPF 30 on your face every day to protect yourself from the sun.”
Moreover, Dr. Nazarian recommends applying it before your moisturizer. “Because retinol and retinoids often have a period initially where they cause drying of the skin, I recommend switching your cleanser to something very mild and gentle,” she adds.
Also, its completely normal to experience dry skin or some acne breakouts for the first month of retinol use. “Old skin cells are replaced with new ones, and dirt and debris are expunged from pores,” Dr. Katz notes. “Don’t stop using your retinol during this time period; continue to use it, alongside a gentle moisturizer and sunscreen daily, and you’ll begin to see results.”
For sensitive skin, Dr. Chwalek recommends using “a ceramide-based moisturizer for a week or two before commencing retinol therapy.” Studies have shown that pre-treating with moisturizers that improve skin barrier function (and continuing throughout treatment) improves tolerability to retinoids.
Note: Be sure to “avoid products that have a lot of fragrance or anything that contains AHAs which may aggravate any irritation or dryness from the retinol,” Dr. Chwalek adds.
Best Retinol Creams
1. Drunk Elephant A-Passioni Retinol Cream, $74
“With 1% retinol, most people will find they can acclimate to this product quickly with little dryness or irritation, and still results with continued use,” Dr. Katz said.
However, it’s not Dr. Nazarian’s first choice because of the addition of many oils but shares its following is backed by the formula being hydrating on the skin.
2. Glow Recipe Avocado Melt Retinol Eye Sleeping Mask, $42
“This mask is ideal for people with dry skin,” Dr. Katz shares. “It’s a heavier mask that soaks into the skin and is meant to do its work overnight.”
Dr. Nazarian backs this product due to its inclusion of aloe, squalane, shea butter and hyaluronic acid, too, which are all anti-inflammatory ingredients that improve the skin barrier. “It’s a nice combination to minimize irritation [if any] from the retinol, especially around the eyes,” she notes.
3. Paula’s Choice Resist Barrier Repair Moisturizer with Retinol, $29.75 (originally $35)
“This is a strong choice for people with sensitive or dry skin, or people starting retinol for the first time,” Dr. Katz notes. “It’s more of a moisturizer with retinol, as the retinol is a lower consistency (.01%).”
Not only does it have a creamy consistency that is great for winter or dry skin, but Dr. Chwalek enjoys this product for containing ceramides, “which is shown to improve overall tolerability to retinoids,” she says.
4. SkinCeuticals Retinol 0.3 Cream, $67
“This is an overnight retinol cream containing .5% retinol, which is most suitable for normal, oily and combination skin,” Dr. Katz said. It’s noncomedogenic and fragrance-free, which is great for acne-prone skin, too.
5. Paula’s Choice 0.3% Retinol + 2% Bakuchiol Treatment, $47.60 (originally $60)
“This is a great option for people who are new to retinol, as well as retinol veterans who may have taken a break from retinol,” Dr. Katz shared. “It works on all skin types; start by using it two to three times a week and build up to more if your skin tolerates it.”
Plus, it contains vitamin C, which is wonderful to brighten the skin for an even more youthful effect.
6. Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Retinol Cream, $19.99 (originally $23.39)
“This is a good option for dry skin and people who haven’t used retinol before,” Dr. Katz highlights. “It has a lower retinol concentration to reduce signs of aging and is paired with hyaluronic acid and glycerin for moisture.”
Plus, It comes in a fragrance-free option which is best suited for sensitive skin.
7. Glytone Night Renewal Cream, $76
Dr. Nazarian stands by Glytone’s Night Renewal Cream as it contains glycolic acid and retinaldehyde (a form of retinol) and is acid-balanced at 5.5 to be more tolerable for most skin types. That said, it’s well worth the $76 price point.
8. Ponds Anti-Age Lifting and Firming Eye Cream, $7.99
“Because the area around the eyes is so delicate and sensitive, I love this product; it can deliver a retinol complex combined with vitamin B3 and it’s much more tolerable and less likely to cause dryness and irritation,” Dr. Nazarian said. Plus, it’s less than $10!
9. Olay Regenerist Retinol24 Night Moisturizer, $38.99
As recommended by Dr. Chwalek, Olay’s Regenerist Retinol24 Night Moisturizer contains niacinamide, which helps to minimize irritation. Plus, it’s a relatively affordable buy that’s just shy of $40.
Best Retinol Serums
1. Kiehl’s Since 1851 Micro-Dose Anti-Aging Retinol Serum with Ceramides and Peptide, $62
“I like this treatment as it is paired with ceramides and peptides, which will help strengthen the skin barrier, adding moisture to the skin when it’s needed most,” Dr. Katz said.
Echoing this is Dr. Nazarian, who finds this product to have a nice combination of addressing “multiple avenues for anti-aging and fighting free-radical damage.” She, along with Dr. Chwalek, appreciates the addition of ceramides for your skin barrier, too.
2. Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Advanced Retinol + Ferulic Overnight Wrinkle Treatment, $85
“Retinol plays well with ferulic acid, another active ingredient in this serum,” Dr. Katz said. “Together the retinol and ferulic acid will help minimize pore size and reduce fine lines and wrinkles.”
Uniquely, Dr. Nazarian honors the addition of bakuchiol more so than ferulic acid, as both are good for “addressing different pathways of wrinkle improvement.”
3. Drunk Elephant A-Gloei Retinol Oil, $72
“A retinol oil is a great way to work retinol into your nighttime routine, especially if you have sensitive skin,” Dr. Katz said. “You can use this oil on its own before moisturizer at night, or you can mix a few drops into your evening moisturizer and apply together.”
Dr. Chwalek enjoys this oil namely for its inclusion of ceramides; as mentioned, it’s a great pair with retinol to make it more tolerable.
However, be sure to note that this product contains soybean oil which, according to Dr. Nazarian, isn’t noncomedogenic and isn’t recommended for acne-prone skin.
4. Murad Retinol Youth Renewal Serum, $89
Because Murad’s Retinol Youth Renewal Serum contains hyaluronic acid, shea butter and squalene to improve the hydration of the skin, Dr. Nazarian stands by this as a good retinol product.
And, Dr. Katz especially likes the inclusion of hyaluronic acid to counteract the drying effects of retinol.
5. Peter Thomas Roth Even Smoother Glycolic Retinol Resurfacing Serum, $65
Dr. Katz recommends Peter Thomas Roth’s new Even Smoother Glycolic Retinol Resurfacing Serum for advanced retinol users, specifically. “The combo of 1.5% retinol and 15% glycolic acid would be too high for a retinol newbie or someone with sensitive skin,” he shares.
“But if you use retinol and want to take your exfoliation up a notch, the glycolic acid in this serum will do it — resulting in soft, smooth skin over time.”
Plus, Dr. Nazarian said this product helps reduce the irritation risk to retinol, too, much ado to it being time-released retinol to slowly release the product over hours.
6. Dr. Zenovia Skincare Advanced Retinol Night Repair Treatment, $72
As a skincare brand known for helping treat hormonal acne, its retinol serum is one backed by Dr. Katz. “This nighttime treatment uses a combination of retinol, bakuchiol, Vitamin E, caffeine and other ingredients to help accelerate skin cell turnover and soothe skin,” he adds.
7. The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid 1% in Squalane, $8
Yes, for less than $10, you can reap the benefits of retinol. “This is an accessible retinol best reserved for experienced retinol users who are looking to boost the efficacy of their skincare routine,” Dr. Katz said.
8. La Roche-Posay Retinol B3 Pure Retinol Serum, $39.99
“This serum combats signs of aging, while also boosting the skin barrier with niacinamide, a form of vitamin B3,” Dr. Katz shared. Not to mention, hyaluronic acid and glycerin help add moisture to the skin.
9. CeraVe Anti-Aging Retinol Serum, $22.33
Enter one of the best drugstore picks: CeraVe. “This uses retinol as well as ceramides and hyaluronic acid for moisture,” Dr. Katz vets. “It’s great for sensitive or dry skin as it will lessen irritation from the retinol.”
10. Alchimie Forever Advanced Retinol Serum, $99
This dermatologist-developed skincare line is one Dr. Nazarian loves because “they always put so much thought into their products.” This retinol serum is made with 0.75% pure retinol which, according to her, is “great for targeting fine lines and wrinkles, but gentle enough for people with sensitive skin because it’s combined with hyaluronic acid and jojoba oil.”
11. SkinMedica Retinol Complex, $70.20
According to a 2021 study, niacinamide and a flavonoid may help to enhance retinoid response. That said, Dr. Chwalek stands by SkinMedica’s Retinol Complex.
Not only for the niacinamide but this formula is recommended by Dr. Chwalek because it contains squalane, which helps to minimize irritation.
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