The skin-care-obsessed already know this, but retinol is a form of vitamin A that’s found in many anti-aging products, and it’s considered the gold standard for combating wrinkles and fighting acne, according to skin-care experts. Retinol breaks down into retinoic acid on the skin, which acts like an antioxidant that helps reverse skin damage plus premature signs of aging and acne, says New York City–based dermatologist Dr. Whitney Bowe. “It’s even been shown to increase collagen production, and brighten and exfoliate skin,” she says.
And you don’t need a dermatologist to get the stuff. Retinols are a type of vitamin A called retinoids, and many retinoids — like Retin-A — do require a prescription. Retinols, on the other hand, are a weaker form of vitamin A (which means they can be sold over the counter). And “contrary to some beliefs, retinol is perfectly safe to use on all skin types,” says Dr. Hope Mitchell, founder of Mitchell Dermatology in Perrysburg, Ohio. It’s true that it can exacerbate conditions like eczema if you use the wrong kind (a.k.a. one that’s much too harsh), and pretty much all of our experts agree you shouldn’t use it if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, but other than that, Mitchell thinks that if you “start low and integrate retinols slowly into your skin-care regimen,” you should be in the clear.
But even though retinols are weaker than prescription retinoids, it can be tricky to find the right one for your skin, especially if it’s hypersensitive. To find the formulas that are effective without causing redness or peeling, we talked to nine dermatologists about the best over-the-counter retinol products for every skin type.
Best overall retinol
This is the most expensive retinol on our list — and definitely a splurge — but it came recommended by four dermatologists we spoke to, all of whom say it’s completely worth the price, especially if you’re trying to target fine lines and wrinkles or have sensitive skin. As Dr. Ellen Marmur, associate clinical professor at Mount Sinai’s Department of Dermatology, explains, “sensitive skin doesn’t love retinols,” but this is specifically formulated to be tolerated by pretty much all types of skin. And Dr. Elyse Love, a New York City–based dermatologist, says it’s actually “medical grade,” yet available without a prescription. “I rarely have any patients say that they can’t tolerate this retinoid so I like recommending it for people with dry, sensitive, or rosacea type skin,” adds Dr. DiAnne Davis, a cosmetic dermatologist in Dallas. Its unique combination of retinoid and lactic acid “reduces the appearance of wrinkles,” Davis says, and it also “contains antioxidants and provides moisture to counteract dryness.”
Best (less expensive) overall retinol
If you’re not looking to spend quite that much on retinol, two dermatologists like this CeraVe retinol serum. It’s just as good for sensitive skin — Love thinks it’s a great over-the-counter option for “those with eczema-prone skin” — at a sixth of the price. “It’s a gentle yet effective daily retinol serum that provides a variety of anti-aging benefits,” explains Mitchell. Thanks to its “noncomedogenic blended formulation with ceramides, niacinamide, and hyaluronic acid,” this product will actually reduce “the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles as it improves your skin’s texture and radiation.” It also boasts a unique technology called “MultiVesicular Emulsion,” which claims to “slowly release ceramides throughout the day, providing great hydration for the skin,” so your skin won’t be quite as dry after using it.
Another budget-friendly pick that two of our dermatologists love is this RoC night cream. It’s a “retinol that combines the retinoid with oxygen and antioxidants to make it safe and mild enough for everyday use,” says Marmur. It’s formulated into a cream, unlike the serum consistency of the CeraVe choice, so it’s a bit richer in texture. And even though it’s great for regular use, Dr. Karen Chinonso Kagha, dermatologist and Harvard cosmetic and laser fellow, suggests introducing it slowly into your routine (like other retinols) because vitamin A can cause a lot of irritation at first.