Retinol, a form of vitamin A that’s found in many anti-aging products, is considered amongst experts to be the gold standard for combating wrinkles and fighting acne. 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.
Even though retinols are weaker than prescription retinoids, it can still 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 ten dermatologists about the best over-the-counter retinol products for every skin type. Here are their suggestions.
Best overall | Best less-expensive | Best for beginners | Best less-expensive for beginners | Best for longtime users | Best less-expensive for longtime users | Best for oily and acne-prone skin | Best for combination skin | Best less-expensive for combination skin | Best for sensitive skin | Best for dry skin | Best less-expensive for dry skin | Best for dark spots | Best less-expensive for dark spots | Best for neck
What we’re looking for
Retinol concentration: Retinols come in different strengths. The higher the concentration, the more potent it is and thus the more dramatic the results. You don’t want to go all in when you introduce the ingredient to your routine, as retinol is known for having an adjustment period, when skin is irritated, peeling, and sensitive. The general recommendation is to go low and slow — using the mildest formulation necessary to reduce the chances of irritation and introducing it to your routine over time. Once your skin is adjusted, you can work up to stronger formulations, but you should pay close attention to how your skin reacts to the ingredient. This information isn’t always readily available in a formulation, but we’ve noted when it is.
Other active ingredients: While prescription retinoids tend to be vitamin A dominant, many over-the-counter retinols incorporate other ingredients to augment the effectiveness of the retinol (think added exfoliants, like glycolic or lactic acid) or contain soothing, hydrating ingredients to help combat any sensitivity, dryness, or irritation, like glycerin or hyaluronic acid.
Price: Retinols can get pricey, but there are plenty of affordable options that work well too. We’ve noted how much you’re getting and the cost per ounce, so you can pick the best option for your budget.
Best overall retinol
Lactic acid, glycolic acid, peptides, ceramides, niacinamide, squalane, vitamin C, and vitamin E | 1 ounce (Approx. $130/ounce)
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. 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
Shea butter, glycolic acid, and squalane | 1 ounce (Approx. $20/ounce)
For a more affordable option, two of our dermatologists love 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.
Best retinol for beginners
Hyaluronic acid, glycerin | 1.7 ounces (Approx. $20/ounce)
If you’ve never used a retinol before, consider easing into it — because, again, retinol can be very drying and you won’t know how your skin will react at first. A good first retinol to try is this Neutrogena cream recommended by dermatologist Dr. Britt Craiglow. She explains that this retinol product is “formulated along with glycerin and hyaluronic acid, which hydrates the skin and helps to increase tolerability,” so you’ll be able to graduate to a stronger, potentially more effective retinol down the line.
Best (slightly less expensive) retinol for beginners
Vitamin B3, niacinamide | 1.7 ounces (Approx. $22/ounce)
Another great retinol for beginners comes recommended by Dr. Corey L. Hartman, founder and medical director for Skin Wellness Dermatology. He suggests this Olay option, which is actually a strong moisturizer with retinol in it. Hartman says it’s been “a crowd favorite for years,” probably because of its “inclusion of niacinamide and vitamin B3, which helps to calm inflammation that can speed aging, and provides an extra antioxidant glow to the skin.” It’s also a favorite of Jennifer Hudson, who likes that it’s an easy all-in-one product and cuts her routine down.
Best retinol for longtime users
0.5 percent | Bisabolol, niacinamide | 1 ounce (Approx. $78/ounce)
For those who have been regularly using retinol for some time, your skin can most likely tolerate a stronger product, which is why you might consider investing in a higher-end option. As Dr. Elizabeth Bahar Houshmand, owner of Dallas-based practice Houshmand Dermatology, explains, the 0.5 percent of retinol in this product is one of the strongest concentrations you’ll be able to find over the counter. She likes this formula because it has “bisabolol, which soothes the complexion to calm irritation and inflammation, and antioxidants to neutralize free radicals and prevent signs of aging.” She adds that the antioxidants will also help prevent “irritation, flaking, and redness” that infamously come with using a retinol.
Best (less expensive) retinol for longtime users
0.25 and 0.5 percent | Oat extract, silver mushroom | 1 ounce (Approx. $55/ounce)
This medical-grade product from Alastin, says Dr. Georgina Ferzli of Sadick Dermatology in New York City, would also be great for those who are longtime retinol users. It comes in two strength options: 0.25 or 0.50 percent. Aside from being a high-quality retinoid, Ferzli appreciates that “it contains humectants, so it does not dry out the skin as much as other retinols.” It’s suitable for most skin types, especially those looking to maintain “wrinkle-free, healthy skin.” Even those who can be particularly sensitive to retinoid products should be able to tolerate this one.
Best retinols for oily and acne-prone skin
0.1 percent | 0.5 ounces (Approx. $26/ounce)
Five dermatologists recommended Differin’s adapalene gel specifically for those with acne. “It treats acne deep in the pores and prevents new acne from forming,” explains Davis. The main active, adapalene, used to be only available to patients with a prescription, according to the dermatologists we spoke to, but this gel is now readily available over the counter, which speaks to its effectiveness and strength. Because it is relatively strong — it’s prescription-strength, after all — Dr. Oma Agbai, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at UC Davis, who considers herself an “adapalene gel enthusiast,” suggests easing into using the product, as with any retinoid or retinol. “The key is to start with one to two times weekly application if you have sensitive skin and work up to every other night or every night if your skin does not become excessively dry,” she says. Because most people using this have easily irritated skin, Marmur notes that this Differin gel is also “oil-free and fragrance-free, so aside from the retinoid, it doesn’t have any other irritants, which helps oily skin.”
Best retinol for combination skin
2.5 percent | 1 ounce (Approx. $80/ounce)
Dermatologist Dr. Karan Lal likes this retinol serum from Clinical Skin, which strikes the balance of being good for both dry and oily skin. “With combo skin, you need to make sure the retinol is effective at treating the oiliness without aggravating dry skin,” he says. This serum contains both retinol and the botanical alternative bakuchiol, which is known for being an effective yet gentle retinol alternative. Combined, they offer supercharged results without added irritation. It also contains ceramides, squalane, and cholesterol, which Lal says adds an extra layer of moisture.
Best (less expensive) retinol for combination skin
Not listed | 1 ounce (Approx. $12/ounce)
Lal recommends this less-expensive option from Cerave, which we’ve written about before. It contains ceramides to help maintain a healthy skin barrier, which Lal says makes it a good option for anyone, even those “with the most sensitive skin.” The retinol is also encapsulated and releases into the skin over time, which lets the skin absorb a bit at a time. This helps to cut down on irritation while still getting the benefits of the active ingredient.
Best retinol for sensitive skin
0.5 percent | Bakuchiol | 1 ounce (Approx. $22/ounce)
We already mentioned that the SkinBetter retinol is great for sensitive skin, but as a budget-friendly alternative, Mitchell likes this Versed serum. “This nongreasy gem is a creamy, gentle retinol serum specifically formulated for sensitive skin types and first-time retinol users,” she says. “The duo of microencapsulated retinol and natural retinol alternatives, arophira and bakuchiol, deliver the best of all worlds.” Because of this unique formula, it promises to keep your pores clear, even your skin tone, and boost collagen all in one — and for only 20 bucks. As an added bonus, it’s also paraben-free, vegan, synthetic fragrance-free, vegan, and cruelty-free.
Best retinol for dry skin
0.1 percent | Peptides, vitamin E, thermal spring water| 1 ounce (Approx. $70/ounce)
Houshmand thinks this product is particularly good for patients with dry skin (or those just starting on retinol) because, as she explains, the concentration and combination of ingredients, including the thermal spring water that Avène is known for, won’t further parch already dry skin. On top of its moisturizing properties, “it has pro-elastin peptides that help with fine lines to firm and has vitamin E which helps with free-radical damage and protects against damaging sun rays,” she says. And it will even help “with dark spots and skin tone” over time.
Best (less expensive) retinol for dry skin
Hyaluronic acid | 1 ounce (Approx. $45/ounce)
Although retinol’s drying effects might make it seem counterintuitive to recommend to people who already struggle with dryness, Hartman thinks this Vichy serum is a “good option,” especially if you’ve “started to see fine lines and wrinkles,” As he explains, “It contains a concentrated retinol, but also Vichy Volcanic Water, which has 15 minerals and hyaluronic acid to help with the dryness of initiation of a retinol.”
Best retinol for dark spots
Endosomes | 1 ounce (Approx. $109/ounce)
For those struggling with dark spots “caused by photodamage and hormonally induced acne,” Houshmand likes this product for its “two active ingredients — retinol and DNA repair enzymes — that have been studied and researched extensively.” As she explains, they are “great for sun-damaged skin.” She recommends this to “patients of all ages and for those with more sensitive skin types.” And because it’s a serum, she adds that it is “smooth and absorbs into the skin.”
Best (less expensive) retinol for dark spots
Niacinamide, vitamin E | 1 ounce (Approx. $25/ounce)
Because of its “lightweight formulation that’s free of parabens, alcohol, mineral oil, and sulfates,” Davis thinks this Melé retinol can work for all skin types but notes that it’s specifically formulated to help those with dark spots and discoloration. It’s much less expensive than the Neova option, so it could be a good starting point for those on a budget, too. The brand developed its product with dermatologists of color to best target and treat the issues those with darker skin tones typically face, especially as their skin begins to show signs of aging.
Best retinol for the neck
Peptides, amino acids | 1 ounce (Approx. $25/ounce)
Because the neck is a very sensitive area, you have to be careful with the products you use on it. Bowe suggests using a neck-specific formula, and she likes this “really hydrating” No. 7 serum. She further explains that it “contains a whole blend of ingredients, including calcium amino acids and peptides that help with fragile, delicate, crepey skin,” and it is gentle. “You can imagine that if it’s gentle enough to use on the neck, which is so sensitive, it’s really great for people with very dry skin,” she adds.
• Dr. Oma Agbai, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at UC Davis
• Dr. Whitney Bowe, dermatologist
• Dr. Karen Chinonso Kagha, dermatologist
• Dr. Britt Craiglow, dermatologist
• Dr. Georgina Ferzli of Sadick Dermatology
• Dr. Elizabeth Bahar Houshmand, owner of Houshmand Dermatology
• Dr. Karan Lal, dermatologist
• Dr. Elyse Love, dermatologist
• Dr. Corey L. Hartman, founder and medical director for Skin Wellness Dermatology
• Dr. Ellen Marmur, associate clinical professor at Mount Sinai’s Department of Dermatology
• Dr. Hope Mitchell, founder of Mitchell Dermatology
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