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There are many buzzworthy skin care products and ingredients on the market these days, and retinol is one of the most well-known.

While retinol is widely available in over-the-counter (OTC) products, it’s important to know its benefits and potential side effects since it’s not recommended for people with certain skin conditions.

According to Rajani Katta, MD, a board certified dermatologist who serves as voluntary clinical faculty at the Baylor College of Medicine and the McGovern Medical School, University of Texas Houston, retinol is a skin care ingredient that’s derived from vitamin A.

“Retinol has multiple benefits, including improvement in the visible signs of skin aging,” Katta says. “Research studies have shown that it can reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles and improve skin roughness and dark spots.”

Retinol is also a type of retinoid that is commonly available in various strengths in the form of gels, creams, and serums. Retinol works by penetrating the deep layers of the skin, promoting cell turnover and elasticity.

Because retinol can be irritating for certain skin types, it’s best to consult a dermatologist about whether it’s the right treatment for you. You can also speak with them about what strength to start with and how often you should apply it prior to purchasing any retinol products.

“Although most people can use products that contain retinol, it can cause irritation, so it has to be used very carefully in people with sensitive skin,” Katta says.

We chose the following products based on:

  • Concentration of retinol: Not all retinol products specify how much retinol they contain. However, we made sure to choose some higher-concentration products (up to 1%) and some lower-concentration products (0.1% or 0.3%).
  • Cost: Retinol can be pricey. While there are some pricier products on our list, we also included several that are under $30.
  • Ingredients: We prioritized retinol creams that also have other beneficial ingredients, like hyaluronic acid.

We also kept different skin types in mind because certain creams work better for different skin characteristics.

Lastly, all products have been vetted to ensure they meet Healthline’s medical standards and align with our approach to well-being. Learn more about our vetting process.

According to Kobets, retinol works by acting through receptors on the skin to:

  • decrease oil production in the skin
  • stimulate collagen production
  • improve the glow of the skin by increasing the skin cell turnover

Retinol also promotes rapid skin cell division, which builds up the protective top layer of your skin.

As you age, the natural production of collagen and elastic fibers that lift your skin starts to slow down, giving way to wrinkles, sunspots, and other skin damage, which is where products like retinol can be a remedy.

There are various benefits to using a topical retinoid on the skin, Kobets says.

“Since topical retinoids increase the skin cell turnover of the skin, they increase the glow and smoothness of the skin,” she says. “Moreover, topical retinoids can also help penetration of other active ingredients like topical lightening creams.”

Retinol creams also can provide a host of skin-clearing and aging support, including:

  • increasing the thickness and elasticity of your skin
  • slowing the production of melanin
  • reducing inflammation
  • preventing clogged pores

“Retinol can also treat mild scarring and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation,” Kobets adds. “Another great benefit is collagen production from topical retinoid use over time.”

It’s important to note that retinol can make your skin more sensitive to sun exposure. You may burn more easily, which can lead to more skin damage.

As such, it’s important to wear sunscreen and protective clothing and accessories, such as hats, when exercising or spending extended time outdoors while using retinol products.

As with most skin care products, not all retinol creams are created equal. Key ingredients to look for include tretinoin, tazarotene, and adapalene, Kobets says.

Additionally, it’s often not recommended to use retinol with certain other skin care products, such as acne treatments that contain prescription-strength retinoids like tretinoin. Adding retinol to this regimen will lead to excessive and unnecessary irritation.

Your dermatologist can confirm whether you’re a good candidate for retinol creams at all since they may be too rough on sensitive skin or conditions like eczema and rosacea. Once you’ve gotten the all-clear, consider the following factors when shopping.


Retinol comes in strengths ranging from 0.0015% to 1% or higher. Many creams fall in the middle of this range, at around 0.1% to 0.3%. The Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety suggests that 0.3% is the maximum safe concentration for face or hand creams.

If you’re trying a retinol cream for the first time, or if you have dry skin, it’s best to start with a mild product. This is because retinol can cause irritation. The stronger the product, the more likely it is to cause irritation.

Don’t forget to do a patch test when testing it out to confirm that it’s a good match. To do a patch test, you’ll apply a small amount of the cream on the inside of your wrist and wait 24 hours. If you notice any signs of irritation or an allergic reaction — like swelling or a rash — do not continue using the product.


In addition to doing your research on the retinol creams out there, keep your budget in mind. You likely won’t want a product that will break the bank, especially if you’re unsure how your skin will respond to it.

Your dermatologist can make recommendations for solid OTC options, too.


Talk with your dermatologist about ingredients to look for or avoid. How different additives affect skin will vary from person to person.

This can save you a lot of stress before shelling out cash on a product that may have unpleasant side effects.

Skin type

There are a few different ways to determine your skin type. To monitor how your skin performs during the day (whether it feels oily, looks shiny, flakes or feels tight, itchy, or irritated), do a wash test with a mild cleanser and see how your skin feels after 30 minutes. Or you can visit a dermatologist for an examination and consultation.

Determining your skin type before using retinol is important because if you have allergies or sensitive skin, retinol may prove to be too potent and may irritate your skin further.

The side effects of retinol can include:

  • dry or irritated skin
  • itching or burning
  • redness
  • peeling, flaky, or scaly skin

You can manage these side effects, and make the most of pro-aging skin care products, by doing the following:

  • Use only one retinol product at a time.
  • Slowly build your way up to daily use, such as by using it every other day or every 2 days.
  • Wait 30 minutes after washing your face to apply retinol creams.
  • Limit sun exposure, always use sunscreen with at least SPF 30, and wear protective clothing and accessories outdoors.

It can be helpful to talk with your dermatologist or another healthcare professional about how to use retinol as part of your skin care routine to minimize the occurrence of side effects. Be sure to contact them if you experience a severe reaction or if you’re not seeing results.

“If you experience more intense redness or flaking, or if it persists even if you have stopped using the product, then it’s important to see your dermatologist,” Katta adds.

Retinol can be a pretty ubiquitous ingredient. If you’re unfamiliar with its effects and the differences in concentration levels, refer to the following frequently asked questions to learn more.

Starting small is key. Start with just a pea-sized amount of retinol cream two to three times per week. Since retinol can make skin more sensitive to sunlight, it’s best to apply it at night. If you apply it in the morning, be sure to follow up with sunscreen.

If your skin responds well to the product and doesn’t show any irritation, you can increase your application to once every other day after 1–2 weeks of initial testing.

If your skin is still feeling and looking good after another 2 weeks, you can then up your usage to once nightly.

When you first begin using a retinol cream, you may experience some signs of irritation, like dryness, redness, or itchiness, as well as an initial uptick in breakouts due to the increase in cell turnover. Your skin may look and feel worse before it starts to look better, which is often referred to as “skin purging.”

These effects may be more severe if you’re using a product with a higher concentration of retinol, which is why starting with one that’s on the milder side is key.

If you have a darker skin tone, you may experience hyperpigmentation or hypopigmentation as well.

“Some people experience mild redness or flaking when they first start to use retinol products,” adds Katta. “This sometimes improves over time, but if it continues, then it’s important to use less of the product or to use it less frequently.”

To keep these effects at bay, we suggest applying retinol only at night and wearing sunscreen with at least SPF 30 during the day.

As with most health and beauty regimens, the effects of retinol require patience. You might not see results until 6 weeks to 3 months after regular use.

If you’re not seeing results or continually experiencing side effects, talk with your dermatologist about trying a stronger retinol cream or trying a different skin care solution altogether.

“Although you don’t necessarily need to see a dermatologist before using retinol, I do recommend that people with sensitive skin, or who are using multiple other skin care products in their regimen, do so,” Katta says.

“That’s because of the potential irritation that can occur from using retinol, and because that irritation can be much more intense if you were using other potentially irritating skin care products.”

Because it can easily lead to irritation, experts typically don’t recommend retinol creams to people with:

  • sensitive skin
  • dry skin
  • rosacea
  • eczema
  • severe acne

If you’re using other topical acne creams or other acne medications, talk with your healthcare professional before adding retinol to your skin care regimen.

Additionally, retinol creams are not recommended if you’re pregnant or nursing.

Retinol creams are a popular skin care product that may help with signs of aging and acne if used with care and caution.

Because not everyone’s skin will react the same way, be sure to talk with your doctor before starting a retinol regimen. A retinol cream may be a successful skin care solution for you — just be sure to do your research to make sure you’re using the right product for your skin type.

Emilia Benton is a freelance writer and editor based in Houston, Texas. She’s also an 11-time marathoner, avid baker, and frequent traveler.