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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 about its benefits and potential side effects, since it’s not recommended for people with certain skin conditions.

Retinol is a type of retinoid, a derivative of vitamin A. It’s commonly available in various strengths in the form of gels, creams, and serums that work to fight against acne and aging when applied topically to the skin. Retinol does this 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 your dermatologist about whether it’s the right treatment for you. You can also speak to them about what strength to start with and how often you should apply it prior to purchasing any retinol products.

As with most skin care products, not all retinol creams are created equal. The first thing you should do before introducing a retinol cream regimen is to talk with your dermatologist. It’s often not recommended to use retinol with some other skin care products, such as acne treatments.

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

Concentration

If you’re trying a retinol cream for the first time, you should start with a low concentration of around 0.05 percent. This is important, because retinol can cause irritation at the beginning. So starting with a milder version can help prevent its unpleasant side effects.

Don’t forget to do a patch test when testing it out to confirm that it’s a good match.

Cost

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 about how your skin will respond to it.

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

Ingredients

Again, you can talk with your dermatologist about ingredients to look for or avoid. The way 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.

We chose the following products based on:

  • concentration of retinol
  • cost
  • ingredients

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

Pricing guide

  • $ = under $25
  • $$ = $25–$50
  • $$$ = over $50

Best overall

SkinCeuticals Retinol 0.3

  • Price: $$$
  • Key ingredients: 0.3 percent retinol, bisabolol, boswellia serrata extract

If you find that less concentrated formulas aren’t helping your skin issues, and you don’t have particularly sensitive skin, this slightly more potent formula does it all.

Thanks to a 0.3 percent concentration of retinol, the formula works to reduce the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and discoloration, and it actively prevents and reduces breakouts.

The calming ingredients of bisabolol (derived from chamomile) and boswellia serrata extract also provide soothing properties to prevent irritation. This cream is also paraben-free and noncomedogenic, meaning it won’t clog your pores.

Best moisturizer

Olay Regenerist Retinol24 Night Moisturizer

  • Price: $$
  • Key ingredients: retinol 24 hydrating complex

This highly-concentrated moisturizer is a great option for those with skin that isn’t very sensitive and can stand up to most products.

This cream works to smooth wrinkles and even the skin tone, all while leaving your skin feeling soft. The brand says the retinol 24 complex leaves your skin feeling smoother and brighter within 24 hours.

This moisturizer also contains vitamin B3, which helps the skin retain moisture, helps with surface skin cell turnover and regeneration, and exfoliates to remove dull skin.

It’s also fragrance-free and doesn’t have any minerals or synthetic dyes.

Best brightening formula

Kate Somerville +Retinol Vitamin C Moisturizer

  • Price: $$$
  • Key ingredients: retinol, hyaluronic acid, vitamin C

If dark spots are an issue that you’re looking to combat, this lightweight retinol cream may be the solution for you. It contains vitamin C, which is known to have brightening properties to help reduce dark marks.

There’s also hyaluronic acid to keep your skin moisturized while fighting the effects of aging.

Best for acne

Paula’s Choice CLINICAL 0.3% Retinol + 2% Bakuchiol Treatment

  • Price: $$$
  • Key ingredients: 0.3 percent retinol, bakuchiol extract, peptides

This treatment multitasks when it comes to fighting acne and the effects of aging. Medium-strength 0.3 percent retinol and 2 percent bakuchiol extract work in tandem to fight deep wrinkles and large-looking pores, while peptides promote healthy collagen and improved firmness.

Bakuchiol is also known to be one of the few ingredients that can stabilize retinol so that it can work more effectively at a lower and gentler concentration.

Best for wrinkles

RoC Retinol Correxion Deep Wrinkle Night Cream

  • Price: $
  • Key ingredients: retinol, magnesium, zinc, copper

The primary ingredient in this night cream is retinol, which works to visibly reduce the appearance of deep wrinkles. This cream is also noncomedogenic.

The cream is formulated with magnesium, zinc, and copper, which work to stimulate collagen production in your skin. In turn, the formula may help boost firmness and minimize fine lines and wrinkles.

Best budget buy

CeraVe Skin Renewing Retinol Serum

  • Price: $
  • Key ingredients: retinol, ceramides, hyaluronic acid, niacinamide

If you may be more prone to retinol’s side effects, this budget-friendly fragrance-free serum might be the ticket.

This CeraVe product features time-released, encapsulated retinol, which works to smooth fine lines and wrinkles. This is because its moisturizing ingredients (such as hyaluronic acid) are continually released and help reduce irritation while also fighting against the effects of aging.

Best night cream

skinbetter science Intensive AlphaRet Overnight Cream

  • Price: $$$
  • Key ingredients: retinol, alpha hydroxy acids

Although this cream is a bit of a splurge, the investment is well worth it thanks to the hard work it puts in overnight (all without irritating your skin).

The active ingredients of retinol and alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) (including glycolic acid) work to fight the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, uneven tone, and sun damage. The formula also provides moisture and a dose of antioxidants.

Best vegan formula

Drunk Elephant A-Passioni Retinol Cream

  • Price: $$
  • Key ingredients: vitamin F, retinol, peptides

If you prefer to choose skin care products that incorporate all-natural ingredients, this fragrance-free cream from Drunk Elephant contains a vegan form of retinol (meaning it’s plant-derived and doesn’t come from any animal sources). It also features nourishing ingredients, like marula oil, zinc oxide, thermal mud, and fruit enzymes.

This product aims to help reduce the appearance of fine lines, sun damage, and deep wrinkles.

Best hydrating formula

Vichy LiftActiv Retinol HA Anti-Wrinkle Concentrate

  • Price: $$
  • Key ingredients: LiftActiv retinol HA concentrate (a combination of retinol and hyaluronic acid)

This retinol cream is a great option if you’re looking for a moisturizer that also helps repair signs of aging. Hyaluronic acid and the molecule LR2412 (a jasmonic acid derivative that helps promote skin healing and improve texture to fight the signs of aging) help to do that without any added greasiness.

The formula boasts LiftActiv retinol HA concentrate, which is a hydrating combination of retinol and hyaluronic acid. Hyaluronic acid is a naturally occurring polysaccharide found in the body. Its benefits include addressing signs of aging, hydration, wound healing, treating eczema, and more.

Best higher concentration

L’Oreal Paris Revitalift Pressed Night Cream

  • Price: $$
  • Key ingredients: retinol, glycerin, hyaluronic acid

This night cream uses retinol and niacinamide to help visibly reduce wrinkles, brighten, even out skin tone, and deeply moisturize.

What makes it unique is its “pressed” component, which means the retinol, niacinamide, and nourishing oils are freshly pressed into the cream, making it a deeply hydrating yet lightweight formula. Glycerin, hyaluronic acid, and panthenol also work to soothe the skin and prevent irritation.

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

How do I use retinol?

Starting small is key. Start with just a pea-size amount of retinol cream two to three times per week. If you tend to experience sun sensitivity, stick to applying it just at night.

How often should I use it?

If your skin responds well to the product and doesn’t show any irritation, you can up your application to once every other day after 1 to 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.

Are there any side effects?

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 a “purging effect.”

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 as well.

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

When can you expect results?

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

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

Is there anyone who should skip out on retinol?

Because it can easily lead to irritation, retinol creams typically aren’t recommended for people who have:

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

If you’re using other topical acne creams or other acne medications, talk with your doctor 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 prove to be a successful skin care solution for you if you do your research to ensure 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 a nine-time marathoner, avid baker, and frequent traveler.