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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. It’s been shown to improve skin texture and hyperpigmentation, as well as reduce the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines. 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 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.

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 retinol cream overall

SkinCeuticals Retinol 0.3

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.

Pros

  • potent formula
  • natural ingredients
  • paraben-free and noncomedogenic

Cons

  • not a good option for sensitive skin
  • expensive

Best moisturizer with retinol

Olay Regenerist Retinol24 Night Moisturizer

  • Price: $$
  • Key ingredients: retinol, vitamin B3 (niacinamide)
  • Skin type: all except sensitive

This 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 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 contain synthetic dyes.

Pros

  • helps with cell turnover
  • fragrance-free
  • easy to find at drugstores

Cons

  • not great for sensitive skin
  • pricier than other options

Best brightening retinol cream

Kate Somerville +Retinol Vitamin C Moisturizer

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

If you’re looking to reduce the appearance of dark spots, this lightweight retinol cream may be the solution for you. It contains vitamin C, which is known to have brightening properties.

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

Pros

  • helps even out dark spots
  • extra moisturizing

Cons

  • expensive

Best retinol cream for acne

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

  • Price: $$$
  • Key ingredients: retinol, bakuchiol extract, peptides
  • Skin type: all

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 reduce the appearance 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.

Pros

  • works for all skin types
  • gentle
  • promotes collagen production

Cons

  • expensive

Best retinol cream for wrinkles

RoC Retinol Correxion Deep Wrinkle Night Cream

  • Price: $
  • Key ingredients: retinol, magnesium, zinc, copper
  • Skin type: all

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.

Pros

  • inexpensive
  • boosts collagen

Cons

  • doesn’t specify retinol concentration

Best budget retinol cream

CeraVe Skin Renewing Retinol Serum

  • Price: $
  • Key ingredients: retinol, ceramides, hyaluronic acid, niacinamide
  • Skin type: dry, sensitive

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 working to reduce signs of aging.

Pros

  • inexpensive
  • fragrance-free
  • may be suitable for sensitive skin

Cons

  • doesn’t specify retinol concentration

Best retinol night cream

skinbetter science Intensive AlphaRet Overnight Cream

  • Price: $$$
  • Key ingredients: retinol, alpha hydroxy acids
  • Skin type: all

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 reduce the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and sun damage. The formula also provides moisture and a dose of antioxidants.

Pros

  • also contains AHAs
  • fragrance-free
  • cruelty-free

Cons

  • expensive
  • doesn’t specify retinol concentration

Best vegan retinol cream

Drunk Elephant A-Passioni Retinol Cream

  • Price: $$
  • Key ingredients: vitamin F, retinol, peptides
  • Skin type: dry, sensitive

If you prefer 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.

Pros

  • moderately priced
  • good for sensitive skin
  • vegan

Cons

  • small container size for price

Best hydrating retinol cream

Vichy LiftActiv Retinol HA Anti-Wrinkle Concentrate

  • Price: $$
  • Key ingredients: retinol, hyaluronic acid
  • Skin type: combination

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 a hydrating combination of retinol and hyaluronic acid. Hyaluronic acid is a naturally occurring polysaccharide found in the body. It plumps skin to reduce the appearance of wrinkles.

Pros

  • non-drying
  • moderately priced

Cons

  • may not be good for oily skin

Best retinol cream for neck

L’Oreal Paris Revitalift Pressed Night Cream

  • Price: $$
  • Key ingredients: retinol, glycerin, hyaluronic acid
  • Skin type: all

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 that 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.

The cream can be used not only on your face, but also your neck and chest.

Pros

  • moderately priced
  • nonirritating
  • can be used on face, neck, and chest

Cons

  • doesn’t specify retinol concentration

Best retinol eye cream

First Aid Beauty FAB Skin Lab Retinol Eye Cream

  • Price: $$
  • Key ingredients: retinol, hyaluronic acid
  • Skin type: dry, combination, oily

Not all retinol products can safely be used around your eyes. However, this cream is specially formulated to be used around the sensitive eye area.

The retinol in the cream works to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. And the fragrance-free formula helps boost elasticity while working against dark circles and puffiness.

Hyaluronic acid also helps keep the skin extra moisturized.

Pros

  • good for all skin types
  • moderately priced
  • fragrance free

Cons

  • small container for price
  • doesn’t specify retinol concentration

Best retinol cream for beginners

Good Molecules Gentle Retinol Cream

  • Price: $
  • Key ingredients: retinol, bakuchiol, grapeseed oil, allantoin, and acmella oleracea extract
  • Skin type: dry, sensitive

At only 0.1 percent retinol, this cream is gentle enough for people with sensitive skin and people totally new to the world of retinol.

Still, even with a low retinol concentration, it works to reduce the appearance of fine lines while also hydrating skin. Antioxidant-rich bakuchiol helps boost retinol’s effects without irritating, and grapeseed oil, allantoin, and acmella oleracea extract all help to further soothe the skin.

Pros

  • inexpensive
  • good for sensitive skin
  • good for people new to retinol

Cons

  • may not be strong enough for some people

Best retinol cream for dry skin

Dr Dennis Gross Advanced Retinol + Ferulic Intense Wrinkle Cream

  • Price: $$$
  • Key ingredients: retinol, bakuchiol, rambutan
  • Skin type: dry

Retinol products can be drying, no matter your skin type. But if you already have dry skin, they can make dryness even worse.

Thankfully, this hydrating cream works to soothe dry, rough skin without irritation. While retinol helps to stimulate collagen production and reverse signs of photo-aging, bakuchiol helps to reduce redness or irritation.

Reviewers describe this product as “rich” and “creamy,” and it’s highly rated by reviewers who describe their skin as dry.

Pros

  • works well for dry skin
  • less irritating than other retinol products

Cons

  • expensive

Best retinol body lotion

Versed Firm Ground Retinol Body Lotion

  • Price: $
  • Key ingredients: retinol blend, cocoa butter, vitamin E
  • Skin type: dry

Many retinol products are meant to be used on the face, but this unique lotion is designed to be used all over the body.

In addition to retinol, you’ll find all the hallmarks of a nourishing body lotion in this product. Think cocoa butter, vitamin E, and squalane.

Plus, the lotion is vegan, and it comes in a tube made from recycled plastic.

Pros

  • can be used all over the body
  • inexpensive
  • vegan

Cons

  • may not work well for oily skin

As with most skin care products, not all retinol creams are created equal.

Additionally, it’s often not recommended to use retinol with certain 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

Retinol comes in strengths ranging from 0.0015 percent to 1 percent or higher. Many creams fall in the middle of this range, at around 0.1 to 0.3 percent. The Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety suggests that 0.3 percent 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 — don’t continue using the product.

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.

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. Since retinol can make skin more sensitive to skin, it’s best to apply it at night. If you apply it in the morning, be sure to follow up with sunscreen.

How often should I use retinol cream?

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 of retinol cream?

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 or hypopigmentation 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 from retinol cream?

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 an 11-time marathoner, avid baker, and frequent traveler.