If you purchase an independently reviewed product or service through a link on our website, SPY.com may receive an affiliate commission.
You may have started noticing changes to your face’s skin tone and its texture lately. Or maybe you’re finding brown spots or, god forbid, wrinkles. And while you are comfortable with the idea of aging gracefully in theory, you also believe there is nothing wrong with tempering those signs when they first appear. And in your fight against aging, one of the most commonly used and effective anti-aging treatments is retinol. It can help to reduce wrinkles and improve your skin’s appearance.
What is Retinol?
“Retinoids (a blanket term for retinol) are a family of vitamin A compounds including over-the-counter and prescription options,” said Joshua Zeichner, MD, Associate Professor of Dermatology Director of Cosmetic and Clinical Research Department of Dermatology Mount Sinai Hospital. “I recommend them to many of my patients because they have several beneficial effects on the skin, including stimulating collagen, enhancing cell turnover, reducing inflammation, diminishing fine lines and wrinkles, and treating acne.”
“When its prescription strength it’s called a retinoid and when it’s over-the-counter, it’s called a retinol,” NYC-based dermatologist Dr. Rita Linkner. “I fluctuate which type I use nightly, depending on what exactly my skin is telling me,” she says. You can find retinol in various products such as oils, peels, creams, and serums. The trick is figuring out which is best for you. The best part is you don’t need a prescription to reap the benefits.
“Both prescription and over-the-counter retinoids are effective,” said Zeichner. The difference between OTC and prescription options is that over-the-counter options need to be converted to their more active form after they are applied to the skin. This means that your skin has to go through an adjustment period.
“In the first 2 to 4 weeks, the skin commonly goes through a transition, known as retinization,” says Zeichner. During this time, you may notice redness, experience burning, stinging and dryness. “Using a little bit at a time, applying it every other night, and combining it with a moisturizer are ways that you can minimize skin irritation,” he added.
But what retinoid creams and products should you be using? Below, you’ll find our shopping guide to help you navigate the landscape of the best retinol creams and retinol serums.
1. Versed Press Restart Gentle Retinol Serum
If you have recently started noticing fine lines, this serum is an excellent option for you. As the name states, it is a gentle formula, but it also uses micro-encapsulated retinol and natural retinol alternatives that may reduce your chances of experiencing irritation. Plus, its super-light formula melts effortlessly into the skin.
2. Alchimie Forever Advanced Retinol Serum
FOR DEEPER WRINKLES
Using time-released technology, this serum contains blueberry, hydrating hyaluronic acid, jojoba, and red clover to minimize irritation. It has a 0.75% concentration of two types of retinol and is rich in antioxidants from apple stem cell extract, edelweiss, and green tea.
3. Kiehl’s Youth Dose Eye Treatment
BEST UNDER-EYE RETINOL TREATMENT
The skin underneath your eyes tends to be thinner than the rest of your face and can be sensitive, which is why it is best to use under-eye products specifically formulated for that area. If you tend to get dark circles and puffiness under your eyes, you’ll love this product. It performs double duty; it is good for brightening dark areas and also smoothing fine lines.
4. AbsoluteJOI Skin Refining Night Oil
FOR DARKER SKIN TONES
Created by a physician with melanated skin in mind, AbsoluteJOI Skin Refining Night Oil features Retinol and vitamins C and E. Its formulation targets early signs of aging, fades dark marks and combats hyperpigmentation which browner skin can be more prone to and develop over time. And don’t be put off by the fact that it is an oil-based product it won’t leave you greasy but rather moisturized. Plus, it doesn’t contain parabens, perfumes, dyes, or bleach.
5. Graydon Phyto Clear
BEST FOR COMBINATION SKIN
If some areas of your face tend to be dry, while others are more balanced and others still are a bit oily, you’re probably dealing with combination skin. Finding a product to round all of that out can be a pain. Well, Graydon’s Phyto Clear may work well for you as it uses a retinol alternative — bakuchiol and moth bean extract — that reduces the chances of flaky skin. It also has toning and protective items such as rosemary, neem oil, chlorella, and squalane that keep your skin looking plump.
6. Marie Veronique Gentle Retinol Night Serum
BEST FOR DRY SKIN
Using retinol when you have dry skin can be tricky as it may cause some flaking and irritation. But Marie Veronique Gentle Retinol Night Serum contains sodium salicylate which tempers inflammation and ceramide complex that helps your skin retain moisture. Plus, it has powerful antioxidant resveratrol, which can combat your skin’s exposure to pollutants.
7. Altreno Tretinoin Lotion
It’s essential when choosing a retinol product that you find one that is formulated to improve tolerability and contains hydrating ingredients like hyaluronic acid and glycerin. “These are the things that set apart generic options from brand-name ones,” says Zeichner. He recommends retinoids like Altreno lotion for those reasons. “It is a prescription topical retinoid formulated to distribute hydrating ingredients throughout the base of the product evenly.” Because this is a prescription treatment, we recommend talking to your doctor or dermatologist for more information.
8. Rodan + Fields Redefine Overnight Restorative Cream
BEST FOR NORMAL TO DRY SKIN
Even if you have a balanced complexion, there are times when your skin is fatigued that you’ll want a heavier cream. And Rodan + Fields Redefine Overnight Restorative Cream is just that. You don’t need to lay it on thick because a little goes a long way in treating fine lines and helping to contour your face.
9. Arbonne Intelligence Resurfacing Pads & Solution
BEST FOR DARK SPOTS
If you’re a sun worshipper, you may notice dark spots or uneven skin tone from UV damage. Arbonne Intelligence Resurfacing Pads & Solution with Hydroxypinacolone Retinoate (a form of retinoid) is an excellent choice for brightening your skin. It acts as an exfoliator so you may experience tingling and burning. Stick to using it at night. And moving forward, reduce your chance of sun damage by wearing sunscreen when outdoors.
10. AgeWell Moisture Restoring Cream
Suppose you are not ready to try a retinoid product but would love to reap some of its benefits. In that case, try AgeWell Moisture Restoring Cream with bakuchiol — vegan retinol — which is generally well tolerated. Additionally, it has other plant-based ingredients such as coconut oil, squalane, shea butter, and avocado oil to keep your skin looking moisturized. If you ever doubt the importance of moisture, remember a raisin is a wrinkly dried grape.
11. Neova SmartSkincare Intensive Retinol Spray
BEST DURING WARM WEATHER
“I like prescription Altreno, but for OTC, I love Neova’s Retinol Spray in the summer months,” says Linkner. This product is unique in that it is sprayed onto a cotton swab, so it has that toner cleansing effect when used. “The benefit of this retinol is that it also has AHA and BHA added to it, which is great for when you are trying to resolve some of that post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation that comes secondary to breakouts,” she says.
12. Beverly Hills MD Activated Retinol Overnight Treatment
Beverly Hills MD Activated Retinol Overnight Treatment is a combination serum and gel that can help your skin to look renewed because it promotes cell turnover as you sleep. It can also help to reduce dark spots helping to create a brighter complexion.
13. Ahava Pre-retinol
Not everyone is comfortable jumping in full speed ahead with retinol because it can sometimes be irritating to the skin. It can help to reduce the appearance of wrinkles leaving a smoother look. It is made with Dunaliella salina dead sea alga, a retinol source from nature.
14. Ikaria Beauty Renew Daytime Fytó Retinol Serum
If the typical retinol cream is a no-go for you, then a serum-like Ikaria Beauty Renew Fyto Retinol made with a plant-derived retinol alternative can help to reduce early signs of aging. It also contains Oat Bran which can help to soothe your skin and squalane which is really hydrating.
15. Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair
BEST DRUGSTORE BRAND
Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair is an affordable and effective way to get the benefits of retinol, such as smoother skin and the reduction of fine lines. It also contains moisture-enhancing hyaluronic acid and glucose complex, a Retinol SA booster to increase the effects of the cream.