Any skincare expert will tell you that anti-aging and retinol are inextricably linked. So why is this potent anti-wrinkle ingredient still so mystifying? Some women say it's the best thing that ever happened to them; others complain it leaves their skin red and dry. Because it's never too early (or too late!) to stave off the signs of aging, we looked to the experts to decode retinol—or is it retinoids?—in the simplest of terms.
Retinol, which is another name for Vitamin A, is a powerful ingredient for addressing a number of skin concerns. "It can help to fight acne, stimulate collagen production, and has anti-inflammatory properties," says Dr. Michele J. Farber of Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York City.
What's the difference between retinol and retinoids?
It's important to know that there's a distinct difference between retinol and its sister, retinoid. "Retinols and retinoids are both vitamin A derivatives," explains Dr. Farber. "They have both been formulated to be applied to your skin in topical form, but retinoids are stronger than retinols. While over-the-counter retinol creams do have many of the same benefits, they often work more slowly."
When should I start using retinol?
Though it's touted as the gold standard in anti-aging, this powerhouse isn't just for the older crowd. Incorporating retinol into your routine in your twenties can help keep sun damage in check and help prevent lines from developing. "In your twenties, starting a healthy skincare regimen when you're young will help you to age gracefully and keep your skin in the best shape possible," says Dr. Farber. "Women should start off using retinol creams during their twenties, as this is the time when sun damage starts to become apparent."
How do I begin using retinol?
You want to be wary of not using anything that's too strong. "To avoid acne flares, a light formulation, not a heavy cream is the way to go," says dermatologist Dr. Patricia Wexler. If redness or irritation occurs, re-evaluate the concentration, frequency, and formulation. SPF is always necessary when using a retinol. "Your goal would be using retinol to get smoother, more evenly pigmented skin, with less post inflammatory pigmentation," says Wexler. Here, we've rounded up the best retinol-infused products so you can incorporate them into your routine stat.
This drugstore option has been a cult favorite for years. The creamy texture pampers the skin while a potent dose of retinol lifts dark spots and smooths fine lines.
CeraVe is as gentle as it gets, so if you're trying to dip a toe into the pool, reach for this complexion-cradling option first.
If you need to banish fine lines and dark spots on a budget, pick up this vitamin-infused night cream.
Retinol isn't just for your face, and this antioxidant-packed body treatment is a favorite amongst beauty editors. Its retinol complex is combined with shea butter to nourish while it renews skin on areas prone to creping, like the knees.
This one is an editor favorite, and for good reason: an extra boost of lactic acid helps lift discoloration and fade the acne spots and scars that plague us all.
Don't let this serum's potency scare you. It's filled with soothing ingredients like Hawaiian honey to keep your complexion comfortable while you remove wrinkles.
The stellar reviews on this night cream speak for themselves. No matter your skin type, this formula strengthens your skin's moisture barrier—which is key for preventing breakouts and damage—while it plumps up wrinkles.
A potent combo of retinol and glycolic acid gives this formula extra exfoliating power to retexturize the skin and lessen the appearance of scarring.
Parisian women know good skin, and this French pharmacy staple is one of their secret weapons. It's a simple formula, so apply directly to the skin or mix a little in with your favorite night cream.
Looking for something to pamper yourself with post-bubble bath? Joesie Maran's creamy butter is infused with retinol and organ oil to coat skin in wrinkle-smoothing hydration.
Skin repairs itself overnight, and this PM formula takes the process up a notch with a high concentration of retinol and a skin-calming blend of bisabolol, which is derived from the famously soothing chamomile plant.
"Comfortable" usually isn't the first word that comes to mind when you think of retinol—it can be a little abrasive for new users and those with sensitive skin—but this luxurious oil makes the case. The rich oil coats skin in both wrinkle-fighting retinol and hydration.
This stuff is definitely powerful, and it's perfect for those of you looking for a step up from your beginner formulas. But don't let its potency scare you: it uses entrapped retinol, which gradually releases over time for an exfoliation that won't burn.
A potent combination of vitamins A, C, and E makes this clean formula perfect for even the most sensitive skin.
Apple fruit extract is the secret ingredient in this glow-imbuing serum. It boosts cell renewal and minimizes wrinkles for that plump, dewy skin you see all over Insta.
Rose, retinol, and hyaluronic acid are a triple threat in this luxe balm. Massage it into the skin and rinse it off after fifteen minutes for an instantly glowy complexion.
Dab this concentrated formula on your most stubborn dark spots and scars to help clear your complexion.
A single drop of this dry-finish oil can give your nightly moisturizer an anti-aging boos, and its chia seed oil and plant-derived squalene helps hydrate the skin while it's being exfoliated.
Crow's feet are natural, but a tiny dose of retinol can help those crinkles look less prominent. The slow-release ingredients in this formula help to avoid irritation in the eye sensitive area.
The saccharide isomerate in this body lotion acts like a magnet to attract water to the skin to reduce dryness, and antioxidant edelweiss flower extract smooths those liens and indentations that can appear on the body as we age.
As you age, the eye area can become more dry and fragile, which can exacerbate crow's feet. The ferulic acid in this powerful formula gently exfoliates to remove dry spots while imbuing the area with retinol and hydrating oils.
Yellowing is one age concern that's often left by the wayside, but niacinamides are paired with hi-tech retinol in this formula help even the skin tone in even the most sensitive skin types.
A brighter complexion is one way to instantly appear more youthful, and this cream combines Vitamin C with wild gooseberry to defend against skin-marring free radicals.
Even the most sensitive skin will drink up this intensely hydrating cream overnight, and you can expect a major glow in the morning.
Green tea, vitamin E, and hyaluronic acid give skin a plumping effect for immediate results, while retinol works over time to reduce wrinkles' appearance.
The brand's signature capsules have a cult following, and this retinol-infused option was created to fade even your deepest lines.
A little dollop of this cream goes along way with this vegan formula. While it includes a potent amount of retinol, a triple peptide blend that works to strengthen and firm the skin is what takes this option up a notch.
Algae and a proprietary antioxidant complex make sure skin stays supple while a potent .5 percent retinol exfoliates away uneven skin tone.
This creamy formula is meant to be the scrumptious last step in your night routine. Nutrient dense-avocado nourishes the skin while polyhydroxy acids gentle exfoliate for minimized pores and a smoother visage by morning.
If you're not ready to jump in and try a retinol-infused eye cream, shoot for something more temporary. Stick these potent little patches in the fridge fifteen minutes before you slap them for a cooling, tranquil at-home spa treatment.