If you walk up to anyone with near-flawless, glowing skin and ask them for their secret, I'm willing to bet it has to do with retinol in some shape or form. The skincare ingredient has long been touted as the anti-aging holy grail thanks to its ability to transform skin, literally. Retinol and every other vitamin-A derivative such as retinoids, retinyl acetate, and retinaldehyde work to increase cell turnover, smooth skin texture, improve fine lines and wrinkles, and brighten skin. If retinol sounds like the do-it-all skincare hero, that's because it is.
So why is it so mystifying? Some people say retinol is the best thing that ever happened to them; others complain that it leaves their skin red and dry. Then there's the question of how to incorporate it into your skincare routine—you can't just slather it on willy-nilly or you could get burned, maybe even literally. Plus, with the hundreds of products on the market, how do you know which formula is right for you?
To answer all of your burning retinol questions, we looked to the experts to decode the ingredient in the simplest terms. Ahead, we broke down the need-to-know info to add retinol into your routine, including the shopping tips and our favorite retinol creams and serums to date.
What Is Retinol?
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. Additionally, dermatologist Dr. Patricia Wexler says, "Your goal would be using retinol to get smoother, more evenly pigmented skin, with less post-inflammatory pigmentation."
In your skincare journey, you'll likely come across retinoids—but don't get it confused with retinol. It's important to understand that there's a distinct difference between the two. "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."
What to Look For in a Retinol Cream
A quick stroll down the beauty aisle and you'll find a range of creams, serums, retinol eye creams, and oils all with different types of retinol at different strengths. As Hannah Zaborowski, an advanced practice esthetician and FACE FOUNDRIÉ executive trainer, explains, "The medical grade brands have higher potency which will give you quicker results, but it is also much more harsh on the skin when starting out." Drugstore retinol products, on the other hand, aren't as potent but can be a great place to start. If you're a retinol newbie, it's best to start off with a gentle, low-dose formula to ward off any irritation or adverse side effects (think 0.5 percent or lower) then work your way up to higher percentages.
As we mentioned before, there are a ton of different formulas out there when it comes to retinol. For example, many retinol products come in a cream or moisturizer form, which can be great for an added dose of moisture, however, they have their downsides. "To avoid acne flares, a light formulation, not a heavy cream is the way to go," says Dr. Wexler. Meanwhile, Zaborowski prefers serums as they tend to be less irritating and have great absorption. All in all, it's best to consider your skin needs when choosing a formula. If redness or irritation occurs, consult your dermatologist and re-evaluate the concentration, frequency, and formulation.
The Best Retinol Creams
- Best Overall Retinol Cream: Drunk Elephant A-Passioni Retinol Cream
- Best Budget Retinol Cream: CeraVe Retinol Face Serum For Post-Acne Marks
- Best Retinol Cream for Beginners: Versed Press Restart Gentle Retinol Serum
- Best Retinol Cream for Sensitive Skin: The Inkey List Retinol Fine Lines and Wrinkles Serum
- Best Retinol Cream for Mature Skin: Sunday Riley A+ High-Dose Retinoid Serum
- Best Retinol Cream for Acne-Prone Skin: Shani Darden Skin Care Retinol Reform Treatment Serum
Best Overall Retinol Cream
Drunk Elephant's retinol cream has long been a favorite among beauty editors because it produces some serious results. A little dollop of this cream goes a long way with this completely vegan formula. While it includes a potent amount of retinol (coming in at 1 percent), a triple peptide blend that works to strengthen and firm the skin is what takes this option up a notch. For even more firming power, the formula also includes Vitamin F, an ingredient that makes the skin look firm and supple.
Pros: A little goes a long way
Cons: Expensive; May be too strong for beginners or sensitive skin.
Customer review: "LOVE. I’ve used tons of retinol and I have dry skin none worked as well as this one I was shocked! I’ve never loved a product more , I’d definitely recommend this. It’s made my skin so smooth and less old and dry looking!" — Sephora
Best Drugstore Retinol Cream
Hyaluronic acid and retinol team up to create this drugstore staple face cream from Neutrogena. Designed to be used on your face and your neck, this works to soften the look of even the deepest-set lines on your face in as little as four weeks. This product can even take the place of your traditional moisturizer thanks to its formula packed with hyaluronic acid, which instantly plumps and hydrates skin. The fact that this cream is fragrance-free is even more of a win for those with sensitive skin.
Pros: Hydrating formula; Under $50; Dermatologist-tested; A little goes a long way.
Cons: Takes longer to see results.
Customer review: "Love this product vey creamy and effective. Seen a big difference in the first two weeks. No fragrance and the jar goes along way just using a pearl size each night. I recommend." — Target
Best Retinol Cream for Mature Skin
As the name suggests, this formula is potent, so let's break it down: this serum has a 6.5 percent dose of retinol, which is made up of a 5 percent retinoid ester blend (a gentle derivative of retinol), 1 percent liposomal-encapsulated retinol blend (which essentially means the retinol is in a "shell", allowing it to penetrate deeper into the skin), and 0.5% blue-algae (a brightening component). But 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.
Pros: Strong formula;
Customer review: "Im 45 and have fought acne all my life. I now need a product for my acne but not harsh as my skin is aging, maturing. BEST product ive used, smooths, fights my acne and I can absolutely see the anti - aging results too. Worth every penny!" — Sephora
Best Budget Retinol Cream
It's not typically a good idea to jump headfirst into a strong dose of retinol, so if you're a beginner to the hero skincare ingredient, reach for this complexion-cradling option first. This formula is gentle enough for beginners and for sensitive skin, so it's a great option to dip your toe into retinols. This creamy, lightweight formula is also packed with ceramides to help restore the skin's protective barrier, plus it's got niacinamide to help calm and soothe any redness.
Pros: Gentle enough for sensitive skin; Under $50; Fragrance-free; Lightweight; Fast-absorbing.
Cons: Can be drying.
Customer review: "Im an esthetician and id 100% recommend this product to anyone with acne or bad hormonal acne! I havw been suffering from hormonal acne for about a year and i have tried countless products and nothing has worked as well as this product. It had cleared my acne up so much ! It's affordable and has successfully results. Go buy right now." — Ulta
Best Retinol Cream for Fine Lines
Another longtime favorite in the world of retinol comes from Paula's Choice. This fan-favorite cream features a slow-release concentration of retinol as well as a quadruple peptide blend that keeps skin looking firmer over time. With 1 percent retinol, this formula packs a punch against signs of aging like wrinkles and dark spots, while Vitamin C and licorice extract work to brighten up and clear the skin. Make sure to start off slowly with this product to see how your skin reacts because it can be irritating to retinol newbies.
Pros: Fragrance-free; Lightweight.
Cons: Expensive; May be too strong for beginners or sensitive skin.
Customer review: "I bought this and it’s worth it. I’ve used retinol on and off over the past years and this has to be the best one so far. I wake up to bright, smooth, balanced, and even-toned skin. My pores are smaller and my makeup looks better." — Sephora
Best French Retinol Cream
Parisian women are known for their flawless skin. The secret behind it all? This French pharmacy staple. This pharmaceutical-grade cream is sold over-the-counter in France, and thankfully it's available online, no prescription required. It's a simple formula that contains 0.12 percent retinol esters, one of the mildest forms of vitamin A. The formula is on the thicker side, but you only need a pea-size amount to get the job done. You can apply it directly to the skin or mix a little in with your favorite night cream.
Pros: A little goes a long way; Under $50.
Cons: Can only be bought online.
Customer review: "I love this stuff. been using for over a year and it has helped my skin so much. I have brighter skin with a more even skin tone and my acne is finally under control." — French Pharmacy
Best Soothing Retinol Cream
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. If your skin tends to be a bit reactive, the bisabolol along with boswellia serrata extract (derived from frankincense) helps to soothe the skin. As for the retinol, this cream has a 0.5 percent formula, meaning it can be on the strong side. Once you've started out with a 0.3 percent formula, this is the retinol cream to turn to to really amp up your results.
Pros: Soothing formula; Medical-grade.
Customer review: "I just jumped up from the .3 to the .5 retinol level, and I can already see and feel a difference in a couple weeks. My skin is smoother and I'm experiencing less acne. My esthetician recommends SkinCeuticals, and she highly recommends a retinol cream. I'm very pleased with my results." — Dermstore
Best Retinol Cream for Hyperpigmentation
This stuff is definitely powerful with a 0.5 percent retinol formula, so 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. What makes this retinol cream really stand out is its other hero ingredients. It includes jojoba oil and shea butter for more firming action, plus vitamins C and E to neutralize free radicals. Talk about a multi-tasker!
Pros: Hydrating; A little goes a long way.
Customer review: "I am very pleased with this retinol. I’ve been using it for a few weeks and I can see improvements in my skin without the harsh dryness that most retinols cause for me. I will be purchasing the next step up when this is gone." — Dermstore
Best Retinol Cream for Uneven Skin Tones
An age concern you may not think about too often is yellowing. This treatment, however, does address that problem by combining niacinamide with its high-tech 0.1 percent retinol. Niacinamide works to reduce age-related yellowing and redness, while the retinol tackles fine lines, uneven skin tones, and pores. With such a low dose of retinol, even those with the most sensitive of skin can achieve results with this treatment, without having to worry about any flaking or irritation that can come with retinol. Zaborowski counts herself a fan of this treatment, adding, "It also uses their patented OmniSome delivery system that pushes products into the deeper layers of the skin."
Pros: Gentle enough for sensitive skin.
Customer review: "This has helped my skin immensely. My skin is soft and fresh now. It does take some time to ease into using it but once you do that, it's well worth it." — Dermstore
Best Brightening Retinol Cream
If there's a skincare duo that works magic for reversing the clock of your skin, it's retinol and vitamin C. This pick features the gold-standard anti-aging ingredients in an ultra-rich cream so you can tackle a myriad of skin concerns in a single swipe. Not only does this work wonders on fine lines, dark spots, and uneven skin tones, but it also doubles as your nightly moisturizer. While it is on the pricey side, it's well worth the price considering it's basically three products in one.
Pros: A little goes a long way; Hydrating; Brightening.
Customer review: "This stuff is amazing! Yes, it is expensive but a little goes along way. I only used it at night and only every other night. It tingled at first but eventually my skin got use to it. I would wake up in the morning and my skin would look fantastic! I am 45 and fair skinned and my skin looks like I am 35 in the morning after using this!" — Sephora
Best Cult-Favorite Retinol Cream