The 30 Best Retinol Creams Ever

If you're not already using retinol, you should be.

Retinol creams
(Image credit: Selin Alemdar)

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.