The 16 Best Retinol Creams

Plus, expert tips on how to use the game-changing skincare ingredient.

two models with smooth skin
(Image credit: Getty)

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

  • Potency

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.

  • Formula

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

When to 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 to Incorporate Retinol

When it comes to retinol, slow and steady truly wins the race. Zaborowski recommends starting with a retinol product one to two times per week, then working your way up to three to four times a week, and applying it at night. "When you apply it at night this allows your skin to repair itself overnight and avoids direct sun exposure which can cause increased irritation," she explains. Most importantly, don't skip out on SPF during the day. "Always wear SPF during the day and don't forget to reapply," Zaborowski warns. "Retinol, especially at the beginning, can make your skin more sensitive and likely to burn."

Along with sunscreen, Zaborowski recommends using a vitamin C serum during the day to help protect your skin from free radicals. As a final note, she adds, "Ensure the rest of your routine is packed with healing and hydrating serums and moisturizers to help keep your skin barrier healthy."

Meet the Experts

Hannah Zaborowski headshot
Hannah Zaborowski

Hannah Zaborowski is the Executive Trainer at FACE FOUNDRIÉ and is a licensed advanced practice esthetician.

Dr. Michele Farber headshot
Dr. Michele Farber

Michele Farber, MD, FAAD is a board-certified dermatologist practicing with Schweiger Dermatology Group in Philadelphia, PA. Dr. Farber’s expertise includes skin cancer as well as general, cosmetic, and procedural dermatology.

Dr. Patricia Wexler headshot
Dr. Patricia Wexler

Dr. Wexler received her medical degree in 1979 from the Free University of Brussels in Belgium with a three year residency at Beth Israel Medical Center in the Department of Internal Medicine and an additional one year in the Department of Infectious Diseases. This was followed by a residency at the Mount Sinai Medical Center in Dermatology. Dr. Patricia Wexler is currently an associate clinical professor at the Icahn School of Medicine. Dr. Wexler is a board-certified member of the American Board of Internal Medicine and the American Board of Dermatology, as well as Fellow of the American Society of Dermatologic Surgery, the American Academy of Dermatology, the American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery and the American Society for Laser Medicine and Surgery.