No matter how much time, money or effort you invest in your skincare routine—from the extensive to the minimal—the most important thing is that it actually works. And if we’re talking the most effective ingredients that are actually worth your time and money, we have to talk about retinol.
Chances are you’ve seen retinol mostly marketed for its anti-aging benefits, but you don’t have to be worried about wrinkles to use it. “Retinols are vitamin A derivatives that manage to tackle just about every skin concern—dark spots, dullness, acne, wrinkles, and they even help build collagen,” says Papri Sarkar, MD, a dermatologist in Brookline, Massachusetts. Few ingredients are as deeply researched and as frequently recommended for this exact reason.
But even though dermatologists agree that everyone should incorporate a retinol into their skincare routine no matter what that routine may be, it does come with a few caveats. There are possible side effects to using a retinol, particularly if you have never used one before. Most common is dryness, flaking and irritation as your skin gets used to it. Luckily, your skin usually acclimates “over several weeks” and those effects go away, says Michigan-based dermatologist Linda Honet, MD. “The key to success with retinols is to start low and slow,” she says. Most dermatologists advise using a new retinol one night a week and then gradually working your way up to at least every other night. And always following it with moisturizer.
The other caveat is that retinol should only be used at night. It can sensitize your skin, especially at first, which leaves it vulnerable to sun damage during the day (some advise that retinol is also photosensitive—which means it can lose its potency when exposed to sunlight). Limit using your retinol to bedtime only and always use sunscreen during the day when you are using retinol, says Elisabeth Shim, MD, a dermatologist in Santa Monica, CA.
And, of course, which retinol product you use can make a difference, too. Whether you’re a beginner or retinol veteran, have dry or oily skin (or anything in between), or are hoping to target wrinkles or acne, there is a retinol product out there for you. We spoke to expert dermatologists to get their top recommendations for every face.
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Best Retinol Moisturizer
Eau Thermale Avene RetrinAL 0.1 Intensive Cream
In order for your skin to utilize the retinol in a product, it typically needs to convert it into a usable form which can potentially decrease effectiveness. This cream is “unique because it is a retinaldehyde, rather than a retinol,” says Chicago-based dermatologist Raymond Kleinfelder, DO. “The benefit is that it does not need to be converted to an active ingredient,” meaning your skin gets to use the good stuff right away.
Best Retinol Serum
Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Retinol Pro+ .5% Power Serum
Best Affordable Retinol
CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum
$15.99 (11% off)
This serum is “easy to find, easy to use, and gentle enough to not cause the usual redness, irritation and flaking often seen with retinols,” says Dr. Sarkar.
Olay Regenerist Retinol 24 Max Moisturizer
Cream-based retinol products are ideal for dry skin and can also help curb potential irritation by delivering more moisturizing ingredients. This easy-to-find cream has a higher dose of retinol, but the fragrance-free cream formula means potential irritation is minimized, plus you get two steps in one (no need to add another moisturizer on top of it).
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Pietro Simone Skincare Scar and Spot Fighter
This advanced serum combines retinol and azelaic acid to address texture issues like acne, scarring, and large pores—among everything else that retinol is good for (hello, wrinkle reduction). It’s a potent mix, but there’s also skin plumping and hydrating ingredients to help reduce potential irritation
Verso Super Facial Serum 1 Fl Oz
This high-end serum uses a form of retinyl retinoate called Retinol 8 which “causes less skin irritation than typical retinoids,” says Noelle S. Sherbet, MD, a dermatologist in Washington, D.C. Studies have found that this ingredient outperformed traditional retinol in wrinkle-reducing effects and can actually improve skin hydration.
Sente Bio Complete Serum
Dr. Kleinfelder also loves this luxury serum because not only does it contain highly-effective retinol, but also “a unique formulation of heparan sulfates, components of the skin which are often lost with age. This replaces them, allowing more water to be drawn to the middle layer of the skin, giving a fuller, more youthful appearance.”
Differin Adapalene Gel 0.1% Acne Treatment
Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Advanced Retinol + Ferulic Overnight Texture Renewal Peel
If you have oily skin or just don’t like the feel of serums or creams on your face, these single-use pads offer an alternative. Soaked in a serum that contains both retinol and bakuchiol (a plant-derived ingredient with similar properties) as well as ferulic acid to help control potential irritation, swipe a pad over your face 2-3 times a week before bed to help smooth fine lines and brighten skin.
RoC Retinol Correxion Deep Wrinkle Serum
$17.17 (28% off)
“For retinol beginners, it’s important to start slow and work up to stronger products,” says Caroline Change, MD, a dermatologist in Rhode Island. She recommends this inexpensive serum because “it’s lightweight and can be layered under moisturizer.”
Pond’s Skin Tightening Serum
This serum “contains a combination of retinol and niacinamide, two ingredients that provide a synergistic effect in treating aging skin,” says Joshua Zeichner, MD, a dermatologist in New York City. “Retinol enhances cell turnover and stimulates collagen production while niacinamide calms inflammation and helps brighten the skin.”
La Roche-Posay Effaclar Adapelene 0.1% Gel
Up until a few years ago, this version of retinol gel was only available by prescription and now is “one of the most effective over the counter retinoids,” says Dr. Sarkar. “Remember, a little goes a long way. I recommend patients put a pea sized amount on their whole face then slather the whole area in your favorite moisturizer to keep irritation at bay.”
First Aid Beauty FAB Skin Lab Retinol Serum 0.25 Pure Concentrate (1 fl. oz.)
If you’ve never used retinol or have sensitive skin, you might have a hard time diving into the deep end. This serum is tailor-made for beginners because the concentration is lower than most other retinol products, yet still effective. Even though it’s low, you should still start slow—but this one is the least likely to cause a reaction.
Bliss Youth Got This Prevent-4 + Retinol Advanced Skin Smoothing Serum
Dr. Zeichner also recommends this serum because it “contains a stabilized form of retinol in a formula that protects the skin barrier, hydrates, and calms inflammation with peptides, squalane, and antioxidants.”
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