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Ever wish there was one product that would help with fine lines, acne, and dark spots? Well, there’s a retinol cream for that. The best retinol products, whether they be retinol creams, serums, or even pills, can help with all those common skincare woes and more, but, given their potency, they also require some know-how before application. “Traditionally, retinoids have been used to treat acne breakouts,” says Dr. Lian Mack, the medical director and owner of New York-based dermatology clinic GlamDerm. But that’s not all they can do: “retinoids help with reducing oil production and promote cellular turnover, which results in decreased whiteheads and blackheads and enhances skin radiance.”
Drunk Elephant A-Passioni Retinol Cream is our pick for the best retinol cream overall.
So what is retinol exactly, and how does it differ from retinoids? “Retinol and retinoids are both vitamin A derivatives,” explains Dr. Mack. At the far end of the severity (and efficacy) spectrum is an oral application of retinoid. You probably know that prescription-strength retinoid, used to treat severe acne, by the name Accutane. Slightly less hardcore (and gentler on the skin) is a prescription-strength retinoid like tretinoin, often under the brand name Retin-A. Less intense (and suitable for most skin types, and retinol beginners) are OTC retinol creams and serums. Most of the products on this list fall into that category, and are a good starting point for most people.
But for the super sensitive or dry skin types, there are retinoid esters — look for retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate, and retinyl linoleate on the ingredient list — which are the weakest member of the family.
And for those who are pregnant, breastfeeding, or prefer to stay away from additional vitamin A, try bakuchiol, a plant derivative that’s considerably gentler on the skin. “Bakuchiol behaves similarly to retinoids by promoting cellular turnover which ultimately increases the production of Type I collagen, softening the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles,” says Dr. Mack.
Retinol is generally considered to be safe for everyone (except those who are pregnant or breastfeeding) but those with darker skin tones do need to be extra considerate about use. “if a darker skinned patient is irritated by the product, they are more likely to develop hyperpigmentation when compared to their fairer skinned counterparts,” explains Dr. Mack. While everyone should acclimate their skin to retinol slowly (Dr. Mack suggests beginning with just a pea size amount twice a week, and slowly increasing dosage after three weeks) those with darker skin should be particularly careful in the ramp up period.
Regardless of your skin tone, only use retinol at night. And always, always follow with diligent application of sunscreen during the day, as your skin will become more photosensitive. If not, you might just be cruising for the exact damage you’re trying to repair, like fine lines and uneven skin. Always apply to dry skin, and follow with a moisturizer. When you’re just starting to use retinol, you might want to consider cutting or buffering your serum or cream with a nourishing moisturizer free of actives (this CeraVe one will do the trick) until your skin begins to acclimate.
This little tube boasts 1% retinol—the highest concentration without a prescription. But, unlike a lot of creams of that strength, this one balances out that enlarged-pore-shrinking, fine-line-diminishing, uneven-texture-smoothing magic with nourishing ingredients. Passionfruit, apricot, marula, and jojoba oils, alongside vitamin F, all work to restore moisture while the retinol smooths and clears skin.
LA-based celebrity facialist (clients include the glowing Rosie Huntington-Whiteley and Jessica Alba) Shani Darden has the key to gentle retinol. Her line’s Texture Reform serum calls on retinyl palmitate, a type of retinoid ester, and combines it with soothing ingredients like aloe, plus lactic acid, which encourages cell turnover. In the evening after cleansing and toning, apply a pump or two to dry skin, then follow with a nourishing, gentle moisturizer.
If you’re after a no-nonsense retinol regimen, these little vials by SkinCeuticals are for you. They come in three strengths—1%, .5% and .3%, so you can level up slowly, or apply different concentrations to different areas of your face. Aside from the retinol, the formula contains frankincense and chamomile extract that soothe the skin.
Clean beauty pioneer’ Beautycounter’s countertime line was actually my go-to long before I considered retinol, and still part of my regular routine. I’m now on my third bottle of the Antioxidant Soft Cream, a silky, pumpable cream that leaves skin instantly dewier and plumper. After about a month of daily use, I noticed the usually sensitive and slightly rough areas of my face had nearly perfectly smooth skin.
Recently, I added the lipid defense cleansing oil to my rotation. Crafted from a blend of bakuchiol and plant oil oils, this sensitive and nourishing oil cleanser adds gentle contrast to the more active soft cream (or any retinol product on this list). For anyone dipping their toes into retinol use, consider this cleanser to protect your moisture barrier while you experiment with dosage and frequency of application.
This little gold tube is a classic for a reason. RoC was one of the first drugstore brands to sell a stable retinol product — years later, their non-greasy but hydrating night cream (and the corresponding eye cream) are both still best sellers. RoC doesn’t list a percentage on the cream, meaning it could be anywhere from .1—.1%. If your skin is acclimated to a very low amount of retinol only, apply this slowly at first.
Dr. Mack recommends this product, and I wholeheartedly agree. After overdoing it with a prescription Retin-A cream, I scaled back to Skin Better Science and found that while it was still great at clearing the skin in my t-zone, I wasn’t experience the dryness, redness, or just generally irritated-looking skin I had when I enthusiastically lathered up in Retin-A. That result is thanks to a double hit of both lactic acid and retinoid acid, explains Dr. Mack, which results in a formulation that hydrates as it treats.