Trendy new skincare ingredients come and go all the time, but it’s an old-school OG that remains the reigning champion when it comes to delivering proven results. We’re talking about retinol. We’ll get into why that is in a moment, but first, here are some helpful tips about retinol you need to know. According to Kseniya Kobets, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York, the term “retinoids” refers to the entire class of ingredients; “retinol” is a type of retinoid, one that’s available over-the-counter. (There are other types, too, more on that point to come.)
Retinoids are all vitamin A-derivatives, and while there are some nuances among them, they all offer the same type of effects. First and foremost, they act on both the surface and deeper layers of the skin. On the surface, they increase cell turnover to help improve overall skin tone and texture, explains Dr. Kobets. In the deeper layers, they both activate collagen production and minimize collagen breakdown, she adds. Translation: Fewer wrinkles. On top of that, they also can help minimize sebum production and keep pores clear, a win for those with acne. Retinoids also inhibit tyrosinase, an enzyme needed to create pigment, helping address hyperpigmentation, too. In short, there’s really nothing retinoids—retinol included—can’t do.1
We conducted hours of research on the best retinol creams, evaluating them on their active ingredients, and targeted benefits. We also considered how well each formula absorbs into skin, and any potential side-effects, like peeling or irritation. After consulting with a board-certified dermatologist, we narrowed down our picks.
SkinBetter Science AlphaRet Overnight Cream
Dr. Kobets is a big fan of this formula, pointing out that it was tested head-to-head against a prescription-strength retinoid and found to be as effective but come with less irritation. “It’s also combined with alpha hydroxy acids and additional moisturizers to help increase the efficacy and keep skin hydrated,” she says. Namely, there are lactic and glycolic acids in the mix to further help brighten and smooth your complexion, as well as plenty of moisturizing ingredients that help minimize the likelihood of irritation.
Price at time of publish: $135
Active Ingredients: Ethyl lactyl retinoate, glycolic acid, ceramides | Benefits: Improves lines and wrinkles, tone, and texture | Size: 1 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes
Olay Regenerist Retinol 24 Night Facial Moisturizer
Dr. Kobets is also a fan of this option, lauding it for the addition of hydrating ingredients, including niacinamide (AKA vitamin B3). And niacinamide is a great multi-tasker just like retinol is, also offering dark spot-fading and redness calming effects. Plus, this is super affordable and is fragrance-free, too.
Price at time of publish: $30
Active Ingredients: Retinol, niacinamide | Benefits: Improves lines and wrinkles, brightens, combats the look of dark spots and pores | Size: 1.7 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: No
Best Drugstore, Runner-Up
Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Hyaluronic Acid & Retinol Face Cream
Here’s another great option you can snag at the drugstore. This pairs with retinol and hydrating hyaluronic acid, in a moisturizing-yet-fast absorbing cream that works fast. So fast that, according to the brand, you may start to see results in as little as one week. Also nice: It’s fragrance-free and dermatologist- tested for all skin types, sensitive included.
Price at time of publish: $32
Active Ingredients: Retinol, hyaluronic acids | Benefits: Smooths fine lines, hydrates | Size: 1.7 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: No
Good Molecules Gentle Retinol Cream
Given how efficacious and well-studied retinol is, this is certainly one category where you can feel fairly confident that any money you spend is well-worth it. That being said, if you’re on a budget and/or just don’t want to invest in a retinol cream quite yet, consider this guy. It costs less than 10 dollars, though it still contains .1% retinol, along with antioxidant-rich bakuchiol and skin–soothing ingredients that help nourish and combat any irritation.
Price at time of publish: $8
Active Ingredients: Retinol, bakuchiol, vitamin E | Benefits:Improves lines and wrinkles, tone, and texture | Size: 1 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes
Best for Dry Skin
Paula’s Choice Resist Intensive Repair Cream
Retinol is notorious for its drying side effects; it’s why you may initially experience some drying and flaking when you first start using the ingredient. But this cream helps address that issue, by incorporating the active in a mega thick, mega creamy base that’s loaded with humectant, emollient, and occlusive ingredients (you want all three categories in a moisturizer). Just keep in mind that this does only contain a .01 percent concentration of retinol, which is on the lower end of the spectrum. While this might be a deterrent for some skin types, those with drier complexions will actually benefit from a less intense concentration of retinol, and use it to build up their tolerance of retinol.
Price at time of publish: $37
Active Ingredients: Retinol, jojoba oil, hyaluronic acid, petrolatum | Benefits: Firms skin, targets, signs of aging | Size: 1.7 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes
Best for Oily Skin
The Ordinary 0.2% Retinol in Squalane
Retinol is a great ingredient for those with oily skin, particularly when it’s in a formula like this. Rather than a heavy cream, this is lightweight and serum-like, with a base of jojoba oil and squalane. Both are great hydrators, but because they mimic and are very similar to the natural sebum in our skin they absorb very quickly and won’t clog pores. The fact that this boasts a very minimal ingredient list also makes it a nice choice for anyone with sensitive skin, and the crazy affordable price is just an added bonus.
Price at time of publish: $8
Active Ingredients: Retinol, squalane, jojoba oil | Benefits: Improves lines and wrinkles, tone, and texture | Size: 1 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes
Best for Acne-Prone Skin
La Roche-Posay Effaclar Adapalene Gel 0.1% Topical Retinoid Acne Treatment
Retinoids are great for those with acne; in fact, prescription-strength tretinoin was first used as an acne treatment back in the 1970s. This pick, which is another recommendation from Dr. Kobets, is great for clearing blackheads, whiteheads, and blemishes, but technically doesn’t contain retinol. Rather, it relies on adapalene, another type of retinoid that used to be available by prescription-only.
Price at time of publish: $37
Active Ingredients: Adapalene | Benefits: Clears blackheads, whiteheads, and blemishes | Size: 1 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: No
Best for Sensitive Skin
CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum
It can be admittedly scary to try a retinol if you have sensitive skin; after all the ingredient is notorious for its irksome side effects, including irritation, redness, and flaking. But this is a good option to start with, even if you are on the sensitive side. Dr. Kobets says it’s a non-irritating formula, thanks to the fact that the retinol is encapsulated and delivered into the skin via slow-release technology. There are also skin-strengthening ceramides in the mix and calming niacinamide, too, always a good thing for sensitive skin.
Price at time of publish: $17
Active Ingredients: Retinol, ceramides, licorice root, niacinamide | Benefits: Minimizes the look of pores and discoloration | Size: 1 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: No
Best Eye Cream
RoC Retinol Correxion Line Smoothing Eye Cream
Given that the skin around your eyes is the thinnest on the body and more prone to irritation than elsewhere, if you’re going to use retinol around your eyes, it’s a good idea to do so via a dedicated eye product. This has been a fan-favorite for years (one is sold every 30 seconds), but it recently got a reformulation upgrade. The retinol is now delivered via a sustained-release system to help minimize irritation and increase efficacy, and is even better able to smooth fine lines and wrinkles around the eyes.
Price at time of publish: $19
Active Ingredients: Retinol, glycerin | Benefits: Helps with fine lines and brightens the eye area | Size: .5 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: No
Drunk Elephant A-Passioni Retinol Cream
Like we said, retinol’s one major drawback is that it can be very irritating. Given that fragrance is another one of the most common skin irritants, looking for fragrance-free retinol creams is always a good one. This one packs a one-percent concentration of retinol alongside line-smoothing peptides and moisturizing vitamin F. We also love that the pump-top bottle minimizes exposure to light and air, both of which can degrade the namesake ingredient. Although this product is on the pricier side, we think the formula plus the design of the bottle make this a quality product worth the spend.
Price at time of publish: $74
Active Ingredients: Retinol, peptides, vitamin F | Benefits: Minimizes look of fine lines and sun damage | Size: 1 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes
Best Various Concentrations
SkinCeuticals Retinol 0.3
Many brands don’t specify exactly how much retinol is included in their over-the-counter products. While the concentration isn’t the only thing to keep in mind (keep reading as to why), it can be a good indicator as to exactly how strong of your product you’re getting. That’s why we appreciate that this pick not only specifies the amount, it also comes in three different strengths: .3, .5 and 1.0 concentrations. It makes for an easy way for you to know exactly what your skin is getting, and gradually work your way up as your skin gets more and more acclimated to the ingredient.
Price at time of publish: $78
Active Ingredients: Retinol, bisabolol | Benefits: Improves the look of wrinkles, blemishes, and pores | Size: 1 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: No
Best with Antioxidants
Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Advanced Retinol + Ferulic Intense Wrinkle Cream
Retinol is good for your skin. Antioxidants are good for your skin. Here, you get the benefits of both. Retinol is paired with bakuchiol (an ingredient that actually acts very similar to retinol but also has antioxidant benefits), ferulic acid (one of the most powerful antioxidants out there), and antioxidant-rich rambutan. The cream is also super hydrating and great even for those with sensitive skin; in brand-backed clinical studies, none of the participants experienced any kind of irritation, even after using this for 12 weeks.
Price at time of publish: $77
Active Ingredients: Retinol, bakuchiol, rambutan | Benefits: Reduces fine lines and improves skin texture | Size: 2 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes
Opulus Beauty Labs The Starter System Regimen 1
Opulus Beauty Labs
Here’s a splurge-worthy option for those who want to channel their inner cosmetic chemist. This set comes with an activator device and 28 treatment ampoules. (They’re reminiscent of Nespresso pods.) Pop one into the device, where it gently spins and warms up the solid pod, transforming it into a lightweight cream. This kit comes with both a retinol option—made with retinol and ceramides—as well as a restorative mask pod made with soothing and moisturizing ingredients, that you can alternate nightly. Plus, you can choose from three different retinol concentrations.
Price at time of publish: $395
Active Ingredients: Retinol, ceramide | Benefits: Improves texture and tone | Size: 28 treatments | Cruelty-Free: Yes
Best for Beginners
Common Heir Retinol Serum
There are two reasons why we like this pick for retinol newbies. Yes, it’s technically not a cream; rather, it’s a serum that’s housed inside each of the individual capsules, which might not be super sustainable. But given that using too much product is one of the biggest mistakes beginners make, this single-dose application method alleviates that issue. And two, the formula itself is great for sensitive skin, with a lower concentration of retinol and skin-barrier strengthening algae and squalane.
Price at time of publish: $88
Active Ingredients: Retinyl linoleate, safflower seed oil, squalane, algae | Benefits: Improves lines and wrinkles, tone, and texture | Size: 60 x .01 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes
Murad Retinol Youth Renewal Night Cream
As a general rule of thumb, retinol isn’t one of those ingredients that’s going to work some kind of magic overnight; it takes time to fully see all of its effects. That being said, in clinical trials conducted by the brand, people saw results in as little as four weeks, an impressive timeline. Credit the fact that it uses a three-pronged approach, combining a fast-acting retinoid, a time-release retinol, and a retinol booster. Bonus points for the fact that there’s moisturizing niacinamide in the mix, too.
Price at time of publish: $88
Active Ingredients: Retinol, niacinamide | Benefits: Improves lines and wrinkles, boosts firmness, hydrates | Size: 1.7 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes
If you aren’t yet using a retinol cream as part of your regular routine, it’s definitely a good idea to start doing so. The SkinBetter AlphaRet Overnight Cream gets our vote for best overall, a derm-favorite that combines a retinoid with alpha hydroxy acids to further up the effects. There are also great retinoids to be found at the drugstore, like Olay Regenerist Retinol24 Night Moisturizer, which is a powerful formula at an affordable price.
What to Look For in a Retinol Cream
As mentioned, retinol is only one type of retinoid; other ones you’ll find in over-the-counter products include retinyl palmitate and retinol propionate, as well as retinaldehyde. They’re all vitamin A derivatives, the main difference is how they act in the skin. Retinoic acid is what actually binds to the retinoic acid receptors in your skin, however, it’s available only by prescription, says Dr. Kobets. (Tretinoin is a popular example.) All of these other ones have to undergo a conversion process in the skin in order to turn into retinoic acid, she explains, which is why they’re slightly less potent than straight-up retinoic acid. That being said, it doesn’t really matter *that* much which one you choose, although retinol is the most powerful option available over-the-counter, or even the drugstore, like the Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Retinol Regenerating Cream, our best budget pick.
This matters, but it also kind of doesn’t. Per our point above, it’s not only about the concentration, but also the type of retinoid being used, the way the product is formulated, and other ingredients in the mix. That being said, if you’re a retinol newbie, it’s not a bad idea to start with products that specify lower concentrations of retinol, like the CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum.
Hydrating & Soothing Ingredients
According to Dr. Kobets, both humectant ingredients (glycerin, hyaluronic acid) and moisturizing and soothing ingredients (niacinamide, ceramides, aloe) are good to seek out in a retinol cream, as they can help offset the potential for dryness and irritation. We love that our best overall pick, the SkinBetter AlphaRet Overnight Cream not only has extra exfoliating ingredients in the formula, it also comes replete with ceramides to protect the integrity of the skin. Another emulsifying formula on our list is Paula’s Choice Resist Intensive Repair Cream, which is loaded with hyaluronic acid as well as other hydrating ingredients.
How do retinol creams work?
“Retinoids have many mechanisms of action,” says Dr. Kobets. These include influencing how cells proliferate, increasing skin cell turnover, and increasing collagen production. In short, they work in multiple different ways in the skin, which is why they have so many different benefits.
What concentration of retinol is best?
Unfortunately, there’s no universal answer here. “The problem with relying on the concentration and percent of retinol is that all products are formulated differently,” says Dr. Kobets, who adds that the percentage of retinol in a cream doesn’t exactly translate to how concentrated it will be once it actually hits the skin.
What are the benefits of retinol creams?
You name it, they can pretty much do it, although helping to minimize wrinkles, improve the look of pores, smooth out rough skin texture, and help even out pigmentation are all on that list, says Dr. Kobets.
Are retinol creams good for all skin types?
Yes, with one big caveat. “Be cautious if you have sensitive skin, which is more prone to the potential irritation, or have skin of color, which is more likely to experience post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation from any type of irritation,” Dr. Kobets says. Start slowly, using a product only every few nights, and gradually increasing the frequency of use as your skin can tolerate it.
Should you moisturize after retinol?
Yes! And if you want to up the ante, you can even try the ‘sandwich’ method: “Apply a basic moisturizer both before and after using a retinoid, as this will provide both hydration and possibly help minimize any irritating side effects,” says Dr. Kobets.