Want a skincare hero that can tackle fine lines, acne and dark spots? The best retinol creams address everything from textural issues to pigmentation to signs of aging. Whether in the form of face creams, serums or lotions, these products can minimize a multitude of skincare woes, but given their potency they also require some know-how before application. “Retinols work by reducing oil production and promoting cellular turnover,” says Dr. Lian Mack, medical director and owner of New York-based dermatology clinic GlamDerm. “In turn, this helps decrease whiteheads and blackheads and enhance skin radiance.”
To reap the benefits, though, it’s important to find a retinol formula that matches your skin type and concerns. If you have very dry skin, for example, you’ll want a cream that regenerates skin like an exfoliator but also hydrates as well as a facial moisturizer. And the eye area requires a gentle approach with ingredients that penetrate deeply without causing irritation. While high quality anti-aging serums can be costly, there are plenty of affordable picks with stellar results and science behind them. Ahead, we’ve rounded up the best retinol creams to consider, as well as expert advice and tips from Dr. Mack on how to apply these skin-perfectors and work them into your routine for a clearer, firmer complexion.
What To Consider In A Retinol Cream
Retinol is known to be an acquired ingredient—it can be drying, irritating and is proven to make your skin extra sensitive to the sun. But with continued use, it can be game-changing for pigmentation, textural issues and signs of aging. When it comes to settling on a retinol cream, it’s important to consider your skin goals and weigh the benefits versus the risks.
“Retinol and retinoids are both vitamin A derivatives,” says 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, goes 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.
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.
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,” says Dr. Mack. 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.
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.
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 accelerating 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 out, you might want to consider cutting or buffering your retinol serum or cream for a few weeks with a nourishing moisturizer free of actives (this CeraVe one will do the trick) until your skin acclimates.