Best Retinol Creams 2023


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.

Paula’s Choice is a top pick among dermatologists for its high-strength 1% retinol concentration and controlled-release delivery, which allows the active ingredients to absorb gradually to prevent dryness. It has a light lotion texture, similar to that of a primer, which gives you the option to layer on a thicker cream if you need it.

What you’ll love:

  • Contains 1% retinol
  • Slow-release concentration
  • Improves skin brightness and texture

Keep in mind:

  • Formulated for normal, dry, oily and combination skin types
  • May irritate sensitive skin

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Retinol naturally exfoliates the skin, which helps slough debris from pores and keep acne under control. If you have oily skin, consider a lighter serum rather than cream: CeraVe’s contains encapsulated retinol to slowly release over time to protect your skin’s barrier. It also minimizes acne scars, absorbs quickly and is affordable.

What you’ll love:

  • Affordable
  • Contains three types of ceramides
  • Diminishes post-acne marks and the appearance of pores

Keep in mind:

  • Retinol percentage unknown
  • Can be difficult to dispense

Retinol is best applied at night when your skin repairs itself, as a way to minimize irritation from UV exposure. For a customizable regimen, SkinCeuticals nighttime vials come in three retinol strengths—from 0.3% (beginner) to 0.5% (intermediate) to 1% (advanced)—so you can level up slowly or apply different concentrations to different areas of your face. Aside from retinol, the formula also contains healing botanicals.

What you’ll love:

  • Formulated with 1% pure retinol
  • Concentrated applicator

Keep in mind:

  • Expensive
  • May irritate sensitive skin

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, its non-greasy yet hydrating night cream (and the corresponding eye cream) are both still bestsellers. RoC doesn’t list a percentage on the cream, meaning it could be anywhere from 0.1-1%. If your skin is acclimated to a very low amount of retinol, apply this slowly at first.

What you’ll love:

  • Affordable
  • Hydrates skin
  • Minimizes wrinkles

Keep in mind:

  • Percentage of retinol unknown
  • Some irritation may occur
  • Has an unpleasant odor

For first-time retinol users, Glossier’s formula has 0.5% retinyl sunflowerate, a newer retinol-derivative comprised of retinol and sunflower seed fatty acids that’s gentle but very effective for reducing fine lines, dark spots, uneven texture and acne. The concentration is enough to get the benefits while still being tolerable for all skin types.

What you’ll love:

  • Formulated with gentle yet effective 0.5% retinyl sunflowerate
  • Improves skin texture, tone and radiance

Keep in mind:

  • Air pump may dispense inconsistently
  • It has a light scent

This pick boasts 1% retinol—the highest concentration without requiring a prescription. But unlike a lot of creams of this 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. 

What you’ll love:

  • Formulated with 1% vegan retinol
  • Enhanced with anti-aging peptides
  • Comes in recyclable packaging

Keep in mind:

  • May result in peeling or irritation

The skin around your eyes is thinner compared to that of the rest of your face so it’s often the first show to signs of aging—specifically in the form of wrinkles and dark spots. It’s also very sensitive. This highly-rated, cult-favorite cream pairs retinol with mineral-rich spring water to firm and comfort skin, and as added bonus caffeine to minimize dark circles.

What you’ll love:

  • Caffeine helps to minimize dark circles
  • Works to improve the look of dark spots and crows feet
  • Fast absorbing

Keep in mind:

  • May cause skin irritation and peeling
  • Retinol percentage unknown

Retinol is a vitamin A derivative that certain people might want to avoid—for example, those who are pregnant or breastfeeding. In that case, try bakuchiol, a gentler, plant-based retinol alternative that behaves similarly and promotes cellular turnover. Herbivore’s go-to serum combines bakuchiol with polyhydroxy acids and tremella mushroom to lightly exfoliate and hydrate skin to soften lines and wrinkles.

What you’ll love:

  • Gently exfoliates skin
  • Boosts moisture
  • Plant-based retinol alternative

Keep in mind:

  • It has a sticky feel
  • Formula may change color over time

Olay’s Regenerist line is well tested and highly rated among dermatologists for its efficacy. The Retinol 24 Max firms and hydrates seriously dry skin with a retinoid complex and reparative niacinamide (aka vitamin B3). Although it’s technically a night cream, you can slather it on during the day too, if you’re especially parched.

What you’ll love:

  • Fragrance-free
  • Non-greasy
  • Provides added hydration

Keep in mind:

  • Jar packaging not ideal for unstable ingredients like retinol
  • Retinol percentage unknown

Dr. Dennis Gross Advanced Retinol + Ferulic Intense Wrinkle Cream

This powerhouse cocktail of skin-restoring ingredients is incredible for preventing and treating fine lines, but it also supports your skin’s overall health. In addition to retinol and bakuchiol (a retinol alternative), antioxidant rambutan helps your body produce more collagen to firm and tighten the skin. It also contains ferulic acid and niacinamide to keep skin hydrated and plump and to minimize hyperpigmentation—all of which contribute to a younger-looking complexion.

What you’ll love:

  • Contains both retinol and a retinol alternative
  • Hydrating
  • Safe for dry and sensitive skin types

Keep in mind:

  • Makes your skin sensitive to the sun
  • May feel too heavy for those who prefer gel or serum consistencies

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.

Ingredients

“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.

Skin Type

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.

Application

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.



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