6 Best Retinol Products To Renew Your Skin

Beauty portrait of a young beautiful half naked woman with perfect skin looking away isolated over white background

Key Points

  • Choosing the best retinol depends on your skin type, budget, and preference. 

  • Retinols or retinoids should be applied to the entire face at night.

  • The best retinol products make skin improvements over time, not overnight. 

  • Sensitive skin requires a nuanced approach to retinol use.

As a protective, full body armor, your skin takes a lot of hits during your lifetime. There is a limit to your skin’s tolerance, especially if you have a compromised skin barrier. Retinol products produce miracles for the skin and remain one of the most elite ingredients in the skincare market, but what is the best retinol product for your skin type?

Your skin is exposed to daily pollution, UV radiation, bacteria, and many other external factors. These external culprits cause skin damage expressed in the form of unwanted lines, wrinkles, pigmentation issues, and other visible signs of aging. Although aging is inevitable, the best retinol products slow down this process and even reverse skin damage. 

In this guide for retinol users, find out what retinol does for your skin, how to select one for your skin type, and learn to apply them correctly.   

What Are Retinols and Retinoids?

People often use the terms retinol and retinoids interchangeably, but there is a difference between them. Retinol is a holy grail ingredient found in several skincare products that dermatologists swear by. Retinol is a form of vitamin A that belongs to the retinoid family. In other words, retinol is a type of retinoid.

Retinols are not as strong and as fast as prescription retinoids (other vitamin A derivatives). Although they aren’t the most effective retinoid treatments, retinol products are usually less irritating and more gentle on the skin, depending on your skin type, dosage, and other factors. 

People seem to use retinol as the term for weaker over-the-counter retinoids while using retinoids to describe the stronger and most effective prescription retinoids. Using the terms in this way makes it confusing to distinguish the differences between them.

In a nutshell, every retinol is a retinoid, but not every retinoid is a retinol.

What Do Retinoids Do?

Retinoids boost the skin’s collagen production and cell turnover to combat visible signs of aging, such as fine lines, wrinkles, dark spots, and more. They also clear and prevent acne while improving skin texture and tone.

Bottles of retinol lay on table with small leaves

Who Should Use Retinols?

Although retinol products are safe, they aren’t for everyone. Some people with certain skin types or conditions cannot handle this potential skin-irritating ingredient.

No pressure if you want to skip it, but if you don’t want to miss out on the benefits of this miracle-working ingredient, test a small area of skin to check your reaction before diving in. 

Retinoids are not only for adults. If you’re a teen, there’s a huge chance you’re developing acne, which means your skin is breaking out or on the verge of welcoming zits. If that’s the case, it is highly recommended to incorporate a topical retinoid into your skincare routine. Topical retinoids are one of the most effective acne treatments, so they’re worth testing out for yourself. 

Doctors advise against using retinoids if you’re pregnant, breastfeeding, or trying to conceive. Both oral and topical forms of retinoids may pose a threat to unborn babies. Oral retinoids have been associated with birth defects.

Although doctors don’t know much about how retinol affects babies in the womb or while breastfeeding, it’s better to be safe than sorry. If you are allergic to vitamin A, definitely avoid retinoids of all kinds.

Which Is the Best Retinol To Start With? 

It’s tempting to run to the store and purchase the highest-strength over-the-counter retinol. If you’re eager to get your hands on this skincare staple, you might be tempted to visit a dermatologist and get a stronger dose of retinoid treatment.

Before you take any of these steps, consider what strength of retinol is best for you. Don’t go blindly searching for retinol and pick the first one you see at your local drugstore. Learn which percentages of retinol your skin is compatible with. 

If you’ve used retinol, you know what levels of potency are best for your skin. If you’ve never used retinol, you don’t know if your skin tolerates it. There are different strength levels of retinol available in the skincare market. It is wise to visit a dermatologist as they may advise you on which percentage is best for your skin. If you don’t have access to a skin doctor, consider the following tips when picking a retinol percentage:

  • As a beginner, it’s best to start with low-strength retinol percentages. Choose retinol concentrations between 0.01 percent and 0.03 percent and avoid the high-strength retinol between 0.3 percent and 1 percent. Starting with lower concentrations of retinol minimizes your risk of potential side effects. 

  • In their educational skincare YouTube channel, board-certified dermatologists Dr. L.J. Maxfield and Dr. Muneeb Shah, share their favorite retinol products for beginners: CeraVe’s Resurfacing Retinol Serum and Kiehl’s Micro-Dose Anti-Aging Retinol Serum with Ceramides and Peptides. These starter retinol products recommended by dermatologists minimize the risk of irritation while providing several benefits to your skin. 

Woman applies drops of retinol to renew her skin

What Is the Most Effective Retinol Product?

Tazarotene or Tazorac is the strongest retinoid available, but its high-strength concentration of 0.1 percent almost guarantees skin irritation and side effects. This product is available by prescription only.

Another powerful and effective active form of retinol is retinoic acid. Also known as tretinoin, this prescription-only ingredient works faster than retinol for quicker results. While it takes up to six months to see results from over-the-counter retinol, retinoic acid results become noticeable in about half that time. Be aware that stronger doses of retinoids probably won’t make your skin happy, especially if you’re a retinol newbie. 

Just because higher-strength retinoids like tazarotene or retinoic acid are among the most effective doesn’t mean you should discard lower-strength retinol options. If you have sensitive or dry skin or you’re a first-time retinol user, lower concentrations of retinol are much more gentle. 

Is 2% Retinol Too Strong? 

The high-strength retinol products are usually no more than 1 percent, but there are skincare products with concentrations of 2 percent or more. Although a stronger concentration of retinol tends to be more effective in some ways, the harsh irritation resulting from high levels leads to other skin issues. Avoid high-strength retinol if you’re a first-time retinol user.

What Brand Has the Best Retinol?

The brand that has the best retinol comes down to your personal preference. Pick one according to your skin type, budget, and skin condition. If the retinol serum you choose doesn’t work for your skin’s specific needs, test other retinol products until you find one you like. 

Check out the product’s customer reviews as well as ingredients to determine if you trust the brand. Remember that retinol doesn’t provide instant results. Expect your skin to get worse before it gets better, as these topical medications have side effects. 

Common side effects include dryness, irritation, redness, peeling, itching, stinging, and other angry symptoms. Some people hate retinol because of these annoying reactions. The unpleasant side effects also cause people to quit retinol treatments before giving them time to improve their skin.

The good news is that the side effects caused by retinol are usually temporary and manageable. Such effects fade within a few weeks. Once the ugly phase is over, you’ll be on your way to clear, youthful-looking skin. 

Best Retinoids for Acne

Retinols and retinoids are among the best acne treatments. Retinoids were originally introduced as acne treatments in the 1970s before researchers discovered their anti-aging benefits. Listed below are some of the best retinol topical medications for acne recommended by Dr. Maxfield and Dr. Shah. 

Before scrolling through the best acne over-the-counter retinoids, keep in mind that if you have severe forms of acne, it’s best to visit a dermatologist before purchasing an over-the-counter retinoid.

Woman applies retinol to renew her skin

1. Differin® Adapalene Gel 0.1% Acne Treatment

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11/28/2023 06:13 pm GMT

This acne treatment is an effective prescription-strength topical medication that is approved by the FDA for over-the-counter use in adults and children 12 years of age and older. It is the first retinoid that is available without a prescription. It wards off acne blemishes, pimples, blackheads, whiteheads, and clogged pores. It also improves the skin’s tone and texture.

The formula comes packed in a tube, but it’s also available in a user-friendly pump. It has several positive reviews as an effective acne solution. The product’s pump makes it easier to squeeze out the pea-sized amount of treatment you need to cover your entire face.  

2. La Roche-Posay Effaclar Adapalene Gel 0.1% Retinoid Acne Treatment

La Roche-Posay’s Effaclar Adapalene Gel 0.1% Retinoid is similar to Differin® Gel. It’s often compared to the gel as it also contains adapalene — an FDA-approved ingredient for acne for people 12 years of age and older.

This prescription-strength over-the-counter gel eliminates and prevents pimples, whiteheads, blackheads, and clogged pores. This product is free from fragrance and oil, so it works best for oily, acne-prone skin types.

The online reviews are more positive than negative, making this product worth checking out. It swiftly absorbs into the skin without leaving a greasy feel. Some people find the treatment drying, so slather on a hydrating moisturizer after the retinoid sinks in.

The Differin® Gel and La Roche-Posay versions of adapalene do the same thing; they just differ in their brand label, price, product size, and inactive ingredients. Several dermatologists usually recommend these two products for low and moderate forms of acne. 

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11/28/2023 06:24 pm GMT

Smiling woman with clear skin

Best Retinol Products for Fine Lines, Wrinkles, and Uneven Texture

Besides easing acne symptoms, retinol products are famous for their anti-aging effects. If you’re ready to reverse the visible signs of aging, browse through these over-the-counter retinol options that rejuvenate skin. 

3. The INKEY List Retinol Anti-Aging Serum

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INKEY’S award-winning retinol anti-aging serum is designed to minimize several common signs of aging, such as fine lines, wrinkles, dullness, uneven texture, and hyperpigmentation. This strong, creamy formula is slowly released into the skin, so it’s less irritating for sensitive skin. 

Although customers who have tested the product suggest its scent and packaging need improvement, it is a gentle, effective, and affordable option for new retinol users. It is formulated with humectants like glycerin and hyaluronic acid, which keep your skin hydrated and make it suitable for all skin types. 

4. Paula’s Choice CLINICAL 1% Retinol Treatment

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11/28/2023 06:42 pm GMT

Paula’s Choice is a best-selling, 1 percent retinol that contains skin-firming peptides plus vitamin C to combat fine lines, wrinkles, pores, and discoloration. This powerful retinol improves the skin’s firmness and elasticity while addressing uneven texture and dullness.

The vitamin C ingredient protects the skin from free radical damage. Thus this product not only rejuvenates the skin but also protects it from further environmental damage. Bonus ingredients include willow bark, oat, and licorice extracts, which deliver additional benefits to the skin. 

This lightweight, controlled-release product has a creamy texture that effectively releases ingredients into the skin over time. It is formulated without fragrance, formaldehyde, parabens, and other potential skin irritants. It is safe for all skin types skin. 

On the downside, it is an expensive over-the-counter retinol, but its skin-loving ingredients might be worth the price. 

5. Murad Retinol Youth Renewal Serum

Murad Retinol Youth Renewal Serum
$92.00 ($92.00 / Count)
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11/28/2023 06:48 pm GMT

Murad’s powerful youth retinol serum uses Retinol Tri-Active Technology to quickly deliver radiant, smoother, and younger-looking skin. It targets and corrects fine lines, wrinkles, and dark circles. Formulated with hyaluronic acid, this serum plumps up your skin with hydration. 

This fast-acting product glides smoothly onto the skin and promises results in as little as two weeks. 

The product is quite pricey, and not everyone sees the swift results the product promises. The only way to know if it works for you is to test it out. This retinol is suitable for all skin types, including sensitive skin.  

Woman touches the bridge of her nose

6. StriVectin Advanced Retinol Nightly Renewal Face Moisturizer With Retinol

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11/28/2023 06:48 pm GMT

StriVectin’s advanced retinol cream uses the patented NIA-114™ technology to boost the effectiveness of retinol while strengthening the skin barrier and mitigating irritation. This potent, yet gentle retinol corrects the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and uneven texture and tone.

StriVectin contains a built-in moisturizer to keep the skin hydrated throughout the night, making it an appealing 2-in-1 product for dry skin types. This skincare product is on the pricey side but is effective. 

How To Properly Apply Retinol Products

If you’re a beginner, opt for low-concentration retinol. Apply retinol on dry skin to the entire face at night after cleansing. If you leave your face damp, your skin better absorbs the product and allows the ingredients to reach deeper into the skin, which may lead to irritation.

Introduce the retinol slowly to allow your skin to gradually adjust to the product’s active ingredients. That means applying small amounts of the product onto your face only a few times a week or as directed by the product’s label. 

Be very careful when applying retinol under the eyes and on the neck. Don’t apply too much on those areas to avoid irritation. 

The frequency that you want to begin with depends on your skin type. For example, those with dry or sensitive skin may want to limit retinol use to once a week. If you don’t experience redness or irritation, gradually increase use until your skin acclimates to the product. 

Moisturize your face and neck 10 minutes before and after applying retinol. Moisturizers buffer the effect of the retinol and retain moisture after application, minimizing irritation, sensitivity, and dryness. Your skin may not like retinol at first but push through it until your skin builds up a tolerance to the retinol product of your choice.

To master retinoids, have patience and don’t get discouraged. Give your retinoid time to work. If you’re experiencing too much irritation or side effects, it may be time to lower the dosage. If you are not seeing any improvements after three months, it might be time to switch to another retinol treatment with a stronger dose. 

Wear sunscreen to protect your face from further sun damage. Wearing sunscreen protects your skin while your retinoid repairs some of the damage already done.

As dermatologist Dr. Shah explains, “If you’re not using a sunscreen and you’re using a retinoid at night, you’re […] basically taking one step forward and one step back.” In other words, skipping sunscreen cancels the effects of retinoids. 

Lastly, do not use other active ingredients with your retinoids, as some deter the effects of retinoids and may cause too much irritation and dryness. Board-certified dermatologist Dr. Dray recommends not mixing retinol with alpha-hydroxy acids, benzoyl peroxide, vitamin C, and salicylic acid. 

However, Dr. Dray explains there are exceptions, as some combinations of retinol and these ingredients may be okay to use if they’re formulated together, such as Paula’s Choice CLINICAL 1% Retinol Treatment which contains vitamin C.

Another exception is if you already use some of them during the morning and save the retinol for the night. The right combination depends on the retinol and active ingredients you’re using, as not all of them work great together. It also depends on your skin type and tolerance.

Drops of translucent gel on a table

Save Your Skin With Retinol!

Getting your hands on the best retinol or retinoids on the skincare market is difficult. Not all retinol products work for everyone, regardless of the promises the brands make. Choosing the best retinol comes down to your skin’s specific needs, your budget, and your personal preference.

While reading about other customers’ experiences is helpful, the only way to know if the product works wonders for your skin is by trying it out and giving it time to work its magic. Use this guide to look for the right over-the-counter retinol product, dosage, brand, and tips to restore your complexion!

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