No matter how much time, money, or effort you put into your skin care routine – from extensive to minimal – the most important thing is that it actually works. And when we talk about the most effective ingredients that are worth your time and money, we have to talk about retinol.
You’ve probably seen retinol being marketed primarily for its antiaging benefits, but you don’t have to worry about wrinkles to use it. “Retinols are vitamin A derivatives that manage to solve almost any skin problem – dark spots, dullness, acne, wrinkles, and they even help build collagen,” says Papri Sarkar, MD, a dermatologist in Brookline, Massachusetts. Few ingredients are so thoroughly researched and recommended so often for precisely this reason.
But while dermatologists agree that no matter what that routine looks like, everyone should incorporate a retinol into their skin care routine, there are a few caveats. There are potential side effects from using a retinol, especially if you’ve never used one before. Most commonly, dryness, flaking, and irritation occur after your skin gets used to them. Fortunately, your skin usually acclimates itself “over several weeks,” and those effects go away, says Michigan-based dermatologist Linda Honet, MD. “The key to success with retinols is to start low and slow,” she says. Most dermatologists recommend using a new retinol one night a week and then gradually working your way up to at least every other night. And always afterwards with moisturizer.
The other caveat is that retinol should only be used at night. It can sensitize your skin, especially in the beginning, making it prone to sun damage during the day (some point out that retinol is also photosensitive – meaning it can lose its effectiveness when exposed to sunlight). Limit your retinol use to bedtime only and always use sunscreen during the day when using retinol, says Elisabeth Shim, MD, a dermatologist based in Santa Monica, CA.
And of course, which retinol product you use can make a difference too. Whether you’re a beginner or a retinol veteran, have dry or oily skin (or anything in between), or want to tackle wrinkles or acne, there is a retinol product for you. We spoke to expert dermatologists to get their top recommendations for every face.
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Best retinol moisturizer
Eau Thermale Avene RetrinAL 0.1 intensive cream
In order for your skin to use the retinol in a product, it usually has to convert it into a usable form, which can potentially reduce its effectiveness. This cream is “unique in that it is more of a retinaldehyde than a retinol,” says Chicago-based dermatologist Raymond Kleinfelder, DO. “The advantage is that it does not have to be converted into an active ingredient” so that your skin can use the good immediately.
Best retinol serum
Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Retinol Pro + 0.5% Power Serum
Santa Monica, Dermatologist Elisabeth Shim, MD in California, recommends this gentle yet powerful serum because it “feels light and not greasy”. Dr. Kleinfelder also likes it because “it’s cheap and a great, effective choice for beginners.”
Best Affordable Retinol
CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum
This serum is “easy to find, easy to use, and gentle enough not to cause the redness, irritation and flaking common with retinols,” says Dr. Sarkar.
Olay Regenerist Retinol 24 Max Moisturizing Cream
Cream-based retinol products are great for dry skin and can also help contain potential irritation by delivering more moisturizing ingredients. This easy-to-find cream has a higher dose of retinol, but the fragrance-free cream formula means potential irritation is minimized and you get two steps in one (no need to put another moisturizer on top).
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Pietro Simone Skincare Scar and stain fighter
This advanced serum combines retinol and azelaic acid to help address texture issues like acne, scars, and large pores – among other things, what retinol is good for (hello, wrinkle reduction). It’s a powerful mix, but there are also skin-plumping and moisturizing ingredients to help reduce potential irritation
Verso Super Facial Serum 1 fl oz
This high-end serum uses a form of retinyl retinoate called Retinol 8, which “causes less skin irritation than typical retinoids,” says Noelle S. Sherbet, MD, a dermatologist in Washington, DC. Studies have shown that this ingredient outperforms traditional retinol on wrinkles – reducing effects and can actually improve skin hydration.
Sit Bio Complete Serum
Dr. Kleinfelder also loves this luxury serum because it not only contains highly effective retinol, but also “a unique formulation of heparan sulfates, components of the skin that are often lost with age. This replaces them, allowing more water to be drawn into the middle layer of the skin, resulting in a fuller, more youthful look. “
Differin Adapalene Gel 0.1% acne treatment
This over-the-counter gel could be used primarily for acne, “but it has other secondary benefits such as smoothing the texture of the skin, helping with discoloration, dark spots, fine wrinkles and scars,” said Navid Malakouti, MD, a dermatologist in Seattle. WA.
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Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Advanced Retinol + Ferulic Overnight Texture Renewal Peel
Dr. Dennis Gross
If you have oily skin or just don’t like the feel of serums or creams on your face, these disposable pads are an alternative. Soaked in a serum containing both retinol and bakuchiol (a herbal ingredient with similar properties) and ferulic acid to control possible irritation, swipe a pad over your face 2-3 times a week before bed to get fine lines to smooth and lighten skin.
RoC Retinol Correxion Deep Wrinkle Serum
“For those new to retinol, it’s important to start slowly and develop stronger products,” said Caroline Change, MD, a dermatologist based in Rhode Island. She recommends this inexpensive serum because “it is light and can be applied under moisturizer”.
Pond’s Skin Firming Serum
This serum “contains a combination of retinol and niacinamide, two ingredients that offer a synergistic effect in treating aging skin,” said Joshua Drawer, MD, a dermatologist in New York City. “Retinol improves cell turnover and stimulates collagen production, while niacinamide reduces inflammation and brightens the skin.”
La Roche-Posay Effaclar Adapelene 0.1% gel
Until a few years ago, this version of retinol gel was only available by prescription and is now “one of the most effective over-the-counter retinoids,” says Dr. Sarkar. “Remember, a little goes a long way. I recommend that patients put a pea-sized amount all over their face and then coat the entire area with their favorite moisturizer to keep irritation at bay. “
First Aid Beauty FAB Skin Lab Retinol Serum 0.25 Pure Concentrate (1 fl.oz.)
First aid beauty
If you’ve never used retinol or have sensitive skin, you may find it difficult to dive into the deep end. This serum is made for beginners as the concentration is lower than most other retinol products, but still effective. Even if it’s low, start slowly – but this is the least likely to cause a reaction.
Bliss Youth has this Prevent-4+ Retinol Advanced Skin Smoothing Serum
Dr. Drawer also recommends this serum because it “contains a stabilized form of retinol in a formula that protects the skin barrier, moisturizes and soothes inflammation with peptides, squalane and antioxidants.”
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