17 Best Over-the-Counter Retinol Serums & Creams That Actually Work

By Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / Honayst

Retinol is almost always the answer to pretty much any skin issue — acne, fine lines, brown spots, drooping, dullness, dark circles, enlarged pores — you can think of. The best retinol serum or cream can help address your concerns and improve your skin's appearance.

The transformative ingredient is pure vitamin A. Along with a bunch of other vitamin-A derivatives starting with the letter R, retinol is an example of a retinoid — that's the catchall term for these A-based formulas, both the over- the-counter (OTC) and prescription varieties.

The potent Rx retinol creams contain retinoic acid, the active form of vitamin A that immediately binds with receptors on our skin cells, causing them to behave younger and healthier. This directive can translate to countless improvements, like normalized cell turnover for clear, glowing skin; balanced pigment production for fewer splotches; revved-up collagen synthesis for smoother skin and tighter pores. But it generally comes with an irksome adjustment period. OTC vitamin-A formulas like those with retinol and retinaldehyde tend to be weaker because the skin has to convert them to retinoic acid before using them.

Speaking from experience, though, that doesn't mean they can't take your face off — especially if you’re sensitive. This is why with any retinoid you have to practice restraint, applying a pea-size drop only one or two nights a week until skin acclimates, and buffering that dose with a squirt of anti-inflammatory serum or lotion (think niacinamide, polyphenols, lipids, ceramides). These are doctors' orders — well-established ones — that I've long practiced and preached.

Looking to try more of the year's top skin-care products? Be sure to check out our 2020 Best of Beauty Awards.

Even still, this hasn't completely spared me from those famous retinoid rough patches. And despite having two decades' worth of derm secrets embedded in my brain, I've only very recently found a handful of retinols my skin won't reject. Full credit goes to the chemists behind these formulas, who've dreamed up innovative ways to deliver all the magic of this molecule without the cursed side effects.

Since discovering my go-to's and expanding my search for non-irritating retinols, I've found several standouts that are at once ultra-effective yet gentle enough for the retinoid-intolerant. (In fact, we tested them on women claiming to be just that. ) What makes these non-Rx gems so transformative is that they all contain either pure retinol or a next-gen derivative shown to turn on those same aforementioned receptors to spark change.

Before we explore their individual merits, heed this brief buyer-beware: There are a ton of serums and oils on the market right now masquerading as retinols. You won't find retinol (or any recognizable derivative) on their ingredient lists, however, as they rely on plant extracts, like rosehip oil, as alternate sources of vitamin A.

But, according to cosmetic chemist Kelly Dobos, "There's no evidence that natural sources of retinoids are safer than synthetic, and often their effectiveness is highly suspect. Rosehip oil contains only about 0. 4 parts per million (0. 00004 percent) of retinoic acid — that's a very tiny amount, and it's further diluted in the final product. "