If you want to maintain a youthful complexion, there’s one ingredient dermatologists will always stand by: retinoids, which are vitamin A derivatives that help improve skin cell turnover.
Translation: “When you apply a retinoid, you’re constantly exfoliating the top layers of skin, ” says Meera Sivendran, M. D. , assistant professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai in New York. The result? You’ll prevent (and smooth) fine lines and wrinkles, improve skin texture, lighten dark spots, and unclog pores to keep blackheads and whiteheads away.
Problem is, you typically need a prescription to get your hands on one. That’s where retinol comes in—a type of retinoid that is most often available over-the- counter. OTC retinol products usually aren’t as potent as their prescription- strength counterparts, so they will generally deliver less dramatic effects. That simply means they take a bit longer to work.
However, prescription-strength retinoids are often more irritating to the skin than an OTC retinol, says Dr. Sivendran, and can cause dryness, redness, or even slight peeling. Trying out a retinol routine first is a great way to get some of the anti-aging benefits for fewer side effects.
How to choose (and use) the best OTC retinol face cream or serum
Look for moisturizers: Because retinol can be drying, look for a cream or serum that also includes moisturizing ingredients—such as hyaluronic acid, ceramides, and shea butter—to boost moisture and minimize irritation.
Start slow: When you first start using a retinol product, expect to have dry or flaky skin during the first one or two weeks, particularly around your eyes, nose, and mouth, says Dr. Sivendran. After that, your skin should adapt. Start by first applying a pea-sized amount every other night. Still too much? Drop back to every third night. Eventually, you can work up to nightly use once you know your complexion can handle it.
Don’t forget SPF: Retinol makes your skin more sensitive to the sun, especially if you decide to use one during the day. If you don’t protect your face with sunscreen, you may be setting yourself up for more damage like burning or discoloration in the long run. You should always use SPF during the day, even if you applied your retinol cream at night.
Seeing a dermatologist can also help you get on the right regimen for your skin care concerns, but there are many OTC brands that make a good retinol product, says Lady Dy, M. D. , a dermatologist with Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, IL and founder of the Dy Dermatology Center. Here are the best OTC retinol face products you can try, all available without a prescription.
1 BEST OVERALL Retinol Correxion Deep Wrinkle Night Cream
RoC is well-respected for its OTC retinol products, says Dr. Sivendran. This night cream packs retinol to target the more etched-in lines in your face while you snooze away. Oil-free and noncomedogenic (so it won’t clog your pores), it’s ideal for even acne-prone skin.
2 BEST VALUE Adapalene Gel 0. 1% Acne Treatment
If we had to keep track of the number of derms who recommend Differin, we’d be out of fingers and toes. The first prescription-strength retinoid (adapalene) available OTC, this cult-favorite product is especially effective for a range of skin concerns from acne and discolorations to fine lines and wrinkles. Be sure to use this one with a gentle moisturizer, as it acts as more of a treatment. If you experience irritation, wash your face first, then apply a moisturizer and follow up with the retinol on top at night, recommends Dr. Sivendran. “That gives you a barrier in between your skin and the retinol, improving tolerability, ” she says.
3 RAVE REVIEWS Regenerist Retinol 24 MAX Night Face Moisturizer
Olay’s newest launch may be its best yet. The Retinol24 MAX night collection was specifically formulated for potency and skin penetration—meaning all of the good stuff actually sinks into your skin to work its magic. On top of that, this cream includes top-notch hydrators and niacinamide (a. k. a. vitamin B3) to minimize irritation and maximize radiance. Bonus: It’s fragrance-free and never feels greasy on the skin.
4 2020 HEALTHY BEAUTY AWARDS WINNER Intensive Age Refining Treatment 0. 5% Pure Retinol
Winner for best wrinkle treatment in our 2020 Healthy Beauty Awards, this pick gets a stamp of approval from Mona Gohara, M. D. , assistant clinical professor at Yale School of Medicine and co-creator of MELĒ skincare. “When it comes to retinol, I don’t compromise. I like to have the science (knowing it’s been tested to build collagen), the right percentage (at least 0. 5%), and the ability to use it regularly without irritation, ” she says. “When I find a product that has all those things, I stick with it. ”
5 Rapid Wrinkle Repair Anti-Wrinkle Retinol Daily Face Moisturizer SPF 30
Dr. Sivendran says many of her patients love using this line from Neutrogena. It not only includes retinol, but also contains SPF 30 to protect your skin while it gets to work. Plus, it’s packed with hydrating hyaluronic acid to draw in moisture and plump the skin.
6 Revitalift Derm Intensives Night Serum, 0. 3% Pure Retinol
This fragrance-free night serum was formulated to visibly reduce deep wrinkles, smooth texture, and moisturize the skin all in one go. “I love how easy this serum is to use—absorbs quickly, feels soft on skin, and didn’t irritate my sensitive skin at all, ” one happy reviewer wrote. “The formula is milky unlike other clear serums I have used which adds to the ease of spreading. ”
7 Age Defense Retinol Complex . 25
Thanks to a cocktail of beneficial ingredients—like ceramides, niacinamide, peptides, and vitamin E—this nourishing formula that can be used on any skin type. Testers swear you’ll be hooked once you try it. “I have very sensitive skin and this product is the only one I can use, ” one reviewer wrote. “I tried many but always come back to SkinMedica Retinol Complex . 25. It has made my skin more youthful looking, glowing with less wrinkles and smooth pores. ”
8 Argan & Retinol Wrinkle Repair Night Cream
“This is a nice product to use if you have sensitive skin and are looking for a retinol to include in your routine, ” Pennsylvania-based board-certified dermatologist Erum Ilyas, M. D. told Honayst in our round-up of the best anti-aging creams for wrinkles. Retinol and peptides offer wrinkle-smoothing benefits, while the addition of argan plant stem cells reduces potential irritation.
9 Resurfacing Retinol Serum
If you have finicky, breakout-prone skin but want a more budget-friendly pick, this one is for you. “CeraVe, as a brand, is great for people with sensitive skin, as they focus on maintaining the skin’s barrier function, ” says Dr. Ilyas. This gentle formula contains ceramides to reduce irritation and maintain hydration, as well as niacinamide to even tone and send redness (including acne scars!) packing.
10 RetrinAL 0. 1 Intensive Cream
Along with a retinol that’s well absorbed into skin, says Dr. Dy, this silky yet potent cream contains a pro-elastin peptide to stimulate collagen production and vitamin E to fight free radicals that lead to aging. The best part? It plays nice with all skin types, since it’s noncomedogenic and fragrance-free.
11 Retinol B3 Serum
This retinol serum may feel ultra-light on the skin, but it digs deep to smooth uneven texture, reduce fine lines and wrinkles, and fade hyperpigmentation. The formula is oil-free, non-greasy, and gentle enough to use on sensitive skin. Glycerin, sodium hyaluronate (a form of hyaluronic acid), and niacinamide offer a soothing moisture boost.
12 Retinol 0. 5 Refining Night Cream
Not only does this night cream from SkinCeuticals target fine lines, blemishes, and skin discoloration with retinol and alpha hydroxy acids, but it also packs hydrating ceramides, shea butter, and dimethicone to ensure your skin reacts well to all that anti-aging goodness. It’s noncomedogenic and free of fragrances, parabens, and sulfates, making this a great pick for all skin types.
13 Retinol Reform
This serum contains 2. 2% encapsulated retinol, ultra-gentle lactic acid for an exfoliating boost, apple fruit extract for some antioxidant protection, and aloe to soothe. Even with its powerful ingredients, it’s gentle enough to leave the skin feeling smooth and even, rather than irritated.
14 A-Passioni Retinol Cream
Drunk Elephant’s vegan cream contains 1% retinol, a firming peptide blend, and fatty acids to minimize any irritation from the strength of the product. Plus, it’s free of essential oils and fragrances to reduce the risk of reactions. “This is the first retinol I tried, and I’m sticking to it. A little goes a long way, and after using this consistently for the past give months, I’ve definitely noticed a difference in the tone and texture of my skin, ” one reviewer raved. “Adding this to my routine has helped me feel more confident in makeup-free skin. ”
15 FAB Skin Lab Retinol Serum 0. 25% Pure Concentrate
Retinol and peptides join forces to trigger collagen and elastin formation, bringing elasticity back to skin. Hyaluronic acid, ceramides, and colloidal oatmeal plump, soften, and soothe, making this serum a great pick for sensitive skin types.
16 RetinolForte Treatment Serum 3X
“These retinol formulations are in an emollient base that allows for decreased irritation to the skin, ” says Melanie Palm, M. D. , board-certified dermatologist and clinical professor at Scripps Encinitas Memorial Hospital in California. They also contain several antioxidants that help boost the skin’s reparative properties (which really come in handy when adjusting to retinol). Depending on where you are in your retinol journey, this particular product is available in a range of strengths, from 2X to 10X.
17 Retinol Clearing Oil
This facial oil combines the power of retinol and salicylic acid to gently slough off dead skin, unclog pores, and smooth texture. Lightweight oils, like argan, rosehip, and jojoba, offer much-needed moisture and protective antioxidants. Testers love that it fights breakouts effectively (particularly from maskne!), soothes skin, and absorbs quickly.
18 Advanced Retinol Treatment Serum
The 1. 25% retinol concentration in this product is strong enough to take on wrinkles and diminish discolorations. Antioxidants like prickly pear extract and squalene protect and condition the skin—leaving you with a firmer, healthier- looking complexion.