Over The Counter Retinoids: Why Your Retinol Might Not Be a Prescription

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / Honayst

“Cell turnover decreases abruptly around age 30, leading to fine lines and wrinkles, skin texture and color changes, as well as precancerous sun damage,” says Sarah Stierman MD, a dermatologist in Toledo, Ohio (and yes, a friend of mine, she practices very close to me). “Topical retinoids increase cell turnover to treat and even prevent these issues, when used as part of a healthy skin regimen.” “With all the growth factors, peptides, stem cells, and other amazing ingredients out there, Retinoids are still the gold standard for cell turnover on photo-aged wrinkled skin, and acne,” adds Celebrity Medical Esthetician Holly Cutler, known as The Skin Saint™, of FACE Skincare~Medical~Wellness in Bingham Farms, Michigan.

Not All Retinoids are the Same

Retinoids are a class of vitamin A derivatives found in skin care, you can learn more about how retinol and retinoids work in skin care. “The strongest retinoid is Tretinoin which is a prescription strength product that is the highest percentage at 0.1%,” according to Cutler. “It is a clinically proven topical solution to repair photo damaged skin, combat skin discoloration, and the formation of acne.”

“We are very lucky as dermatologists now to have many different effective retinoids to choose from for our patients,” adds Stierman. “I always favor office dispensed or prescription retinoids because they have the best clinical data behind them. The ingredients I generally look for are retinaldehyde, tretinoin, or adapalene.”

Prescription vs Over the Counter

When it comes to retinoids, the stronger (prescription) strength products are all around stronger than over the counter versions. The prescription products will show more results in a shorter time period, but at the cost of irritation and some people simply can not tolerate using them. “Over the counter retinoids are much more gentle for skin types that are younger, don’t have any major skin challenges, or for those just starting anti- aging for more antioxidant protection, without the side effects of a full strength regimen,” says Cutler.

“Tazarotene is the strongest topical retinoid and is available only by prescription. For patients who are new to retinoids, I often like to start with retinaldehyde because it is the best tolerated while remaining very effective,” advises Dr. Stierman.

The Best Over the Counter Retinoids

1. “My favorite over the counter retinoid is The Skin Saint Tretinol .5% Renewal Serum, which is the strongest non-Rx retinoid you can purchase” says Cutler. “It has a patented Retinoid Complex, along with vitamins C and E encapsulated with a proprietary Trans-Epidermal carrier to maximize efficiency.”

Buy it from The Skin Saint

2. “For a drugstore option, Differin (adapalene 0.1%) recently became available over the counter, and is a more photostable cousin to tretinoin (prescription Retin-A),” says Dr. Stierman.

You can buy Differin at Amazon or Target.

3. “My favorite non-prescription topical retinoid is Avene RetrinAL. Its active ingredient is retinaldehyde, and Avene’s formulation is perfect for sensitive skin but still packs an anti-aging punch. I only recommend products that I would use myself or on my family. I currently use Avene RetinAL every night,” per Dr. Stierman.

“I also love Avene Retrinal products as the conversion is slower in the skin so it is effective yet gentle, along with the benefits of their thermal spring water,” adds Holly Cutler. Buy Avene RetrinAL at Amazon or DermStore.

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