The 14 Best Retinol Products for a Well-Timed Skin Reboot

By Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / Honayst

The long, dark days of winter are officially behind us, but the effects may linger in the form of dull, lackluster skin. Fortunately, the seasonal shift brings a sense of renewal, the welcome shedding of layers—and there’s no reason that should stop with your wardrobe.

“Spring is an ideal time of the year to start incorporating retinol into your routine, ” says Onyeka Obioha, M. D. , a dermatologist in Los Angeles. She joins a perpetual chorus of experts championing the ingredient as a means to brighter, smoother skin. Plus, she adds, “in warmer months, people are able to better tolerate it. ”

For the uninitiated, retinol and other derivatives of vitamin A (together, they fall under the umbrella category of “retinoids”) count among the hardest-working ingredients in the skin-care realm. Vitamin A offers a multitude of benefits for skin: Thanks to its ability to speed cell turnover and spur collagen production, it can help smooth out wrinkles and fine lines, brighten dark spots and discoloration, and even quell breakouts. (The prescription-strength form called tretinoin—known by its brand name, Retin-A—originally launched as an acne medication before people realized its broader utility. ) “When it comes to visibly improving the texture and appearance of your skin while preventing signs of aging, retinol is unmatched, ” says Austin-based esthetician Renée Rouleau.

There is a common downside. Because the ingredient is so powerful, explains Rouleau, “it can also come with unwanted side effects, like dryness, flaking, irritation, and sensitivity, for a lot of people, especially during the first four to six weeks. ” (Retinoids are not advised for those who are pregnant or nursing. ) Although over-the-counter forms of retinol tend to be milder than the derm-prescribed counterpart, it’s still wise to wade in slowly. Obioha recommends starting with a pea-size amount three nights a week, then gradually increasing from there. Following up with daytime sun protection is of utmost importance, since retinol can increase skin’s sensitivity to sunlight.

Even if you’ve had a touch-and-go experience with retinol in the past, recent formulations designed with tolerance in mind offer an incentive to dip back in. There’s no better time for a fresh start.

Shani Darden Retinol Reform serum

Created by Los Angeles aesthetician Shani Darden, this cream combines retinol with lactic acid and anti-inflammatory niacinamide. It’s a strategic pairing, with the lactic acid delivering immediate smoothing and hydrating benefits while retinol gets to work from within.

StriVectin Super-C Retinol Brighten & Correct Vitamin C serum

While vitamin C certainly has a starring role in many retinol products, it doesn’t always match the power of a dedicated vitamin C serum. Not so with this dual-action serum, which offers that dream team at high concentrations to improve skin tone and texture.

La Roche-Posay Effaclar Adapalene Gel 0. 1% topical retinoid acne treatment

If you’re experiencing acne lately, you’re not alone. “Warmer temperatures and an increase in humidity can cause buildup on the skin, which clogs pores and can result in breakouts, ” says Obioha. This powerful treatment uses adapalene, which is the sole prescription-strength retinoid available without an Rx, to help maintain a clear complexion.

Epi. Logic Double Feature Retinol + AHA overnight facial

Retinol isn’t known for its overnight effects. “Unlike an exfoliating acid peel that delivers immediate results, vitamin A works incredibly slowly to create change in the skin, ” says Rouleau. This night treatment gives you the best of both worlds by pairing retinol with glycolic and lactic acids; the latter two offer light exfoliation for brighter, smoother skin by morning.

PCA Skin retinol treatment for sensitive skin

Retinol can be challenging for sensitive skin types, which are more vulnerable to its side effects. This formula acts as a gentle buffer, with a proprietary InflaShield complex that supports skin barrier function, relieves discomfort, and minimizes inflammation.

Dermalogica Retinol Acne Clearing oil

As protective face masks are still de rigueur, so is maskne. Retinol can help. “It can work to increase skin cell turnover and unclog pores, ” says Obioha. Salicylic acid in this oil offers acne-fighting benefits on the spot, while the retinol works to prevent future breakouts.

U Beauty Resurfacing compound

This brand, spearheaded by BagSnob founder Tina Craig, is known for its SIREN encapsulation technology, which protects ingredients and disperses them throughout skin. In this particular formula, those SIREN capsules are packed with retinol, peptides, vitamin C, and hyaluronic acid, which work together to brighten and renew skin.

Naturopathica Passion Fruit & Retinol eye serum

Dark circles are largely the work of two factors: thinning skin, which more readily reveals the blood vessels beneath, and hyperpigmentation. Fortunately, retinol can take on both; it brightens the undereye area by bolstering collagen production, thus thickening skin, and also speeds the turnover of those pigmented cells.

RéVive Perfectif Night Even Skin Tone cream

This hardworking formula targets hyperpigmentation with a combination of retinol, vitamin C (which inhibits pigment production), and a brightening peptide. Here, the retinol is encapsulated in a delayed-release system, meaning it’s dispersed thoroughly and slowly into skin with minimal irritation.

RoC Retinol Correxion Line Smoothing night serum capsules

Concentration isn’t the only thing that matters in a skin-care formula—potency does, too. These sealed, biodegradable capsules keep the combination of retinol and antioxidants fresh and at peak efficacy until it’s applied to the skin.

Murad Retinol Youth Renewal night cream

Why settle for one type of retinol when you can have three? This potent cream consists of a fast-acting retinol, a time-release version, and a retinol booster for peak efficiency. Lest your skin starts to feel dry just reading that, not to worry: Niacinamide gives it proper credibility as a calming night treatment, too.

Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair retinol oil

To amp up the power of this night oil, retinol is paired with salicylic acid, which is prized in its own right for its ability to gently lift dead skin cells. In practice, this ultimately clears the way for retinol to better penetrate—in turn yielding results in as little as one week.

IT Cosmetics Hello Results Wrinkle-Reducing Daily Retinol serum-in-cream

Retinol is uniquely equipped to handle signs of aging. “Retinoids actually build collagen and thicken the dermis layer of the skin, which makes the skin appear plump and healthy, ” says Obioha. This hybrid formula pairs both free and encapsulated retinol molecules—the better to reach multiple layers of skin—with soothing niacinamide.

Clinique Smart Night Clinical MD retinol serum

Fine lines and deeper wrinkles can’t be blamed on a single culprit. Conversely, their treatment approach isn’t singular, either. That’s why this serum combines retinol with a collagen-boosting blend of peptides, vitamin C, and botanical extracts, which together work to firm and smooth skin.