And you don’t need a dermatologist to get the stuff. Retinols are a type of vitamin A called retinoids, and many retinoids — like Retin-A — do require a prescription. Retinols, on the other hand, are a weaker form of vitamin A (which means they can be sold over the counter). And “contrary to some beliefs, retinol is perfectly safe to use on all skin types, ” says Dr. Hope Mitchell, founder of Mitchell Dermatology in Perrysburg, Ohio. It’s true that it can exacerbate conditions like eczema if you use the wrong kind (a. k. a. one that’s much too harsh), and pretty much all of our experts agree you shouldn’t use it if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, but other than that, Mitchell thinks that if you “start low and integrate retinols slowly into your skin-care regimen, ” you should be in the clear.
But even though retinols are weaker than prescription retinoids, it can be tricky to find the right one for your skin, especially if it’s hypersensitive. To find the formulas that are effective without causing redness or peeling, we talked to nine dermatologists about the best over-the-counter retinol products for every skin type.
Best overall retinol
This is the most expensive retinol on our list — and definitely a splurge — but it came recommended by four dermatologists we spoke to, all of whom say it’s completely worth the price, especially if you’re trying to target fine lines and wrinkles or have sensitive skin. As Dr. Ellen Marmur, associate clinical professor at Mount Sinai’s Department of Dermatology, explains, “sensitive skin doesn’t love retinols, ” but this is specifically formulated to be tolerated by pretty much all types of skin. And Dr. Elyse Love, a New York City–based dermatologist, says it’s actually “medical grade, ” yet available without a prescription. “I rarely have any patients say that they can’t tolerate this retinoid so I like recommending it for people with dry, sensitive, or rosacea type skin, ” adds Dr. DiAnne Davis, a cosmetic dermatologist in Dallas. Its unique combination of retinoid and lactic acid “reduces the appearance of wrinkles, ” Davis says, and it also “contains antioxidants and provides moisture to counteract dryness. ”
Best (less expensive) overall retinol
If you’re not looking to spend quite that much on retinol, two dermatologists like this CeraVe retinol serum. It’s just as good for sensitive skin — Love thinks it’s a great over-the-counter option for “those with eczema-prone skin” — at a sixth of the price. “It’s a gentle yet effective daily retinol serum that provides a variety of anti-aging benefits, ” explains Mitchell. Thanks to its “noncomedogenic blended formulation with ceramides, niacinamide, and hyaluronic acid, ” this product will actually reduce “the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles as it improves your skin’s texture and radiation. ” It also boasts a unique technology called “MultiVesicular Emulsion, ” which claims to “slowly release ceramides throughout the day, providing great hydration for the skin, ” so your skin won’t be quite as dry after using it.
Another budget-friendly pick that two of our dermatologists love is this RoC night cream. It’s a “retinol that combines the retinoid with oxygen and antioxidants to make it safe and mild enough for everyday use, ” says Marmur. It’s formulated into a cream, unlike the serum consistency of the CeraVe choice, so it’s a bit richer in texture. And even though it’s great for regular use, Dr. Karen Chinonso Kagha, dermatologist and Harvard cosmetic and laser fellow, suggests introducing it slowly into your routine (like other retinols) because vitamin A can cause a lot of irritation at first.
Best retinol for beginners
If you’ve never used a retinol before, consider easing into it — because again, retinol can be very drying and you won’t know how your skin will react at first. Dr. Corey L. Hartman, founder and medical director for Skin Wellness Dermatology, suggests this Olay option, which is actually a strong moisturizer with retinol in it. Hartman says it’s been “a crowd favorite for years, ” probably because of its “inclusion of niacinamide and vitamin B3, which helps to calm inflammation that can speed aging, and provides an extra antioxidant glow to the skin. ” It’s also a favorite of Jennifer Hudson, who likes that it’s an easy all-in-one product and cuts her routine down.
Best retinols for oily and acne-prone skin
Five out of nine dermatologists recommend Differin’s adapalene gel specifically for those with acne. “It treats acne deep in the pores and prevents new acne from forming, ” explains Davis. The main active, adapalene, used to be only available to patients with a prescription, according to the dermatologists we spoke to, but this gel is now readily available over the counter, which speaks to its effectiveness and strength. Because it is relatively strong — it’s prescription-strength, after all — Dr. Oma Agbai, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at UC Davis, who considers herself an “adapalene gel enthusiast, ” suggests easing into using the product, as with any retinoid or retinol. “The key is to start with one to two times weekly application if you have sensitive skin, and work up to every other night or every night if your skin does not become excessively dry, ” she says. Because most people using this have easily irritated skin, Marmur notes that this Differin gel is also “oil-free and fragrance-free, so aside from the retinoid, it doesn’t have any other irritants, which helps oily skin. ”
Kagha prefers prescription retinoids for her patients if their skin can tolerate it, but when it comes to over-the-counter stuff, she says this La Roche-Posay — a dermatologist-favorite French pharmacy brand that we’ve written about many times before — is a popular option, too.
Best retinol for combination skin
Bowe loves this twofer product from Dermologica for people with combination skin, which she describes as “a good, happy medium between the oily, acne-prone and the super-dry skin, ” because it comes with a retinol and what the brand calls “a buffer cream. ” This makes it easy to customize the formula to your needs every time you use it. “If your skin is feeling really dry, you can add that cream and only a drop of the retinol. But if your skin is feeling more oily on your T-zone, you might not need the buffer cream, and you can just use the retinol, ” explains Bowe.
Best retinols for sensitive skin
We already mentioned that the SkinBetter retinol is great for sensitive skin, but as a budget-friendly alternative, Mitchell likes this Versed serum. “This nongreasy gem is a creamy, gentle retinol serum specifically formulated for sensitive skin types and first-time retinol users, ” she says. “The duo of microencapsulated retinol, and natural retinol alternatives, arophira and bakuchiol, deliver the best of all worlds. ” Because of this unique formula, it promises to keep your pores clear, even your skin tone, and boost collagen all in one — and for only 20 bucks. As an added bonus, it’s also paraben-free, vegan, synthetic fragrance-free, vegan, and cruelty-free.
This is Mitchell’s “go-to recommendation for anyone who believes they cannot tolerate retinol or retinoic acid. ” This product gradually releases retinol and vitamin B3, which “leaves the skin visibly smoother and hydrated. ” Then on top of that, the inclusion of niacinamide will regulate oil, which “may reduce pore size over time and help retain moisture as retinol turns over skin cells. ” This “powerful combination” as Mitchell puts it, “may reduce hyperpigmentation, the look of fine lines and signs of premature sun damage. ”
Best retinol for dry skin
Any type of retinol or retinoid can be extremely drying, so it might seem counterintuitive to recommend to people who already struggle with dryness. But Hartman thinks this Vichy serum is a “good option, ” especially if you’ve “started to see fine lines and wrinkles, ” As he explains, “It contains a concentrated retinol, but also Vichy Volcanic Water which has 15 minerals and hyaluronic acid to help with the dryness of initiation of a retinol. ”
Best retinol for dark spots
Because of its “lightweight formulation that’s free of parabens, alcohol, mineral oil, and sulfates, ” Davis thinks this Melé retinol can work for all skin types but notes that it’s specifically formulated to help those with dark spots and discoloration. The brand developed their product with dermatologists of color to best target and treat the issues those with darker skin tones typically face, especially as their skin begins to show signs of aging.
Best retinol for the neck
Because the neck is a very sensitive area, you have to be careful with the products you use on it. Bowe suggests using a neck-specific formula, and she likes this “really hydrating” No. 7 serum. She further explains that it “contains a whole blend of ingredients, including calcium amino acids and peptides that help with fragile, delicate, crepey skin, ” but is still gentle. “You can imagine that if it’s gentle enough to use on the neck, which is so sensitive, it’s really great for people with very dry skin, ” she adds.
Best clean retinol
For those sticking to a clean beauty routine, Drunk Elephant, which is known for its clean skin care, has a good option that’s made with one percent vegan retinol. Hartman notes that it’s “not only vegan, but also contains linoleic acid, which hydrates and nourishes the skin as the rejuvenation occurs. ” It’s best for those looking to diminish the look of fine lines, wrinkles, and sun spots, rather than anyone looking to reduce their acne.