With the help of cosmetic chemists, we separate retinol fact from fiction.
Retinol. The answer is retinol. The question is almost irrelevant (assuming it’s skin-related) because if you’re asking me or any beauty editor with more than five minutes of experience what to do about pretty much any skin issue — acne, fine lines, brown spots, drooping, dullness, dark circles, enlarged pores — retinol will likely be central to the solution.
Retinol 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 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. Which 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.
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.”
Olay Regenerist Retinol 24 Night Moisturizer
The beauty of over-the-counter retinol formulas is that some are available at the drugstore — and that means drugstore prices. Not even $40, Olay Regenerist Retinol 24 Night Moisturizer promises that its retinol (yes, actual retinol) quickly promotes smoother, brighter skin, and it gets additional hydrating and firming support from niacinamide (aka vitamin B3) and a line-reducing peptide. This nighttime formula is an ideal starter retinol, both for your retinoid-virgin skin and your budget.
$39 (Shop Now)
Shani Darden Retinol Reform
If there’s anyone who loves retinol as much as dermatologists, it’s aestheticians like Shani Darden. She included Retinol Reform in her eponymous skin-care collection to serve as a way to deliver the in-demand title ingredient without the unwanted irritation — an especially impressive feat considering this serum also contains lactic acid, an exfoliating alpha hydroxy acid. Skin basically has no choice but to look smoother, more even, and clearer, whether you’re using it once a week or — if your skin is more used to retinol — nearly every day.
$88 (Shop Now)
Kate Somerville Retinol Vitamin C Moisturizer
Kate Somerville is well aware that retinol and vitamin C are rare bedfellows, she has brought the two beloved and effective ingredients together in a formula that involves encapsulating the L-ascorbic acid in volcanic soil to ensure stability and cooperation. This night cream also boosts hydration via hyaluronic acid and antioxidant protect via wild gooseberry extract, which offers the extra benefit of soothing any irritation the star ingredients may cause.
$90 (Shop Now)
Sobel Skin Rx 4.5% Retinol Night Treatment
If 4.5 percent sounds like a higher retinol concentration than your typical OTC retinol formula, your suspicions are right: two percent is the usual maximum. Developed by a dermatologist, Sobel Skin Rx 4.5% Retinol Night Treatment offsets the extra retinol — the potential irritation it can cause — with soothing ingredients like aloe vera and chamomile and macadamia seed oil to help fortify skin’s barrier. And while the retinol gets to work on fine lines, it gets a helping hand from similarly smoothing peptides.
$105 (Shop Now)
Origins Plantscription Retinol Night Moisturizer With Alpine Flower
You’ve probably picked up on the trend that retinol is typically encouraged for nighttime use. Origins Plantscription Retinol Night Moisturizer With Alpine Flower is no exception, but it’s really not typical in any other way. A relatively affordable retinol option, this cream’s key ingredient is surrounded by a virtual garden of botanical ingredients. Its titular alpine flower is included for collagen support, while a wide variety of plant oils ensure moisture and calmness. Using it every other day, the brand says, will encourage the kind of cell turnover required to see more even, less textured skin.
$64 (Shop Now)
Marie Veronique Gentle Retinol Night Serum
The pure retinol in this non-stinging serum is “encapsulated to allow for timed delivery to the skin, which results in less irritation,” explains the product’s famed formulator, Marie Veronique, who is both a chemist and an aesthetician. “We like retinol because the skin itself schedules the rate of conversion, ensuring less redness and flaking. It works just as well as [Rx] retinoic acid, though it may take longer to see the results.” The green tea-based formula also includes moisturizing ceramides and l-ascorbic acid, a highly active form of antioxidant vitamin C, which ramps up collagen production and brightens the skin. After using this serum every other night for three months, my skin is glowier than ever and utterly content.
$110 (Shop Now)
Paula’s Choice Resist 1% Retinol Booster
While the brand makes upwards of a dozen different retinol potions, this is the one, they say, that wins constant raves from women who can’t normally use retinoids of any kind. While 1 percent retinol is no joke, a slow-release delivery system and a squad of soothing extracts exert a serious calming influence. Plus, the serum is made to be combined with (read: diluted by) your favorite moisturizer, further cushioning any potential blow. For the last few weeks, our rosacea-prone tester has been using it every other night, blending it with a hydrating serum, and consistently waking up “to smooth, sated skin that seems a bit plumper.” When she tried it straight a time or two, she experienced neither stinging nor irritation, but says she prefers mixing for the superior sensory experience.
$52 (Shop Now)
Eve Lom Time Retreat Face Treatment
After noting barrier-bolstering niacinamide high atop the ingredient list, we weren’t all that surprised by this formula’s nonaggressive approach. The retinol is encapsulated, which makes it less vexatious and keeps its strength up. Our tester loved its luxe vibe as much as the early returns: smoother, fresher-looking skin in only two weeks. If you’re one to pile on multiple skin-care products before bed, you’ll appreciate how swiftly this water-light serum sinks in.
$110 (Shop Now)
Clark’s Botanicals Retinol Rescue Overnight Cream
The cushy gel-cream combines two types of retinol: the pure and potent OG, and a gentler microencapsulated version called Tagravit R1, which the company’s founder, Francesco Clark, likens to “an on-demand technology that increases the retinol’s potency and efficacy.” As Dobos explains, “The retinol is only released when rubbed into the skin;” the encapsulation keeps the notoriously unstable vitamin fresh and protected up until that moment. Colloidal oatmeal, a natural anti-irritant, counters any inflammatory effects the retinol may have, adds Clark, and the gel-cream base enhances absorption. Our intrepid tester alternated between Clark’s and prescription Retin-A — with zero redness or stinging — and reported looking “super glowy and dewy” every morning after treatment. $98 (Shop Now)
Ever Overnight Facial Cellular Renewal Oil
We love a good antioxidant face oil — in fact, we usually smooth one over our retinoid to soothe and hydrate skin and fight any free radicals that may creep up in the night. So this silky potion essentially saves us a step. Omega-3 fatty acids shore up the skin’s moisture barrier, boosting its resiliency, while firming peptides support retinol’s efforts on the wrinkle-fighting front.
$88 (Shop Now)
SkinBetter Science AlphaRet Overnight Cream
This Best of Beauty winner has served as a gateway retinoid for more friends and colleagues than we can count. The brand invented its own molecule by combining the retinoid vitamin A with lactic acid, a moisturizing form of the exfoliant AHA. Using double-conjugated bonds to create the molecule AlphaRet, they were able to allow for a gradual release of both the retinoid and the lactic acid into the skin, helping to counter irritation. “Because it takes time for the body to break down [this hybrid molecule], the skin doesn’t feel the actives as much,” says cosmetic chemist Ni’Kita Wilson. (Built-in soothers, like ceramides, squalane, and bisabolol, help keep the peace.) What’s more, by dissolving dull surface cells, the lactic acid begins brightening skin after only a night or two, so “you get both the instant boost of exfoliation plus the long-term repair from the retinoic acid,” she adds. In a company-funded 12-week clinical study, the cream improved fine lines, pigmentation, and pore size as effectively as .025 percent tretinoin, and worked better than a 1 percent retinol cream while stirring up less irritation.
$125 (Shop Now)
Murad Retinol Youth Renewal Night Cream
Ideal for thirstier skin types, this rich, lightly scented cream hydrates with shea butter, squalane, and a pack of fatty alcohols. Suspended in the mix are retinol and the vitamin-A derivative retinyl propionate. “This form is less efficacious than retinol,” says Wilson. “But by pairing the two, you get the almost-instant hit of the retinol along with the longer-term action of the retinyl propionate. This combination should help reduce irritation and dryness.”
$82 (Shop Now)
Verso Night Cream
A fascinating fact about this antioxidant-enriched cream: Its fan base comprises folks of all skin types — oily, prickly, dry, pimple-prone, young, not-so-young, you name it. While its star ingredient, retinyl retinoate, is less fierce than retinol, one study found it to be more effective at stimulating hyaluronan production than both retinol and retinoic acid. “Hyaluronan helps retain water in our cells and is involved in cell division and migration,” says Wilson. Ramping up your supply can not only abet vitamin A’s brightening actions, but also increase skin’s tolerance and offset any desiccating side effects.
$110 (Shop Now)
Pestle & Mortar Superstar Retinol Night Oil
We generally loathe hyperbolic product names, but this oil may just have the creds to back it up. Here again, you’ll find hydroxypinacolone retinoate (HPR), a next-level ester of retinoic acid — this time, suspended in cold-pressed organic oils, which are ameliorative and fragrance-free, and impart the prettiest sheen. You’ll also spy retinyl palmitate on the ingredient list. While many pros dismiss it as a do-nothing derivative that’s too far back in the conversion chain to deliver a usable amount of vitamin A, the company claims it serves to boost the HPR, making it work even better. And according to Dobos, “Combining retinyl palmitate with a lower level of retinol — or, in this case, HPR — may actually improve tolerance for those with sensitive skin.”
$109 (Shop Now)