Best Retinol Cream? Try One of These 13 Effective Formulas

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When it comes to fighting the signs of age, the gold star ingredient that tops the list, according to skincare experts, is unarguably retinol. But best retinol cream doesn’t just address fine lines and wrinkles. It also addresses acne, large pores, uneven skin texture, hyperpigmentation, and loss of tone. While there’s no such thing as a miracle product, retinol face cream comes pretty close. 

At night, your skin switches from “protect” to “repair” mode, allowing it to recover from the environmental aggressors it was subjected to throughout the day. Melatonin and human growth hormone (HGH) production are boosted, which accelerates skin regeneration and the production of antioxidant enzymes, making it an ideal time to apply retinol night cream. 

Retinols work by thinning the top layer of the skin while thickening the smoother second layer (the epidermis), making the skin look dewy and firm.

They also help shrink pores and increase cell turnover inside the pore, making it less likely to clog with dirt and oil. Retinol cream for acne? You bet. 

Are you ready to try retinol moisturizer, but you’re not sure what to look for?  No worries. Here at the Derm Review, we’ve reviewed hundreds of products with a scientific lens to ensure you’re creating a skincare regimen that’s safe and effective. Ahead, 13 best retinol cream favorites to help you achieve a radiant complexion.

Related: Best Retinol Eye Cream

Best Retinol Cream: The List

Formulyst Anti-Aging Cream, $80

Obagi Medical Retinol 1.0, $74

SkinBetter Science AlphaRet Night Cream, $125

Exuviance Super Retinol Concentrate, $80

RoC Retinol Correction Deep Wrinkle Night Cream, $24.99

Advanced Clinicals Encapsulated Retinol Gel Face Cream, $14.95

SkinMedica Retinol Complex 1.0, $93

Perricone MD Acne Relief Retinol Treatment and Moisturizer, $45

Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Regenerating Cream, $31.49

SkinCeuticals Retinol 0.3%, $67

Murad Retinol Youth Renewing Cream, $82

Drunk Elephant A Passioni Retinol Cream, $74

Olay Regenerist Retinol24 Night Face Moisturizer, $38.99

What to Look For in a Retinol Cream

OTC retinol products aren’t as potent as their prescription-strength counterparts, meaning they generally deliver less dramatic results — and take a bit longer to work. 

However, prescription-strength retinoids are often more irritating to the skin than OTC retinol. The best of both worlds? Retinol moisturizer, of course. It’s a great way to experiment with retinol while reaping additional anti-aging benefits and vital moisture to help combat the side effects of retinol.

Of course, you’ll still find some OTC retinol creams that don’t have any hydrating properties, so you’ll have to use those with a moisturizer. 

 

Ingredients

Because retinol can be drying, look for a retinol moisturizer that includes moisturizing ingredients such as hyaluronic acid, ceramides, glycerin, peptides, and shea butter to boost moisture and minimize irritation and dryness.

 

Concentration

If you’re trying a retinol cream for the first time, start with a formula that has a low concentration — around 0.05 percent — to minimize irritation. Once your skin can tolerate it, you can gradually increase the percentage. Always conduct a patch test when starting a new retinol moisturizer.

 

Encapsulated Retinol

Retinol is one of the most notoriously potent anti-aging skincare ingredients — sometimes too potent — even if you don’t have sensitive skin. While you can try a retinol alternative such as bakuchiol, encapsulated retinol is an excellent option for those who want the real deal, also a fool-proof way to build up a tolerance. Many beauty companies are beginning to use this form of retinol. 

As the name implies, encapsulated retinol is delivered into the skin at a slow and steady time-released rate instead of all at once like other forms of retinol. Not only does it protect your skin, but it remains stable and potent for a more extended period of time, thus providing superior benefits. 

 

Packaging

When it comes to choosing the best retinol cream, packaging plays a part. Vitamin A is not stable, meaning it breaks down when exposed to sunlight and air. Try to find a retinol moisturizer that’s packaged in a sealed tube or pump — but if you do buy a product in a jar, try to select one in a dark container.

How to Apply Retinol

When you first start using a retinol product — even a retinol moisturizer — you can expect to have dry, flaky, maybe even slightly red skin during the first one or two weeks until it starts to adapt. This is especially true around your nose, mouth, and eyes. 

  • While you’d typically apply around a dime-sized amount of a traditional moisturizer, with retinol moisturizer, start with a pea-sized amount every other night. Avoid using the product too close to your lips and eyes. 
  • If that frequency seems like it’s too much (as in you see too many adverse effects), drop it back to every third night. Eventually, the goal would be to work up to the nightly application (and use a normal amount of product) — but don’t rush. Patience is vital when using retinol.
  • Suppose you’re using a retinol cream that isn’t a moisturizer. In that case, you should wait 20 minutes for the vitamin A to fully absorb into your skin before applying your moisturizer or lotion, so plan your nighttime routine accordingly. With other skincare products like serums, you only need to wait a few minutes before moving on to the next step. 

 

Don’t Mix Too Many Active Ingredients

Read your product labels carefully to ensure you clearly understand what ingredients are in your routine — mainly if you’re using a combination of anti-aging and acne products. 

Like retinol, alpha and beta hydroxy acids can dry out the skin, so using them all at once can cause excessive dryness and irritation. Also, keep in mind that benzoyl peroxide and retinol cancel one another out. If you’re at all in question about which products and ingredients you can — and cannot — mix, speak to a licensed esthetician or dermatologist. 

 

Don’t Forget to Use Sunscreen

While some retinol creams are formulated for daytime use because they contain sunscreen, a safer approach is to wear your retinol cream at night and a traditional broad-spectrum sunscreen (a minimum SPF of 30 during the day) since retinol increases photosensitivity. 

Opt for antioxidants during the day, as they help neutralize the harmful effects of free radicals like sun exposure and pollution.

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FAQ’s

Here are some of the most frequently asked questions about retinol. 

 

Who should use a retinol cream?

The quick answer is everybody. Just about all skin types can benefit from using a retinol product, but it’s best suited for those with normal to oily skin that isn’t overly sensitive. 

Anyone with acne-prone skin may benefit from using it. While retinol can irritate, the key is finding the correct percentage and frequency of use suitable for your skin.

 

At what age should I start using retinol?

Prevention is half the battle when it comes to anti-aging, so don’t wait until you start to see lines and dark spots to do something about it. The general rule of thumb is to start incorporating retinol into your routine around the mid to late 20s.

 

How much should the best retinol cream cost?

OTC retinol creams are available at all price points. From bargain drugstore finds to pricey beauty editor favorites, everyone can reap the benefits of this gold star ingredient. More important than price is whether or not the product is formulated well — with results-driven ingredients that are at a concentration to actually do something for the skin. Otherwise, they’re just deceiving marketing fluff. 

 

Are retinol creams safe?

Retinol is one of the most studied skincare ingredients and has been used since the 1970s. However, most physicians suggest that pregnant or breastfeeding women avoid using it. Always check with your doctor for any concerns. 

 

Does retinol have any side effects?

Yes, side effects can occur when using a retinol cream. Retinol is potent, especially in higher concentrations, and can cause irritation, peeling, and redness. 

Anyone who has rosacea or ultra-sensitive skin may be prone to irritation from using it. Usually, side effects can be managed efficiently by reducing the frequency and concentration of the retinol. 

It’s also essential to wear a sunscreen with a broad spectrum SPF while using retinol as skin may burn more easily.

 

Is there anyone who shouldn’t be using retinol?

Because it can easily lead to irritation, retinol creams typically aren’t recommended for people who have eczema, rosacea, dry skin, sensitive skin, and severe acne. 

 

Are retinol creams only for the face?

Retinol laced products are available in face creams, eye creams, neck creams, body creams, and serums to tackle skin issues ranging from fine lines and dark spots to stretch marks.

Check out our reviews of The Ordinary Retinol 0.5 in Squalane, Cerave Resurfacing Retinol Serum, and Strivectin Super C Retinol Serum.  

Related: Best Retinol Serums

 

How long does it take for retinol to work?

Everyone’s skin will react differently to retinol, but it generally takes about 12 weeks to six months to see results. Patience — and consistency of use — are vital to seeing results.

 

What’s the difference between a retinol and a retinoid?

Retinol and retinoids are all forms of vitamin A. They have the same function, but their main difference is how they are converted to retinoic acid, the active form of vitamin A, in the body. 

Retinoic acid is the most potent version and is available by prescription.  It is also known as tretinoin. “Retinoids” is an umbrella term that includes both over-the-counter and prescription versions of vitamin A, while “retinol” refers only to the over-the-counter version. 

Some products contain pro-retinol, which is listed as retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate, and retinyl linoleate on the packaging. These are more gentle than retinol and can take longer to see results. However, one benefit of over-the-counter retinol is that it may not cause as much irritation as a prescription-strength version.

 

When did people start using retinol?

Retinol is derived from vitamin A. The most famous retinol product is Retin-A, approved by the FDA in 1971 as a prescription treatment for acne. 

But while the user’s pimples were vanishing, they started seeing other benefits to their skin. Fine lines and sunspots were fading, and skin texture looked smoother. Even pores looked smaller. 

 

When does collagen production start to decline?

Perhaps retinol’s biggest claim to fame is that it can help support collagen production. When it comes to tackling anti-aging signs, collagen is vital as it gives skin elasticity and firmness. Think of it as a support structure for the skin, and keep in mind that collagen creation starts to diminish in your 30s.

Best Retinol Cream

Formulyst Anti-Aging Cream, $80
A long-term anti-aging formulation developed specifically for mature and devitalized skin, Formulyst’s Anti-Aging Night Cream hydrates, soothes, and visibly transforms your skin while you sleep. Time-released encapsulated retinol (as mentioned above) stimulates collagen production, improving the appearance of aging without irritation.

Obagi Medical Retinol 1.0, $74
The Retinol 1.0 from Obagi is a gentle but effective retinol cream available over the counter at boutique skincare stores. The retinol is slowly released over time and works to improve skin texture and reduce the appearance of wrinkles. The cream is packed with moisturizing and soothing ingredients, including jojoba oil, shea butter, and sage leaf extract, containing vitamin A and calcium to boost cell regeneration.

SkinBetter Science AlphaRet Night Cream, $125
SkinBetter Science debuted in doctor’s offices in 2016 and won a coveted Allure Best of Beauty Breakthrough Award the same year for its AlphaRet Night Cream. Loyal users consider this one of the best retinol creams for sensitive skin. Here’s why.  

Usually, the gold standard of anti-aging products –retinols and alpha hydroxy acids — cannot be combined in the same product as they would irritate the skin. But scientists at SkinBetter managed to do it by combining retinol with lactic acid–a moisturizing form of an AHA— to create a new molecule. 

What does this mean for the user? A highly effective retinol cream that releases active ingredients slowly, so you get all the benefits of retinol without the potential irritation. If you’re looking for an excellent retinol night cream, this is it.

Exuviance Super Retinol Concentrate, $80
The dermatologist-developed Exuviance line is packed with potent ingredients to deliver maximum results. The Super Retinol Concentrate is unique as it combines the power of retinol with NeoGlucosamine, which boosts its effectiveness while delivering the product in gradual, time-released doses. 

Users shouldn’t experience side effects common to retinol use, such as redness and irritation. The product comes in an airless tube to keep it stable. Use in conjunction with a moisturizer. 

RoC Retinol Correction Deep Wrinkle Night Cream, $24.99
RoC’s deep wrinkle cream has won plenty of beauty awards, and it’s easy to see why this product is consistently a winner. The Deep Wrinkle Night Cream contains a prescription strength level of retinol to treat fine lines and pigmentation but comes with a drugstore price tag. 

Bonus — the airtight aluminum packaging ensures the product doesn’t degrade in sunlight. In addition to stabilized retinol, this night cream also contains glycolic acid to smooth skin, while minerals such as zinc, copper, and magnesium collectively boost skin cell turnover.

Advanced Clinicals Encapsulated Retinol Gel Face Cream, $14.95
Advanced Clinicals developed a light, encapsulated retinol that remains potent and highly effective in a water-based gel cream. 

Despite being light, this potent gel cream effectively targets wrinkles, sun damage, large pores, and discoloration while providing optimal hydration. It absorbs instantly into the skin, leaving your face looking full, replenished, and youthful. It’s 100% clean beauty — paraben-free, alcohol-free, phthalate-free, and fragrance-free.

SkinMedica Retinol Complex 1.0, $93
SkinMedica Retinol Complex 1.0 is a potent night cream with a lightweight, smooth texture. The key ingredients—vitamin A and retinols – take care of wrinkles while ceramides keep the face looking plumped and moisturized. This formula is also available in less potent strengths. 

Perricone MD Acne Relief Retinol Treatment and Moisturizer, $45
Retinol cream for acne? The lightweight yet nourishing formula absorbs instantly to control excess oil and helps to heal blemishes without over-drying the skin. The powerful combination of retinol, citrulline, and niacinamide helps accelerate surface skin exfoliation and renewal while visibly calming the skin, reducing redness, and treating imperfections while you sleep.

Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Regenerating Cream, $31.49
This cream packs a one-two punch: it targets wrinkles while also delivering a healthy boost of moisture. Neutrogena’s Rapid Wrinkle Repair Regenerating Cream, an over-the-counter drugstore favorite, contains a high dose of Accelerated Retinol SA, which quickly penetrates into the skin, making it look brighter with improved texture. A boost of hyaluronic acid helps keep skin looking plumped and hydrated. Unlike most retinol creams, this one can be applied twice daily.

SkinCeuticals Retinol 0.3%, $67
Best retinol cream for beginners? Those just starting out will love this no-fuss, gentle percentage, pure retinol cream that’s suitable for skin that can’t typically handle retinol. 

It’s formulated with a Soothing Complex made of a blend of bisabolol (derived from the chamomile plant) and Boswellia serrata extract (derived from frankincense) to comfort the skin. Once you build a tolerance, you can graduate to the 0.5% or 1% level, providing you don’t have overly sensitive skin. This formula should be followed with a moisturizer.

Murad Retinol Youth Renewing Cream, $82
Murad’s award-winning cream is powered by Retinol Tri-Active Technology, a fast-acting retinoid, time-released retinol, and a booster, which reduces the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. 

At the same time, peptide-rich red algae extract helps improve firmness and elasticity, and niacinamide and picolinamide support the skin’s natural protective barrier. In a consumer satisfaction clinical trial, 83% noticed firmer, more supple skin in just four weeks, and 80% saw increased radiance and glow.

Drunk Elephant A Passioni Retinol Cream, $74
Drunk Elephant has its fair share of loyal fans who love the brand for its powerful and clean products. One percent vegan retinol is the critical ingredient in this anti-aging night cream, which is designed to help minimize the look of fine lines, wrinkles, and discoloration. Other wrinkle-fighting components include a triple peptide blend and vitamin F from skin-soothing fatty acids.

Olay Regenerist Retinol24 Night Face Moisturizer, $38.99
With this retinol cream, you won’t have to worry about dryness and flakiness because it deeply hydrates for an impressive 24 hours. Olay’s proprietary formula, including a vitamin B3 (niacinamide) and retinol complex, delivers noticeable improvements in fine lines, wrinkles, texture, tone, discoloration, and pore size. It’s also fragrance- and dye-free, so it’s perfect for those with sensitive skin.

Related: Best Retinol Cream for Beginners and Sensitive Skin

Best Retinol Cream: The Bottom Line

What is the best retinol cream? Formulyst Anti-Aging Cream because time-released encapsulated retinol (as mentioned above) stimulates collagen production, improving the appearance of aging without irritation.

OTC retinol products aren’t as potent as their prescription-strength counterparts, meaning they generally deliver less dramatic results — and take a bit longer to work. 

However, prescription-strength retinoids are often more irritating to the skin than OTC retinol. The best of both worlds? Retinol moisturizer, of course. It’s a great way to experiment with retinol while reaping additional anti-aging benefits and vital moisture to help combat the side effects of retinol.

Of course, you’ll still find some OTC retinol creams that don’t have any hydrating properties, so you’ll have to use those with a moisturizer. Look for a formula with encapsulated retinol to reduce irritation. Start with a lower concentration every other two to three days. Gradually work your way up to a higher dose daily. 

Try to find a retinol moisturizer packaged in a sealed tube, pump, or dark jar because vitamin A is not stable.

What’s the best retinol cream, in your opinion? Let us know in the comments below!

Sources:
Encapsulation and controlled release of retinol from silicone particles for topical delivery,” Science Direct.
Mukherjee, S., Date, A., Patravale, V., Korting, H. C., Roeder, A., & Weindl, G. (2006). Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clinical interventions in aging, 1(4), 327–348.
Zasada, M., & Budzisz, E. (2019). Retinoids: active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatments. Postepy dermatologii i alergologii, 36(4), 392–397.
Shao, Y., He, T., Fisher, G. J., Voorhees, J. J., & Quan, T. (2017). Molecular basis of retinol anti-ageing properties in naturally aged human skin in vivo. International journal of cosmetic science, 39(1), 56–65.





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