The 11 Best Drugstore Retinol Creams of 2021, Tested and Reviewed

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Byrdie / Lecia Landis

There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it—retinol is the undisputed king of the skincare world, arguably the most tried-and-true ingredient of all time. Dermatologists love it for its long-proven track record and the wide variety of results it delivers. Retinol works on both the surface of the skin and on the deeper layers, explains Chicago dermatologist Dr. Jordan Carquville. On the surface, it stimulates cell turnover, resulting in a brighter, more even tone; in the deeper layers, it boosts collagen production to help smooth out and prevent wrinkles, she explains. In short, it’s an excellent anti-aging ingredient, though it’s also ideal for combating acne, helping to keep pores clear, and even reducing oil production. 

The good news is there’s no shortage of over-the-counter retinol products out there, the great news is that many of these can be found at the drugstore for an extremely wallet-friendly price. “When it comes to retinol, believe it or not, prestige brands are not necessarily the best. This is one category that big box brands at the drugstore do really well as far as formulation and stability. They do a lot of testing on their retinol to make sure they’re safe and effective,” points out New York-based dermatologist Dr. Kavita Mariwalla, who adds that the price points make it reasonable to add to your routine. Carqueville agrees, saying she doesn’t rank retinol efficacy by cost. 

Ahead, the best retinol creams you can get at the drugstore.

Best Overall: Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Retinol Anti-Wrinkle Night Cream

4.7
 Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Retinol Anti-Wrinkle Night Cream
What We Like
  • Reasonably priced

  • Smooths fine lines

  • Moisturizes

What We Don't Like
  • Not Byrdie Clean

Who else recommends it? Good Housekeeping also picked Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Night Cream. 

What do buyers say? 86% of 26,800+ Amazon reviewers rated this product 4 stars or above.

If you’re looking to give your skin a smoother, more youthful appearance, then this retinol-infused night moisturizer will do just the trick. One of the main causes of wrinkles and fine lines is dehydration, so in order to give your thirsty skin exactly what it needs, you’re going to need an intensively hydrating moisturizer. Enter: hyaluronic acid, another skincare favorite for its extremely hydrating properties, which is also prevalent in this top-rated night cream.

Active Ingredients: Retinol SA, hyaluronic acid | Retinol Concentration: | Dosage: Pearl-sized amount | Size: 1 fl. oz | Byrdie Clean: No | Cruelty-Free: No

Best Night Cream: Olay Regenerist Retinol24 Night Face Moisturizer

Regenerist Retinol 24 Night Face Moisturizer

Contrary to its “night cream” label, this powerful retinol-infused formula works around the clock for a full 24 hours to keep your skin hydrated and firm. Plus, it’s fragrance and dye-free, so sensitive skin types can proceed without caution.

Best Serum: L’Oréal Paris Revitalift Derm Intensives Night Serum .3% Pure Retinol

L’Oréal Paris Revitalift Derm Intensives Night Serum .3% Pure Retinol

Many drugstore options will use a retinol-derivative—that’s not a bad thing, these just tend to not be as potent as straight-up retinol. The latter is what you get here, via a featherweight serum that absorbs quickly into the skin. In a brand-backed clinical study, 100% of participants found that it improved the look of fine lines and wrinkles, and it’s also been tested by derms for both safety and efficacy.

Best for Beginners: RoC Retinol Correxion Smoothing Night Serum Capsules

RoC Retinol Correxion Smoothing Night Serum Capsules

Amazon

Less is more when it comes to retinol; you need only a pea-size amount for your entire face, and many newbies will often overdo it, causing lots of unwanted irritation. Enter this innovative option, from one of the most beloved drugstore retinol brands. Each biodegradable capsule contains the perfect dose for your nightly application, and also ensures the formula stays stable and active (read: effective) until you use it.

Best for Wrinkles: No7 Advanced Retinol 1.5% Complex Night Concentrate

No7 Advanced Retinol 1.5% Complex Night Concentrate

No7

Retinol is paired with another proven anti-aging ingredient to up the wrinkle-fighting prowess of this best-seller. “What I like about this formula is that it incorporates a proprietary peptide blend called Matrixyl 3000+, which is a bonus,” says Mariwalla, who’s a fan. Plus, “the retinol is slow-release, which means it won’t cause as much irritation on the surface of the skin,” she adds. Fun fact: It amassed a waiting list of over 100,0000 people when it first launched in the U.K. last year.

Best for Sensitive Skin: CeraVe Skin Renewing Retinol Serum

CeraVe Renewing Retinol Serum

Yes, even those with sensitive skin can give retinol a go. The key is seeking out the right formula that relies on the right type of retinol and the right added ingredients. This creamy serum checks all of those boxes. Along with its time-released, encapsulated retinol, all qualities that also help minimize irritation there’s also a combo of skin-strengthening ceramides, hydrating hyaluronic acid, and soothing niacinamide in the mix. Not to mention that it’s also fragrance-free, a must for sensitive skin types.

Best Budget: The Ordinary Retinol 0.5% in Squalane

the ordinary retinol 0.5 in squalane

Courtesy of Ulta

Okay, so technically speaking this isn’t a drugstore brand per se, but the jawdropping-ly affordable price makes it worthy of a spot on this list. Everything you need to know about the simple and straightforward formula is right in the name. You get a 0.5% concentration of retinol, potent for any OTC retinol product, coupled with squalane, a plant-derived hydrating ingredient that closely mimics our skin’s natural oil, to help minimize the likelihood of irksome side effects.

Best for Eyes: RoC Retinol Correxion Line Smoothing Eye Cream

4.5
RoC Retinol Correxion Line Smoothing Eye Cream

Amazon

When it comes to undereye bags and crow’s feet, you need to give the delicate skin around your eyes some extra TLC. That's where this eye cream comes in. It’s formulated with powerful retinol to reduce the appearance of puffiness, under-eye sagging, and dark circles in as little as 12 weeks.

What Our Testers Say

"Overall, I was very happy with RoC’s Retinol Correxion Eye Cream. I didn’t experience any irritation with it and saw some pretty immediate results as far as reduced dark circles and puffiness." — Leigh Weingus, Product Tester

Best Oil: Pixi Overnight Retinol Oil

Pixi Overnight Retinol Oil

 Courtesy of Ulta

Those who love a good skincare oil will appreciate that this relies on a blend of several oils (sweet almond, jojoba, and sunflower seed, just to name a few) as the base for a gentle retinol-derivative. It’s silky rather than greasy and absorbs quickly, but makes for a truly luxurious application experience you’ll never want to skip.

Best Clean Beauty: Honest Beauty Honestly Pure Retinol Serum

Honest Beauty Honestly Pure Retinol Serum

Ingredient purists will appreciate this serum, which relies on upon, wait for it, tapioca-derived retinol. It’s slow-released to cut back on side effects and is also combined with hydrating hyaluronic acid and squalane. Bonus points for the airtight, pump-top dispenser, which helps keep oxygen from getting in and degrading the efficacy.

Best for Dry Skin: Pond’s Rejuveness Advanced Hydrating Night Cream

Pond’s Rejuveness Advanced Hydrating Night Cream

Extra dryness and flaking is one possible side effect of retinol, the last thing you want when your skin is dry, to begin with. Happily, this luscious cream combines several heavy-hitting hydrators along with a retinol complex. Namely, glycerin, vitamin B3 AKA niacinamide, and dimethicone, all of which work together to combat dryness. (And fight fine lines, of course).

Final Verdict

Yes, you need a retinol product in your life—it’s that simple. The drugstore is home to a treasure trove of standouts, including one of all our-time favorites, the Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Retinol Anti-Wrinkle Night Cream. If you’re looking to capitalize on the ingredient’s wrinkle-fighting abilities, try the No7 Advanced Retinol 1.5% Complex Night Concentrate; if you’re after its acne-fighting benefits, consider Differin Adapalene Gel 0.1% Acne Treatment.

What to Look For In a Drugstore Retinol Cream

The Retinol Concentration

The exact percentage can be hard to find in drugstore formulas, but if a product does disclose it, that’s definitely a good thing, says Mariwalla. 

The Delivery System

That being said, concentration isn’t the only thing to consider. The way the retinol gets into the skin, such as via an extra carrier ingredient or molecule, can impact the way it works, says Carqueville. Mariwalla agrees, noting that she suggests doing your research and checking out the brand’s website for more info about the exact formulation of any product. 

Big Name Brands

Per Mariwalla’s previous point, the big companies at the drugstore are the ones who generally have the resources to put into lots of research and development. Carqueville adds that sticking with tried-and-true brands is one of the best ways to feel confident you’re getting an efficacious retinol product at the drugstore. 

FAQ
  • Can I use retinol every night?

    You’ll want to start slow with retinol. Initially, applying it once a week at night is your best bet. And you’ll want to follow it with a moisturizer, because it can be drying. Once your skin is used to retinol, you can progressively use it more often. But keep in mind that for many people, a nightly application would be too drying for their skin no matter how long they’d been using it for, so that shouldn’t necessarily be your goal.

  • Is hyaluronic acid better than retinol?

    Hyaluronic acid is neither better nor worse than retinol, as the two ingredients serve different functions. Hyaluronic acid is very moisturizing and can reduce the appearance of wrinkles as it visually plumps the skin. Conversely, retinol boosts your skin’s production of collagen, which in turn can reduce the appearance of wrinkles. You can use the two ingredients in your routine, and some products may even include both of them together.

  • How do you know if retinol is working?

    Don’t expect quick results from retinol. Dermatologist Marnie Nussbaum tells Byrdie that "Diligent use of Retin-A is needed for two to three months to see visible results. Pending potency, OTC retinol can take up to six months to see results." You’ll know that retinol is working before you get the full results from it when you see exfoliation, which may take the appearance of peeling or flaking skin. You also may notice that your pores are less clogged than they were before you started using it.

How We Researched & Tested

To compile this list, our team of editors and contributors spent hours researching the best products on the market in this category, evaluating their key features—like ingredients, shade range, or design—in addition to reviews from customers and other trusted sources. Our team also incorporated their own personal experiences testing products in their own lives. We then used these insights from our research and testing to assign a star rating from one to five (five being the best; one being the worst) to certain products on the list.

Why Trust Byrdie?

Byrdie contributor Melanie Rud has over a decade of experience in the beauty industry, writing for some of the biggest magazines and websites out there. She’s a big fan, both personally and professionally, of drugstore skincare products, retinol included.

Meet the Expert

  • Dr. Jordan Carqueville is a board-certified dermatologist and dermatopathologist, and the founder and Medical Director of The Derm Institute of Chicago. She’s a fellowship-trained Mohs micrographic surgeon and an expert in cosmetic, medical, and surgical dermatology.
  • Dr. Kavita Mariwalla is a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Mariwalla Dermatology in West Islip, NY. As the former Director of Cutaneous Oncology at the Beth Israel Cancer Center in Manhattan, Dr. Mariwalla specializes in skin cancer detection and treatment. She’s an expert in facial reconstruction, as well as a skilled surgeon and an aesthetic clinician.

According to our Diversity Pledge, 15% of products in our newly-published market roundups will feature Black-owned and/or Black-founded brands. At the time of publishing, we were not able to find any drugstore retinol creams from a Black-owned and/or Black-founded business. If you know of one we should consider, please email us at contact@byrdie.com and we will evaluate the product ASAP.

Article Sources
Byrdie takes every opportunity to use high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial guidelines to learn more about how we keep our content accurate, reliable and trustworthy.
  1. 9 Best Drugstore Night Creams, According to Skincare Experts. Good Housekeeping. https://www.goodhousekeeping.com/beauty/anti-aging/g19502310/best-drugstore-night-creams/

  2. Bukhari SNA, Roswandi NL, Waqas M, Habib H, Hussain F, Khan S, Sohail M, Ramli NA, Thu HE, Hussain Z. Hyaluronic acid, a promising skin rejuvenating biomedicine: A review of recent updates and pre-clinical and clinical investigations on cosmetic and nutricosmetic effects. Int J Biol Macromol. 2018 Dec;120(Pt B):1682-1695. doi: 10.1016/j.ijbiomac.2018.09.188. Epub 2018 Oct 1. PMID: 30287361.

  3. Kong R, Cui Y, Fisher GJ, Wang X, Chen Y, Schneider LM, Majmudar G. A comparative study of the effects of retinol and retinoic acid on histological, molecular, and clinical properties of human skin. J Cosmet Dermatol. 2016 Mar;15(1):49-57. doi: 10.1111/jocd.12193. Epub 2015 Nov 18. PMID: 26578346.

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