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Retinol has long been the gold standard anti-aging ingredient. It's the beauty do-it-all that can tackle every skin woe, from pigmentation and uneven texture to wrinkles and breakouts. Of course, there's a "but": Retinol is notoriously irritating. It's a powerful, effective ingredient, but the side effect of all the good work is that it can cause the skin to flake, go red and become sensitized. These less-than-desirable side effects are short-lived, usually.
As the skin starts to acclimate to the retinol, it does calm down, but that's why you have to take a low and slow approach to traditional retinol products: low percentages and limited use, building up over time. It's little wonder that, with retinol being such a skincare superhero, brands wanted to be able to deliver its benefits to its shoppers without the downsides. And deliver they have.
Check out our list of the top over-the-counter retinol products on the market right now.
This serum is one of the most talked-about retinol products out there. It includes 1.5% of microencapsulated retinol, which is a little different than traditional retinol serums. Instead of freeform retinol, this lab-created version encloses retinol molecules into a capsule that can then evenly distribute across your skin and penetrate more effectively with less irritation. Vitamins C and E are mixed in to moisturize your skin and help keep it smooth. It’s intended for a nighttime application so the retinol has a chance to sink into your skin while you snooze.
For a drugstore retinol cream, this is one of the bests you can get. It’s inexpensive but effective, promising to diminish the look of wrinkles and fine lines with just 12 weeks of continuous use.
There's not as much retinol in here as some prestige items, so it's better suited to first-timers who are looking to test the retinol waters before committing to a super expensive product.
Best Day Cream: Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Daily Face Moisturizer with SPF 30 + Hyaluronic Acid
Hyaluronic acid is a naturally occurring polysaccharide found in the human body. It acts as a cushioning and lubrication agent for our joints, nerves, hair, skin, and eyes. When used in skincare, it acts as a moisture binder, which means that it will attach itself to the water in the cells (while also attracting and holding water from the air) making them plump.
While most retinol products are reserved for nighttime use to prevent sun sensitivity, this one can be used during daytime hours. That's because it's formulated with broad-spectrum SPF 30 (in addition to retinol and hyaluronic acid) to protect against harmful UV rays as it targets stubborn wrinkles and plumps the look of skin.
Shea butter is a plant lipid that comes from African shea tree nuts and is rich in fatty acids, antioxidants, and vitamins. It's used to help moisturize, nourish, and soothe the skin.
Paula’s Choice took all that retinol goodness found in facial products and turned it into a body lotion, which is great news since retinol has been shown to improve to look of cellulite and stretch marks within a few weeks. This treatment can give you an all-over glow by hydrating your skin with the added shea butter and smoothing it with the retinol and antioxidants. Plus, it’s fragrance and cruelty-free.
Vitamin B3, also known as nicotinamide, is an essential water-soluble vitamin, which is not synthesized in the body, meaning we have to eat it to receive its benefits. It helps restore cellular energy, repair damaged DNA, and reduce the immunosuppressive effects of sun-induced UV rays.
If you're also into drugstore wrinkle creams, chances are the little red jar of Olay Regenerist's Micro-Sculpting Cream has earned a permanent spot on your vanity. Now, the same brand is bringing you a hard-hitting retinol night cream that's already racking up a bevy of positive reviews.
Formulated with a blend of vitamin B3 and a retinol complex, this cream can help address the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles while smoothing and brightening the skin at the same time. Apply it before hitting the sack to allow your skin to regenerate and repair while you snooze—it's that easy.
If you're new to the world of retinol, let this First Aid Beauty serum be your introduction. Formulated with 0.25% retinol (a fairly low but effective concentration), this product also contains peptides, which help boost collagen production, and the brand's proprietary Skin Saver Complex (a blend of hyaluronic acid, colloidal oatmeal, allantoin, aloe, ceramides, and vitamins C and E). Plus, it's fragrance-free, so it's safe for sensitive skin.
If you're into vegan beauty products, this Drunk Elephant retinol cream should be next on your list. Its innovative formula contains 1% vegan retinol, a triple-peptide blend to help firm the skin, and vitamin F, which is hydrating, nourishing, and anti-inflammatory. In other words, your skin will thank you.
Blessed with blemish-prone skin? This retinol serum can help. Formulated with salicylic acid, a powerful acne-fighter, as well as soothing ingredients like willowherb, tea tee oil, and aloe vera, this product cleanses, exfoliates, and calms the skin at the same time. Clearer complexion, coming right up.
Murad’s tri-active retinol formula is one of the most progressive and advanced formulas on the market. They've combined fast-acting retinol, time-released retinol, and a retinol boost to give you maximum results with as little irritation as possible. By using this at night, which is when your skin typically repairs itself, you give the retinol a chance to do its thing without any interruptions.
Formulated with a potent cocktail of hyaluronic acid, vitamin C and E, as well as algae extract, this serum from Estée Lauder ensures your skin stays hydrated and happy while the encapsulated retinol gets to work. If your skin is very sensitive, proceed with caution and use every other night for the first two weeks before integrating it nightly to your routine. (Byrdie's editorial director Faith saw noticeable results after just a week of use.)
By housing the retinol in single-use capsules, Elizabeth Arden is able to ensure the ingredient is kept potent and won't degrade before you get a chance to apply it. The addition of ceramides helps to bolster your skin's natural protective barrier to minimize the chance of sensitivity. Use one capsule a day for a maximum smoothing effect.
SkinCeuticals created this night cream for retinol veterans who have properly conditioned their skin to handle a high concentration of the potent ingredient. Because it contains 1% pure retinol, this is one of the strongest retinol products you can buy over the counter. Sorry rookies, this one isn’t for you.
Shani Darden's original Retinol Reform is incredibly potent and effective, but for sensitive skin types, this is the gentle sister. Darden has utilized Retinyl Palmitate, which combines the ester of retinol with a fatty acid called palmitic acid, which buffers the retinol from the skin. Lactic acid gently exfoliates, improving skin texture, while niacinamide tackles enlarged pores.
This retinol serum is highly concentrated yet non-irritating and smells great without any added fragrances. In fact, it doesn't have any of the added ingredients that you want to avoid like sulfates, mineral oils, or synthetic dyes. With continued use, this unique formula tackles fine lines, wrinkles, and smoothes out texture for a supple complexion.
If you're a fan of face oils that do more than just moisturize, then these capsules packed with retinol and buffered by botanicals oils are for you. Apply to the skin at night either alone or mixed into a simple hydrating moisturizer (by that, we mean acid- and active-ingredient free) if your skin is hypersensitive.
Not only is this retinol encapsulated to ensure potency and minimize on irritation, but this formula is packed with skin-soothing ingredients like niacinamide, allantoin, vitamin E and a cocktail of nourishing oils. It's so gentle that it can be used morning and night to effectively tackle fine lines, pigmentation and dullness.
Unlike other retinol products that are meant for your whole face, this serum is for eyes only. It reduces the look of fine lines and wrinkles and can help control under-eye circles and the crepiness that can appear over the eyelid. Dr. Dennis Gross, a well-known dermatologist in NYC, included ferulic acid (which offers sun protection) and dark-circle reducing licorice root extract to balance out the retinol. An added bonus: This product is vegan and cruelty-free.
This hydrating face oil is the perfect ending to any nighttime skincare routine. It has the retinol you want to fight early signs of aging while also fading dark marks and hyperpigmentation with Vitamins C and E. With eight different active ingredients in one powerful yet gentle product, you're definitely getting your money's worth.