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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 zits. 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.
Best Overall: Peter Thomas Roth Retinol Fusion PM Night Serum
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.
Read more reviews of the best anti-aging serums on the market today.
Best Budget: RoC Retinol Correxion Deep Wrinkle Anti-Aging Retinol Night Cream
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 with SPF 30
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.
Best Night Cream: Murad Retinol Youth Renewal Night Cream
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.
Take a peek at some of the other best drugstore night creams available for purchase.
Best Clinical Strength: SkinCeuticals Retinol 1.0
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.
Best for Deep Wrinkles: Estée Lauder Perfectionist Pro Rapid Renewal Retinol Treatment
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.)
Check out our guide to the best wrinkle creams you can buy today.
Best Serum: Shani Darden Texture Reform Gentle Resurfacing Serum
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.
Want to learn more? Check out Byrdie senior editor Hallie's review of this product here.
Best Face Oil: Darphin Ideal Resource Youth Retinol Oil Concentrate
f 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.
Best Capsules: Elizabeth Arden Retinol Ceramide Capsules
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.
Best Gentle: Eve Lom Time Retreat Face Treatment
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.
Best for Acne: Differin Adapalene Gel 0.1% Acne Treatment
Acne is the most common skin condition in the U.S. Fortunately, there are many treatments for it, and one of them is retinol. Retinol has the power to unclog pores and calm inflammation, which makes it a preferred ingredient for combatting acne. This treatment was the first-ever over-the-counter retinol approved by the FDA for acne. Although you should still consult your dermatologist before using, this gel offers a gentler alternative to a prescription, and it’s super affordable.
Peep our top picks of the best acne creams for every situation.
Best for Eyes: Dr. Dennis Gross Triple Correction Eye Serum
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.
Best for Body: Paula’s Choice RESIST Retinol Skin-Smoothing Body Treatment
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.