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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 their shoppers without the downsides. And deliver they have.
Ahead, check out our list of the top over-the-counter retinol products on the market right now, as well as retinol shopping and usage tips from board-certified dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, MD.
Best Overall: Peter Thomas Roth Retinol Fusion PM Night Serum
Encapsulated retinol reduces irritation
Vitamins C and E brighten, smooth, and boost antioxidant protection
Lightweight and absorbs fast
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.
Active Ingredients: Encapsulated retinol | Retinol Concentration: 1.5% | Dosage: A few drops nightly | Size: 1 oz. | Cruelty-Free: No | Byrdie Clean: Yes
What Our Testers Say
"Peter Thomas Roth's Retinol Fusion PM Night Serum doesn’t produce results overnight, but the improvements I’ve seen in my skin thus far have convinced me that this serum is transforming my skin slowly but surely." — Olivia Hancock, Product Tester
Best Budget: RoC Retinol Correxion Deep Wrinkle Night Cream
Mineral complex boosts retinol efficacy
Great for those new to retinol
Low concentration of retinol
For a drugstore retinol cream, this is one of the best 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. However, 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.
The formula also contains a specially-formulated mineral complex that offers a healthy dose of hydration and helps boost the retinol’s efficacy, resulting in skin that’s healthy and radiant.
Active Ingredients: Retinol | Retinol Concentration: Not listed | Dosage: Small amount nightly | Size: 1 oz. | Cruelty-Free: No | Byrdie Clean: No
Best Day Cream: Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Daily Face Moisturizer with SPF 30 + Hyaluronic Acid
Gentle enough for daytime use
Contains broad-spectrum SPF 30 protection
Hyaluronic acid hydrates and plumps
Contains added fragrance
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 to protect against harmful UV rays as it targets stubborn lines and wrinkles and evens out the complexion. The formula’s retinol SA is boosted by a glucose complex that helps to speed up results, plus it contains skin-plumping hyaluronic acid, which binds moisture to the skin, providing lightweight hydration. For the price and versatility, it’s a must.
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.
Active Ingredients: Avobenzone, homosalate, octisalate, octocrylene | Retinol Concentration: 0.3% | Dosage: Apply generously throughout the day for SPF benefits | Size: 1 oz. | Cruelty-Free: No | Byrdie Clean: No
Best for Body: Paula's Choice Retinol Skin-Smoothing Body Treatment
Silky, non-greasy feel
Boosts natural glow
Irritating when used with other exfoliants
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.
Active Ingredients: Vitamin C | Retinol Concentration: Not listed | Dosage: Small amount daily | Size: 4 oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: No
What Our Testers Say
"If you want your skin to feel like silk, then you need Paula's Choice Retinol Skin-Smoothing Body Treatment in your life. Since I started using this, my skin has been so soft and supple." — Olivia Hancock, Product Tester
Best Drugstore: Olay Regenerist Retinol24 Night Face Moisturizer
Brightens and soothes with niacinamide
Hydrates without feeling greasy
Contains no added fragrance
A bit pricey for a drugstore product
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.
Active Ingredients: Niacinamide | Retinol Concentration: Not listed | Dosage: Small amount nightly | Size: 1.7 oz. | Cruelty-Free: No | Byrdie Clean: Yes
What Our Editors Say
"This is my all-time favorite nighttime moisturizer, no competition. As someone who errs on the oily side, I was opposed to even using a moisturizer for a long time. What I love about this one is that it leaves my skin feeling really hydrated (not at all greasy), and the retinol helps to fade my regular bouts with hyperpigmentation." —Eden Stuart, Associate Editor
Best for Beginners: First Aid Beauty FAB Skin Lab Retinol Serum 0.25% Pure Concentrate
Suitable for sensitive skin
Contains anti-aging peptides
Less drying than traditional retinol products
Visible results take time
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.
Active Ingredients: Hyaluonic acid | Retinol Concentration: 0.25% | Dosage: 1-2 pumps, 3x weekly | Size: 1 oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
What Our Testers Say
"I’m happy with the way the FAB Skin Lab Retinol Serum makes my skin look and feel. Throughout its use, my skin has felt smooth and I’ve had no new breakouts." —Joline Buscemi, Product Tester
Best Vegan: Drunk Elephant A-Passioni Retinol Cream
Contains potent concentration of vegan retinol
Triple-peptide blend firms, strengthens, and boosts retinol efficacy
Vitamin F hydrates and nourishes
If you're into vegan beauty products, this Drunk Elephant retinol cream should be next on your list. Its innovative formula contains a potent dose of plant-derived retinol to even out tone and texture while reducing the look of lines and wrinkles, while a triple-peptide blend helps to firm, strengthen, and enhance the youth-boosting benefits of retinol. It also contains vitamin F, a hydrating, nourishing, and anti-inflammatory fatty acid that keeps leaves the skin supple and soft. In other words, your skin will thank you.
Active Ingredients: Triple-peptide blend, vitamin F | Retinol Concentration: 1% | Dosage: Small amount AM or PM | Size: 1 oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Best for Acne: COSMEDIX Clarity Skin-Clarifying Serum
Two-in-one acne and anti-aging treatment
Salicylic acid cleanses, exfoliates, and unclogs pores
Contains soothing and calming ingredients
Blessed with blemish-prone skin? This retinol serum can help. The formula contains salicylic acid, a powerful acne-fighter that works to cleanse, exfoliate, and unclog pores while L-retinol A stimulates cell turnover while smoothing and evening out the complexion. The best part? It’s also packed with soothing ingredients like willowherb, tea tree oil, and aloe vera to soothe and calm agitated skin, which is also a plus. Clearer, calmer complexion, coming right up.
Active Ingredients: Salicylic acid, willowherb, tea tree oil, aloe vera | Retinol Concentration: 0.5% | Dosage: Small amount AM or PM | Size: 1 oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Best Night Cream: Murad Retinol Youth Renewal Night Cream
Combines fast-acting and time-released retinol with a retinol booster
Niacinamide and picolinamide calms and supports skin barrier
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. Using this at night, which is when your skin typically repairs itself, gives the retinol a chance to do its thing without any interruptions. Also nice: The formula contains niacinamide and picolinamide, which calms the skin while supporting it’s natural protective barrier.
Active Ingredients: Niacinamide | Retinol Concentration: Not listed | Dosage: Small amount nightly | Size: 1.7 oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: No
Best for Deep Wrinkles: Estée Lauder Perfectionist Pro Rapid Renewal Retinol Treatment
Contains stabilized, encapsulated retinol
Non-acnegenic and non-clogging
Strong and potentially irritating
Formulated with a potent cocktail of hyaluronic acid, vitamins C and E, and 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 into your routine. (Byrdie's former editorial director Faith saw noticeable results after just a week of use.)
Active Ingredients: Hyaluronic acid, vitamins C and E, algae extract | Retinol Concentration: Not listed | Dosage: Small amount nightly | Size: 1 oz. | Cruelty-Free: No | Byrdie Clean: No
Best Capsules: Elizabeth Arden Retinol Ceramide Capsules Line Erasing Night Serum
Single-use capsules ensure potency
Ceramides strengthen and support skin barrier
Matte, non-greasy finish
Can't adjust dosage
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, and you can expect minimized lines and wrinkles, improved texture and tone, and a more youthful appearance in just one month.
Active Ingredients: Ceramides | Retinol Concentration: Not listed | Dosage: 1 capsule nightly | Size: 30, 60, or 90 capsules | Cruelty-Free: No | Byrdie Clean: No
Best Serum: Epi.Logic Double Feature Retinol + AHA Overnight Facial
Lactic and glycolic acids gently exfoliate
Algae extract and squalane hydrate and nourish
Safe for sensitive skin
This multi-tasking nighttime serum is everything you need to wake up with brighter, smoother, and more radiant skin. Created by a board-certified plastic surgeon to convert even the most retinol-phobic into retinol lovers, it uses gradual-release technology that gently resurfaces and stimulates cell turnover sans any redness and irritation. Plus, it also contains lactic acid and glycolic acid for further exfoliation, while algae extract and squalane hydrate and nourish the skin. The best part about it? Even those with sensitive skin can enjoy its glow-boosting benefits.
Active Ingredients: Retinol, lactic acid, glycolic acid | Retinol Concentration: Not listed | Dosage: 4-5 drops at night, as tolerated | Size: 1 oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Best Clinical Strength: Obagi Retinol 1.0
Potent, high concentration of retinol
Vitamins C and E provide extra antioxidant protection
Jojoba oil and shea butter nourish
May be too strong for retinol beginners
Typically, products that contain a concentration of 1% pure retinol — indicating it’s one of the strongest retinol products you can buy over the counter — are reserved for retinol veterans who have properly conditioned their skin to handle a high concentration of this potent ingredient. However, because this cream from Obagi Medical uses a unique entrapped retinol delivery system that gradually releases it over time, it packs a powerful punch with minimal irritation.
In addition to its high concentration of retinol, the formula also boasts nourishing jojoba oil and shea butter to promote firmness and elasticity and vitamins C and E to neutralize free radicals. Also nice? It’s non-acnegenic, so you can trust it won’t clog your pores.
Active Ingredients: Vitamins C and E | Retinol Concentration: 1% | Dosage: Small amount nightly | Size: 1 oz. | Cruelty-Free: No | Byrdie Clean: No
Best Smoothing: ROSE Ingleton MD Retexturizing Booster
Contains concentrated plant-derived retinol
Jamaican superfruit blend containing AHAs resurfaces
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. Instead, it contains Ingleton’s signature Jamaican Superfruit Blend, a complex containing fruit extracts of orange, lemon, bilberry, sugarcane, and sugar maple syrup. Together, they boost cell turnover and resurface the skin while tackling fine lines, wrinkles, and uneven texture. With continued use, you can expect a radiant, supple complexion. Even better? The formula is vegan and cruelty-free.
Active Ingredients: Retinol, Jamaican superfruit blend | Retinol Concentration: Not listed | Dosage: 3-4 drops nightly | Size: 1 oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Best Face Oil: Dermalogica Retinol Acne Clearing Oil
Time-released retinol reduces irritation
Salicylic acid exfoliates and reduces breakouts
Argan, jojoba, and rosehip seed oils nourish and strengthen skin barrier
Slow to absorb
If you're a fan of face oils that do more than just moisturize, then this skin-smoothing and acne-clearing retinol face oil from Dermalogica is for you. Using a time-released form of retinol, it smoothes lines and wrinkles, improves skin elasticity, and reduces hyperpigmentation while you sleep with minimal irritation. It also contains a 2% concentration of salicylic acid that exfoliates and reduces breakouts and blackheads, making it a great choice for those with acne-prone skin.
Of course, like most face oils, it’s still deeply nourishing: It contains a blend of argan, jojoba, and rosehip seed oils to deliver phytoactive lipids and antioxidants that not only strengthen the skin’s barrier, but combat any drying side effects of the retinol and salicylic acid. Bonus? It’s also vegan and cruelty-free.
Retinol Concentration: Not listed | Dosage: 1 dropper nightly | Size: 1 oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: No
Best Gentle: Eve Lom Time Retreat Face Treatment
Encapsulated retinol ensures potency and reduces irritation
Niacinamide, allantoin, and vitamin E soothe
Microalgae heals and boosts cell turnover
Not only is this retinol encapsulated to ensure potency and minimize irritation, but this formula is packed with skin-soothing ingredients like niacinamide, allantoin, vitamin E, and a cocktail of nourishing oils. It also contains microalgae, which nourishes and heals the skin while boosting cell turnover. Also nice: It’s so gentle that it can be used morning and night to effectively tackle fine lines, pigmentation, and dullness.
Active Ingredients: Niacinimide, encapsulated retinol | Retinol Concentration: Not listed | Dosage: Small amount AM or PM | Size: 1.6 oz. | Cruelty-Free: No | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Best for Eyes: Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Ferulic + Retinol Triple Correction Eye Serum
Ferulic acid boosts retinol efficacy and protects against sun damage
Licorice root reduces dark circles
Can be used on entire eye area, including eyelids
Not very hydrating
Unlike other retinol products that are meant for your whole face, this serum is for the 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. A bonus: This product is vegan and cruelty-free.
Active Ingredients: Retinol, ferulic acid, licorice root extract | Retinol Concentration: Not listed | Dosage: Small amount AM or PM | Size: 0.5 oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Best With Vitamin C: Absolute Joi Skin Refining Night Oil with Retinol and Vitamins C+E
Vitamins C and E fade dark marks and hyperpigmentation
Plant oil blend nourishes and heals
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. Plus, its nourishing blend of oils—including jojoba, moringa, rose hip, argan, evening primrose, and sunflower seed—are packed with skin-loving fatty acids. With eight different active ingredients in one powerful yet gentle product, you're definitely getting your money's worth.
Active Ingredients: Vitamin C | Retinol Concentration: Not listed | Dosage: 5-8 drops nightly | Size: 1 oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
When it comes to the very best over-the-counter retinols, the Peter Thomas Roth Retinol Fusion PM Night Serum is the crème de la crème. Due to its microencapusulated retinol technology, it’s much less irritating than your average retinol treatment—but still quite powerful. Plus, it’s infused with skin-loving vitamins C and E to keep your complexion hydrated and smooth. When it comes to an effective treatment that won’t break the bank, you can’t go wrong with the RoC Retinol Correxion Deep Wrinkle Night Cream. For under 20 bucks, it promises to diminish the look of fine lines and wrinkles in just 12 weeks. If you have sensitive skin or are new to retinol, look no further than the First Aid Beauty FAB Skin Lab Retinol Serum 0.25% Pure Concentrate. It’s formulated with a fairly low yet effective concentration of retinol (so it’s much less irritating), plus it’s packed with peptides and soothing ingredients like colloidal oatmeal, aloe, and ceramides.
What to Look for in an Over-The-Counter Retinol Product
The first thing Zeichner recommends looking for in an over-the-counter retinol product is a formula that's moisturizing. “We know that retinol can cause skin irritation for the first two to four weeks of use, so it’s important to look for a product that’s also hydrating,” he says. Look for formulas that include humectant ingredients like hyaluronic acid or oil-based emollients that will deeply nourish parched skin.
Hydration aside, Zeichner recommends also looking for formulas that support and strengthen the skin's natural moisture barrier, since irritation is a sign of a compromised barrier. Look for formulas that incorporate soothing and strengthening ingredients such as ceramides, fatty acids, niacinamide, and probiotics.
A Stabilized Formula
Retinol is notorious for being an unstable skincare ingredient, meaning that exposure to sunlight, air, and heat can deactivate it and render it useless. While it’s important to store any retinol cream or serum properly (see: in a cool place out and of direct sunlight), Zeichner also recommends seeking out formulas that contain stabilized forms of retinol, such as an encapsulated retinol. These may end up being pricier products, but they’re worth the splurge since they’ll be more effective and have a longer shelf-life.
What is the highest percentage of retinol available over the counter?
According to Zeichner, most over-the-counter retinol products do not contain more than 1% retinol, though he has seen a few products that contain up to 2%. It's also important to keep in mind that a retinol concentration below .25% won't be effective. “Companies aren’t required to disclose the concentration of retinol in products, and many keep this information private as part of the trade secret of the formula,” he explains. That said, if a brand doesn't list the concentration, you may want to confirm with them directly to ensure the product is actually effective.
Can you use retinol while pregnant?
Some studies have shown that high doses of vitamin A can be harmful to an unborn child. For that reason, doctors—including Zeichner—do not recommend that pregnant folks use topical retinol. Instead, he recommends reaching for bakuchiol products. “It’s often referred to as nature’s retinol, and while it’s structurally a different molecule and works through separate receptors, it does have a similar collagen-stimulating benefit," he says.
Can you use retinol while breastfeeding?
In addition to retinol not being recommended for use by pregnant folks, Zeichner confirms that those breastfeeding should also steer clear of vitamin A products. Again, he recommends reaching for topical bakuchiol instead.
Meet the Expert
Dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, MD, is an associate professor of dermatology and the Director of Clinical and Cosmetic Research at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. He specializes in multiple areas of cosmetic and medical dermatology, including acne.