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There are few anti-aging ingredients more beloved, recommended, and scientifically-proven than retinol. It works both on the surface of the skin, exfoliating to even out pigmentation and improve the look of pores, and in the deeper layers, stimulating collagen production. While it’s a choice ingredient to use all over your face, it can be particularly useful around the eyes, says New York City dermatologist Dr. Jeremy Fenton.
“The skin here is naturally thin and fragile, making it more susceptible to the aging process as collagen and elastin fibers break down with age,” he explains. “We also have a lot of movement in the area as we smile, squint, and rub our eyes, which further induces the formation of wrinkles.” By increasing collagen production, retinol can help thicken this thin skin and improve fine lines and wrinkles around the eyes, adds New York City dermatologist Dr. Morgan Rabach.
The big caveat? Retinol is infamous for its irritating side effects—redness, peeling, dryness—and the thin skin around your eye is even more delicate and susceptible to these irksome issues. That’s why if you want to use retinol around your eyes, both derms underscore the importance of choosing a product specifically made for the eye area; they’re specially formulated to be extra hydrating and minimize the likelihood of irritation.
Ahead, the best retinol eye creams that dermatologists—and Byrdie editors—love.
This is a favorite for both Byrdie Senior Editor Lindsey Metrus and Dr. Rabach. Along with the youth-boosting properties of retinol, you also get a healthy dose of ferulic acid, a potent antioxidants known for its ability to protect against pollution. There’s also caffeine to help boost circulation and minimize, and a proprietary blend of collagen, ellagic acid, and gallic acid to further help with photoaging.
Reach for this to knock out all of your eye area concerns. “RoC is a well-known producer of a variety of retinol creams, and this one also contains a mineral complex that has other benefits to improve the appearance of skin,” says Dr. Fenton. (Namely, reducing dark circles and puffiness. Yes, please.) Both he and Dr. Rabach also laud it for being gentle and hypoallergenic.
Sunlight can render retinol inactive, so make sure you load up on SPF if you’re using it during the daytime. Or, to be safe, you can also reserve it for the evening and use this choice PM pick. It contains a 1% concentration of retinol that’s microencapsulated and time-released over eight hours. AKA it’s delivered into the skin slowly, minimizing the likelihood of irritation. Added shea butter makes it deeply hydrating, and Dr. Rabach likes it because it also contains vitamin C and E, powerful antioxidants that further protect this delicate skin.
Microencapsulated retinol works to fight fine lines and wrinkles, but it’s the other ingredients in this formula that it makes it an A.M. go-to. Namely, three kinds of hyaluronic acid that both hydrate and plump fine lines, plus finely milled pearl extract that delivers a subtle luminosity. Those two combined help create the perfect base over which to apply foundation and concealer, ensuring you look bright-eyed and wide awake. Like we said, just make sure you’re wearing sunscreen anytime you use any kind of retinoid during the day.
Rather than straight-up retinol, this uses a different retinoid known as retinaldehyde. It’s slightly less potent, but also less likely to cause irritation. Still, you reap similar line-fighting benefits, and there’s also hyaluronic acid to add a lot of hydration. Sensitive skin types will appreciate that it’s free of parabens and fragrance (two common irritants) and hypoallergenic, too.
Retinol is by definition drying, but the addition of hydrators in this option help counteract that. “It’s formulated with a gentle version of retinol along with moisturizing ingredients such as glycerin and dimethicone, so it’s less likely to irritate or dry the skin,” Dr. Fenton explains. And the benefits don’t stop there: “It also contains caffeine which constricts blood vessels, helping to reduce puffy eyes,” he says.
Yes, technically there’s no retinol in this formula but we think it deserves a place on the list because some people truly can’t tolerate retinol at all. Not to mention that it’s a no-no when you’re pregnant or breastfeeding. The next best thing? Bakuchiol, a plant-based ingredient that’s been shown in studies to have almost identical anti-aging effects to retinol, but without any side effects. It’s the star of the show in this creamy balm, which also boasts caffeine and algae to tighten, firm, and de-puff. There is also a slew of hydrating ingredients—hyaluronic acid, squalene, ceramides—that give this its pleasingly rich texture.
Generally speaking, any type of retinol products can skew a bit on the pricier side; even many of the drugstore options may be more than you’d expect. Happily, this rings in at less than lunch. It uses a slow-release retinol compound to help minimize irritation, and we also appreciate the pointed applicator, which makes it easy to dispense a tiny amount. (Less is always more when it comes to retinol.)
If you really want to try retinol, but are stressed about the potential side effects, start here. This contains just a tiny bit of the active ingredient, .01% to be exact, and has five different ceramides to help keep the skin barrier healthy and ward off irritation. But you’ll still get those anti-aging effects you crave since the retinol is also paired with peptides and four different types of vitamin C, which is both a powerful antioxidant and also has collagen-boosting properties.
If you’re looking for both fewer wrinkles and firmer skin around your peepers (and really, who wouldn’t want that), reach for this cream, a staple among beauty editors. It relies on both retinol and a plant-based compound from babchi seeds that has similar firming and smoothing effects. There’s also a blend of natural oils that help increase skin’s elasticity, and you can use it both under and around your eyes, as well as on the upper brow area. The best part might be the applicator, though, a gold tip that feels cooling and makes it easy to gently massage in the product.
“This lightweight formulation also has hyaluronic acid that pulls in moisture to help to rehydrate the skin, further reducing the appearance of fine lines,” says Dr. Fenton of another one of his picks. Bonus points for the featherweight feel that and fast-acting effects; thanks to a unique retinol booster in the formula, you may start to see some results in as little as just one week.
Given that fragrance is one of the most common skin irritants out there—and the fact that retinol in and of itself can be irritating—it makes perfect sense to seek out a fragrance-free retinol eye cream. Enter this option, which is light and silky, yet delivers up to 24 hours of hydration. In other words, slather it on before bed and it will keep skin moisturized all through the entire next day. It contains two different retinoids, retinol and retinyl propionate, but is still gentle enough to use every night.
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 loves herself both retinol (even though she has sensitive skin!) and eye cream.
Meet the Expert
Jeremy Fenton is a board-certified dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York City. He practices both cosmetic and general dermatology and is also a clinical instructor at Mount Sinai Hospital.
Meet the Expert
Morgan Rabach is a board-certified dermatologist, the co-founder of LM Medical in New York City, and a media expert on all things skin. She’s also an Assistant Professor of Dermatology at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.