The best retinol creams in 2021
Have you ever wished there was a product that would help relieve fine lines, acne, and dark spots? Well, there is a retinol cream for that. The best retinol products, whether it’s retinol creams, serums, or even pills, can help with all of these common skin care issues and more, but, given their potency, they also require some know-how before application. “Traditionally, retinoids have been used to treat acne breakouts,” says Dr. Lian Mack, medical director and owner of New York-based GlamDerm Dermatology Clinic. But that’s not all they can do: “Retinoids help reduce oil production and promote cell turnover, which leads to less whiteheads and blackheads and improves skin glow.”
What is retinol?
So, what exactly is retinol and how is it different from retinoids? “Both retinol and retinoids are derivatives of vitamin A,” says Dr. Mack. At the end of the spectrum of severity (and effectiveness) is oral application of retinoid. You probably know that the prescription retinoid, used to treat severe acne, is called Accutane. A prescription retinoid like tretinoin, often under the brand name Retin-A, is a bit less hardcore (and gentler on the skin). Over-the-counter retinol creams and serums are less intense (and suitable for most skin types and those new to retinol). Most of the products on this list fall into this category and are a good place to start for most people.
But for super sensitive or dry skin, there are retinoid esters – look for retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate, and retinyl linoleate on the ingredient list – which are the weakest member of the family.
And for those who are pregnant, breastfeeding, or prefer to avoid vitamin A supplements, try bakuchiol, a plant derivative that’s considerably gentler on the skin. “Bakuchiol behaves similarly to retinoids by promoting cell turnover, which ultimately increases the production of type I collagen, softening the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles,” says Dr. Mack.
Who can use retinol
Retinol is generally considered safe for everyone (except pregnant or breastfeeding women), but people with darker skin tones should be extra careful with its use. “If a darker-skinned patient is irritated by the product, they are more likely to develop hyperpigmentation compared to their lighter-skinned counterparts,” says Dr. Mack. While everyone should slowly acclimate their skin to retinol (Dr. Mack suggests starting with just a pea-sized amount twice a week and slowly increasing the dose after three weeks), those who have darker skin tones should be especially careful during the build-up period.
How to apply retinol
Regardless of your skin tone, only use retinol at night. And always, always follow with a diligent application of sunscreen during the day, as your skin will become more photosensitive. Otherwise, you may be looking for exactly the damage you’re trying to repair, like fine lines and patchy skin. Always apply to dry skin, then apply moisturizer. When you are just starting to use retinol, you may want to consider cutting or dabbing your serum or cream with a nourishing moisturizer without active ingredients (this CeraVe will do) until your skin begins to acclimatize.
The best retinol for sensitive skin
Drunk Elephant A-Passioni Retinol Cream
This small tube contains 1% retinol – the highest concentration without a prescription. But, unlike many creams of this strength, this one balances that uneven-textured smoothing magic with nourishing ingredients. Passion fruit, apricot, marula, and jojoba oils, along with vitamin F, all work to restore moisture while retinol smooths and brightens skin.
The best retinol for beginners
Shani Darden Texture Reform
Los Angeles-based celebrity facialist (clients include the brilliant Rosie Huntington-Whiteley and Jessica Alba) Shani Darden has the key to soft retinol. The Texture Reform serum in its line uses retinyl palmitate, a type of retinoid ester, and combines it with soothing ingredients like aloe, plus lactic acid, which promotes cell renewal. In the evening, after cleansing and toning, apply a pump or two to dry skin, then apply a nourishing and gentle moisturizer.
The best customizable retinol diet
If you are looking for a no-frills retinol diet, these little vials from SkinCeuticals are for you. They have three strengths: 1%, 0.5% and 0.3%So you can level up slowly or apply different strengths to different areas of your face. Besides retinol, the formula contains frankincense and chamomile extract which soothe the skin.
The best bakuchiol
Beautycounter Countertime Lipid Defense Cleansing Oil and Antioxidant Soft Cream
Beautycounter’s off-beat line, pioneering clean beauty, was actually my choice long before I considered retinol, and is still part of my regular routine. I’m now on my third bottle of the Antioxidant Gentle Cream, a silky, pumpable cream that leaves skin instantly fresher and plumped. After about a month of daily use, I noticed that the usually sensitive and slightly rough areas of my face had almost perfectly smooth skin.
Recently I added the lipid defensive cleansing oil to my rotation. Made from a blend of bakuchiol oils and vegetable oil, this sensitive and nourishing oil cleanser adds a gentle contrast to the more active soft cream (or any other retinol product on this list). For anyone dipping their toes into using retinol, consider this cleanser to protect your moisture barrier as you experiment with dosage and frequency of application.
The best budget retinol
Roc Deep Wrinkle Anti-Aging Night Cream
This little gold tube is a classic for a reason. RoC was one of the first drugstore brands to sell a stable retinol product – years later their non-greasy yet moisturizing night cream (and the corresponding eye cream) are still top sellers. RoC does not indicate a percentage on the cream, which means it could be between 0.1 and 0.1%. If your skin is acclimatized to a very small amount of retinol only, apply it slowly at first.
The best retinol for dry skin
Skinbetter Science AlphaRet Night Cream
Dr. Mack recommends this product and I completely agree. After overdoing it with a prescription Retin-A cream, I returned to Skin Better Science and found that while it was still great for cleansing the skin in my t-zone, I didn’t feel the dryness, the redness or just generally irritated. -the skin look I had when I enthusiastically lathered myself into Retin-A. This result is due to a double dose of lactic acid and retinoid acid, explains Dr. Mack, resulting in a formulation that hydrates while treating.