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Retinol is the holy grail of skin care ingredients right now. It’s basically *that* girl for a slew of skin concerns, including:

The coolest part about retinol? It’s got all kinds of science to back it up — which we’ll dig into below.

We rounded up the best retinol gels, creams, and serums for different skin types and budgets, and we chatted with a couple of dermatologists to get the science behind it. After all, this stuff is mighty as hell and has the potential to be a little too intense for some.

Keep on scrolling to get the deets and make a little space in your cabinet for your new retinol BFF.

Allow us to introduce you.

We chatted with Dr. Jeannette Graf, a board certified dermatologist and assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in NYC, to learn about this gold standard skin care ingredient.

She explains that retinol — a vitamin A derivative — has been shown through decades of clinical research to boost collagen production, strengthen the protective function of the skin barrier, help reduce transepidermal water loss, and increase cell turnover on a molecular level. Looove that.

Because it helps increase cell turnover, Graf explains that it helps improve overall skin texture and address acne, hyperpigmentation, and dark under-eye circles (by increasing the thickness of the skin).

“By boosting collagen,” she says, “it helps keep the skin firm and tight as it minimizes the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.”

Basically, this sh*t is hella helpful for all kinds of skin concerns, especially acne-prone skin, at any age.

Who should use retinol?

In general, Graf says anyone can use retinol to help boost their skin health. “Just be mindful of how often you are using it and when you are using it to minimize any potential irritation,” she says.

You can shop for over-the-counter (OTC) retinol creams or you can talk with your derm about testing out one of the several available prescription-strength options. Graf says OTC options have been shown to offer similar results to prescription strength but at lower percentages to reduce the chance of irritation.

We chatted with derms to learn how to find the best retinol cream for your skin type, which ingredients to keep an eye out for, and which ones to avoid like the plague. We also asked for their favorite products.

Here are Graf’s shopping tips for different types of skin:

  • Oily skin. Find a lightweight, serum-like retinol product. You’ll still need a moisturizer, especially if you’re using a prescription-strength retinol.
  • Normal to dry skin. A moisturizer, cream, or even oil with retinol can be a nice last step.
  • Sensitive skin. Even if you’re using an OTC retinol product, use it sparingly — at most twice a week — and avoid formulas and other products with alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs).

Best overall retinol cream

Skinmedica Retinol Complex

  • Price: $$–$$$
  • Retinol concentration: 0.25, 0.5, 1.0
  • Skin type/concern: normal, red
  • Standout ingredients: retinol, squalane, niacinamide (vitamin B3), tocopherol (vitamin E), glycerin, ceramides
  • Size: 1-oz bottle
  • Pros: contains additional moisturizing ingredients and ingredients to support healthy aging
  • Cons: pricey

Graf says this retinol is a good choice for people with normal skin types. But what is “normal,” anyway? Basically, it means you don’t quite identify as dry, sensitive, or oily.

Graf also says this cream is great for people who have used retinol before. She adds that it contains antioxidants like vitamin E to help soothe your skin and minimize irritation and redness.

It contains evidence-backed hydrators like glycerin, squalane, and ceramides, which all play a role in moisturizing and strengthening your skin’s barrier.

It also has one of our fave ingredients: niacinamide. This is another science-backed ingredient that can help treat acne, reduce redness and irritation, curb oil production, and smooth out wrinkles. Seriously, we love it.

Although this cream sits at a higher price point, it’s tough to find a negative review of it, which is why it lands at the top of our list.

Plus, it’s free of parabens, which we appreciate. It comes in three different strengths, too, so you can start off low and work your way up.

Best retinol for acne

Differin Acne Treatment Gel

  • Price: $
  • Retinol concentration: 0.1%
  • Skin type/concern: acne-prone
  • Standout ingredients: adapalene 0.1%
  • Size: 1.6-oz tube
  • Pros: prescription-strength retinoids available OTC
  • Cons: may experience a “purge” before you see results

Graf recommends this topical gel for those with acne. This is an adapalene gel, a form that works well with oily skin. Graf points out that this product used to be available only with a prescription, but now it’s OTC (*cue the sound of angels singing*).

She says it works very well to reduce acne, inflammation, and excessive keratosis pilaris (aka chicken skin).

The FDA approved this mighty little gel as an OTC treatment for acne back in 2016, and it works wonders for many people.

It has about 6K Google reviews with a 4.5/5-star rating. Most users are thrilled with the results, but some experience a “purge” period in which acne gets worse before it gets better. This is pretty common when treating acne, though.

Best retinol night cream

Murad Retinol Youth Renewal Night Cream

  • Price: $$
  • Retinol concentration: not disclosed
  • Skin type/concern: normal, dry, combo, and oily
  • Standout ingredients: retinol, niacinamide, tocopheryl acetate (vitamin E), hyaluronic acid, picolinamide
  • Size: 1.7-oz container
  • Pros: lightweight, luxurious feel
  • Cons: may not be the best for dry skin

This night cream comes recommended by Dr. Emmanuel Loucas, a board certified dermatologist and director of SINY Dermatology in NYC.

It includes niacinamide and vitamin E for hydration, an antioxidant boost, and extra support for skin aging. It also has hyaluronic acid, which is a widely loved, lightweight moisturizing ingredient that helps lock in moisture. Plus, it’s got picolinamide, which can help reduce hyperpigmentation.

It has some glowing remarks from Google reviewers, too, with many calling it lightweight and gentle. Some point out that they noticed positive effects after using it for only a short time. But one reviewer says it dried out her already-dry skin — so if you’re a dry guy, you may want to skip this one.

The one downside is that Murad doesn’t disclose the retinol percentage for this cream.

When asked about it, they respond with a generic answer: “Murad develops formulas with proof — not percentages — in mind. We start with clinically proven ingredients, then develop innovative technologies to enhance their efficacy. Our multi-action formulas do not just consider the symptom or target a skin concern; rather, we address the entire health of the skin.”

This isn’t THAT big of a deal, but it is kinda annoying that you don’t know what you’re getting into before you try it.

Best retinol cream for eyes

La Roche-Posay Redermic R Anti-Aging Retinol Eye Cream

  • Price: $$
  • Retinol concentration: not disclosed
  • Skin type/concern: all skin types, sensitive eye area
  • Standout ingredients: retinol, caffeine, glycerin, dimethicone
  • Size: 0.5-oz tube
  • Pros: can help de-puff eyes, noncomedogenic, fragrance-free
  • Cons: pricey

The eye area is super sensitive. You don’t want to go HAM in this area with anything, let alone retinol.

This cream is gentle enough to use in the crow’s feet zone, though, which is why it landed on our list. According to the brand, it can visibly lessen the look of crow’s feet and even help out with dark circles. In fact, the formula uses caffeine — an antioxidant that’s proven to increase microcirculation of blood in the skin — to tackle ’em.

This formula promises not to clog pores since it’s noncomedogenic. Plus, folks with sensitive skin will appreciate that it doesn’t contain fragrance. It’s also free of oil and parabens.

We must admit, though, the price tag is a bit big for the bottle. But when you’re using the cream only in the eye area, you do use less. Big facts.

Best retinol for sensitive skin

La Roche-Posay Retinol Face Serum with Vitamin B3

  • Price: $$
  • Retinol concentration: not disclosed
  • Skin type/concern: sensitive
  • Standout ingredients: retinol, niacinamide, hyaluronic acid, dimethicone, glycerin
  • Size: 1-oz bottle
  • Pros: noncomedogenic, lightweight
  • Cons: small bottle

A lightweight serum that’s noncomedogenic, soothing, and hydrating — yup, this is something to get pumped about.

Niacinamide works its hydrating, oil-production-decreasing, wrinkle-reducing magic while dimethicone, glycerin, and hyaluronic acid moisturize and hydrate. Folks with sensitive skin can rejoice.

Google reviewers are happy campers, bragging about a gorg plump and glow, although they feel the bottle is a little small.

Bonus: It’s made without oil or parabens.

Best for sensitive and dry skin

Sweet Chef Beet + Retinol Nightly Firming Mask

  • Price: $
  • Retinol concentration: not disclosed
  • Skin type/concern: dry, sensitive
  • Standout ingredients: hydroxypinacolone retinoate, squalane, glycerin, hyaluronic acid, beet root extract, hemp seed oil
  • Size: 1.69-oz jar
  • Pros: positive reviews, contains a less irritating retinoid
  • Cons: jar packaging less convenient than tubes for some users

Graf picked this night cream for both dry and sensitive skin types. She says it’s very hydrating, with hyaluronic acid, glycerin, squalane, and hemp seed oil. It also has beet root extract, an antioxidant that contains high amounts of vitamin C and E.

Plus, it uses granactive retinoid, which Graf says is something called a retinyl ester that has been found to be less irritating but still as effective as other forms of retinol.

We like that it’s free of:

  • parabens
  • mineral oil
  • sulfates
  • silicones
  • phthalates
  • alcohols
  • synthetic fragrances and dyes

This mask is also vegan and Leaping Bunny certified.

Best retinol for stretch marks

Paula’s Choice Retinol Skin-Smoothing Body Treatment

  • Price: $
  • Retinol concentration: not disclosed
  • Skin type/concern: stretch marks
  • Standout ingredients: retinol, vitamin C, shea butter
  • Size: 4-oz bottle
  • Pros: hydrating, nongreasy, nice price
  • Cons: watch for irritation!

Retinol for the body — it’s a thing. This is a decent-size bottle of lotion with retinol, and it sits at a decent price point. This is a good thing since you’ll probs be slathering it allll over your bad self. Be careful about using this alongside exfoliants, though — that can lead to irritation.

Research suggests that retinol has the secret sauce for improving the look of stretch marks (but nothing can quite delete them altogether, folks, so do your best to love ’em).

Google reviews are impressive overall. Comments range from “life-changing” to some users saying they didn’t see improvement in their concerns. But Paula’s Choice is known for high quality ingredients at a fair price point, so it could be worth trying out for yourself.

We love that it’s free of fragrance (helpful for sensitive skin types) and cruelty-free.

Best retinol serum

Decree Treat Tincture

  • Price: $$$
  • Retinol concentration: not disclosed
  • Skin type/concern: hyperpigmentation
  • Standout ingredients: hydroxypinacolone retinoate, tocopherol (vitamin E), hyaluronic acid, glycerin, squalane, caffeine
  • Size: 1-oz bottle
  • Pros: high-end results
  • Cons: pricey

Some skin types really hate creams. This serum is for those types — plus, serums are applied before a moisturizer, which means they can get deeper into the skin. This one’s formulated to carefully target skin issues like fine lines, hyperpigmentation, and loss of firmness.

The serum uses a granactive retinoid along with an ingredient called alpha-arbutin, which is known for its ability to brighten up skin and lighten areas of pigmentation.

It also includes icons like vitamin E, caffeine, and hyaluronic acid.

No doubt this pick is pricey, but legend has it the pump accurately dispenses the amount of product you need, so you won’t waste any or overdo it on your precious face.

Best retinol for beginners

Medik8 Crystal Retinal

  • Price: $$
  • Retinol concentration: not disclosed
  • Skin type/concern: beginner, sensitive
  • Standout ingredients: encapsulated retinaldehyde, hyaluronic acid, ​vitamin E, glycerin
  • Size: 1-oz bottle
  • Pros: plumps and resurfaces skin, good for beginners, available in multiple strengths
  • Cons: not widely available

This retinol is great for beginners. The brand says it’s low strength but still effective AF (OK, we’re paraphrasing).

This gentle formula includes hyaluronic acid, ​vitamin E, and glycerin — and Medik8 says it won’t irritate the heck out of your skin. Plus, once your skin gets used to this product’s strength, there are three stronger versions to move up to.

It’s tough to find a negative review of this product so far, and we love that the price isn’t too out of this world either.

Best retinol for pros

Sunday Riley A+ High-Dose Retinoid Serum

  • Price: $$
  • Retinol concentration: 6.5%
  • Skin type/concern: regular retinol user
  • Standout ingredients: hydroxypinacolone retinoate, retinol, honey, bisabolol, cactus extract, ginger
  • Size: 1.7-oz bottle
  • Pros: high strength
  • Cons: pricey, not great for new retinol users

This one is NOT for the new kids. This formula has a blend of 5 percent gentle retinol esters, 1 percent retinol proper, and 0.5 percent natural, retinol-imitating blue algae. This means it can give ya a sexy mix of potency and protection.

The formula also includes CoQ10 (an antioxidant that can help reduce signs of aging) plus bisabolol, honey, and cactus extract — three anti-inflammatory ingredients that help soothe your skin and prevent irritation from retinol. It also has ginger, which the brand says helps soothe and balance out the skin, but we couldn’t find any research to back that up.

Reviewers say “A+” is an appropriate name. They love how much this serum brightens, plumps, and freshens up their skin.

It’s also cruelty-free and made without:

  • artificial fragrances
  • sulfates
  • parabens
  • gluten
  • soy
  • phthalates

Best retinol for uneven texture

Shani Darden Skin Care Retinol Reform

  • Price: $$
  • Retinol concentration: 2.2%
  • Skin type/concern: textured skin
  • Standout ingredients: retinol, lactic acid, glycerin, green tea extract, tocopheryl acetate (vitamin E), rosemary and sunflower extract
  • Size: 1-oz bottle
  • Pros: contains AHAs *and* retinol, celeb-endorsed brand
  • Cons: pricey

This retinol is formulated by an facialist named Shani Darden, who has an impressive resume of beautiful celebs who put their trust in her — like Emily Ratajkowski, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Jessica Alba, and Chrissy Teigen.

What matters most is that the brand promises this product is gentle but effective. The formula includes 2.2 percent encapsulated retinol, which the brand says offers fast, youth-boosting results.

It contains lactic acid, one of the gentler AHAs that clears away skin cells to reveal a brighter, more even texture. It also has green tea extract to help calm redness and irritation and rosemary and sunflower extracts to help hydrate and clear up signs of UV damage.

Google reviewers rave about it, confirming the “gentle but effective” claim. But one reviewer says they saw some pilling when they layered this with other products.

Best vegan retinol cream

Drunk Elephant A-Passioni Retinol Cream

  • Price: $
  • Retinol concentration: 1%
  • Skin type/concern: sensitive, normal, dry, combo, and oily
  • Standout ingredients: retinol, niacinamide, tocopherol (vitamin E), peptides, linoleic and linolenic acid (vitamin F), hyaluronic acid, panthenol (vitamin B5), glycerin
  • Size: 1-oz bottle
  • Pros: vegan, loaded with skin-barrier-restoring ingredients
  • Cons: not great for beginners

Buckle up, ’cuz this cream’s LOADED with ingredients. We won’t dive into all of them, but we will call out some important faves. In addition to a few we’re familiar with by now (niacinamide, vitamin E, hyaluronic acid, and glycerin), this cream also contains “vitamin F” and vitamin B5. What the heck do those do?

Vitamin F (which is not an actual vitamin but rather a type of fat) is known for being a bad B at improving skin barrier function (your skin’s ability to hold on to moisture). Vitamin B5 is also known for helping with skin barrier function — but it’s great at soothing irritated skin too.

This formula also uses a blend of triple peptides, another skin barrier superstar that also improves skin elasticity.

Drunk Elephant says this blend helps firm and strengthen while also improving retinol’s benefits for signs of aging. Reviewers rave about the results they’re seeing but recommend avoiding this if you’ve never used retinol before.

Best budget retinol cream

RoC Retinol Correxion Deep Wrinkle Night Cream

  • Price: $
  • Retinol concentration: not disclosed
  • Skin type/concern: normal
  • Standout ingredients: retinol, glycolic acid, zinc gluconate, glycerin, squalane
  • Size: 1-oz tube
  • Pros: inexpensive, great for reducing acne
  • Cons: low concentration

If you want to dip your toes in the retinol waters, why not start out small and easy on the wallet? This is one that comes recommended by Loucas, so we’re into it. It also has a 4.3/5-star rating on Google. Many reviewers think it’s a great deal, but some point out that it has a fragrance they could live without.

We know the concentration of this cream isn’t high, but details are not listed (bummer). It does have some goodies like glycolic acid (another exfoliating AHA) and zinc gluconate, which has a proven track record of reducing acne.

We love that this formula is noncomedogenic, too, so it won’t clog ya pores.

Best high-end moisturizing retinol

NourishMax Encapsulated 0.5% Retinol Cream

  • Price: $$
  • Retinol concentration: 0.5%
  • Skin type/concern: not disclosed
  • Standout ingredients: retinol, retinyl palmitate, safflower seed oil, hyaluronic acid, glycerin, squalane
  • Size: 1-oz jar
  • Pros: hydrating
  • Cons: might take time to see results

This night cream comes with Loucas’ seal of approval.

Although it can be on the pricier side, it does contain some of those superstar ingredients we love.

This formula includes squalane for deep hydration, safflower seed oil for skin barrier restoration, and glycerin for even more moisture. Finally, it has ceramides for an added moisture-holding layer. The name “NourishMax” really goes hard, doesn’t it?

This cream is also vegan, cruelty-free, and made in the United States.

Plus, it’s free of:

  • gluten
  • parabens
  • sulfates
  • phthalates
  • formaldehyde

Best retinol cream with vitamin C

Dermalogica Overnight Retinol Repair

  • Price: $$
  • Retinol concentration: 0.5% microencapsulated pure retinol
  • Skin type/concern: fine lines, wrinkles
  • Standout ingredients: vitamin C, copper amino acid, squalane, glycerin, ceramides
  • Size: 1-oz tube
  • Pros: comes with a buffer cream to help acclimate skin to retinol, contains vitamin C
  • Cons: pricey

Another of Loucas’ recommendations, this cream uses microencapsulated pure retinol and vitamin C to work on signs of aging, uneven skin tone, and discoloration.

This formula also contains a copper amino acid complex, which the brand says works to visibly reduce wrinkles and boost your skin’s firmness.

We love a hydration moment, and this pick has those ceramides and polysaccharides we’ve mentioned, which help prevent water loss and soften fine lines.

We appreciate that this cream does not include:

  • parabens
  • sulfates
  • phthalates
  • synthetic fragrance

Shopping from trusted brands with positive (legit) reviews is, of course, a must. From there, you’ll have a few other things to consider.

Because retinol and all its variations can be mildly irritating, Graf says to make sure it’s paired with hydrating and moisturizing ingredients and antioxidants with anti-inflammatory benefits. This means beneficial ingredients like:

  • Squalane. When you think squalane, think hydration and smoothing without feeling greasy. *chef’s kiss*
  • Glycerin. This helps your skin cling to water, so it stays nice and hydrated.
  • Niacinamide. This ingredient loves to moisturize, smooth wrinkles, reduce acne- or rosacea-induced irritation, and reduce oil production. It’s basically great for all skin types.
  • Hyaluronic acid. This lightweight moisturizer helps lock moisture into your skin. It’s amazing for oily skin because it won’t feel too thick on your face.
  • Ceramides. Among other v. helpful functions, these are popular for strengthening the skin barrier. They’re great for dry skin.

What to avoid

Graf points out the most important part of shopping for a new-to-you topical product: allergies or skin sensitivities.

“If you are allergic or sensitive to any ingredients in a formula, that is what you should generally avoid,” she says.

Take a good hard look at the ingredients, and then double down by doing a patch test. This is the best way to avoid a big ol’ mess — aka an allergic reaction. And it’s simple to do: Test out a small amount of the product on your inner wrist or forearm, making note of any signs of irritation.

Plus, Graf adds, if you have very sensitive skin, avoid retinol products that are also formulated with exfoliating acids — think AHAs (like glycolic and lactic acid) or BHAs (like salicylic acid).

“That might be just a little too much for sensitive skin and can lead to dryness and irritation,” she says. “The same thing goes for vitamin C — it’s best to use vitamin C in the morning and retinol at night.” (Remember our retinol pick with vitamin C? That one is not for the sensitive types.)

Graf says that when you’re brand-new to retinol, you’ll need to start slow, using it once or twice a week MAX. “Let your skin get used to it. If at any time it starts to feel dry or stinging, stop,” she says.

Loucas adds that you can increase the frequency of use once your skin has gotten used to the product.

“Retinoids are much more likely to cause [sensitivity] compared to retinols,” he says.

So, if you get prescription strength, you can expect your skin to take a little longer to get used to its new, intense topical friend.

Applying retinol for different skin types and strengths

  • Sensitive or dry skin. Graf suggests applying it as the last step, on top of your moisturizer: “It’ll help reduce any potential irritation.”
  • Oily skin. You should still apply moisturizer on top of the retinol.
  • Applying prescription-strength retinol. If you’re using a prescription version (like tretinoin, tazarotene, adapalene, etc.), Graf says to simply follow your doctor’s instructions.

What’s the difference between retinoids and retinols?

Loucas says retinols are a subtype of retinoids.

“The main difference between retinoids and retinols is strength,” he says. “Retinols contain lower strengths of retinoic acid, the active byproduct of all retinoids. Retinoic acid is the active ingredient that exerts positive effects on the skin.”

Here’s a simple way to think about the difference, according to Loucas: The fewer steps it takes for the product to break down into retinoic acid, the stronger the product is.

The important catch that Loucas points out: Stronger is not always better.

“I often have people slowly work up from retinols to retinoids,” he says. “If they are unable to tolerate the stronger retinoids, I would suggest staying with retinols. It’s more about consistency than it is about strength.”

Are OTC retinol creams just as good as prescription retinol?

Graf tells us that OTC retinol creams show similar results to prescription retinol but usually contain either a lower percentage or a gentler form, like retinaldehyde, to prevent extra skin irritation.

“Adapalene (Differin), for example, was a prescription-only form that in recent years was made available OTC without any formulation changes. It was proven to be safe to use without a doctor overseeing it,” she says.

How can I get prescription retinol?

If you’d like to get your hands on prescription-strength retinol, make an appointment with a dermatologist or check out a telehealth platform like Nurx. Your doctor can decide whether it’s a good choice for your skin concerns.

Just keep in mind that some insurance companies won’t cover it — especially if you’re above a certain age (RUDE) — so it can be kinda pricey.

When should I start using retinol cream?

For skin concerns like acne-prone skin, oily skin, fine lines and wrinkles, and hyperpigmentation, there’s no better time to start than now. Just make sure you start off slowly and add a good moisturizer into the mix.

What ingredients should I avoid using with retinol cream?

Steer clear of any ingredients that you’re allergic or sensitive to. Read the ingredient list carefully first and do a patch test.

It’s also a good idea to avoid exfoliating acids like AHAs and BHAs if you have sensitive skin. Otherwise, you don’t have to worry about major ingredient interactions.

How often can I use a retinol cream?

Newbies need to start off slowly, using it only once or twice a week at most until your skin gets used to it. This can be a tough rule to follow — especially if you’re using it for acne and want to see results ASAP. But trust us: Avoiding the intense peeling that comes along with doing too much too fast is worth it.

You can bump up the number of times you apply it weekly once your skin starts to get used to it.

What do I do if I have a bad reaction to a retinol cream?

Graf says a “bad” reaction to retinol is usually due to too much application. “Retinol is very active and can be irritating,” she says. This leads to redness, dryness, tightness, and peeling. “If that happens, stop using retinol and products with any other anti-aging actives like AHA and BHAs.”

She adds that you should then treat your skin as if it’s very sensitive and use minimal products with minimal ingredients. “Opt for a creamy gentle cleanser that doesn’t foam, a rich and soothing moisturizer, and a mineral-based sunscreen during the day. This helps your skin repair itself.”

Does retinol thin the skin?

According to Loucas, this is a myth! It’s a common assumption because retinol can cause peeling or skin sensitivity for some, especially those with dry or sensitive skin. But Loucas says the opposite is true.

“[Retinol] stimulates collagen, elastic tissue, and makes your skin more compact and healthier. Both products (OTC or prescription) can make your skin sensitive, but this can be minimized or avoided if used sparingly, with a decreased frequency (2 to 3 times per week), along with moisturizers.”

Retinol is an OTC type of retinoid. This vitamin A derivative is popular for addressing issues like acne, oily skin, hyperpigmentation, and fine lines and wrinkles.

Even though OTC retinol products are less intense than prescription-strength options, you still need to be careful when starting out.

Give your skin time to adjust by using a retinol product only a couple times a week at first, making sure you’re using a trusted moisturizer along with it, and avoiding using other intense ingredients at the same time, like exfoliating acids.

If your skin becomes way too sensitive to appreciate the benefits, you should probs stop using it, as the derms mentioned.

You can likely find a retinol product with a strong reputation and high ratings that will work for your skin type, skin concerns, and budget.