Anti-aging creams may come and go, but one ingredient remains the gold standard: retinol. Derived from Vitamin A, retinols have been used safely since the 1970’s.
The most famous retinol product is Retin-A, which was approved by the FDA in 1971 as a prescription treatment for acne. But while user’s pimples were vanishing, they started seeing other benefits to their skin. Fine lines and sun spots were fading, and skin texture looked smoother. Even pores looked smaller. Skin just looked better, glowier and more vibrant. Sounds like a miracle product? While there’s no such thing as a miracle, retinols come close. Or put another way- retinols are the best anti-aging product money can buy that isn’t an injectable.
Since the debut of Retin-A, retinols have found their way over the counter, at drugstores and department makeup counters in products that contain high doses of retinols in safe but effective formulas.
Think of retinols as a multi-tasker and one of the hardest working products in your beauty arsenal.
Here’s how they work.
Retinols exfoliate the skin, getting rid of old skin cells and creating new ones, which results in new, fresh skin with a smooth texture. They also help to shrink pores and increase cell turnover inside the pore, making it less likely to clog with dirt and oil. Retinols work by thinning the top layer of the skin, while thickening the smoother second layer (the epidermis) which makes skin look dewy and firm.
But perhaps retinol’s biggest claim to fame is that they help boost collagen production. When it comes to tackling the signs of anti-ageing, collagen is key as it’s what gives skin elasticity and firmness. Think of it as a support structure for the skin, and keep in mind that collagen creation starts to diminish in the 30’s.
If you have never used a retinol product before, start slowly to prevent any redness, flaking or irritation. Apply a pea-sized amount of product once or twice a week and gradually build up to using it every night. And be patient. While some women see improvements in as little as two weeks, it can take up to six months to see a change. Make sure to incorporate a good moisturizer into your skincare regimen when using a retinol to offset any dryness. Take extra precaution when in the sun and be sure to apply a SPF daily — which everyone should do regardless of retinol use.
Another thing to keep in mind is that Vitamin A is not stable- meaning it breaks down when exposed to sunlight and air. Try to choose products that come in a sealed tube or pump but if you do buy a product in a jar, try to select one in a dark container.
Here’s a look at some of the best retinol creams and serums available over the counter.
SkinCeuticals Retinol 1%
SkinCeuticals is known for combining science with natural botanical extracts to help combat the signs of aging. This face cream is no exception. The SkinCeuticals Retinol 1% contains one of the highest concentrations of retinol available over the counter. Because the cream is so potent, start slowly. Apply a pea sized amount at night once or twice a week and allow it to be fully absorbed before layering on a moisturizer. The cream will help tackle age spots, pores, uneven tone, and fine lines while also helping to treat blemishes. SkinCeuticals Retinol 1% is packed with ceramides and shea butter to counter dryness and irritation.
SkinBetter Science AlphaRet Night Cream
SkinBetter Science debuted in doctor’s offices in 2016 and won a coveted Allure Best of Beauty Breakthrough Award the same year for its AlphaRet Night Cream. Here’s what makes the product different. Normally the gold standard of anti-aging products –retinols and alpha hydroxyl acids — cannot be combined in the same product as they would irritate the skin. But scientists at SkinBetter managed to do it by combining retinol with lactic acid–a moisturizing form of an AHA— to create a new molecule. What does this mean for the user? A highly effective anti-aging product that releases active ingredients slowly so you get all the benefits of retinol without the potential irritation.
No. 7 Restore & Renew Face & Neck Multi Action Serum
The No. 7 line from Boots has garnered a cult following for delivering potent anti-aging products at affordable drugstore prices. One of its newest products, No. 7 Restore & Renew Face & Neck Multi Action Serum, is a stand-out because it targets both the face and neck to tackle the signs of aging (hello, crepiness). The star ingredient is Matrixyl 3000+, a peptide blend, and Vitamin A to smooth wrinkles and improve skin texture. Hibiscus seed extract and hyaluronic acid help keep skin firm and hydrated. Use morning and night after cleansing.
RoC Retinol Correction Deep Wrinkle Night Cream
RoC’s deep wrinkle cream has won plenty of beauty awards and it’s easy to see why this product is consistently a winner. The Deep Wrinkle Night Cream contains a nearly prescription strength level of retinol to treat fine lines and pigmentation but comes with a drugstore price tag. Added bonus- the airtight aluminum packaging ensures the product doesn’t degrade in sunlight. In addition to stabilized retinol, this night cream also contain glycolic acid to smooth skin while minerals such as zinc, copper and magnesium boost skin cell turnover.
SkinMedica Retinol Complex 1.0
SkinMedica was founded by a dermatologist, and the line contains power house ingredients such as Vitamins E, C, retinoids, and salicylic acid to target everything from fine lines to sun damage. SkinMedica Retinol Complex 1.0 is a potent night cream with a lightweight, smooth texture. The key ingredients—Vitamin A and retinols – take care of wrinkles while ceramides keep the face looking plumped and moisturized.
Peter Thomas Roth Retinol Fusion PM
This powerful serum contains 1.5% microencapsulated retinol, which helps to gently but effectively exfoliate the skin while you sleep, which encourages cell turnover and the creation of new, fresh skin. Peter Thomas Roth Retinol Fusion PM is oil and fragrance free, which is ideal for anyone with sensitive skin. Even better, the addition of Vitamins C and E help to hydrate and soothe the skin, and reduce any potential irritation.
Murad Retinol Youth Renewal Serum
Think of this retinol as a triple threat to wrinkles and sun spots. What makes the Murad Retinol Youth Renewal Serum different is its trifecta of powerful ingredients including a fast-acting retinoid, a time-released retinoid for sustained benefits and a retinol booster. The lightweight texture of the serum absorbs quickly into the skin and can be layered under a night cream.
Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Regenerating Cream
This cream packs a one-two punch: it targets wrinkles while also delivering a healthy boost of moisture. Neutrogena’s Rapid Wrinkle Repair Regenerating Cream, an over the counter drugstore favorite, contains a high dose of Accelerated Retinol SA, which quickly penetrates into the skin, making it look brighter with improved texture. A boost of hyaluronic acid helps keep skin looking plumped and hydrated. Unlike most retinol creams, this one can be applied twice daily.
Exuviance Super Retinol Concentrate
The dermatologist-developed Exuviance line is packed with potent ingredients to deliver maximum results. The Super Retinol Concentrate is unique as it combines the power of retinol with NeoGlucosamine, which boosts its effectiveness while delivering the product in gradual, time released doses. This means users shouldn’t experience side effects common to retinol use, such as redness and irritation. The product comes in an airless tube and the dosage is pumped to keep it stable.
Dr Brandt Retinol 2% Serum
This powerful serum taps into the power of retinol but takes it a step further by combining it with natural ingredients such as lemon tree honey and grapefruit oil. The 2% refers to a retinol complex- — a cocktail of short and long term time-released retinols aimed at smoothing out wrinkles and sun spots. Shea butter and jojoba help keep skin supple and moisturized, while olive leaf extract adds an antioxidant boost.
Obagi Retinol 1.0
The Retinol 1.0 from Obagi is a gentle but effective retinol cream available over the counter at drugstores. The retinol is slowly released over time, and works to improve skin texture and reduce the appearance of wrinkles. The cream is packed with moisturizing and soothing ingredients, including jojoba oil, shea butter and sage leaf extract, which contains Vitamin A and calcium to boost cell regeneration.
Best of the Best
Advanced Dermatology Encapsulated Retinol Cream
Can there be too much of a good thing? Yes, especially when it comes to retinols. Some retinol creams oversaturate the skin with product, causing irritation without ever reaching deeper layers of the skin, leaving users with all the side effects and none of the benefits. The Encapsulated Retinol Cream from Advanced Dermatology sidesteps this. The brand has created a new encapsulated system that delivers a higher strength of retinol in a targeted way. The formula contains retinol molecules wrapped in a protective layer of phospholipid, which results in a time-released, focused delivery with minimal side effects. To help soothe and hydrate the skin, the cream also contains jojoba oil and sunflower seed oil.