While it’s true there is no magic bullet when it comes to perfecting skin, one ingredient comes pretty close: retinol. Whether you’re struggling with acne, scarring, or hyperpigmentation, retinol can pretty much solve all your skin woes. And in case you’re debating getting Botox for fine lines, retinol is also a powerful, non-invasive alternative found in many anti-aging products—including retinol eye creams to treat crow’s feet.
“Retinol is a vitamin A derivative that loosens the bonds between the top layer of cells and unclogs pores to help with acne, but also tricks the skin into thinking it is wounded to stimulate collagen production,” says Dr. Purvisha Patel, a Tennessee-based dermatologist and the founder of Visha Skincare. “It is the alcohol form of the derivative…and is the gold standard for a safe, effective ingredient in skin care that helps reduce fine lines and wrinkles.”
And for those with oily skin, retinol helps to shrink oil glands to reduce oil production in the skin.
The beauty of retinol is the varying strengths and versions offered, which yield different results for a gamut of skin types. (In addition to being found in over-the-counter creams and serums, Dr. Patel notes that retinol is “available in stronger percentages and orally by prescription.”) But it’s also a complicated ingredient to get into. While you can add a vitamin C serum into your routine from one day to the next, retinol can be intense, and not all formulas are created equal. But just skipping over this ingredient entirely? No way. If you’re ready to add retinol to your routine, here are 19 amazing options for every skin concern and type. And keep scrolling to find answers to all your retinol queries courtesy of Dr. Jennifer Chwalek, MD of Union Square Laser Dermatology and fellow New York-based dermatologist Dr. Shereene Idriss.
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Best Drugstore Option
Rapid Wrinkle Regenerating Face Cream
Best For Acne-Prone Skin
Serum 16 Rapid Renewal Serum
Best Gentle Retinol
Peter Thomas Roth
Retinol Fusion PM Night Serum
Best for Real Results
Boost 1% Retinol Booster
Best for Sun Protection
Retinol 24 + Peptide Moisturizer
Best Spot Treatment
Pro-Heal Serum Advance+
Best for Fine Lines
DermalQuench Liquid Lift Retinol Advanced Resurfacing Treatment
Best for Dry Skin
Skin Caviar Nighttime Oil
Best for Beginners
Best for Enlarged Pores
Best for Even Skin
A-Passioni Retinol Cream
Best for Soft Skin
Resurfacing Retinol Serum
Best for Sun Damage
Pure Retinol Face Serum with Vitamin B3
Best for Dark Spots
ZO Skin Health
Retinol Skin Brightener 1%
Best for Brightening
Intense Defense Serum
Best for Sensitive Skin
Retinol Youth Renewal Night Cream
Best for Glowing Skin
Celestial Black Diamond Retinol Oil
Best for All Skin Types
Advanced Correcting Serum with Illuminotex
Best Peel Alternative
Dr Dennis Gross
Advanced Retinol + Ferulic Overnight Wrinkle Treatment
What’s the difference between over-the-counter and prescription retinol?
“Prescription Retin-A and Tretinoin and over-the-counter retinol increase skin cell turnover and stimulate collagen synthesis,” explains Chwalek. “With consistent use of a topical retinol or Retin-A, you can see improvement of fine lines, dark spots, texture, and tone.”
While an OTC retinol (0.5 percent to 2 percent concentration) isn’t quite as effective or speedy as prescription strength, it’s less likely to cause irritation, redness, and peeling, so it’s better for anyone with sensitive or drier skin. But, proceed with caution.
How should you use retinol?
Dr. Idriss recommends adding retinol into your skincare routine slowly and gradually. “I would start with one night a week to see how your skin reacts before adding a second night a week and so forth,” explains Dr. Idriss. “If you find yourself to be extremely sensitive, then apply your moisturizer before your retinol in order to make it a little less irritating.”
Are retinol alternatives effective?
There are also naturally-derived retinol alternatives like rosehip seed oil, chicory root oligosaccharides, and tara tree gum, but Chwalek cautions that there are no studies to prove efficacy for them.
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