These Are The Strongest OTC Retinols That You Can Get Without An Rx

We found some of the most potent anti-aging products you can get.
Avène Retrinal 0.1 Intensive cream, Medik8 Crystal Retinal 20 and SkinCeuticals Retinol 1.0 maximum strength refining night cream.

Skin care devotees like myself are always looking for ways to up our beauty game — whether it be by investing in pricey devices, treating ourselves to luxurious treatments or scouring the internet for the latest and greatest skin care products. And luckily for us, we are living in a golden age of skin care. There is a lot of research going into finding out which active ingredients are most effective, from antioxidants to vitamin C to AHAs like mandelic acid and, of course, to the power and efficacy of retinol.

This holy grail ingredient is one of the most potent anti-aging ingredients available over the counter. In previous HuffPost reporting, Dr. Y. Claire Chang, a board-certified cosmetic dermatologist at Union Square Laser Dermatology explained that “Retinol creams can help increase epidermal thickening, promote collagen synthesis and decrease collagen breakdown in photo-aged skin. ... By doing so, retinols can help prevent and soften wrinkles, smooth uneven skin texture and improve skin complexion.”

For those of us who want the best, strongest and most effective ingredients, retinol is an absolute must. And while you can go to a dermatologist and get a prescription-strength retinol like tretinoin, it’s not for everyone. It may be too strong for sensitive skin types or simply cost-prohibitive.

Getting a handle on the different kinds of retinoids and the percentage strengths can be a bit confusing. In general, the maximum percentage you can get of an over-the-counter retinal (the fastest-acting retinoid) is .1%, with very few exceptions that claim to offer .2% retinol, like Medik8 Crystal Retinal 20 (which used to be available for purchase at dermatologists’ offices but can now be purchased over the counter). The minimum strength you can get from a dermatologist is usually .025% tretinoin, which is a significantly stronger version of retinol than what is available OTC.

Whatever you choose, just make sure you slowly work your way up to higher strengths to avoid irritating your skin and don’t forget to load up on moisturizer and sunscreen.

So if you want the strongest, most effective retinol for your skin just shy of a prescription, then you’ve come to the right place. Below, we’ve rounded up the 10 strongest over-the-counter retinoids you can get without a prescription, including retinol, retinal, retinaldehyde and adapalene. They’re the best of the best, vetted by HuffPost editors, reviewers and dermatologists.

HuffPost and its publishing partners may receive a commission from some purchases made via links on this page. Every item is independently curated by the HuffPost Shopping team. Prices and availability are subject to change.

Medik8 Crystal Retinal 20 (0.2% retinal)
I've long heard people rave about this highly-rated serum from Medik8, and I can't say I'm surprised. Everything I've tried from the brand thus far has been effective and left my skin looking and feeling great. This serum can help to address typical signs of aging like wrinkles, texture and tone quickly and efficiently. It's balanced with hyaluronic acid and glycerin to help keep skin supple, soft, smooth and hydrated. It's a great mid-price jumping-off point for anyone curious about trying a retinal.

This cream is the highest run on Medik8's Crystal Retinal ladder, boasting 0.2% retinal (if you're wondering about the difference between retinol and retinal, read this). It's for the most advanced skin care lovers and has double the concentration of the previous highest strength. It's as good as it gets.
SkinCeuticals Retinol 1.0 maximum strength refining night cream (1.0% retinol)
If you've ever invested in SkinCeuticals products, you know that they are made with potent, high-quality ingredients that will give you the most bang for your buck. This cream has such a high concentration of retinol that the brand recommends priming your skin with its .5% strength cream for a few months beforehand to see if it can tolerate such a high concentration of retinol. In the more potent version featured here, the strong 1.0% retinol is balanced out with a soothing complex of calming ingredients derived from chamomile and other botanicals to comfort skin and negate potential irritation.

In previous HuffPost reporting, Dr. Deanne Mraz, a board-certified dermatologist at Modern Dermatology in Connecticut and an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Yale School of Medicine, thinks the varying retinol strengths available make this cream a great option for "anyone who needs to downshift to a gentler strength in the cold, dry winter months and turn up the volume [spring through fall]."
Skin Better Science
SkinBetter Science AlphaRet overnight cream (1.0% retinol)
"I love Skinbetter Science’s AlphaRet Overnight Cream," Mraz mentioned in previous reporting. She added that "it combines retinoid with lactic acid and glycolic acids to exfoliate the skin and pairs those benefits with soothing, nourishing peptides, ceramides, niacinamide, hyaluronic acid and vitamins C + E making the formulation gentle enough for most skin types, including those prone to dryness." The high concentrations of both retinol and AHAs makes this an absolute powerhouse.

Youth To The People Retinal + Niacinamide Youth Serum (0.15% retinal)
This highly-rated and oft-reviewed serum utilizes retinal, niacinamide and ceramides to not only improve the look and feel of skin texture and and common signs of aging, but also reinforce the skin's barrier, smooth skin, even tone and moisturize. It's a powerhouse combo in the form of a lightweight serum that won't feel heavy. It contains .15% retinal, significantly more than most traditional retinol-based products on the market.
A313 cream (0.12% retinol)
If you're a fan of French pharmacy beauty, then there's a good chance you've heard of this cult-favorite cream. According to the brand, it uses .12% retinol that penetrates the skin and targets common signs of aging. Many reviewers recommend starting with a very small, pea-sized amount and made note of the cream's thick, greasy finish — it's definitely not for everyone, but those who love it are absolutely devoted to this French ointment. It can be challenging to find it stateside, so make sure you're purchasing from a reputable seller with good reviews.

Amazon reviewer Jessica said she "ordered this after hearing about it from an aesthetician. It has a vaseline-type texture when it goes on. So a little goes a long way. You can definitely feel it tingling after you put it on. It works, but I personally cannot use it more than 2-3 times per week or my skin gets irritated. When I use it regularly, my hyperpigmentation is much better and so are my fine lines and wrinkles. It is definitely worth a try, but if you have sensitive skin, I recommend you start with a small amount and only once or twice a week at most!"
La Roche-Posay Effaclar Adapalene Gel 0.1% Retinoid Acne Treatment (0.1% retinol)
This popular and affordable La Roche-Posay treatment is made with adapalene, a prescription-strength retinoid that is primarily used to treat acne, but also has all the other benefits of a traditional retinol. It's incredibly effective and one of only two FDA-approved prescription-strength retinoid acne treatments, along with Differin, that can be purchased over the counter. I used adapalene for years before switching to retinol and tretinoin and found it to be incredibly effective.
Avène Retrinal 0.1 Intensive cream (0.1% retinaldehyde)
I'm a big fan of Avène products; this French pharmacy staple always knows how to strike the perfect balance between using tried and true potent ingredients and nourishing goodness to help keep skin looking and feeling youthful, soft and plump. This cream is no exception, and can help to leave your complexion looking and feeling smooth, radiant, hydrated and fresh. It contains 0.1% retinaldehyde, another word for retinal, which is the fastest-acting retinoid available OTC, as it's a precursor to retinoic acid. It's one of the strongest options out there. If your skin can tolerate it, you'll be amazed to see a youthful glow emerge.

Differin adapalene gel 0.1% acne treatment (0.1% adapalene)
Differin is probably the best known adapalene-based product. It claims that the more toned-down nature of this active ingredient compared to other retinoids which makes it a good all-over face treatment that is suitable for everyday use, even for sensitive skin types. In previous reporting, Dr. Ariel Ostad, a cosmetic surgeon based in New York City, explained that like other forms of retinoids, adapalene, which until 2018 was only available by prescription, works by increasing the skin’s cellular turnover rate — a process that slows down naturally as we age. This means that even though adapalene-based products are marketed as acne treatments, Ostad said that they can also be used to help promote collagen production — and more collagen can mean plumper, more youthful skin with fewer fine lines.
Naturium Retinaldehyde cream serum (0.1% retinal)
Get all the benefits of a high-powered retinol without dropping tons of cash with this mid-priced cream serum from Naturium. It proves you don't need to drop an arm and a leg to get good skin care products. It uses sustained-release retinal that can help to refine skin texture and reduce signs of aging like wrinkles and even discoloration. It's the radiance booster you've been waiting for. The brand does offer a lower .05% concentration, but if you've used it for a while or know your skin can handle a stronger amount, you can always go straight to or alternate it with the .10% version.
Allies of Skin Retinal & Peptides Repair night cream (.05% retinaldehyde)
This cream harnesses the power of retinal in combination with peptides, antioxidants and botanicals to nourish the skin while deeply infusing it with all the benefits of powerful, high-quality retinal. It's uniquely balanced to be as effective as possible while also being gentle on the skin, making it a great option for those with sensitive skin who want to dip their toes into the strong retinol waters.

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