If you consider yourself a skin care fanatic, you know retinol is the active ingredient of the moment. You can find it in everything from highly active prescription creams to gentle, plant-based products. This popular vitamin A-derived ingredient is often touted as a must-have skin savior, and has absolutely flooded the beauty market. This can make it difficult to distinguish between which products are actually effective and safe and which are marketing gimmicks.
To get to the bottom of which options are the real deal, HuffPost spoke to Dr. Y. Claire Chang, a board-certified cosmetic dermatologist at Union Square Laser Dermatology. She shared vital information about retinol, including the best creams available over-the-counter.
She told us that retinoids, which include retinol and retinoic acid, are vitamin A derivatives that have been used widely for treating skin aging. Retinol is a type of retinoid, a precursor to retinoic acid that is converted to retinoic acid in the skin.
Since retinol creams can be used to help prevent and treat skin aging, they can be used as early as your 20s and 30s. “Retinol creams can help increase epidermal thickening, promote collagen synthesis and decrease collagen breakdown in photo-aged skin,” Change said. “By doing so, retinols can help prevent and soften wrinkles, smooth uneven skin texture and improve skin complexion.”
Clinical studies have shown that retinol can improve visible signs of skin aging, including fine lines, wrinkles and mottled pigmentation, while being associated with fewer signs of skin irritation and redness compared to retinoic acid. However, it’s recommended that those with sensitive skin start using retinols slowly and alongside moisturizer to decrease the risk of irritation. For example, most people should start out using it just once every few days until they're sure their skin can handle it, gradually working up to daily or every-other-day use. People who are pregnant or breastfeeding should not use retinols.
Keep reading for Chang’s recommendations for the best facial creams with retinol. They include a range of price points and varying strength levels and formulations at retailers like Sephora and Amazon, so you can snag the one that’s best for your skin.
HuffPost may receive a share from purchases made via links on this page. Every item is independently selected by the HuffPost Shopping team. Prices and availability are subject to change.
Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair retinol moisturizer
This is an excellent option for retinol newbies. Formulated for daytime use, Neutrogena's retinol moisturizer includes SPF 30, which is imperative to apply when using powerful ingredients like retinol. It fights fine lines, dullness, wrinkles, dark spots and more while hyaluronic acid adds much-needed plumping moisture so the moisture barrier stays healthy.
Kate Somerville +Retinol Vitamin C moisturizer
Those with sensitive skin may want to go easy on this potent mix of powerful active ingredients, as it could cause irritation. The combination of retinol and vitamin C helps to brighten and replenish the skin while also improving skin texture and fine lines. It's a rich, nourishing cream that will protect against free radicals while working hard to hydrate and repair the skin.
Skin Better Science Intensive AlphaRet overnight cream
This potent cream is great for anyone who wants to up their retinol game but doesn't quite want to go all the way to prescription strength. Just be sure to be diligent about sunscreen use. Formulated with both retinol and AHAs to improve the visible appearance of fine lines, wrinkles and uneven skin tone, Skin Better Science's night cream is a powerful addition to any skin care regime. A higher concentration of glycolic acids helps to enhance the texture and feel of skin.
Drunk Elephant A-Passioni retinol cream
If you're seeking a more eco-friendly, vegan alternative that is also incredibly effective, then this is the one for you. Just be sure to go slow if you're a retinol newcomer. Made with a vegan form of 1% retinol with peptides and niacinamide, Drunk Elephant's night cream features a powerful combination of anti-aging ingredients along with soothing botanical extracts. It's the best of both worlds for those looking for powerful, plant-based retinol that delivers results.
CeraVe skin renewing retinol serum
Great for most skin types, beginners and those with sensitive skin, CeraVe's offering includes an encapsulated, time-released retinol along with moisturizing, skin-repairing ingredients like ceramides, niacinamide and hyaluronic acid. It has a gentle-yet-effective formula that won't cause irritation and helps smooth and brighten skin.
SkinMedica age defense retinol complex
This option is best for those who know their skin can tolerate high levels of active ingredients. SkinMedica's night lotion is formulated with multiple different strengths of retinol to help rejuvenate the skin and diminish the appearance of fine lines. Algae extract keeps skin soft, hydrated and protected against free-radical damage.
Alastin renewal retinol
Alastin's retinol cream is available in two strengths, 0.25 and 0.5, so you can start with the lighter strength if necessary. Those who are ready to try a higher percentage of retinol should do so slowly, so your skin can get used to it even if you've long used active ingredients. It is formulated with an encapsulated retinol to decrease the appearance of fine lines and to smooth skin texture. It includes oat extract and antioxidants to help calm and soothe the skin while protecting against dehydration with powerful hydrators.
Paula's Choice 1% retinol treatment with peptides and vitamin C
Retinol newbies and veterans alike can enjoy the benefits of this effective cream. This high-strength formula from Paula's Choice absorbs quickly into the skin, smoothing, strengthening and brightening the complexion. Powerful antioxidants like vitamins C and E work in tandem with hydrating hyaluronic acid and skin-firming, nourishing peptides to safely deliver results.