The best retinol over-the-counter retinol creams

  • Retinol is a superstar skincare ingredient that helps mitigate normal signs of aging, acne, hyperpigmentation, and skin laxity.
  • We consulted celebrity dermatologist Dr. Dendy Engelman to determine how to spot the best and most effective retinoid products.
  • Drunk Elephant A-Passioni Retinol Cream is our top pick because it contains a high concentration of retinol as well as peptides, vitamins, and oils to hydrate and nourish the skin. 
  • If you're pregnant, we recommend using an alternative like bakuchiol which can be found in Beautycounter's Countertime collection. Retinol can be harmful to pregnant people. 

There's a running joke that no matter what you're trying to change about your skin, the answer is probably going to involve retinol.

Retinol multitasks. It smooths fine lines and wrinkles and helps minimize new ones. It helps regulate oily skin and keeps pores from clogging, which mitigates breakouts. It exfoliates on a cellular level and reveals brighter, smoother, newer skin which, over time, helps even out your complexion and fade hyperpigmentation and dark spots. 

But there are so many variations of retinol, and so many combinations of other ingredients to balance or enhance its effects. How do you shop strategically for retinol? What works? What should you avoid? We consulted celebrity dermatologist Dr. Dendy Engelman to create a cheat sheet, and then rounded up a list of the best retinol creams you can buy, below. If you'd like more in-depth answers to retinol FAQs, we had four dermatologists and a medical facialist answer them here.

How and why does retinol work so well?

As we age, we lose vitamin A, and this depletion contributes to the normal signs of aging. Retinol is pure vitamin A. According to Dr. Engelman, "Retinol, and especially retinoic acid, works to increase cell turnover, build collagen, improve discoloration, hydrate skin and reduce acne by replenishing the body of vitamin A."

Technically, retinol is just one of the many different types of retinoids. (Retinoid is the catchall phrase for A-based formulas.) You'll see the name retinoic acid in prescription products, and names like retinol and retinaldehyde in over-the-counter (OTC) products. 

What percentage of retinol should you use? 

Unless your dermatologist prescribes more, stick to formulas with 1% retinol or less. Learn more here.

How should you layer your retinol products on the skin?

Dermatologists are still slightly divided on this question, but the majority recommend starting with your thinnest consistency product and ending with your thickest. 

Dr. Engelman recommends the following order (based on consistency): start with products like toning water, followed by serums and ampoules. Next, apply any prescription topical treatments (like retinol), then lotions, creams, and finally sunscreen at the end. You should also allow each layer to be fully absorbed before applying the next one.

How often do you need to use retinol to see results?

It takes a few weeks to see results, but some over-the-counter options may require months of regular use. Most dermatologists said you'll need to use retinol for a few weeks before you see results, but you should see improvements by 12 weeks with most products. 

How long does it take for your skin to adjust to retinol?

Most people's skin will adjust within six to 12 weeks. Learn more here.

Are some skin types too sensitive for retinol?

Not really. Dr. Engelman says even sensitive skin can be "trained" to tolerate retinol. When using retinol creams, you may experience some dryness and sensitivity while the skin is acclimating, but not necessarily. Dr. Engelman recommends starting out by applying a retinol one to two nights per week to build your skin's tolerance. 

What to look for when you're buying retinol products:

The gist is this: all derivatives of vitamin A are effective, but those derivatives vary in their effectiveness. However, weaker doesn't necessarily mean less effective; studies show you'll reap the same long-term benefits even if you're using a weaker product. 

The products that will work the fastest will require a prescription (like the gold standard, Tretinoin), but, according to Dr. Engelman, OTC products do the same thing — they'll just take longer to do it because they're weaker and your body has more chores to do before it can start using them. 

For dry skin: Choose a product that also contains hydrating ingredients like ceramides or oils. (Dr. Engelman recommends Elizabeth Arden Retinol Ceramide Capsules).

For oily and acne-prone skin: Adapalene is the strongest OTC option available that's also been designed to treat acne. You'll find it in products like Differin with a 0.1% concentration, which once required a prescription but doesn't anymore.

Here are the best retinol creams and moisturizers you can buy:

  • Best retinol cream overall: Drunk Elephant A-Passioni Retinol Cream
  • Best drugstore retinol moisturizer: Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Regenerating Cream
  • Best high-strength retinol cream: SkinCeuticals Retinol 1.0 Maximum Strength Refining Night Cream
  • Best hydrating retinol moisturizer: StriVectin-AR Advanced Retinol Intensive Night Moisturizer
  • Best retinol cream for sensitive skin: Clark's Botanicals Retinol Rescue Overnight Cream with Calming Colloidal Oatmeal

Updated on 8/17/2020 by Mara Leighton: Added retinol FAQs and Glow Recipe Avocado Melt Retinol Sleeping Mask and No B.S. Retinol Night Cream to what else we considered and links to related buying guides. We're currently testing other retinol products, and we'll update this guide with our findings soon.

The best retinol cream overall

Drunk Elephant A-Passioni Retinol Cream boasts the Clean at Sephora seal, and has peptides, vitamins, and oils to calm and nourish skin.

We like the Drunk Elephant A-Passioni Retinol Cream formula because it contains a strong 1% concentration of retinol as well as firming peptides, soothing fatty acids, and hydrating jojoba, avocado, and olive oils to complement the retinol.

Given the 1% concentration of retinol, you'll want to phase A-Passioni into your skincare routine on only one to two nights per week until you're acclimated, per Dr. Engelman's advice. If you're noticing dryness and want to dilute it, mix the A-Passioni cream into your favorite cream or oil.

The Clean at Sephora seal means this product is formulated without potentially undesirable ingredients like essential oils, silicones, and synthetic fragrances that can irritate skin. 

The formula is also housed in a metal tube to protect it from light and air, which can break down the active ingredients — not something you want to happen to a $74 product. 

Senior reporter Mara Leighton tried the A-Passioni cream and said it's strong but effective, and the added benefits of the vitamins, peptides, and oils that help support retinol also happen to make the skin look glowy.

"I wear this gentle cream […] during the day with sunscreen on top. It doesn't irritate at all and is lightweight," Health's Heather Muir says. Cosmopolitan also recommends it.

The price tag isn't ideal, but since you'll only apply a pea-size amount, you won't be buying it frequently. 

Pros: Clean at Sephora seal, strong and effective, vegan, housed in metal tube to protect formula from breaking down

Cons: Need to start slow, may cause peeling, not as hydrating as other creams

The best drugstore retinol moisturizer

Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Regenerating Cream is a dermatologist-approved moisturizer and retinol combo that's affordable and effective.

Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Regenerating Cream is a powerful yet affordable retinol cream. It has hyaluronic acid to balance the effects of retinol, which helps fill in fine lines and wrinkles. Glucose Complex, a reported Retinol SA booster, works to accelerate the skin's natural cell turnover. 

It also doesn't hurt that Neutrogena is a mainstream company that dermatologists have recommended often to Insider Reviews as a readily available and affordable entry into retinol products with good quality ingredients.

This is a gentle formula that can be used nightly, but if you've never used retinol before, it's a good idea to start every other night.

Pros: Affordable, effective, contains moisturizing hyaluronic acid

Cons: Not as potent retinol content as other options, so it'll take longer to see effects

The best high-strength retinol cream

SkinCeuticals Retinol 1.0 Maximum Strength Refining Night Cream is powerful stuff, but it utilizes a blend of soothing ingredients to make sure your skin doesn't get dry or irritated.

SkinCeuticals Retinol 1.0 Maximum Strength Refining Night Cream blends a high concentration of 1% retinol with soothing ingredients like chamomile-derived bisabolol and frankincense-derived boswellia serrata extract to cut down on skin sensitivity. 

The air-tight metal tube packaging is designed to keep the ingredients potent and fresh for as long as possible. It's also non-comedogenic and fragrance-free and is ideal for skin that has already adjusted to lower-strength retinol.

Pros: Strong OTC retinol, contains soothing ingredients, air-tight packaging

Cons: Expensive, can be irritating if your skin is not used to retinol

The best hydrating retinol moisturizer

StriVectin-AR Advanced Retinol Intensive Night Moisturizer minimizes sensitivity with hydrating hyaluronic acid and shea butter as well as nourishing and protective resveratrol. 

StriVectin-AR Advanced Retinol Intensive Night Moisturizer manages to be both a highly effective OTC retinol and a super hydrating moisturizer in one tube.

The key is the brand's patented Nia-114 technology which claims to help minimize sensitivity to retinol with ingredients like hyaluronic acid and shea butter to hydrate, copper tripeptides to boost collagen, and resveratrol to defend against free radical damage.

"If you want to wake up to instant smoother and brighter skin, this is the moisturizer for you," writes Harper's Bazaar. Editors at Town & Country and Allure are also big fans. 

Pros: Hydrating, works to minimize retinol sensitivity, cruelty-free

Cons: Expensive

The best retinol cream for sensitive skin

Clark's Botanicals Retinol Rescue Overnight Cream with Calming Colloidal Oatmeal is a potent blend of retinol and colloidal oatmeal that makes it suitable for sensitive skin.

Retinol is tricky when your skin is highly reactive to just about anything, but Clark's Botanicals Retinol Rescue Overnight Cream with Calming Colloidal Oatmeal is formulated for sensitive skin.

This moisturizer contains vitamin E, and colloidal oatmeal, an ingredient known to help combat the effects of skin conditions such as eczema and rosacea. And of course, retinol — except, in this case, the ingredient is "released" over time so it remains potent without barraging your skin. The gel-cream base also enhances its absorption.

The cream has been featured on The Derm Review and Allure.

Pros: meant for sensitive skin, time-release form of retinol, contains soothing colloidal oatmeal

Cons: expensive, might not be strong enough for more experienced retinol users

What else we considered

  • The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid 2% in Squalane ($5.30): This affordable serum mixes retinol with squalane oil to hydrate the skin and is a cult-favorite, but it's technically not a cream, so it didn't quite fit on this list.
  • Glow Recipe Avocado Melt Retinol Sleeping Mask ($49): This is a fan-favorite product amongst a handful of Insider Reviews members for its hydrating, brightening, and tightening effects. Eventually, it may make the list as the best sleeping mask — but, for now, we need to test it for longer, and we'd like to verify the retinol percentage used.
  • No B.S. Retinol Night Cream ($50): This cream contains 0.1% retinol according to the company, which is relatively low when compared to the range recommended by dermatologists. It should be a good option for those with sensitive skin, but we've found it to be less nourishing than other products with a similar or greater retinol percentage. 
  • Dermalogica Overnight Retinol Repair ($90): This two-step product comes with a Buffer Cream to protect skin and allow you to alter the ratio of retinol to moisturizer as your skin adjusts. It's highly rated, but we didn't love the fact that it's a multi-step process.

Check out our other skincare guides

The best face moisturizers for every skin type

Every skin type typically requires a different moisturizer with a unique formula to hydrate while providing other benefits.

The best face wash you can buy for sensitive skin

When you have sensitive skin, you have to pay close attention to what you're putting on your face.

The best hyaluronic acid serum you can buy

Hyaluronic acid is in just about everything these days, from moisturizer to lip balm to SPF, but the best way to get a concentrated dose of the hydrating and skin-plumping benefits is with a serum.

The best facial exfoliators

If your complexion looks more scaly than smooth, it's time to get a good exfoliator.

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