Skin care might be a science — but it varies so widely for everyone that it’s often hard to figure out what works for you without some trial and error. But there are a few widely accepted, almost universal skin care truths: stay out of the sun, drink plenty of water and start using retinol.
Even if your goal isn’t to look a decade or two younger, wrinkle-fighting retinol can work wonders for keeping your skin healthy, even-toned, plump and clear. In fact, it’s known as a miracle ingredient among dermatologists, many of whom we spoke to to find out exactly what retinol can do, as well as the best retinol moisturizers, serums and eye creams on the market.
What Is retinol?
“Retinol is perhaps the best studied ingredient we have to fight the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles,” says Dr. Joshua Zeichner, the director of cosmetic and clinical research at Mount Sinai Hospital’s department of dermatology. “It’s a form of vitamin A that stimulates our skin cells to encourage production of collagen and elastin. This strengthens the foundation of the skin and can improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.”
In short: It keeps your skin working the way it did at its prime. Because retinol works to increase the turnover of your skin cells, it essentially means your skin cells reproduce at a faster rate, which increases collagen production, evens skin texture and reduces the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, says plastic surgeon Dr. Julius Few. But it isn’t all sunshine and roses: “Retinols vary in quality, effectiveness and tolerability,” he says. And because retinol accelerates cell turnover, it can increase skin sensitivity: “The chief complaints of most retinoids are dryness, irritation and peeling,” he says. More on that below.
When should I use retinol?
Basically, right now. While most people start to use products like retinol when they see visible changes in their skin, Dr. Ava Shamban, a board-certified dermatologist based in Los Angeles and founder of Ava MD Dermatology, SkinFive Medical Spas and The Box by Dr Ava, says, “It’s almost never too early [to start using retinol because] boosting natural elastin and collagen production is prevention. Our levels of collagen begin to slow down around the age of 30 and those losses are much greater as we age and our hormone levels decrease, which is why women see the greatest changes with perimenopause and postmenopause.”
It’s never too late to start, either. Dr. Loretta Ciraldo, a Miami-based board-certified dermatologist and founder of Dr. Loretta skin care, points out that studies have proven that retinol can help even in very advanced aging skin: “A left-right arm comparison study of patients 80 years of age or older showed that 24 weeks of treatment with 1% retinol stimulated fibroblasts to make more collagen and also reduced collagen breakdown,” she says. In layperson’s terms, the power ingredient can even help the skin better repair itself well into your 80s.
Because retinol is powerful enough to cause dryness and peeling, Zeichner recommends you start by using it once or twice a week, and eventually work up to every other — then every night. “We know that the skin undergoes daily circadian rhythms, where specific activities occur in the morning and others in the evening,” says Zeichner, who recommends applying retinol in the evening along with a moisturizer. “Skin cell turnover and repair mechanisms are already at their max functioning at night. So it makes sense to enhance these activities by applying retinol.”
Best retinol creams
When it comes to retinol, some derms will recommend a topical prescription for Altreno Lotion, a high-grade, FDA-approved retinol that also helps with adult acne, but if you’re just looking to possibly even things out and get rid of fine lines and wrinkles, the derms we spoke to insist that an Rx isn’t always necessary.
Olay Regenerist Retinol24 Night Moisturizer ($45.42; amazon.com)
Dr. Carlos Charles, board-certified dermatologist and co-founder of 4.5.6 Skin, calls this moisturizer “an excellent retinol for novices, as it is gentle and less likely to cause irritation. It also contains niacinamide, and B3 helps calm inflammation that can induce aging.”
Dr. Loretta Concentrated Firming Moisturizer ($70; drloretta.com)
“Dr. Loretta Concentrated Firming Moisturizer features the most skin-friendly form of retinol, Retinoic ester combined with antioxidants Lipochroman and CoQ10,” says Loretta of her bestselling retinol moisturizer.
Skin Better Science AlphaRet Night Cream ($125; skinbetter.com)
“While this retinol cream may be a splurge it is an excellent choice for those that want to actively treat their fine lines and wrinkles but have sensitive skin,” says Charles.
Skin Medica Retinol Complex ($78; dermstore.com)
The algae extract offers a hydrating buffer for the retinol, making it a favorite of Shamban’s.
Differin Adapalene Gel 0.1% Acne Treatment ($13.29; target.com)
“Formerly only available with a prescription, the active ingredient is a gentle retinoid known as adapelene,” says Charles. “This is a great choice for those that want the strength of an over-the-counter retinoid that is gentle enough for sensitive mature skin. It also is an excellent choice for those that have oily and acne-prone skin.”
Aforeé Maintenance-R Retinol Cream ($125; aforebeauty.com)
Few’s own retinol cream is “designed to continually enhance skin’s texture to ensure firmness and smoothness.” Start with every third night, then work your way up to nightly use.
Best retinol serums
Retinol serums are a great alternative to traditional creams because they can be mixed with an inactive moisturizer. “Serums that incorporate hyaluronic acid, polyglutamic acid, ceramides or other hydrating and emollients are a good ingredient match for retinol since they can be drying or cause skin purging or irritation as the skin adapts,” Ava says. “Antioxidants are always a good pairing for retinoids.”
The benefit of a retinol serum over a retinol cream is that you can layer it under your favorite moisturizer, and preferably one that’s nourishing enough to help with any drying. Some serum formulas can also be less harsh on the skin, making them ideal for more sensitive skin types or retinol first-timers.
Instytutum RetinOil ($145; instytutum.com)
Ava recommends Instytutum RetinOil because of its granactive format. (That’s just a fancy way of saying your skin recognizes it easier than other forms of vitamin A, meaning that you’re less likely to experience irritation.)
Dr. Loretta Concentrated Firming Serum ($80; drloretta.com)
“It delivers 0.5% retinol in a lipid replacement base to replenish skin’s natural lipid content that is often lessened both with aging and retinol use, since it strips away dead cells that store lipid between them,” says Loretta. “For normal/oily skin use it at bedtime. For normal/dry skin, start it every other night for the first two weeks. For sensitive skin, use this just twice a week at night for the first two weeks.”
RocRetinol Correxion Deep Wrinkle Serum ($32.99; ulta.com)
“RocRetinol Correxion Deep Wrinkle Serum delivers 0.1% retinol and is a good starter if you want to use retinol every night but have sensitive skin,” says Loretta. Zeichner also recommends it, because “it uses a stabilized form of retinol in a moisturizing delivery system that minimizes potential irritation.”
CeraVe Skin Renewing Retinol Serum ($18.99; ulta.com)
This ceramide-rich retinol serum is a favorite among the derms we spoke to, and an editor favorite at such a low price point.
Paula’s Choice Clinical 1% Retinol Treatment ($58; sephora.com)
There’s a reason (or seven) why this is one of Sephora’s bestselling retinol serums: It goes on smooth, won’t irritate skin and works wonders after just a few weeks. Trust us, we’ve tried it.
Murad Retinol Youth Renewal Serum ($89; ulta.com)
This especially gentle retinol formula works to gently buff away fine lines, wrinkles and hyperpigmentation, making it ideal for sensitive skin types.
Best retinol eye creams
Most people start to notice fine lines first around their eyes. While most derms recommend using retinol all over your face and neck (and even your hands, if you’re so inclined), it’s never a bad idea to focus on the eyes.
It Cosmetics Hello Results Wrinkle-Reducing Daily Retinol Serum-in-Cream ($25; ulta.com)
While this retinol cream is approved for use everywhere on the face, we’ve tried it under our eyes and were impressed at how light the formula is, making it ideal for the thinner skin around your eyes.
Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Anti-Wrinkle Retinol Under-Eye Cream ($14.49; amazon.com)
This editor-favorite retinol eye cream has more than 8,000 5-star reviews, thanks to its ability to smooth wrinkles without irritating skin. Much like the It Cosmetics formula, it’s light enough so it won’t clog the tiny, more sensitive pores under your eyes either.
SkinCeuticals A.G.E. Eye Complex ($100; dermstore.com)
This retinol eye cream also has antioxidants like blueberry extract — a must-have, according to Ava.
Dermalogica Age Reversal Eye Complex ($75; sephora.com)
Ideal for dry skin types or for use during the winter, Dermalogica’s eye cream formula includes hydrating niacinamide and ash tree bark extract to combat dryness.
L’Oréal Paris Skincare Revitalift Triple Power Anti-Aging Eye Cream ($15.92; amazon.com)
A favorite among the derms we spoke to, L’Oréal’s eye cream also de-puffs and brightens for a well-rested complexion.