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When it comes to skincare, there are so many ingredients to know (and love!) but vitamin A derivative retinol is a solid fan favorite. From reducing the appearance of fine lines to minimizing acne, this versatile ingredient is dermatologist-tested and clinically proven to deliver true results.
“Retinoids are the most effective way to rejuvenate skin on the face and body using topical cream,” explains board-certified dermatologist Gregory Nikolaidis. “Retinoids and retinols help exfoliate the skin, remove dead keratinocytes, reduce pigmentation, and reduce fine lines and wrinkles by increasing collagen and elastin in the skin.” While not for everyone—specifically anyone with a super-sensitive skin type or who is pregnant or nursing—retinoids are best used after cleansing and toning, but before moisturizer and sunscreen.
Start slowly, gradually increasing usage once a week to daily pending how your skin tolerates. “Initially, when you start using retinoids some patients develop temporary skin irritation, so it is important to find a formulation that doesn’t irritate your skin too much, so that you can be consistent with utilization,” Nikolaidis says. “Like exercise, retinoids only work and are effective when they are being used.”
With so many choices on the market, we whittled it down to 13 top picks stamped both by derms and beauty editors alike. Discover more below.
Rapid Wrinkle Repair Retinol Face Serum Capsules
These pre-measured, water biodegradable and seaweed-based capsules take the guesswork out of how much retinol to apply. Plus, like many of Neutrogena’s award-winning products, this formula is free o allergens, fragrances, alcohol, mineral oil, parabens, and silicone. The lightweight and non-greasy serum leaves skin looking more supple, hydrated, and revitalized in as little as one to four weeks.
What reviewers are saying: “It’s the perfect amount of retinol per capsule which is awesome for newbies so they don’t irritate their face. It’s a very velvety soft serum that actually sinks into the skin quickly for how thick it feels on your fingers. No piling, I’m in love and it is a must have in my nightly routine.” —tamarak59
Cleansing & Renewing Nighttime Body Wash With Retinol
Retinol is just as effective on the skin below your neck—and this body wash makes it so easy to incorporate in your routine. This luxurious cleanser pampers and hydrates skin with renewing and replenishing ingredients, like Olay’s Vitamin B3 Complex and retinol. Fans love how smooth and soft their skin feels post-shower.
What reviewers are saying: “Purchased the travel size and I haven’t looked back. An amazing body wash to use at night leaves you soft and smelling amazing.” —Isabella
Age Renew Retinol Overnight Body & Face Lotion
This retinol-base face and body lotion locks in hydration thanks to nourishing shea and cocoa butter for up to 24 hours. Think: seven different intensive moisturizers, three vitamins, and stabilized retinol to provide results over time while you catch up on Zs.
What reviewers are saying: “This is an amazing skin care product for the face and body. Usually in cosmetics phrases like ‘instant results’ (unless it’s an acid peel) are marketing gimmicks, but not this time. This cream works miracles literally overnight. This is my must-have product now. My Skin was never this good - smooth and nourished.” —Anastasiya Saiko
Retinol Serum for Post-Acne Marks and Skin Texture
While retinol is often associated with treating wrinkles and fine lines, it’s also highly effective for acne-prone skin. This serum from drugstore brand CeraVe contains encapsulated retinol to improve skin texture and spots, niacinamide to brighten, and ceramides to help nourish your skin’s moisture barrier.
What reviewers are saying: “This product is light weight and not greasy. I did see a change in the texture of my skin and a decrease in uneven spots. However, what I like the best about it is actually the way it moisturizes. Nice product, I will continue to buy this.” —Rebecca Ellis
Revitalift Derm Intensives Night Serum With 0.3% Pure Retinol
This derm-approved serum contains “pure retinol” (the most potent form of retinol), which is known to be more effective than retinol derivatives. Soothing ingredients like hyaluronic acid and glycerin help minimize irritation.
What reviewers are saying: “I’ve been using it for almost 30 days and my skin feels tighter, more supple and looks more glowy go grab a bottle you will absolutely love it! I use it every night and wake up looking so glowy I can’t wait to buy it again!” —ambiies95
Retinol Correxion Deep Wrinkle Anti-Aging Night Cream
This hydrating anti-aging night cream is formulated with pure RoC retinol to help accelerate skin cell turnover, and glycerin for added moisture.
What reviewers are saying: “I have been using this retinol nightly product for many years and love it. I actually tried a different product recently and immediately noticed a deep line on my forehead. I switched back and already see it getting better. I really love this product and would highly recommend it to everyone!” —Sherri
Retinol Face Serum With Vitamin B3
This retinol serum combines concentrated pure retinol and vitamin B3 for optimal effectiveness, while La Roche-Posay Thermal Spring Water helps soothe sensitive skin.
What reviewers are saying: “I love the way this makes my face feel and look! I had to start slow (once every 2-3 days) and now I use it every night. It’s a very good product for the price point.” —MegN13
Gentle Retinol Cream
Formulated with 0.1 percent retinol, this gentle anti-aging cream also includes antioxidant-rich bakuchiol boosts to boost the effectiveness sans irritation. Other ingredients—like grapeseed oil, allantoin, and Acmella oleracea extract help nourish and soothe skin.
What reviewers are saying: “If you’re new to retinols I think this one is great to start with. It’s gentle enough that it doesn’t dry my skin but I can tell that it has helped a lot with new breakouts and fading some minor scars. It also makes my skin feel soft and glowy!” —Suzy
Retinol Eye Stick
This unique serum balm contains encapsulated retinol to help target fine lines and dark under-eye circles. Simply glide on around the eye area and pair with Peace Out’s unique Retinol Face Stick for maximum all-over anti-aging effects.
What reviewers are saying: “This works! I have really bad under eye bags and sensitive skin. This hasn’t caused me any irritation or issues. I love how easy it is to use and can tell it’s helping with the dark circles under my eyes.” —Oliviamarie123
Retinol Serum With 0.5% in Squalane
One side effect of frequent retinol use can be unwanted dryness. This water-free solution contains 0.5 percent retinol together with squalane to help maintain skin’s moisture level.
What reviewers are saying: “This product has changed my skin in ways that it has never been changed before! I use it every other night and My skin is so smooth and looks so healthy. I would definitely recommend anyone to use this!” —Jasmine
Retinol Anti-Aging Sheet Mask
Sheet mask lovers, rejoice! This quick-fix mask is saturated with collagen, vitamins, and skin-smoothing retinol. It’s perfect for a skincare pick-me-up.
What reviewers are saying: “I got this as a sample or something a while ago and finally used it and was so impressed I ordered 5 more. This mask works wonders. It plumps skin and leaves it feeling smooth and soft. I love this product and have started giving them as gifts for my GFs.” —Chele
Regenerist Retinol 24 Face Cleanser
Get the most out of your retinol routine with this exfoliating cleanser designed to prep your skin, before you apply your remaining skincare products.
What reviewers are saying: “I don’t usually care for cream facial cleansers but I immediately liked this Olay Regenerist Retinol 24 Face Wash after the first use. I like cleansers that lather because I feel like they clean my skin better and don’t leave behind a residue like some cream cleansers do. This cream cleanser from Olay has a small amount of grittiness for exfoliating, but the texture of the particles are extremely gentle. My skin is left feeling very clean, it rinses off easily and completely and my skin feels so soft and smooth. If I’ve been wearing makeup I like to remove it first with a makeup remover or wipe and then use a cleanser afterwards. This cleanser is great for that too as it removes any remaining makeup and any oily resume left from the remover. I now have a favorite new face cleanser!” —Charliecat31
Q10 Anti-Wrinkle Night Cream + Pro-Retinol
Formulated to be non-irritating and gentle on skin, this pro-retinol night cream is enriched with vitamin E, macadamia nut oil, and coenzyme Q10. Apply before you hit the sheets, for a youthful reveal in the AM.
What reviewers are saying: “I had Immediate results. The emulsion is light, absorbing and moisturizing. Minimized fine lines and provided glowing skin.” —Linda
Why should you use retinol?
“Retinol has multiple positive effects on the skin,” explains Brooke Jeffy, dermatologist and founder of youth skincare brand BTWN. “It improves skin cell turnover and unclogs pores to help acne and improves skin texture. Retinol reduces collagen breakdown and stimulates production, resulting in reduction of fine lines, and can improve the appearance of brown spots.”
For the best results, start slow, using retinol two to three times per week and increase gradually every three weeks, up to nightly use. “Pair your retinol with a moisturizer to improve tolerability,” Jeffy says. “In general, avoid using products with ingredients including benzoyl peroxide, alpha and beta hydroxy acids, and vitamin C at the same time as retinol, to improve tolerability.”
At what age should you use retinol?
Jeffy says retinoids should be incorporated into your routine for age-related purposes once you’re in your 20s. “As a dermatologist with expertise in tween and teen skincare, I can tell you that retinoids are just not useful prior to that, unless treating acne,” she explains.
Meet the Experts
Brooke Jeffy, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist and founder of youth skincare brand BTWN in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Gregory A. Nikolaidis, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist at Westlake Dermatology & Cosmetic Surgery in Austin.
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For more than 150 years, Harper’s Bazaar has been the preeminent fashion and beauty resource for women at every age. We cover what’s new and what’s next in beauty by working with the world’s leading authorities in dermatology, plastic surgery, cosmetics, skincare, haircare, and fragrance. Every story we publish has been thoroughly researched and vetted by our team of beauty editors and industry experts.
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