Clear up acne, fade dark spots, and reduce wrinkles—all with one product.
If you want to maintain a youthful complexion, there’s one ingredient dermatologists will always stand by: retinoids, which are vitamin A derivatives that help improve skin cell turnover.
Translation: “When you apply a retinoid, you’re constantly exfoliating the top layers of skin,” says Meera Sivendran, MD, assistant professor of Dermatology at Mount Sinai in New York. The result? You’ll prevent (and smooth) fine lines and wrinkles, improve skin texture, lighten dark spots, and unclog pores to keep blackheads and whiteheads away.
Problem is, you typically need a prescription to get your hands on one. That’s where retinol comes in—the sister to retinoids that is most often available over-the-counter. Retinols aren’t as potent as retinoids, so they will generally deliver less dramatic effects. That simply means they take a bit longer to work.
However, retinoids are often more irritating to the skin than an OTC retinol, says Dr. Sivendran, and can cause dryness, redness, or even slight peeling. Trying out a retinol routine first is a great way to get some of the anti-aging benefits for fewer side effects.
Look for moisturizers: Because retinol can be drying, look for a cream that also includes moisturizing ingredients—such as hyaluronic acid, ceramides, and shea butter—to boost moisture and minimize irritation.
Start slow: When you first start using a retinol-based product, expect to have dry or flaky skin during the first one or two weeks, particularly around your eyes, nose, and mouth, says Dr. Sivendran. After that, your skin should adapt. Start by first applying a pea-sized amount every other night. Still too much? Drop back to every third night. Eventually, you can work up to nightly use once you know your complexion can handle it.
Don’t forget SPF: Retinol makes your skin more sensitive to the sun, especially if you decide to use one during the day. If you don’t protect your face with sunscreen, you may be setting yourself up for more damage like burning or discoloration in the long run. You should always use SPF during the day, even if you applied your retinol cream at night.
Seeing a dermatologist can also help you get on the right regimen for your skin care concerns, but there are many OTC brands that make a good retinol product, says Lady Dy, MD, a dermatologist with Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, IL and founder of the Dy Dermatology Center. Here are the best retinol face creams you can try, all available without a prescription.