Retinol Body Lotions You'll Want to Rub In from Head to Toe

·9 min read
A woman applying a retinol body lotion
A woman applying a retinol body lotion

FreshSplash/Getty

When a few thin crevices have started to settle into your forehead, a stubborn breakout crops up on your cheeks every single month, or your face is dealing a combination of the two, your first course of action is likely a retinol product — and for good reason. The vitamin A derivative helps to regulate skin cell turnover, says Marisa Garshick, M.D., F.A.A.D., a dermatologist based in New York City. In doing so, retinol may improve skin tone, unclog pores, boost collagen production, and reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, she explains.

And considering the skin-care ingredient's laundry list of benefits, you might be tempted to use your favorite serum below the neck, too. When applied to the body, retinol still works it's acne-fighting, skin-smoothing, pigmentation-erasing magic, says Melanie Palm, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and the founder of Art of Skin MD in San Diego, California. Plus, "body application can help thicken the dermis [the second layer of skin] over time and help improve the appearance of crepey skin, as well as improve the appearance of sun damage," she says. Those who have rough and bumpy patches of skin may also see those areas smoothing after using a retinol product, adds Dr. Garshick.

Using a retinol body product is worthwhile across the age groups, too. It can help with acne prevention and treatment and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation in younger folks, while the product can help maintain skin integrity and prevent aging in older adults, says Dr. Palm.

To give your skin a youthful glow all over, don't waste your precious (and pricey) retinol face cream on your legs and arms. Instead, invest in a retinol body lotion. Since the face has the most hair follicle and oil gland units, the skin there often tolerates a higher concentration of active ingredients and heals faster than the skin on the rest of the body, says Dr. Palm. That means the 0.1 percent retinol concentration in a facial product may be too intense for your body and could cause retinoid dermatitis, an itchy, red rash similar to eczema, she explains. Retinol body lotions, on the other hand, will typically have a lower concentration and may also contain different moisturizers or humectants (which draw in moisture), stabilizers, and other ingredients to better support your body's skin barrier, she says.

Before you pick up just any retinol body lotion off the shelf and start slathering it on, get the lowdown on how to chose a retinol body lotion and apply it correctly, as well as Dr. Garshick's and Dr. Palm's favorite formulations.

How to Choose a Retinol Body Lotion

The best retinol body lotion for you largely depends on what results you're aiming for and your skin type. If you're interested in anti-aging and protecting the skin against sun damage, look for a retinol body lotion that's formulated with antioxidants, such as vitamin C or ferulic acid, that will help protect against free radical damage, says Dr. Garshick. "If it's someone who has more sensitive skin, a product that has good hydrating and moisturizing benefits, such as hyaluronic acid and glycerin, which are both humectants that pull moisture in, can often be a little easier to tolerate," she adds. In either case, make sure to choose one with a lower concentration (if it's listed) and slowly incorporate it into your routine, says Dr. Garshick.

Still, there are a few groups of people who might want to avoid using a retinol body lotion. "Retinols and retinoids thin the stratum corneum of the epidermis — the very top layer of the skin," says Dr. Palm. "This can allow the skin to be a little more sensitive to sunburns." That's why folks who have disorders that cause photosensitivity, such as lupus, and those who have a lot of sun exposure and have a habit of skipping out of SPF (tisk) may want to steer clear of retinol products, says Dr. Palm.

Retinoids (the umbrella term for over-the-counter and prescription-strength retinol products) are also considered unsafe in the setting of pregnancy among dermatologists and ob-gyns, so individuals who are pregnant and breastfeeding will want to keep them out of their routines as well, says Dr. Garshick. "[The recommendation] has been extrapolated from the fact that taking oral forms of a retinoid, like Accutane or isotretinoin, can be associated with birth defects," she explains. "So it sort of is a stretch because we don't know that topical retinoids necessarily cause any harm, but we do say to avoid it." To keep your skin looking youthful while you're expecting, try bakuchiol, a plant-derived retinol alternative that's safe to use during pregnancy. (Related: Halsey Says This Clean Beauty Brand Is "Saving" Her Pregnancy Skin from Irritation)

Retinol Body Lotions Approved By Derms

Replenix Retinol Smooth + Tighten Body Lotion

Both Dr. Palm and Dr. Garshick recommend this retinol body lotion, so you know it has to be good. The product contains antioxidants to fend off free radicals, ceramides to strengthen the skin barrier, green tea polyphenols to soothe and calm irritated skin, and hyaluronic acid to seal in moisture. The result: brighter, softer, and smoother skin.

Replenix Retinol Smooth + Tighten Body Lotion
Replenix Retinol Smooth + Tighten Body Lotion

Josie Maran Whipped Argan Pro-Retinol Body Butter

With its ultra-creamy texture and bubblegum pink hue, this retinol body lotion is sure to be a welcome addition to your skin-care routine. The body butter boasts pink algae extract, a retinol that helps to reduce the look of fine lines and wrinkles; quercetin, an antioxidant to protect you from free-radical damage; and argan oil, which also provides antioxidants, including vitamin E. Thanks to this powerhouse formula, Dr. Palm's pick works fast: In a survey of 75 people, 97 percent said their skin felt smoother, healthier, and deeply hydrated in just three days.

Josie Maran Whipped Argan Pro-Retinol Body Butter
Josie Maran Whipped Argan Pro-Retinol Body Butter

iS Clinical Body Complex

Made from a blend of white willow bark extract to clear out pores, fruit extracts to exfoliate and smooth skin, hyaluronic acid to moisturize, and aloe to soothe, this retinol body lotion checks off all the boxes. "It has a combination of antioxidants, so it's especially good for that anti-aging benefit, but it's also still hydrating, so you feel moisturized after using it," says Dr. Garshick.

iS Clinical Body Complex
iS Clinical Body Complex

Paula's Choice Skin-Smoothing Retinol Body Treatment

This retinol body lotion not only packs protective antioxidants but also contains glycerin and other hydration boosters to keep sensitive skin calm. "It combines the retinol with different moisturizing ingredients, so it does help to potentially provide a soothing effect to the skin and minimize the irritation, but it's also lightweight," says Dr. Garshick.

Paula's Choice Skin-Smoothing Retinol Body Treatment
Paula's Choice Skin-Smoothing Retinol Body Treatment

Chantecaille Retinol Body Treatment

The most luxurious retinol body lotion of the bunch, this product is crafted with macadamia oil, antioxidants, and moisturizers that all work together to soften and smooth skin, says Dr. Garshick. Plus, the Switzerland-made product smells just like a spa, thanks to the rosewater.

Chantecaille Retinol Body Treatment
Chantecaille Retinol Body Treatment

How to Properly Apply Retinol Body Lotion

Choosing a proper formula is just the first step to getting the most out of your retinol body lotion. Similar to using a highly concentrated product, slathering on retinol too frequently can cause that itchy, rash-like retinoid dermatitis, says Dr. Palm. Simultaneously using anti-aging or exfoliating products, such as those with AHAs and BHAs, can also amp up your skin's sensitivity and cause irritation, she explains. That's why Dr. Palm recommends being cautious with using those products in combination with a retinol body lotion. Try applying the lotion just two times per week at first, then, slowly work your way up to daily application over several weeks, she says.

Before you slather your retinol body lotion all over willy nilly, apply a small amount to the inside of the forearm to make sure your skin can tolerate it — especially if you have sensitive skin, says Dr. Garshick. Once you're ready to use the product for real, gently rub the retinol body lotion onto clean skin, preferably before bed, just as you would with other potent moisturizers, says Dr. Garshick. "Historically, there was concern that if you used a retinol in the morning and it went out into the sun, it would become unstable and lose its efficacy" she explains. "Many of the more modern formulations don't necessarily have that same characteristic, so [applying retinol at night] is now more about protecting the skin because it's more sensitive to the sun."

If you don't want to apply it all over, focus on your areas of concern. For example, if you're using the retinol body lotion for anti-aging purposes, you may want to zero in on areas with the most sun exposure, such as the hands, chest, and neck. But if you want to treat dryness or bumpy skin you might focus on applying retinol body lotion on the arms, thighs, and other rough patches, says Dr. Garshick. "Be careful about [applying] too much near body folds or [your] neck, as these are areas that experience increased sensitivity and irritation from retinol," adds Dr. Palm. (Related: Amazon Customers Say This CeraVe Retinol Serum Completely Changed Their Skin)

After the retinol body lotion is absorbed, you'll likely want to top it off with your usual moisturizer — particularly if your skin's on the dry side, says Dr. Garshick. "I think any benefits you're getting from the retinol lotion from a hydration standpoint are essentially extra," she explains. But if you feel like your skin has gotten all the moisture it needs from the retinol body lotion, it's totally OK to skip your regular moisturizer, she adds.

The post-retinol product that can't be skipped, though, is sunscreen. Remember that retinol thins out the top layer of the skin and makes it more sensitive to the sun, upping your risk of getting painful sunburns. That's why Dr. Garshick recommends that anyone who has retinol as a part of their skin-care routine — no matter what time you apply it — slathers on some SPF before heading outdoors. "If you're using a retinol all over your body, everywhere that you're using it should have a good, thick layer of sunscreen, and it should be reapplied every two hours to maintain the [protective] benefit."