As anyone who's ever had acne knows, you can be seemingly doing everything right, yet breakouts still persist. Thoroughly removing your makeup every night? Check. Cleansing and toning? Check and check. Following up with an oil-free moisturizer? Yep. Sometimes acne is just stubborn, which is where retinol cream might come in handy. Dr. Melissa Kanchanapoomi Levin, dermatologist and founder of Entière Dermatology, calls them the "foundation of an acne treatment." But if you're not exactly sure what a retinol (or its more potent derivative, retinoid) cream is — or how to find the best retinol creams for acne, more specifically — Dr. Levin is here to break things down.
How does retinol treat acne?
"Retinoids are essentially a basic umbrella term for both over-the-counter retinols and prescription retinoids," Dr. Levin explains. "Retinols contain a lower concentration of the active retinoic acid ingredient, and prescription retinoids have a much higher concentration of the active ingredient," she says. Basically, this means you'll have an easier time finding a retinol cream at the store or online, and you'll need to make an appointment with your dermatologist for a stronger retinoid. If you're pregnant or breastfeeding, Dr. Levin notes that you should avoid retinoid products altogether.
Whether you pick up a retinol cream on your own or visit your derm first, the reason why these creams are so effective is the same. "They treat and prevent acne by declogging pores, normalizing skin cell turnover, and working as an anti-inflammatory," Dr. Levin says. "Furthermore, retinoids have been proven to improve skin discoloration and texture," she goes on to say, noting that this also means they "restore the skin from prior outbreaks."
How to use a retinol cream:
Using a retinol is simple for both over-the-counter and prescription formulas, with Dr. Levin recommending that you apply the product as the first step after cleansing during your nightly routine, because sunlight can deactivate the retinoic acid. (You'll also want to make sure you're putting sunscreen on during the day, however, since retinol makes your skin more photosensitive.)
While most skin types can handle a retinol cream just fine, Dr. Levin notes that starting with an over-the-counter retinol and easing into daily use will help minimize irritation like redness, dryness, and flaking, which are common when you begin using a retinol. "Start off by applying a retinoid every third night," Dr. Levin says. "If your skin isn’t irritated after two weeks, increase to every other night for another two weeks," she continues, adding, "If your skin is still tolerating the retinoid, go for every night."
Your nightly moisturizer will also help to combat any dryness or flaking. Dr. Levin notes that you should apply a pea-sized amount of your retinol on dry skin, and after several minutes, follow up with your moisturizer.
To simplify your search for the best retinol creams for acne, I've rounded up four great picks — including Dr. Levin's top recommendation.
1. The Overall Best Retinol For Acne
Differin Gel (2 Pack)
Dr. Levin's top pick, Differin Gel, is the only retinoid product available over-the-counter. The noncomedogenic and fragrance-free gel contains 0.1 percent adapalene, which is a type of retinoid, and helps to heal current acne while preventing future breakouts. While it takes 12 weeks of usage to see the full benefits, a reduction in inflammation and blemishes can be seen in as little as two weeks.
And Dr. Levin isn't alone in recommending Differin Gel. Not only is it one of my personal favorite acne products, but Amazon users are also on board, with nearly 1,000 five-star reviews. While many note you'll need to use a moisturizer with this product to avoid excessive dryness, they also credit it with clearing up their skin.
"I have suffered from mild to moderate acne since my hormonal teen years and it never went away," writes one reviewer who shares that they tried everything from over-the-counter products to prescription antibiotics without success in the past. "Once I finally began using this, I noticed results almost instantly — my acne has cleared up almost completely."
3. Best Drugstore Retinol For Acne
Neutrogena Ageless Intensives Anti-Wrinkle Night Moisturizer
Retinol and hyaluronic acid are combined in this gentle nightly moisturizer to unclog pores and leave skin hydrated and plump. Though it calls itself an anti-wrinkle moisturizer, because retinol is its active ingredient, it's just as effective at treating acne. Need more proof? Many Amazon users note that the Neutrogena Ageless Intensives Anti-Wrinkle Night Moisturizer lightened their hyperpigmentation and treated current breakouts. "This has changed my skin immensely," raves one reviewer. "I had a lot of red marks and weird pigmentation from pimples, and this stuff has totally faded my marks and made my skin tone so much more even and smooth looking."
3. A Two-In-One Moisturizer/Retinol Cream
Paula’s Choice Resist Barrier Repair Moisturizer With Retinol
This little overachiever contains retinol to help regulate skin cell turnover as well as moisturizing ingredients like glycerin, shea butter, and squalene to help combat the drying effects of retinol you don't need to use a separate moisturizer. Paula's Choice Resist Barrier Repair Moisturizer With Retinol was also formulated with skin-soothing ingredients like licorice and chamomile extract to further ease any irritation, making it a solid choice for anyone with sensitive skin or who's looking to save a step in their nightly skin care routine.
4. An Acne-Fighting Cream First & Retinol Second
Murad Acne Control Skin Perfecting Lotion
Murad's Acne Control Skin Perfecting Lotion targets acne with retinol to clear out pore and queen of meadow extract, a natural form of salicylic acid. The traditional healing herb has astringent, antiseptic, and anti-inflammatory properties that also help it to reduce oil production and pore-visibility.
Additionally, this dermatologist-developed, oil-free moisturizer contains hydrating and soothing ingredients like honey, allantoin, and arnica to keep skin smooth and reduce any redness or irritation that typically occurs with retinol use.
"It actually helps control my oiliness and my acne," writes one Amazon user who uses the lotion after cleansing with the Murad Acne Clarifying Cleanser. "I love this Murad routine because it doesn't cause dryness, which was my number one problem with other acne treatments in the past."
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