The 5 Best Over The Counter Retinols

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Retinols are a godsend for pretty much every skin type. They help to promote cellular turnover, which clears up, evens out, and brightens up your overall complexion. And while this hero ingredient used to only be available with a prescription, lower-dose versions have gone mainstream. Because of that, just about anyone can get their hands on the best over the counter retinols, so you can get the zit-clearing, glow-producing benefits without a visit to the dermatologist.

Retinol is the name for the over-the-counter version of retinoid. "It helps stimulate collagen production to thicken the deep skin layers," says dermatologist Joshua Zeichner. "At the same time, it actually thins out the outer skin layer, improving skin radiance. Topical retinols also prevent skin cells from sticking together within the pores and reduce inflammation in the skin, which is why they are also used to treat acne."

Retinols tend to be less potent than RX retinoids, which makes them better for folks with sensitive skin types. Still, it's a good idea to look for retinols that also have hydrating ingredients in them, like squalane and hyaluronic acid. This will ensure that your skin stays flake-free, while also allowing the retinol to work its exfoliating magic. Also: it's especially important to wear sunscreen every day when using retinol, since it can make your skin more photosensitive. Check out this list of the best facial sunscreens if you need help finding a new daily formula.

If the complexity of searching for the right retinol for your skin type sounds intimidating, never fear. I've rounded up a list of the best over the counter retinols you can buy online. Remember: the key to using a retinol safely is to start slowly. Once or twice a week is plenty in the beginning, and once your skin gets used to them, you can increase your usage to every other day.

1. The Best Affordable Over-The-Counter Retinol

The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid

$21

Amazon

The Ordinary is known for their effective, no-fuss formulas and affordable price points, and the brand's Granactive Retinoid works just as well as an expensive retinol, but costs just over $20. The retinol is housed in squalane, which is a skin-friendly hydrator that's the perfect pairing for this powerhouse ingredient. Free of alcohol, silicones, and gluten, this cruelty-free formula works to smooth, soften, and brighten skin. Since it contains 5 percent retinol, it's definitely on the more intense side, so be sure to start out slowly.

2. An Even Cheaper Drugstore Retinol That Has A Cult-Following On Amazon

RoC Retinol Correxion Deep Wrinkle Retinol Night Cream

$15

Amazon

You've likely seen RoC's Retinol Correxion Deep Wrinkle Retinol Night Cream on a friend's — or your mother's — bathroom sink. RoC is synonymous with over-the-counter retinols because it really works — and Amazon users agree. This night cream delivers a serious punch of retinol, while also blanketing the skin in moisture. But you have to be patient with it, as it definitely takes some time to work — most users report visible results within 12 weeks.

One reviewer wrote, "Just as Oprah said— you can't do without this one. I have been using this twice a day for almost 2 weeks now... I have gotten compliments about how my face looks "bright", [and] "refreshed". One person asked me if I got a facial. Every girl deserves to feel radiant and this tube helps make that possible inexpensively."

3. The Best Retinol Night Cream For Dry Skin

Murad Retinol Youth Renewal Night Cream

$78

Amazon

If your skin is on the drier side, a retinol cream, like this one from Murad, is a great option. You should try and only use night creams with retinol in them, as opposed to daily moisturizers, since, again, they can make your skin sensitive to the sun. Using a proprietary mix of two retinols, one that's fast-acting and another time-released booster, this cream works to moisturize and smooth skin, as well as improve its overall texture and tone overnight. The formula also contains peptide-rich red algae extract to improve elasticity, and swertia flower extract, which helps firm skin. Apply it to your face, neck, and chest for maximum results.

4. A More Affordable Retinol Serum For Dry Skin

InstaNatural Retinol Serum

$18

Amazon

An oil serum, like this one from InstaNatural, is another great option for those looking for hydration in their retinols. This sumptuous oil contains a trio of ingredients that add and seal in moisture — specifically hyaluronic acid, niacinamide, and argan oil. These three ingredients help protect and moisturize skin while the retinol does its job. InstaNatural's serum is also formulated with vitamin C, which helps boost brightness in your skin tone. It's made without SLS, parabens, mineral oil, and synthetic dyes, which make this an excellent option for sensitive skin types. Apply it ahead of your favorite moisturizer at night — just make sure that whatever moisturizer you use is free of active ingredients, as they could interact poorly with the retinol.

5. A Value-Pack Of Retinol Gels

Differin Adapalene Gel 0.1% Acne Treatment (2 Pack)

$21

Amazon

Ask a beauty editor what their favorite over the counter retinol is, and you'll likely hear about Differin's Adapalene Gel 0.1% Acne Treatment. This cream is incredibly mild while also being super effective at fighting zits and improving texture. That's because it's a prescription-strength retinol, which works to buff away your dead skin, revealing a smooth, blemish-free complexion. While most topical retinols work on the top layer of skin, Differin penetrates deeply, working to reverse the causes of acne from the inside out. For just over $20, you'll get not one but two bottles of gel. Most users see major results in 12 weeks — so this is one reveal that's worth waiting for.

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