If you’re ready to incorporate a retinoid into your beauty routine, you need to do your research. Retinoids are among the trickier skin care products to become acquainted with, and you have to know how to use them safely before slathering one on. You'll also want to make sure you're using one of the best retinol creams for beginners, since the formulas can vary widely. So, I got in touch with an expert — Dr. Susan Bard, a New York City-based board certified dermatologist — to help guide me (and you) through the process.
So first, some science. According to Dr. Bard, “Retinoids are Vitamin A derivatives that bind to retinoid receptors in our cells. They help increase collagen production and increase skin turnover. This helps clear pores and improves acne as well as helps exfoliate to improve dark marks and fine lines.” That means yes, retinoids are incredibly beneficial for your skin, but users can experience initial redness and irritation when first introducing them, particularly people with sensitive skin or rosacea. To combat that, Dr. Bard advises waiting 30 minutes after washing your face in the evening to apply your retinol cream. “Start every other night at first and slowly titrate up to nightly use as tolerated," she suggests.
Some other tips on how to use retinol safely. Use no more than a pea-sized amount per application — that's all you'll need — and apply moisturizer over your retinoid to prevent dryness (check out a list of the best moisturizers to use with a retinol cream, here). Perhaps most importantly, it's essential that you wear sunscreen every day (which you should already be doing, of course), since retinoids can increase photosensitivity (also, they break down in the sun — another reason why we don't use them during the daytime).
“Once you build [up a] tolerance to your retinoid — a process known as hardening — you can add other ingredients to your regimen, but introduce them separately and slowly," says Dr. Bard. And if you're pregnant, nursing, or planning on becoming pregnant, don't use a retinol product, and check with your dermatologist if you have any questions.
Without further ado, scroll on to shop six of the best over-the-counter retinol creams on the market right now.
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1. Our Derm's Top Pick
Dr. Bard suggests this award-winning RoC cream as a reliable over-the-counter product. RoC uses their own Roc Retinol in the formula, as well as squalane to help counteract retinol's drying effects. You'll start seeing results in just a few weeks, but as with all retinol creams, using them with regularity is the key, our expert says. This is also a fan-favorite, with over 1,000 perfect five-star reviews (and counting) on Amazon.
2. Another Derm-Recommended Retinol Cream
Another trusted choice recommended by Dr. Bard, the Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair is a highly effective retinol cream that contains a high percentage of retinol SA, as well as a retinol-boosting glucose complex, plus hyaluronic acid to hydrate skin. This is one of the stronger retinol creams on the list, but users report fast results (the brand says one week).
3. The Best Retinol Cream For Beginners With Sensitive Skin
What makes SkinMedica cream a good beginner retinol product for people with sensitive skin? The lower percentage of retinol here (0.25) is gentler and better tolerated than one with a stronger formula, and the formula contains barrier-restoring ceramides, hydrating squalane, and other good-for-skin ingredients like vitamin E. It also doesn't contain any artificial fragrance — another feature that makes it a great choice for people with sensitive skin.
4. The Best Retinol Cream For Beginners With Acne-Prone Skin
Long a topical prescription medicine recommended to patients with acne, Differin is now available over-the-counter, and remains one of the most popular acne-fighting treatments on the market. It contains 0.1% adapalene, a topical retinoid, and is free of oil, alcohol, and fragrance — all common ingredients that could potentially trigger acne flare-ups. Unlike most retinol products, Differin does not break down in sunlight, so you can use this in the morning instead of the evening if that works better for you (just remember to wear your sunscreen religiously!).
5. The Best Retinol Cream For Your Eyes
If eye cream is an important step in your beauty routine, you can incorproate a retinoid there, too! This eye cream from French pharmacy brand, La Roche-Posay, contains retinol for its smoothing benefits, caffeine, which may help with puffiness, and traditional hydrators like glycerin and sodium hyaluronate. Plus, it's safe for use on the delicate skin underneath and around your eyes, even if you wear contact lenses. That's because it was tested under ophthalmological control for this very reason, and is also free of fragrance and preservatives.