As a beauty editor who’s always testing different skin care concoctions, it’s rare that I go steady with a single product. But despite all the trials and one-night stands with hundreds of serums and creams, I recently discovered a certain category is definitely worth committing to: retinol oil.
Retinol is one of the most science-backed, dermatologist-recommended skin care ingredients out there. It increases your cell turnover to combat dullness, reduces hyperpigmentation, fights acne, smooths fine lines, and stimulates your collagen production. Whenever I’m using a retinol in my routine, my complexion is noticeably brighter, more even, and I have the radiant glow I’m looking for — all from just a few drops. Although you can find the unicorn ingredient in a range of beauty products, like serums and moisturizers, it’s retinol-based oils that really transform my skin into its dewiest self. And yet it seems like a product category a lot people are sleeping on.
I hit up dermatologists to find out why retinol oils are so magical and how they compare to other formulations — here’s what they had to say, along with a few products that have given me my best skin ever.
Benefits Of Retinol Oils
Although no clinical trials compare the ingredient in different forms, retinol oils do have unique perks. “The benefits of an oil versus a cream primarily involve the ability to minimize the dryness, inflammation, and itching often caused by the retinol itself,” says Dr. Ted Lain, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist based in Austin, Texas. And you incorporate them into your routine just as you would with a cream or serum: Apply just a few drops to your skin at nighttime and you’re good to go.
When you’re using a facial oil of any kind, you’re getting extra moisture, which is partially why retinol oils can be so great. “Oils are moisturizing, hydrating, lightweight, and easy to apply,” says Lain. “Retinol serums offer many of the same benefits, but at their core are water-based, so they likely will not moisturize to the same degree as an oil.” Dr. Julie Russak, M.D., a New York City-based dermatologist, also points to the ingredient’s hydrating qualities. “For someone with dry and dehydrated skin, retinol oils can really improve and bring radiance, which is why I think you’re seeing those results,” she tells me. It’s true: After applying retinol oil, my skin looks like it just chugged three glasses of coconut water — and that hydration lasts all day.
My skin tends to fall on the dry end of the spectrum, so retinol oils are ideal for me — but they’re not for everyone. If you’re prone to breakouts, Russak recommends sticking with serums and oil-free creams since some oils can cause acne.
“For someone with dry and dehydrated skin, retinol oils can really improve and bring radiance.”
Perhaps the most game-changing perk of retinol oils? They’re a good way for sensitive skin types to reap the benefits of the ingredient, says Lain, because they “enhance the tolerability of the retinol.” This is major, because many people shy away from retinol because it has potential to irritate your skin until it gets used to it. Russak says many retinol oils contain other active ingredients, like algae, marula seed oil, and sea buckthorn extract, that work to quell any irritation and deliver added benefits to your complexion, too. “Some have anti-inflammatory properties and can help with providing enough hydration to counteract the concentration of retinol,” she tells Bustle.
Welp, no wonder my skin loves retinol oils so much. Even if I’m consistently ghosting so many beauty products after a few uses, I vow to go steady with these babies. Here are some I’ve loved and used to the last drop.
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The Drugstore Buy
For a retinol oil that’s more targeted to anti-aging, this one takes the cake. It absorbs easily, is super moisturizing, and makes your skin look smoother after weeks of regular use. The best part, though? You can snag it at the drugstore.
If you’re looking to streamline your beauty regimen, this is the retinol oil that’ll do it all. Brighten pigmentation? Check. Moisturize? Yep. And you get the double win of vitamin C and retinol, all in one super gentle formula that delivers serious radiance.
The One-Two Punch
Josh Rosebrook’s retinol oil contains two skin care superstars: retinol and vitamin C, the latter of which is an antioxidant that brightens and combats hyperpigmentation. But, though these are both strong ingredients, my skin slurps it right up, and I’m left with a smoother, more even complexion.
The Inflammation Fighter
Cult-fave brand Sunday Riley is beloved for its Good Genes serum, but the Luna Sleeping Night Oil is just as game-changing. The combo of retinol with blue tansy and chamomile extracts, both gentle inflammation fighters, makes it friendly to sensitive skin types. It delivers serious moisture, too, thanks to chia and blackberry seed oils, so it’s an MVP if you’re in the market for something hydrating that truly transforms your glow.
The Moisturizing MVP
This retinol oil was my first foray into the product category, and I’ve gone through three bottles of the stuff. It’s jam-packed with skin-boosting ingredients: algae, which soothes and hydrates; fermented green tea extract, an antioxidant that’s also soothing; and hemp-derived cannabis, which nourishes and plumps. It’s incredibly hydrating, and my skin still looks dewy when I wake up after using it the night before.
Goldfarb, M. (1987). Retinoids in Dermatology. Mayo Clinic Proceedings. https://www.mayoclinicproceedings.org/article/S0025-6196(12)62514-2/fulltext
Kafi, R. (2007). Improvement of naturally aged skin with vitamin A (retinol). Arch Dermatol. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17515510/
Leyden, J. (2017). Why Topical Retinoids Are Mainstay of Therapy for Acne. Dermatology and Therapy. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5574737/
Mukherjee, S. (2006). Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clinical Interventions in Aging. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2699641/
Dr. Ted Lain, M.D., board-certified dermatologist based in Austin, Texas
Dr. Julie Russak, M.D., New York City-based dermatologist