Whether you’re dealing with acne or are looking to address fine lines, you may want to consider adding retinol to your nightly skin care routine. Retinols are vitamin A derivatives and are a subtype of retinoids, which are powerful skin transformers, says Dr. Linda Honet, a board-certified dermatologist and president of Honet Dermatology/Cosmetic. They can be so effective that they have become a popular key ingredient in creams, serums and more.
To help you decide whether retinol might be beneficial to your skin care needs, we consulted dermatologists on everything you should know about retinol, including tips for application. Additionally, we offer up our experts’ favorite retinol creams and serums, as well as some top-rated products in line with their guidance.
What is retinol?
Derived from vitamin A, retinol is an active ingredient that “has been shown to increase skin cell turnover and stimulate collagen, the building block for skin, which makes it great for anti-aging and skin rejuvenation,” says Dr. Caren Campbell, a board-certified dermatologist based in California’s Bay Area.
In 1971, the FDA approved retinoids — the class of vitamin A derivatives that retinol falls into — as a topical treatment for acne. Subsequent studies have shown that retinol can improve fine wrinkles, hyperpigmentation and more.
There are several benefits to incorporating retinoids into your skin care routine. They include:
- Increasing collagen production and decreasing collagen breakdown, which helps with fine lines as well as scarring, says Dr. Cyndi Torosky, a board-certified dermatologist at Pariser Dermatology in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
- Inhibiting the production and transfer of melanin, which “prevents age spots from surfacing over time” and helps fade age spots and sun spots that already exist, according to Torosky.
- Helping unclog pores and minimize their appearance, according to Honet.
- Increasing skin cell turnover, which helps replace dead skin cells with younger, healthier ones that promote a glowing complexion, says Campbell.
How we picked the best retinol products of 2024
We spoke with board-certified dermatologists about what to consider when shopping for retinol products. Here’s what they recommend:
- Formulation: The experts we spoke to say that retinol creams and serums are a good starting point for most people. They also recommend looking for products that are also formulated with hydrating ingredients like hyaluronic acid. This is because retinol can be slightly irritating when you first use it and hydrating ingredients will help calm the skin.
- Purported benefits: Most retinol products are promoted with the benefit of reducing fine lines, but not acne-fighting ones. The reason: “Companies cannot legally make medical claims (‘treats acne’) unless specific studies have been done to prove those claims,” says Torosky, noting that these studies “can cost millions.” Studies aside, “it would be correct to say that any retinoid-containing product will inherently help reduce [the] tendency for acne,” she says. “The companies cannot say that, but any dermatologist will confirm that fact.” (All of the dermatologists we spoke to did, indeed, agree on this.)
- Other retinoids: Our list includes retinol creams and serums, as well as retinoid gels. Retinol is an ideal starting point, since it tends to be more gentle on skin, retinoid gels, on the other hand, are a better option for those with cystic acne because they are a bit more intense and can penetrate deeper. All of the retinoid gels we recommend are adapalene — a type of retinoid typically available in 0.1% and 0.3% strengths and used to treat mild to moderate acne — since it is currently the only over-the-counter topical retinoid available.
The best retinol products
Our list includes various expert-recommended retinol products along with a few highly-rated formulas and NBC Select-staff favorites in the mix, too. We have serums, creams and gels in our roundup, and also include various retinoid products (which experts say are stronger than retinol), too.
Honet says that this retinol serum is a “tried and true” option — it has gone through more than 100 clinical studies to confirm its effectiveness on improving sagging skin and skin texture, according to the brand. According to RoC, the formula includes a mineral complex to help hydrate the skin and help make the retinol more effective. Retinol serums, like this one, are best used after cleansing in the evening, before you put on moisturizer, according to Honet.
Neutrogena’s Rapid Wrinkle Repair Retinol Cream is a good and relatively affordable retinol cream, according to Honet. Like other formulas on our list, it has hyaluronic acid in it to help reduce the appearance of fine lines and give the skin a smoother appearance without irritating the skin, according to the brand.
Honet is also a fan of Peter Thomas Roth’s “impressive,” “clinically effective” products, and she specifically likes the brand’s Retinol Fusion PM Night Serum. The serum has time-released 1.5% retinol — which is on the higher side for retinol products — as well as vitamins C and E and squalane to moisturize the skin, according to the brand. The time-release mechanism means the retinol is encased in a lipid that dissolves slowly as it sits on skin so it penetrates more slowly as well, making it more gentle on skin, according to Peter Thomas Roth.
Like the serum from Peter Thomas Roth, the retinol in this Alastin formula is time-released, which can be more gentle on skin. I am a devotee to this brand — I used their moisturizer, SPF and this retinol serum four times a week. “After a few months, I noticed fine lines around my eyes were definitely not as noticeable and my skin feels so soft and hydrated any time I slick it on.”
Murad’s overnight treatment, which has a 4.8-star average from over 600 reviews on Sephora, is formulated to address fine lines, wrinkles and uneven texture, according to the brand. It uses retinal, a type of retinoid that is more powerful than retinol and has similar benefits of smoothing skin texture and clearing breakouts. The retinal in this formula is encapsulated, which allows it to slowly release to limit irritation, according to the brand. It also has olive leaf extracts in its formula to help with hydration.
This retinol night cream is a great option for beginners, says NBC Select commerce editor Lindsay Schneider. “I am relatively new to retinol and haven’t broken out or had any bad reactions using this,” she says. (The brand sent samples to the NBC Select staff team to try.) “I make sure I layer with extra moisturizing products when using it and I haven’t had any peeling or dryness like I’ve had with some others I’ve tried.” This is the brand’s level one option — which is formulated with .15% retinol, and peptides to support skin elasticity — they also offer two other levels, which have increased retinol strengths. If you are new to retinol, the brand recommends starting with this level to avoid irritation.
Cerave makes some of our favorite skin products — including a cream to improve your skin barrier and one of the best moisturizers for dry skin. This serum pairs vitamin A with hyaluronic acid to improve skin texture and add moisture back into your complexion, according to the brand. It has a 4.4-star average rating from more than 500 reviews at Ulta.
Other retinoid products
In addition to retinol, there are a variety of other retinoid products on the market. (Reminder, retinoids tends to be a bit stronger than retinol.) Our experts suggest looking for adapalene when shopping for retinoid products since it has been shown to minimize blemishes and fine lines.
In 2016, the FDA approved Differin Gel for the over-the-counter acne treatment. Dr. Caren Campbell, a board-certified dermatologist based in California’s Bay Area, says that Differin — which has 0.1% adapalene in its formula — is a good over-the-counter retinoid option for those looking for something stronger than retinol. It has a 4.5-star average rating from over 77,000 reviews on Amazon and experts have previously told us that it also works well on acne scars caused by hyperpigmentation, too.
Another recommendation from Campbell, this gel from NBC Select-staff favorite brand has 0.1% adapalene in its formula to unclog pores and fight blackheads and whiteheads, according to the brand. It’s also fragrance-free and noncomedogenic, which is good for those with sensitive skin.
AcneFree, which makes some of our favorite blackhead treatments and skin care products for oily skin, also has a 0.1% adapalene gel. This gel has a 4.5-star average rating from over 7,600 reviews on Amazon and is the most affordable option on this list. You can apply it once at night to clean skin prior to wearing moisturizer.
Meet our experts
At NBC Select, we work with experts who have specialized knowledge and authority based on relevant training and/or experience. We also take steps to ensure that all expert advice and recommendations are made independently and with no undisclosed financial conflicts of interest.
- Dr. Linda Honet is a board-certified dermatologist and president of Honet Dermatology/Cosmetic in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan
- Dr. Caren Campbell is a board-certified dermatologist based in California’s Bay Area
- Dr. Cyndi Torosky is a board-certified dermatologist at Pariser Dermatology in Virginia Beach, Virginia
Why trust NBC Select?
Morgan Greenwald is a former NBC Select editor who covered various skin care topics including stories on hyaluronic acid and moisturizers for dry skin. Greenwald has tried dozens of skin care products and brands over the years, including retinol products. For this story, Greenwald spoke to multiple board-certified dermatologists.
Bethany Heitman is a contributor at NBC Select and a journalist who regularly covers beauty, home and lifestyle.