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11 retinol and retinoid products for acne, wrinkles and more in 2022

We consulted dermatologists on everything you should know about retinol and retinoids.
Retinol can treat acne and prevent signs of aging, according to the doctors we consulted.
Retinol can treat acne and prevent signs of aging, according to the doctors we consulted.Skinceuticals ; Sephora ; First Aid Beauty

Whether you’re dealing with acne or are looking to prevent wrinkles and visible signs of aging, you may want to give retinol some serious consideration. The vitamin A derivative can address several common skin concerns, which has made it a popular ingredient in creams, serums and more. “[Retinoids are] powerful anti-agers and skin transformers,” noted board-certified dermatologist Dr. Linda Honet, founder of Honet Dermatology.

SKIP AHEAD Retinol and retinoid products | Retinol vs. retinoid | How to use retinol | What are the potential side effects of retinol? | Why trust Select?

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 in skin care 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,” explained Dr. Caren Campbell, a California-based board-certified dermatologist.

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 wrinkles, hyperpigmentation and more. (More on retinoids vs. retinol below.)

There are several benefits to incorporating retinoids into your skin care routine, board-certified dermatologist Dr. Cyndi Torosky told us.

  1. Retinoids increase collagen production and decrease collagen breakdown, which “helps with fine lines and wrinkles” as well as scarring.
  2. Retinoids inhibit 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.
  3. Retinoids help unclog pores and minimize their appearance.
  4. Retinoids increase skin cell turnover, which helps replace dead skin cells with younger, healthier ones that promote a glowing complexion.

“Retinol is the mainstay acne-fighting topical as it removes the top layer of skin [that] can clog the pore, helps decrease oil production, kills acne-causing bacteria and is anti-inflammatory,” Campbell added. “[It also] helps with hyperpigmentation, skin discoloration and some skin scarring due to its ability to increase skin cell turnover and build collagen.”

Dermatologist-recommended and top-rated retinoid products in 2022

Most retinol products are promoted with anti-aging benefits, but not acne-fighting ones. Why? “Companies cannot legally make medical claims (‘treats acne’) unless specific studies have been done to prove those claims,” Torosky explained, 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 said. “The companies cannot say that but any dermatologist will confirm that fact.” (All of the dermatologists we spoke to did, indeed, agree on this.)

Below, we highlight highly rated retinol creams and serums and retinoid gels as well as some expert-recommend options — the experts we spoke to said that retinol creams and serums are a good starting point for most people, though retinoid gels are a stronger option for concerns like cystic acne. All of the retinoid gels we recommend are adapalene since it is currently the only over-the-counter topical retinoid available.

Retinol products

RoC Retinol Correxion Deep Wrinkle Face Serum

Honet said that this retinol serum from RoC is a great “tried and true” option — the brand says that its retinol has gone through more than 100 clinical studies and more than 75 safety studies. According to RoC, the formula includes a mineral complex to help hydrate the skin and help make the retinol more effective.

Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Regenerating Retinol Cream

Honet highlighted Neutrogena’s Rapid Wrinkle Repair Retinol Cream as a good and relatively affordable retinol cream. The brand says that its patented accelerated formula uses retinol, glucose complex and hyaluronic acid to help reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles and give the skin a smoother appearance without irritating the skin.

Peter Thomas Roth Retinol Fusion PM Night Serum

Honet is a fan of Peter Thomas Roth’s “impressive” and “clinically effective” products, and she specifically called out the brand’s Retinol Fusion PM Night Serum. The serum contains 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. “Some dermatologists are [even] using this night serum,” Honet said.

Alastin Skincare Renewal Retinol

Alastin Skincare’s Renewal Retinol is formulated with oat extract, hydroxymethoxyphenyl decanone and silver mushroom to calm and hydrate the skin, according to the brand. The retinol in the product is encapsulated in a lipid, which helps the retinol slowly and carefully release onto the skin.

The Ordinary Retinol 0.5%

This retinol solution from The Ordinary is a good option for those who have used a retinoid product before. In addition to 0.5% retinol, the product also contains squalane, an emollient that locks in moisture, as we explained in our guide to moisturizers for dry skin.

First Aid Beauty FAB Skin Lab Retinol Serum 0.25% Pure Concentrate

With 0.25% retinol, this serum from First Aid Beauty is a good option for those new to retinoids. Other ingredients in the serum include glycerin, hyaluronic acid and colloidal oatmeal, all of which dermatologists have told us help moisturize the skin and strengthen the skin barrier.

Alpha-H Vitamin A Serum with 0.5% Retinol

In addition to 0.5% retinol, this serum from Alpha-H contains evening primrose and jojoba seed oil to maintain the skin’s hydration levels as well as tomato fruit extract to help improve collagen levels, according to the brand.

Skinceuticals Retinol 0.5

According to Skinceuticals, this night cream with 0.5% retinol targets discoloration, acne and signs of aging. In addition to retinol, it’s formulated with bisabolol and boswellia serrata extract to help soothe the skin, according to the brand.

Other retinoid products

Differin Gel

In 2016, the FDA approved Differin Gel for the over-the-counter treatment of acne based on numerous successful clinical trials. Campbell said that Differin — which is 0.1% adapalene — is a good over-the-counter retinoid option for those looking for something stronger than retinol.

La Roche-Posay Effaclar Adapalene Gel

La Roche-Posay’s Effaclar Adapalene Gel, another adapalene gel recommended by Campbell, also contains 0.1% adapalene to unclog pores and fight blackheads and whiteheads, according to the brand.

Though all of the over-the-counter adapalene products produce similar results, people who have compared Differin Gel and La Roche-Posay’s Adapalene Gel have noted that La Roche-Posay’s gel is slightly gentler and more moisturizing.

AcneFree Adapalene Gel 0.1%

AcneFree also makes a 0.1% adapalene gel, and it’s the most affordable option on this list. AcneFree also makes some of our favorite blackhead treatments and skin care products for oily skin.

What’s the difference between retinol and retinoid?

Retinol and retinoid are both forms of vitamin A, but they aren’t the same thing. Retinoid is a class of chemicals, whereas retinol is a derivative found within this class. All retinols are retinoids, but not all retinoids are retinols.

  • Retinol is a type of retinoid commonly found in over-the-counter skin care products. Torosky explained that retinol isn’t as effective as retinoic acid since it needs to be metabolically converted into retinaldehyde, which is then converted into retinoic acid and absorbed by the skin.
  • Retinoids are a group of vitamin A derivatives that are typically “more effective” in combating issues like acne, according to Campbell. The potent products that dermatologists prescribe to patients with acne often contain retinoids like tretinoin, aka retinoic acid, or tazarotene and adapalene, two types of synthetic retinoids that do not need to be converted into retinoic acid before they become active. Retinoid is “the only FDA-approved vitamin that has been approved for anti-aging,” Torosky said, noting that “clinical trials have proven the changes we see in the skin are clinically relevant.”
  • Retinyl esters are the least potent and most gentle type of retinoid. According to Torosky, “most people are going to be able to tolerate [retinyl esters],” but they have the “least amount of clinical results.”

Prescription retinoids (that come in the form of retinoic acid or synthetic retinoid) are typically more potent than over-the-counter retinoids (which are usually either retinols or retinyl esters), and Torosky noted that you really can’t compare the two when it comes to how much retinoid is in each product. Simply put, retinoic acid and synthetic retinoid are stronger than retinol and retinyl esters, which means that you don’t need as much to achieve similar results.

Whether you’re using a retinol cream or a retinoic acid gel, a higher percentage of retinoid isn’t always necessary, especially since retinoids can irritate and dry out the skin. “It’s all about finding that balance of efficacy and tolerability,” Torosky explained. Certain conditions require a stronger retinoid, though: If you suffer from cystic acne, Honet said that an over-the-counter retinol “may not have as much clinical clearance” and suggested consulting your dermatologist about more potent prescription options.

How to properly use retinol in your skin care routine

The dermatologists we spoke to said what’s more important than when you start using it is how: Before you incorporate a retinoid product into your daily routine, you need to make sure your skin can tolerate it.

How to incorporate retinol into your nightly routine

To ease your way into daily use, Campbell suggested using a pea-sized amount of your retinoid product on a clean, dry face every third or fourth night for two weeks and slowly building up to nightly use. However, Torosky noted not everyone can handle nightly use, and that’s OK: “Some [of my] patients can only handle three days a week, and others can handle every day,” she said.

Both Torosky and Campbell noted that retinoid products should be used in conjunction with a moisturizer since they can irritate and dry out the skin. They also said that retinoid products should ideally be used at night since they can break down in sunlight and make your skin more sensitive to the sun’s UV rays — regardless of what time you’re using a retinoid product, Campbell suggested using a mineral sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher during the day to protect your skin.

Skin care ingredients to avoid when using retinol

Since retinoid is an active ingredient, there are some ingredients that you shouldn’t use in conjunction with it to avoid irritation if you have sensitive skin, Torosky said. These ingredients include:

  • “Anything that’s going to stimulate exfoliation” — think AHAs and BHAs like lactic acid, salicylic acid and glycolic acid
  • Willow bark, a natural source of salicylic acid
  • Benzoyl peroxide, which can make retinoids unstable and reduce their efficacy

If you have more sensitive skin and want to combine a retinoid with benzyl peroxide, Honet suggested trying a low percentage benzoyl peroxide cleanser like this highly rated one from CeraAve. “[You get the] added benefit of a peroxide effect without the side effect of dryness,” she explained. Honet advised using the benzoyl peroxide cleanser separately from the retinol to further reduce any risk of irritation.

What are the potential side effects of using retinol?

Since retinoid products speeds up skin cell turnover, it can leave your skin feeling and looking dry, red and irritated. Certain people may also experience burning and peeling while using a retinoid product, according to Campbell. “Starting slow with this medication [...] is the best way to minimize and mitigate these side effects,” she noted. “If you find yourself too dry or irritated, you can try mixing the medication 50:50 with a moisturizer to make it more tolerable on the skin.”

Why trust Select?

Select editor Morgan Greenwald covers numerous skin care topics, from hyaluronic acid and moisturizers for dry skin to chafing. 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. Based on their guidance and recommendations, Greenwald reviewed the features and ingredients of highly rated retinoid products from brands like Neutrogena, Skinceuticals, Peter Thomas Roth, The Ordinary and more.

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