Best Drugstore Retinol

SKIN CARE REVIEWS

08.18.21DISCLAIMER
Best best. The Carrot & Stick skincare bundle worth up to $240 for $88. Details below

Retinol is one of the top skincare ingredients for softening and preventing fine lines and wrinkles, reducing pore size, encouraging collagen production, lessening the appearance of brown spots, increasing cell turnover, improving skin texture, and addressing acne. But when it comes to effectiveness, are prescription products superior to those found at a drugstore?

We tapped Elle MacLeman, biochemist, skincare specialist, and head technical writer for The Derm Review, to provide greater insight into the difference between the two. She has also provided her top tips for safely integrating the best drugstore retinol formula into your routine so that you can reap all of its benefits minus irritation.

Related: Best Retinol Creams

Best Drugstore Retinol: The List

BEST OVERALL

BEST: CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum, $14.79

Best bet. The Carrot & Stick skincare bundle worth up to $240 for $88. Select 3 products, including our favorite CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum. Use code DERM20 for 20% off.

FULL LIST

RoC Retinol Correxion Deep Wrinkle Serum, $24.99

La Roche-Posay Pure Retinol Face Serum with Vitamin B3, $39.99

Neutrogena Healthy Skin Anti-Wrinkle Night Cream, $13.49

Olay Regenerist Retinol24 Night Face Moisturizer, $38.99

Eau Thermale Avène Retinal Eyes, $49

Embody Retinol Gummy, $28

Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Anti-Wrinkle Retinol Eye Cream, $22.49

Differin Adapalene Gel 0.1% Acne Treatment, $24.15

RoC Retinol Correxion Sensitive Eye Cream, $28.99

Pixi Overnight Retinol Oil, $24.50

Honest Beauty Honestly Pure Retinol Serum, $27.99

L’Oréal Revitalift Triple Power Anti-Aging Face Day Moisturizer, $19.50

Olay Regenerist Retinol 24 Night Eye Cream, $28.92

Indeed Labs Retinol Reface Serum, $20

What are the Best Skin Care Products of 2022?

How Does Retinol Work?

“Retinol is a form of vitamin A. Once absorbed into the skin, it’s converted into the active form, retinoic acid. Our skin cells contain receptors for retinoic acid, which allow for the benefits such as faster skin cell turnover, reduction in the appearance of hyperpigmentation, and support of collagen production, to be achieved,” explains Elle MacLeman, biochemist, skincare specialist, and head technical writer for The Derm Review.

Related: The Science of Retinol

“Retinol is a retinoid which is a class of ingredients that are converted to retinoic acid in the body,” MacLeman goes on to explain. “Retinoic acid is a metabolite of vitamin A that is responsible for the functions that are associated with the vitamin, such as its benefits to the skin. Other retinoids include retinyl palmitate, retinal, and tretinoin.

Vitamin A — or retinoic acid — is used to improve the appearance of the skin. Studies have suggested that vitamin A may help reduce visible fine lines, pigmentation, blemishes, and may help to improve skin cell turnover. This is why retinoid products, like retinol, are so widely used.”

Fun fact: The importance of retinol (vitamin A) was discovered during World War I. Substantial research shows that its deficiency in the body gives rise to xerosis and follicular hyperkeratosis. However, the modern history of retinoids began in 1909 when an essential factor in the viability of an embryo in the fatty extract of the egg yolk, called vitamin A, was discovered. Retinoids were finally introduced into the treatment of skin conditions (including photoaging) more than two decades ago.

Related: How Does Retinol Work?, What Are The Side Effects?

Drugstore Retinol Vs. Other Formulas

“The main difference is the type of retinoid that’s used in these formulations,” explains MacLeman. “Retinoids are ingredients that are converted into vitamin A in the body. However, some convert more readily than others.

For example, tretinoin, a prescription retinoid, is pure vitamin A, so the rate at which it is converted is high. Others like retinol or retinyl palmitate are not as easily converted in the body so that they will lose some strength along the way.

Related: Retinol vs. Retinoid

Can Everyone Use Retinol?

“Yes, anyone can use retinol,” says MacLeman. “ It’s more about how and which retinol you use. If you have sensitive skin, you may want to use a low concentration and a low frequency.”

There can be side effects when using retinol, such as dryness, mild irritation, and sun sensitivity as your skin adjusts to this new active ingredient.

Never hesitate to speak to your dermatologist when incorporating retinol into your routine —especially for those susceptible to rosacea, eczema, or ultra-sensitive skin. These individuals may want to skip retinol altogether (but there are plenty of other anti-aging ingredients, so as not to worry.) Even if you have the type of skin that can handle retinol, if you’re a newbie, it’s crucial that you gradually introduce it into your routine so your skin can build up a tolerance.

Precautions When Using Retinol

Even though retinoids (retinol included) are approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), that doesn’t mean they’re void of side effects such as redness, sensitivity, dryness, itchiness, and peeling. Though these symptoms are typically temporary and will improve over time as your skin gets used to the product, beginners or those with sensitive skin may be better off with a gentler form of retinol — or an alternative such as bakuchiol that provides the same benefits.

Encapsulated retinol is also another option. It’s delivered into the skin at a slow and steady time-released rate instead of all at once like other forms of retinol. Not only does it protect your skin, but it remains stable and potent for a more extended period, thus providing superior benefits.

 

MacLeman’s Top Tips For Using Retinol

“Slowly increase the frequency over time (I mean slowly) because retinol can have a delayed onset time for irritation. You may get to two weeks in and think, ‘great, this is going well, let’s increase it,’ but it can take about a month to know whether you’re at a reasonable level.

  • When using retinol, you want to ensure the skin isn’t damp before applying — opposite to hyaluronic acid. This is because the water can make the skin more susceptible to irritation. There are a few things you can do if you are experiencing irritation.”
  • Reduce frequency (start with 1-2 a week — for a month unless your skin becomes irritated — if it does, reduce frequency further. After a month, increase to 2-3 times a week and so on.)
  • Reduce the time you have the retinol on your skin. You can leave the retinol on your skin for 10-20 mins and then rinse it off. You will still benefit from the product but will reduce irritation.
  • Apply over a moisturizer. This creates a barrier between your skin and the retinol.
  • Start small. Use low concentrations first, then build up. Retinol is one of the few ingredients your skin actually gets used to. When you experience ‘the getting used to effect’ with other products, it generally means the product isn’t working for you. So, over time you will want to increase the strength of the retinol.
  • You can also experience purging that is associated with retinol use. Purging is when breakouts occur at the beginning of retinol use. If you experience this, breathe through it, the benefits are so much more significant than the breakouts you will temporarily experience.

Best Drugstore Retinol Products

CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum, $14.79
Looking for a retinol serum for acne? Keep in mind that your skin can be on the sensitive side (maybe even inflamed.) This formula provides all the benefits of retinol, but with the addition of skin-soothing ceramides and niacinamide to even out the skin tone, reduce redness, and soften acne scars.

RoC Retinol Correxion Deep Wrinkle Serum, $24.99
Everyone loves a good drugstore buy — especially one that’s about the effectiveness and not fluff. Formulated with RoC’s award-winning retinol, this serum is clinically proven to make the skin look ten years younger in as little as four weeks. Of course, that all depends on your age and the current state of your skin — but this serum wouldn’t be on the best-of list if it didn’t visibly produce noticeable results, especially over time.

La Roche-Posay Pure Retinol Face Serum with Vitamin B3, $39.99
While many French brands choose formulas that are more “au naturale,” that doesn’t mean every product is restricted to pure essential oils and extracts. This serum from La Roche-Posay is formulated with encapsulated retinol to prevent irritation. Glycerin hydrates and vitamin B3 prevents water loss and soothes. You’ll see instant gratification via a luminous complexion, but signs of aging are reduced over time.

Neutrogena Healthy Skin Anti-Wrinkle Night Cream, $13.49
Despite only containing a low .085 percentage of retinol, Neutrogena’s Healthy Skin anti-wrinkle night cream is still an effective arsenal against aging skin. It’s one of several perfect starter creams for retinol beginners or those with sensitive skin. A combination of pro-vitamin B5, vitamin E, and unique moisturizers work with the skin’s natural mechanisms to hydrate, protect, and brighten a dull complexion. Many reviewers consider it the best drugstore wrinkle cream.

Related: Best Retinol Creams

Olay Regenerist Retinol24 Night Face Moisturizer, $38.99
With this retinol cream, you won’t have to worry about dryness and flakiness because it deeply hydrates for an impressive 24 hours. Olay’s proprietary formula, including a vitamin B3 (niacinamide) and retinol complex, delivers noticeable improvements in fine lines, wrinkles, texture, tone, discoloration, and pore size. It’s also fragrance- and dye-free, so it’s perfect for those with sensitive skin.

Eau Thermale Avène Retinal Eyes, $49
This French pharmacy favorite (that you can find here in the States) is formulated with retinaldehyde (a stabilized form of retinol) to reduce the appearance of wrinkles and crow’s feet. Hyaluronic acid fragments plump the skin and encourage microcirculation, and dextran sulfate corrects signs of fatigue caused by aging skin. It’s an excellent choice for those with extremely sensitive and/or dry skin.

Embody Retinol Gummy, $28
Treat fine lines, wrinkles, discoloration, and acne with the first-ever retinol gummy. These tasty strawberry supplements are an easy way to boost and simplify your summer skincare without dryness or increased sun damage. Vitamin A retinyl acetate promotes cell turnover, reduces occasional breakouts, and makes you glow. Results are visible after twelve weeks of daily use.

In a clinical trial, 83% of participants agreed that over time their skin looked brighter, felt more hydrated and less dry, and felt overall healthier.

Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Anti-Wrinkle Retinol Eye Cream, $22.49
As with any skincare product, you have to use it regularly to see results, though some products take longer to get there than others. This popular drugstore retinol eye cream has been proven to show visible results in just one week — even more so over time. Retinol SA and a Glucose Complex (that serves as a booster) work together synergistically to dramatically fade stubborn lines and crow’s feet while improving skin tone and texture. Hyaluronic acid provides deep hydration to the delicate eye area, making it the best drugstore wrinkle cream for the eyes.

Differin Adapalene Gel 0.1% Acne Treatment, $24.15
Retinol isn’t just an excellent ingredient for targeting fine lines and wrinkles. It’s also a terrific acne treatment. It treats breakouts where they start (deep within the pores) to prevent new acne from forming, which eventually restores the skin’s texture and tone. In a clinical study, Differin gel provided up to 87 percent reduction in acne lesions after 12 weeks, which will continue to improve with further use. It’s considered the best drugstore retinol for acne.

RoC Retinol Correxion Sensitive Eye Cream, $28.99
While eye creams formulated with retinol consider that the eye area is sensitive, this one takes things a bit further by catering to those who have sensitive skin in general. It’s dermatologist-recommended because it softens fine lines and wrinkles and reduces dark circles’ appearance sans any irritation. If your skin is ultra-delicate, always do a patch test regardless of how a product is marketed just to be on the safe side.

Related: Retinol for Sensitive Skin

Pixi Overnight Retinol Oil, $24.50
You’ll be lucky if you can get your hands on this popular face oil because it’s constantly sold out. Sweet almond, jasmine flower extract, and jojoba seed oil deeply hydrates the skin while a vitamin A derivative targets fine lines, wrinkles, and discoloration sans irritation.

Honest Beauty Honestly Pure Retinol Serum, $27.99
Reviews suggest that this retinol serum provides better results than prescription products. In as little as one week, it offers visible results (think the reduced look of large pores, brighter skin, improved texture, and tone).

L’Oréal Revitalift Triple Power Anti-Aging Face Day Moisturizer, $19.50
What is the best wrinkle cream on the market, you ask? While there are several, this potent day cream is formulated with three of the top derm-recommended ingredients: Pro-retinol, hyaluronic acid, and Vitamin C. The trio works together synergistically to reduce wrinkles, firm, and brighten in just one week. Skin feels smoother, softer, and more refreshed with regular use. Dermatologist tested, paraben-, mineral-, oil-, and dye-free, this formula is suitable for sensitive skin.

Olay Regenerist Retinol 24 Night Eye Cream, $28.92
This top-rated eye cream penetrates deep into the delicate skin surface around your eyes, providing 24-hour hydration. It visibly firms, brightens, evens skin tone, and reduces the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and dark circles. This formula is fragrance-free and void of dyes. The brand promises results in 28 days with daily use.

Related: Best Retinol Eye Cream

Indeed Labs Retinol Reface Serum, $20
Those with sensitive skin will appreciate that this retinol serum is formulated with encapsulated retinol microspheres and bakuchiol, the first natural retinol alternative. It contains a multi-faceted, anti-aging, retinol-like peptide technology that provides the same benefits as traditional retinol while minimizing skin irritation or discomfort. Despite being a more gentle formula, it’s still effective in improving skin texture, firmness, tone, fine lines, wrinkles, and even acne-prone skin.

Related: Best Retinol Serum

Best Drugstore Retinol: The Bottom Line

Retinol is one of the top skincare ingredients for softening and preventing fine lines and wrinkles, reducing pore size, encouraging collagen production, lessening the appearance of brown spots, increasing cell turnover, improving skin texture, and addressing acne. But when it comes to effectiveness, are prescription products superior to those found at a drugstore?

The main difference is the type of retinoid that is used in these formulations. Retinoids are ingredients that are converted into vitamin A in the body. However, some convert more readily than others. For example, tretinoin, a prescription retinoid, is pure vitamin A, so the rate at which it is converted is high. Others like retinol or retinyl palmitate are not as easily converted in the body, so they will lose some strength along the way.

Anyone can use retinol. It’s more about how and which retinol you use. If you have sensitive skin, you may want to use a low concentration and a low frequency. There can be side effects when using retinol, such as dryness, mild irritation, and sun sensitivity as your skin adjusts to this new active ingredient. Slowly increase the frequency over time because retinol can have a delayed onset time for irritation. It can take about a month to know whether you’re at a reasonable level.

Try a clinical skincare alternative. We recommend Carrot & Stick The Face Oil.

Sources:
Topical Application of Retinyl Palmitate-Loaded Nanotechnology-Based Drug Delivery Systems for the
Treatment of Skin Aging,”US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, March 2014.
Retinoids in the Treatment of Skin Aging: an Overview of Clinical Efficacy and Safety,”

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