Whenever somebody asks me what they can best do to prevent or reverse signs of aging, I give them one word: Retinol. Well, I also tell them to stop binge drinking, or to get more sleep, or to wear SPF every day. But they want the magic eraser instead. And fortunately, it more or less exists in retinol.
Retinol is a vitamin A derivative that boosts collagen production in your skin, reduces the appearance of pores, prevents breakouts, improves circulation and nutrient delivery (resulting in healthier, stronger, brighter cells). It’s quite likely your dermatologist’s favorite ingredient, and can even come prescribed as tretinoin if you want a high-end, heavy-duty fix for your skin.
But retinol is a tricky topic, too. See, we use the word ‘retinol’ to describe what is actually a range of retinoids, and of those retinoids, only one of them is technically ‘retinol’. And retinol-retinal is on the stronger end of the retinoid spectrum (just shy of prescription-strength tretinoin). It’s like how we use the word ‘pomade’ to describe all hair products, but there is still one product that is technically just ‘pomade’. I digress...
Retinol comes with a host of warnings. Primarily, it can increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun, so it’s recommended that you double down on SPF after use (and of course, only use retinol before bed, then wash it clean in the morning; doing this also ensures that the product syncs up with your body’s regenerative cycle, so you’ll maximize retinol’s benefits, too). You should speak with your board-certified dermatologist if this is your first time at the rodeo, to get his or her advice on how to approach and monitor use. And remember, you’re playing a long game: The stronger your product, the harder it can work (though stronger may not be better for everyone); even then, all retinol products need to be used for about 90 days before you see those firming-affirmative results, and you need to use them in perpetuity to maintain results.
Whew. And that’s only the gist of it. So without further delay, here are the best retinol creams, serums, oils, and even one alternative (for those too sensitive to retinoids).
Best Overall Retinol Cream: Sunday Riley A+ High-Dose Retinoid Serum
By blending 1% retinol and 5% retinoid esters (along with antioxidant-rich blue algae), Sunday Riley’s retinol serum is a cornerstone of a great “skin fitness” regimen. Use it two days on, two days off, to give skin cells the proper time to turnover and shine brightly between doses. The gentle serum utilizes botanical extracts too (like ginger and cactus), to calm, soothe, and nurture the skin while it takes a very polite, but necessary smackdown from the retinol as you sleep.
Best Upgrade Retinol Cream: 111Skin Celestial Black Diamond Retinol Oil
Aptly named ‘Celestial’, this oil contains 1% pure retinol and is a workhorse when it comes to cellular turnover. Apply a couple drops before bed, every 2-3 nights to start, and as the final step in your bedtime regimen. (It will absorb into the skin momentarily; don’t be put off by the fact that it’s oil-based.) And yes, it really does contain diamond power, since your face is going to shine like one when all is said and done. (Though, don’t forget, retinol is never done! You’ve got to maintain the routine to maintain the results.)
Best Affordable Retinol Cream: RoC Retinol Correxion Deep Wrinkle Night Cream
This is always the entry-level product I tell people to get if they’re retinol curious and want to see what difference a few months of use can make. Now, imagine what a prescription or higher concentration can do for you if used correctly and safely. But still, RoC is so effective because it’s using retinol-retinol in its formula. (In short, this product has a lower concentration of a higher strength retinoid, and finds its efficacy therein.)
Paula’s Choice 1% Retinol Treatment
This serum feels like the closest OTC replication of a prescription retinol, in that it’s a highly concentrated formula (1% pure retinol), that can be applied beneath or mixed in with your night cream application (only mix one pump with your cream’s nightly quantity). Think of it as a retinol booster for your favorite cream (if you aren’t willing to swap out that favorite), and as a skin-brightening and -firming solution thanks to the inclusion of Vitamin C and peptides.
Drunk Elephant A-Passioni Retinol Cream
Drunk Elephant is easily the brand my beauty and grooming circles buzz about most, particularly when it comes to this category. We’re all drunk on their retinol cream, a 1% retinol recipe that combines skin-plumping Vitamin F, complexion miracle worker niacinamide, like a billion nourishing oils and extracts (jojoba, olive, apricot kernel...), plus skin tightening peptides.
VERSO Super Eye Serum with Retinol 8
It’s smart to use a gentler retinol formula around the eyes, given the sensitivity of the region. But you still want a product that works hard to reduce fine lines and mask dark circles, given how prone the eye area is to these things. Enter VERO’s eye serum, which utilizes retinoids along with squalane for a severely powerful firming, toning, softening finish. I like using this one at bedtime, and a caffeine-packed, refrigerated eye cream/serum by day.
Herbivore Botanicals Bakuchiol Retinol-Alternative Serum
If you find that your skin is too sensitive to retinoids, or if you simply prefer an all-natural approach to anti-aging, then try bakuchiol. Pronounced like ‘buh-KOO-chiel’, and is derived from the babchi plant (whose herbs are used in traditional Chinese and Indian medicine). It has similar complexion clearing, skin-firming benefits as retinol, minus any of the side effects. I especially love Herbivore’s bakuchiol jelly serum, which also utilizes polyhydroxy acids to exfoliate dead skin cells while it promotes turnover of new ones.