What are the Best 7 Retinol Products in 2021?

Retinoids have truly withstood the test of time. Long considered to be a “gold standard” in skincare, retinoids have proven to do everything from fight fine lines and wrinkles to increase skin firmness to help alleviate acne since the 1970’s. Retinoids have certainly earned their keep! It’s an all-in-one that can help to even skin tone, reduce wrinkle depth, and keep the common signs of aging far far away. But, finding the right retinol products can be tricky. For all the amazing benefits retinoids can bring to your skin, they’re notoriously powerful. Like, they can make your skin peel powerful.

Over the years I’ve experimented with retinol as a preventative measure to preserve as much youth in my skin as I can (with a newborn and sleepless nights, that’s saying something). I’ve learned how to recognize when my skin needs a break from retinoids (and then I switch to AHAs), how to start them again, how to slowly work my way up, and when to bring back the hard hitters. Here’s what I’ve learned in my decades researching and trying new retinoid products and seven of my all time favorite retinoid creams on the market.

What is a Retinoid? What is Retinol?

There are many different forms of retinoids

Retinoids are converted into retinoic acid for use in skincare products. Though the terms “retinol” and “retinoid” are often used interchangeably, they’re not quite the same. Retinoids tend to be much stronger and can be prescribed or bought over-the-counter in weaker concentrations. They can be applied topically or consumed via prescription pills like Accutane. 

Retinols, on the other hand, contain a lower concentration of retinoic acid and can be readily purchased in drugstores and online. Stronger isn’t always better, though. At least not at first. Because retinoic acid can be so powerful and irritating, it’s best to work your way up and let your skin become acclimated to the retinol rather than diving in head (or face) first. 

Retinol esters such as retinyl palmitate, retinyl linoleate, retinaldehyde, propionic acid, or retinyl acetate are milder forms of retinoids. These esters need to be converted within the skin which makes them weaker. 

If you want a more powerful and effective product, start slowly with a 0.5% retinol instead.

How Does Retinol Work?

Retinols and retinoids work by penetrating the skin and boosting the production of collagen and elastin, two “anti-aging” proteins that give your skin its springy and firm texture. Retinols also increase the rate of skin cell turnover to help your skin heal and rid itself of dull dead skin cells. Because vitamin A cannot be produced by the body, it needs to be supplied via diet or topical application. 

A 2015 study found that just four weeks of both retinol and retinoic acid topical application increased epidermal thickness and increased collagen levels. After 12 weeks, these treatments produced a significant reduction in facial wrinkles.

Retinol Isn’t Just for After 30

If you’ve been putting off using a retinol cream because you haven’t hit 30 or had wrinkles sneak up on you, you’re seriously missing out. On top of its ability to smooth out wrinkles, it’s also great at reducing acne scars, evening out skin tone, regulating sebum production and pore size, and even treating acne. All that, in one mighty little product. 

Below are my top 7 tried and true retinol creams that are worth the price tag and the time!

  1. Best for Mild to Moderate Fine Lines and Wrinkles: Skinceuticals Retinol 1.0: This 1% retinol is a step up from the beginners 0.5% retinol and it means business! As with most SkinCeuticals products, there is no filler or fluff here, just a highly effective and pure retinol night cream. If you have a complicated skincare routine and are looking for a simple anti-aging product to add to your lineup, the Skinceuticals Retinol 1.0 is for you.
  1. Best for Sunspots and Hyperpigmentation: Gourgues Glow Rock ‘N’ Retinol: Looking for the latest and greatest in skincare? I just hit the jackpot with Gourgues Glow! This versatile “rockin” retinol serum combines retinol with retinyl palmitate and lactic acid for steady skin rejuvenation. It’s formulated by a licensed esthetician and contains soothing ingredients like aloe vera to hydrate and protect the skin all day long.
  1. Best for Moderate to Severe Fine Lines and Wrinkles: Peter Thomas Roth Retinol Fusion PM Night Serum: The Peter Thomas Roth retinol night cream really is worth the hype. Unlike traditional retinol formulas, Peter Thomas Roth uses a “potent solution of time-released Microencapsulated Retinol at 1.5%” to continually work its magic overnight. This is best for people whose skin has been conditioned to retinol and anyone who wants to wake up with a dewy youthful glow.
  1. Best for Sensitive Skin: PCA Skin Intensive Age Refining Treatment: PCA Skin created a wonderful retinol-based product that combines other nourishing and hydrating to minimize irritation. This formula uses a 0.5% retinol with niacinamide, myristoyl nonapeptide-3 (a peptide that mimics the results of retinol), and orange stem cell extract all to improve and strengthen the skin barrier.
  1. Best for Melasma/Uneven Skin Tone: StriVectin Advanced Retinol Day Moisturizer Broad Spectrum SPF 30: This retinol day cream thinks one step ahead and combines broad-spectrum SPF 30 to protect the skin from photoaging and irritation. Like most products in the Strivectin line, the brand’s proprietary NIA-114 formula (an optimized form of Vitamin B3) is added to aid in uneven skin tone, to reduce any irritation and strengthen the skin barrier.
  1. Best for Skincare Junkies: SUNDAY RILEY A+ High-Dose Retinoid Serum. If you’ve “been there, done that” with retinol products and are looking for something that might deliver that extra oomph, SUNDAY RILEY A+ High-Dose Retinol Serum contains retinol and plenty of skin soothers, plus a new(ish) form of retinol, Hydroxypinacolone Retinoate. On the market for about five years, give or take, Hydroxypinacolone Retinoate is actually stronger than retinol, as a 2011 study in Skin Research and Technology determined that 0.060% retinyl retinoate cream decreased depth and area of wrinkles similarly to a 0.075% retinol cream.  
  1. Best on a Budget: Paula’s Choice CLINICAL 1% Retinol Treatment: Unlike retinol from The Ordinary or some of the lesser well-known names on Amazon, this retinol won’t burn your face off, with soothing ingredients like Salix alba white willow bark and allantoin, and it’s just as affordable, at just $11 for the travel size (which should last 2-3 weeks when 2-3 drops are applied three times a week). Definitely a quality consideration for those who are looking to stay on a budget.  

Bottom Line

There’s a reason why retinol has stuck around for so long and based on its years of clinical trials and studies to back it up, I’d say it’s here to stay. Don’t be afraid to add retinol to your routine at any age! If you have sensitive skin, try adding a 0.25% retinol cream right after a gentle cleanser and slowly work your way up. There’s no rush! The above products are some of all-star retinol creams that have graced the top 10 lists of celebrities and derms alike as well as some of my own hidden gems that are worth a try.

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