When it comes to anti-aging skin care, retinol is likely one of the buzzy ingredients that come to mind — and rightfully so. Dermatologists often call it a "gold standard" skin care ingredient, known for its wrinkle-minimizing and complexion-brightening effects.
Retinol comes in many forms, but retinol creams can be an easy way to introduce the ingredient to your skin care routine and reap the benefits. If you have hesitations, don't worry: We tapped board-certified dermatologists Dr. Angela Lamb, Dr. Mary Lupo and Dr. Lian Mack to give you the run down on retinol creams and share the top products they recommend for a glowing complexion.
What is retinol?
Retinol is a type of retinoid that's available over the counter. Retinoids are molecular compounds derived from vitamin A, an ingredient you may have heard of when it comes to anti-aging skin care.
Mack says that retinol creams can help increase the collagen and elastin in your skin, even out the texture of your skin by promoting cell turnover, reduce the appearance of pores, and decrease sebum or oil production.
But, Lupo warns, the ingredient can be drying and irritating for some.
How do I use retinol creams?
Mack suggests starting with a low concentration, around 0.05%.
She recommends an evening application because retinol is deactivated by sunlight and can increase your risk of photosensitivity or a sunburn. Lupo echoes her advice, adding a daily sunscreen with SPF 40+ if you're applying retinol creams in the daytime.
As is the case with most skin care ingredients, try to exercise some patience before you appraise results. It can take up to 90 days to see a "glow" or change in the texture and tone of your skin, but you may be able to see some of these changes in your complexion in as little as two weeks, Lamb tells us.
Best retinol creams, according to experts
Size: 7 oz. | % of retinol: Not listed (non-irritating) | Other key ingredients: Niacinamide, vitamin E, shea butter | Can be used for: Face and body
If you’ve been waiting for a retinol lotion that works for both your face and body, and that both moisturizes and exfoliates, look no further than Gold Bond’s new Age Renew retinol lotion. It’s said to do all that overnight — and at 7 ounces and for under $15, it’s a great value. One initially skeptical Shop TODAY editor, who still uses it, says, “After using it for only a week, my skin already was softer, and even my stretch marks look faded. The texture also feels so good and doesn’t go on greasy.”
The key to those results, while still being gentle enough to use overnight, according to Mack, is the lotion’s formulation: “It contains a stabilized form of retinol that minimizes the risk of dryness and irritation, making it suitable for nightly use to both the face and the body,” she says, adding that it’s also super hydrating due to its seven different moisturizers.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Mack is Gold Bond’s dermatologist partner. While she uses this lotion personally in her nighttime routine, this pick was chosen independently, based on our our editor’s months-long real-world testing and online shopper reviews.
Size: 1.7 oz. | % of retinol: Not listed (pro-retinol) | Other key ingredients: Centella asiatica | Can be used for: Face and neck
L’Oreal is another brand Lupo recommends reaching for when it comes to retinol creams. According to the brand, this anti-wrinkle face cream is suitable for all skin types. While the exact concentration of retinol in the formula is not listed, the brand says it is made with pro-retinol, “a stable derivative of retinol that is able to be stored in the epidermis and suitable for sensitive skin.”
Size: 1.7 oz. | % of retinol: Not listed (0.1-1) | Other key ingredients: Hyaluronic acid | Can be used for: Face
Both Lamb and Lupo recommend this retinol cream from RoC, which uses time-released technology so your skin can get the benefits of retinol continuously for up to 12 hours — without irritating it. The cream also contains hyaluronic acid, making for a formulation that the brand says helps hydrate your skin for up to 48 hours.
While the exact concentration of retinol is not listed, the brand recommends you start by using it every other night and then gradually increasing your usage until your skin adjusts.
Size: 1.7 oz. | % of retinol: Not listed | Other key ingredients: Hyaluronic acid | Can be used for: Face and neck
Lupo also recommends this anti-aging face cream from Neutrogena for anyone looking to try a retinol cream. It is formulated with retinol and hyaluronic acid, which helps to hydrate and plump the skin. The brand says it can be applied twice daily to the face and neck, but Lupo recommends applying every other evening, up to four times per week.
Size: 1.7 oz. | % of retinol: Not listed (about 0.3) | Other key ingredients: Vitamin B3, peptides | Can be used for: Face and neck
Lupo recommends looking at Olay for a retinol night cream. This fragrance-free moisturizer is made with a blend of vitamin B3 and retinol, which the brand says helps hydrate the skin for up to 24 hours.
One Ultra reviewer reported, "I was searching for a product that would help diminish the lines on my chest from sun damage. I was blown away by this product. Within two weeks my chest looks so much better. ... It's also helping the cells turnover faster on my skin. Love it! Will definitely buy again.
Size: 1 oz. | % of retinol: 1.0 | Other key ingredients: Bisabolol | Can be used for: Face
Lamb recommends this night cream from SkinCeuticals, which has 1% retinol. Since it has such a high concentration, the brand says it is formulated for skin that has already been preconditioned with retinol 0.5%. The brand also recommends you start by using it once or twice a week, then gradually increase the frequency to every other night, then every night, as can be tolerated.
Highly rated retinol creams
Size: 6 oz. | % of retinol: 0.1 | Other key ingredients: Squalane, cocoa butter, vitamin E | Can be used for: Body
Like Stratia’s face cream, this one is gentle enough to use nightly, thanks to soothing, moisturizing players like squalane, vitamin E and cocoa butter. But even while feels luxuriously creamy on the skin, it doesn’t feel oily, which is a plus.
Having tested it ourselves after several months, shortly after Gold Bond’s Age Renew (the other body cream on this list), this one has a comparatively milder scent and feels more milky on the skin. The minimal percentage of the ingredient retinol is just right for those new to it, too.
Size: 1.7 oz. | % of retinol: Not listed | Other key ingredients: Niacinamide, bakuchiol | Can be used for: Face and neck
If you’ve got sensitive skin that’s prone to dullness, Cetaphil’s bakuchiol-based cream can help gently brighten and even out its texture. The retinol-alternative in the “soufflé-like” cream is paired with what Cetaphil calls its Gentle Bright Complex, which contains 2% niacinamide and other antioxidants to help with hydration and hyperpigmentation, the brand says.
Size: 3.4 oz. | % of retinol: Not listed | Key ingredients: Green tea extract; vitamins C and E | Can be used for: Hands
This retinol hand cream aims to act as sunscreen, hand cream and retinol product in one: It helps prevent sun damage, moisturize and condition your hands and nails, as well as minimize lines and wrinkles. This is thanks to its combination of retinol, vitamins A, C and E, and green tea extract. One reviewer gave it five stars, saying that it goes on non-greasy and that, after a week of use, “I noticed that the sun spots on my hands had faded dramatically.”
Size: 4 oz. | % of retinol: 0.1 | Other key ingredients: Glycerin, shea butter, vitamin C | Can be used for: Body
Got dry, uneven or acne-prone skin? This cream from Paula’s Choice is said to help with all three; its 0.1% retinol works with shea butter and antioxidants in its formulation. You can use it either for spot treatments or all over.
Customers like that it smooths, hydrates and evens skin texture, in addition to its acne-fighting benefits. One happy customer who purchased this to help fade scars raves, “I didn’t expect that this would also totally clear up my back of acne!”
Size: 1.7 oz. | % of retinol: 0.15 | Key ingredients: Deramides, squalane, vitamin B5, Cica | Can be used for: Face
Having tried this ourselves, we can attest that it’s good for skin new to retinol and for various skin types. In fact, unlike other retinol creams, this one’s designed to be used every single night. It’s creamy but non-sticky, and even feels soothing.
Even though it has a midrange retinol concentration of 0.15%, because it’s encapsulated, the release of the ingredient is controlled so that sensitive skin gets a milder percentage, and at the right time.
We like this for virgin skin because of its complementary soothing ingredients like hydrating squalane, calming Cica and barrier-strengthening ceramides.
Size: 0.5 oz. | % of retinol: Not listed (pure) | Other key ingredients: N/A | Can be used for: Around the eyes
This “line-smoothing” retinol eye cream by RoC targets some of the top signs of aging, says the brand: wrinkles, dark circles and puffiness under the eyes. Pure retinol and RoC’s proprietary mineral complex work together to visibly reduce under-eye puffiness and circles in four weeks, and lines and wrinkles in 12 weeks, according to RoC’s clinical studies.
Size: 1.7 oz. | % of retinol: Not listed | Other key ingredients: Glycerin, peptides, ceramides | Can be used for: Face and neck
This night cream uses an encapsulated form of pure retinol (though the percentage isn’t listed) to keep it working on your skin cells overnight. Alongside the star ingredient, ceramides and glycerin work to hydrate your skin, while peptides help with plumping and fighting wrinkles.
One Ulta reviewer reported, “Highly recommend this to anyone who’s tried retinol in the past, but thought it was either too harsh or too drying. [This] is the only retinol night cream I’ve ever used that did not dry my face out! It instead hydrated and plumped it up, giving me a virtual facelift from smiling!”
Size: 1.7 oz. | % of retinol: Not listed | Other key ingredients: Niacinamide, retinyl, peptides | Can be used for: Face, neck and chest
Murad claims that this retinol night cream targets “signs of aging you can see (and the ones you can’t).” How? According to the brand, its retinol “tri-active” technology combined with niacinamide and peptides work to minimize wrinkles and fine lines, protect the skin’s protective barrier, and firm up the skin’s appearance. Plus, a bonus, from one reviewer: “Totally controls my adult acne in T-zone.”
Retinol alternative creams
Lamb recommends retinol to “almost everyone,” but if you aren’t able to use it and still want those anti-aging effects, you can try the plant-based alternative, bakuchiol, something both Lamb and Mack recommend. In fact, Mack prefers this ingredient for her pregnant or breastfeeding clients, due to their sensitive skin and the potential harmful effects above.
Size: 1.7 oz. | % of bakuchiol: 1 | Other key ingredients: Squalane, wild indigo extract, beta-glucan (from oats) | Can be used for: Face and neck
This highly rated sleep mask is formulated with bakuchiol at 1%, as well as other skin-loving ingredients such as squalane and wild indigo extract. The brand recommends applying it as the last step in your nightly skin care routine up to four times per week, and then following it with a moisturizer, if you need.
Size: 1.7 oz. | % of bakuchiol: Not listed | Other key ingredients: AHAs, licorice root and chamomile extracts, firming extracts | Can be used for: Face and neck
This multitasking retinol cream is made with bakuchiol and exfoliating AHAs, which helps it even skin tone and target fine lines and wrinkles, according to the brand. One Sephora reviewer who’s been using this cream for a “few years” now said, “This cream has a nice, thick consistency that nourishes my face overnight. I cannot do without it. It’s changed my skin a lot. My face isn’t dry, my makeup looks cleaner, and my wrinkles aren’t as noticeable.”
Questions about retinol creams, answered by experts
How we chose the best retinol creams
Shop TODAY enlisted the help of trusty skin care experts who shared their recommendations on products that work based on their experience. We also took their advice on which key ingredients to look for in retinol creams and researched other products that fit the bill. We also included positive reviews from customers who have used them. In addition, we tested some of these products for ourselves for a first-person perspective on its effects.
Meet our experts
- Dr. Angela J. Lamb, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist based in New York City. She's currently the Vice Chair of Clinical Operations at Mount Sinai Dermatology.
- Dr. Lian Mack, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist and fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology. She is particularly focused on skin conditions as it pertains to skins of color. Mack is also Gold Bond's dermatologist partner and is based in New York City.
- Dr. Mary P. Lupo, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist and clinical professor of dermatology at Tulane University School of Medicine. She practices in New Orleans, Louisiana.