15 Best Retinol Creams 2023 You Can Buy Without a Prescription for Clearer, Firmer, and Glowing Skin

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Retinol is almost always the answer to pretty much any skin issue — acne, fine lines, dark spots, drooping, dullness, dark circles, enlarged pores — you can think of. The best retinol products can help address all of the above concerns and improve your skin’s appearance with consistent use.

What is retinol?

The transformative ingredient is otherwise known as pure vitamin A. Along with a bunch of other vitamin-A derivatives starting with the letter R, retinol is an example of a retinoid — that’s the catchall term for these A-based formulas, both the over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription (Rx) varieties

As a refresher, retinoic acid is the active form of vitamin A that immediately binds with receptors on our skin cells, causing them to behave in a healthier capacity. This directive can translate to countless improvements, like normalized cell turnover for clear, glowing skin; balanced pigment production for fewer dark spots; revved-up collagen synthesis for smoother skin and tighter pores. 

What is the ideal concentration of retinol to use?

“When it comes to a retinol cream, it’s important to know what percentage of retinol is included in the formula to determine if the product is actually going to deliver all the glorious benefits vitamin A has,” New York-based board-certified dermatologist David Kim, MD, explains. “Studies have shown that retinol is about 10 times less potent than prescription-strength retinoic acid, so I usually recommend products with at least 0.25 percent retinol.” 

How often should I be using retinol?

Especially for first-time users, retinol treatments generally come with an irksome adjustment period. Over-the-counter vitamin-A formulations, like those with retinol and retinaldehyde (often shortened to retinal), tend to be weaker because the skin has to convert them to retinoic acid before they can take full effect. With any retinoid, especially if you have sensitive skin, you have to practice restraint and apply a pea-size drop only one or two nights a week until your skin acclimates. 

Will retinol irritate my skin?

New York City-based board-certified dermatologist Hadley King, MD, reminds us that some degree of irritation — like dryness, peeling, redness, and burning — is normal and should subside by the fourth week. You can also buffer your retinoids with a squirt of anti-inflammatory serum or lotion — think formulas spiked with niacinamide, polyphenols, lipids, and ceramides. These are doctors’ orders — well-established ones — that we’ve long practiced and preached.

Even still, this hasn’t completely spared many of us from going through quite a few retinoid rough patches or falling for common retinol myths. (News flash: they don’t increase your risk for developing sunburns, but you should obviously still wear SPF regardless to avoid sun damage.) Landing on a retinol that your skin won’t reject takes patience and knowledge, but most of the latter’s credit goes to the cosmetic chemists who’ve dreamed up innovative ways to deliver all the magic of this molecule without the cursed side effects. 

In our extensive search for non-irritating retinols, we’ve discovered plenty of standouts that are at once ultra-effective yet gentle enough for the retinoid-intolerant. What makes these non-Rx gems so transformative is that they all contain either pure retinol or a next-generation derivative shown to turn on those same aforementioned receptors to spark visible change.

What kind of skin-care products include retinol?

Before we explore their individual merits, heed this brief buyer-beware: There are a ton of serums and oils on the market masquerading as retinols. You won’t find retinol (or any recognizable derivative) on their ingredient lists since as they rely on plant extracts, like rosehip oil, as alternate sources of vitamin A. 

“There is no evidence that natural sources of retinoids are safer than synthetic, and often their effectiveness is highly suspect,” according to cosmetic chemist Kelly Dobos. For instance, she says that rosehip oil contains only about 0.4 parts per million (0.00004 percent) of retinoic acid, which is further diluted in the final product.

To help you sort the amazing products from their suspicious or just-average counterparts, keep scrolling for our favorite, dermatologist-approved retinol creams.

Drunk Elephant A-Passioni Retinol Cream

Eau Thermale Avène RetrinAL 0.1 Intensive Cream

Dr. Kim recommends Drunk Elephant’s A-Passioni Retinol Cream, which contains 1 percent retinol encased in nourishing oils like passionfruit, apricot, jojoba, and marula. It also happens to a Best of Beauty Award winner, in case that sways you. However, “it’s important to note that 1 percent retinol is a relatively high concentration and could be irritating to people with sensitive skin, especially patients with eczema or rosacea,” Dr. Kim cautions. 

As we talked about earlier, the ideal frequency is different for everyone, so start slow and small (a pea-sized amount) in terms of dosage and build up over the course of a few weeks. “I typically recommend patients apply a moisturizer on top to alleviate any potential dryness,” Dr. Kim adds.

Instead of retinol, Eau Thermale Avène’s RetrinAL 0.1 Intensive Cream is formulated with its sibling, retinaldehyde, and the brand’s Thermal Spring Water, which soothes and calms the skin in the event of irritation. The brightening cream smooths and evens skin, leading to a more radiant glow. The brand recommends that users apply this product at nighttime and incorporate sunscreen into their daily routines. Mamina Turegano, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in New Orleans, Louisiana, deems this as a “good starter retinol for those with very sensitive and dry skin.”

Obagi Medical Retivance Skin Rejuvenating Complex

Kate Somerville +Retinol Vitamin C Moisturizer

Dr. Turegano bills Obagi Medical’s Retivance Skin Rejuvenating Complex as a “gentle yet effective retinol.” Why you ask? This lightweight moisture stars retinaldehyde, a stable and less potent form of vitamin A that is better suited for more sensitive skin but still packs a punch in terms of improving elasticity and curbing the appearance of wrinkles. Furthermore, ingredients such as chamomile, shea butter, and vitamin E act as calming agents.

Kate Somerville is well aware that retinol and vitamin C are rare bedfellows, so she has brought the two beloved and effective ingredients together in a formula that involves encapsulating the L-ascorbic acid in volcanic soil to ensure stability and cooperation

This night cream, aptly called +Retinol Vitamin C Moisturizer, also boosts hydration via hyaluronic acid and antioxidant protection via wild gooseberry extract, which has the extra benefit of soothing any irritation the aforementioned star ingredients may cause. 

La Roche-Posay Redermic R Retinol Cream

SkinCeuticals Tripeptide-R Neck Repair

In as short as a month, La Roche-Posay Redermic R Retinol Cream — a winner of Allure‘s Best of Beauty Awards — can noticeably diminish wrinkles and soften skin. This particular cream’s smoothing benefits come from a combination of pure retinol and lipo hydroxy acid. The thick white cream melts like butter to completely reform the skin’s look and feel. It’s also gentle enough to not cause major irritation to sensitive skin. Even so, treat it as you would any new retinol — start off gradually before increasing frequency in use. 

SkinCeuticals Tripeptide-R Neck Repair‘s 0.2 percent pure, slow-release retinol (to boost cell turnover), 2.5 percent tripeptide concentrate, and 5 percent glaucine (derived from yellow poppy seed) complex is specifically designed to treat signs of aging in the neck. That includes smoothing out the appearance of neck lines, firming delicate neck skin, and reducing crepiness. Massage one to two pumps every other night in an upwards motion (up to the jawline) and steadily increase usage if/when your skin can tolerate it.

P.S. This isn’t the only SkinCeuticals retinol product worth noting — the brand also offers face creams with concentrations of 0.1, 0.3, and 0.5 percent.

Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Retinol Pro+ 0.3% Night Cream

Olay Regenerist Retinol 24 Night Moisturizer

Effective retinol treatments don’t necessarily equate to high price points. Case in point? Dr. Turegano recommends Neutrogena’s Rapid Wrinkle Repair Pro + 0.3% Night Cream as a relatively affordable option that is a “very gentle yet fast-acting product for anyone who is a beginner to retinol.” While this 0.3 percent concentration of pure retinol is the drugstore brand’s highest offering yet, all skin types should be able to handle this cream, as it’s cushioned with glycerin and hyaluronic acid to support softer, smoother skin.

The beauty of some over-the-counter retinol formulas is the drugstore prices. Ringing in at less than $40, Olay Regenerist Retinol 24 Night Moisturizer promises that its retinol (yes, actual retinol) quickly promotes smoother, brighter skin, and it gets additional hydrating and firming support from niacinamide (a.k.a. vitamin B3) and a line-reducing peptide. This fragrance-free nighttime formula is an ideal starter retinol, both for your retinoid-virgin skin and budget.

IT Cosmetics Hello Results Wrinkle-Reducing Daily Retinol Serum-in-Cream

Pond’s Rejuveness Advanced Hydrating Night Cream

Apart from retinol, of course, IT Cosmetics’s Hello Results Wrinkle-Reducing Daily Retinol Serum-in-Cream is notable for also featuring “niacinamide, vitamin E, and panthenol to moisturize and soothe [the skin],” Dr. Turegano notes. If you have ultra-sensitive skin and crave extra assurance, you can always pair this treatment with another moisturizer that goes heavy on ceramides and hyaluronic acid.

Another recommendation Dr. King gives us is Pond‘s Rejuveness Advanced Hydrating Night Cream, which she says is packed with the brand’s potent vitamin B3 and retinol complex, as well as “glycerin and pro-ceramides to hydrate and support the skin barrier,” she adds. 

It’s the ideal last step to your nighttime skin-care routine to really seal in the good stuff — a.k.a., moisturizing, firming, and rejuvenating ingredients. For similar reasons, Dr. King is also a fan of the Rejuveness Skin Tightening Serum.

CeraVe Skin Renewing Day Cream with Sunscreen

Murad Retinol Youth Renewal Night Cream

We always appreciate a skin-care product that incorporates UV protection, which is just one of the reasons why CeraVe’s Skin Renewing Day Cream with Sunscreen has earned our stamp of approval. Formulated with SPF 30, this moisturizer features encapsulated retinol for time-released goodness as to prevent irritation. Like the rest of CeraVe’s dependable lineup, it also features three ceramides as well as good ‘ol hyaluronic acid to restore the barrier and seal in moisture.

Ideal for thirstier skin types, this rich, lightly-scented Murad Retinol Youth Renewal Night Cream hydrates with shea butter, squalane, and a pack of fatty alcohols. Suspended in the mix are retinol and the vitamin-A derivative retinyl propionate. “This form is less efficacious than retinol,” says Wilson. “But by pairing the two, you get the almost-instant hit of the retinol along with the longer-term action of the retinyl propionate,” she explains, adding that this particular combo should reduce irritation and dryness.

Dr. Dennis Gross Advanced Retinol + Ferulic Intense Wrinkle Cream

Fig.1 Retinol Night Cream

You might’ve heard of the stabilizing powers of ferulic acid when paired with vitamin C, but did you know that it’s also a mightily useful partner to retinol? Let us explain. In Dr. Dennis Gross’s Advanced Retinol + Ferulic Intense Wrinkle Cream, you’ll find an age-defying concoction of retinol, bakuchiol (a popular, plant-based retinol alternative), rambutan, and ferulic acid that amps up your skin’s collagen production to visibly smooth fine lines, treat dryness and roughness, and restore elasticity. Now that’s the power of antioxidants (such as ferulic acid) at work.

Fig.1’s Retinol Night Cream is ideal for beginners because it only contains a retinol level of 0.15 percent, making it super gentle (but effective) for those who are just starting out. Just apply a thin layer to your freshly-cleansed skin every other night and you’ll start seeing results before you know it. And if you’re ready to level up, Fig.1 also offers No. 2 (0.3 percent retinol) and No. 3 (0.6 percent retinol) for $52 and $62, respectively.

SkinBetter Science AlphaRet Overnight Cream

Sobel Skin Rx 4.5% Retinol Night Treatment

SkinBetter Science AlphaRet Overnight Cream is a Best of Beauty Award winner that has served as a gateway retinoid for more people than we can count. The innovative brand invented its own molecule by combining retinoid vitamin A with lactic acid, a moisturizing form of exfoliating alpha hydroxy acid (or AHA). Using double-conjugated bonds to create the molecule AlphaRet, SkinBetter Science was able to create a gradual release of both the retinoid and the lactic acid into the skin, helping to counter irritation. 

“Because it takes time for the body to break down [this hybrid molecule], the skin doesn’t feel the actives as much,” says cosmetic chemist Ni’Kita Wilson. (Built-in soothers, like ceramides, squalane, and bisabolol, help keep the peace.) What’s more: by dissolving dull surface cells, the lactic acid begins brightening skin after only a night or two, so “you get both the instant boost of exfoliation plus the long-term repair from the retinoic acid,” Wilson explains. Dr. Turegano also gives this product a thumb’s up, noting that it’s “been shown to have comparable results to tretinoin 0.025% prescription cream.” 

If 4.5 percent sounds like a higher retinol concentration than your typical OTC retinol formula, your suspicions are right: Two percent is the usual maximum. Developed by a dermatologist, Sobel Skin Rx 4.5% Retinol Night Treatment offsets the extra retinol — and the potential irritation it can cause — with soothing ingredients like aloe vera, chamomile, and macadamia seed oil to help fortify your skin’s barrier. And while the retinol gets to work on fine lines, it gets a helping hand from similarly smoothing peptides

Want to know a fascinating fact about this antioxidant-enriched Verso Night Cream? Its fan base comprises folks of all skin types — oily, prickly, dry, pimple-prone, young, not-so-young — you name it. While its star ingredient, retinyl retinoate, is less fierce than retinol, one study found it to be more effective at stimulating hyaluronan production than both retinol and retinoic acid. 

“Hyaluronan helps retain water in our cells and is involved in cell division and migration,” says Wilson. Ramping up your supply can not only abet vitamin A’s brightening actions but also increase skin’s tolerance and offset any desiccating side effects.

For more of our favorite, hard-working skin-care products, keep reading:

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