If you’re ready to find the best retinol cream for your skin, rest assured the search will be worth it: This science-backed ingredient has earned its hype. Dermatologists agree that retinol is versatile and effective, as long as you keep your complexion’s needs in mind. Below, we’ll dive into the basics and share experts’ tips for buying—and using—retinol creams, serums, and gels.
First, how do retinoids work?
Retinoids are vitamin A derivatives that commonly appear in prescription-strength topicals like Retin-A (tretinoin), Linda C. Chung Honet, MD, FAAD, the founder of Honet Dermatology and Cosmetic in Michigan, tells SELF. Retinoids are known for their near-panacean ability to reduce the appearance of fine lines, brighten your complexion, and improve the health of your skin overall. This is largely because they expedite skin-cell turnover. This process clears out dull dead cells faster, strengthens the skin’s barrier, and boosts collagen production (and you need collagen to maintain your skin’s structure and elasticity, which helps give it a firmer, bouncy look).
Retinol is a type of retinoid that you can find in over-the-counter skin care products, and it tends to be weaker than the prescription-strength options, Dr. Honet adds. That doesn’t mean OTC retinol products aren’t effective—they may just take a bit longer to produce the results you’re looking for. Since drugstore retinols contain a range of concentrations, formulas with lower potency will need more time to take effect, Elizabeth Bahar Houshmand, MD, the founder of Houshmand Dermatology in Dallas, tells SELF.
What are the potential benefits of retinol?
The dermatologists SELF spoke with recommend retinol with surprisingly few caveats. With a consistent skin care routine (and a bit of patience), Dr. Honet says people of all skin types can benefit from using retinol.
Jerome Potozkin, MD, a board-certified cosmetic dermatologist and the founder of PotozkinMD Skincare & Laser Center in Danville, California, thinks of it this way: Retinol may be appealing to anyone embarking on a “skin rejuvenation journey,” in which they’re hoping to reduce dark spots and hyperpigmentation, clear up breakouts, smooth fine lines, or improve the visible signs of sun damage. In other words, whether you want to even out your complexion, calm your acne, or just find a skin care product that will provide reliable exfoliation, incorporating a retinol product into your routine is a solid place to start, he tells SELF.
You should always wear sunscreen in general, but it’s especially important to remember the day after you used retinol, as it may lead to irritating side effects including redness, dryness, itchiness, peeling or flaking, and increased photosensitivity—meaning your skin may already be vulnerable, so you’ll want to protect it from the sun’s harmful UV rays as much as you can.
There are ways to build your tolerance to potent products, including those that contain retinol, but this also means that your skin will probably need an adjustment period before you see optimal results. You should notice fewer side effects over time, as long as you continue to use retinol consistently.
How to find the best retinol product for you
Dry or sensitive skin