Ah, retinol. When it comes to defense against fine lines and maintaining a healthy glow, there’s no ingredient in skincare more lauded. The irony? Even though the revolutionary youth-enhancing active is a mainstay of drugstores, department store counters, and dermatologist offices alike, it still manages to mystify. And thus, it’s often underutilized or misused.
What is retinol?
To bring it back to the basics, retinol—alongside other retinoids, such as retinoic acid and retinyl palmitate—is essentially a derivative of vitamin A, which is one of the body’s key nutrients for boosting cell turnover. “It’s added to topical skincare products to promote skin renewal, brighten skin tone, reduce acne, and boost the collagen production,” explains New York City dermatologist Whitney Bowe, MD. “It also functions like an antioxidant to help address free radical damage, which leads to visible signs of aging.” The way dermatologist Francesca Fusco, MD, sees it, it’s the ingredient that does it all in dermatology, both cosmetically and medically. “I consider it a gold standard in skincare and often explain it to my patients as something that sweeps away dead skin cells, clogged pores, and dull skin,” she explains.
Here, experts break down how to carefully incorporate the powerhouse ingredient into your regimen to achieve a supernaturally fresh-faced complexion, now and for decades to come.
Begin in Your Mid 20s or Early 30s
Thirty has long been the banner year for introducing retinol into one’s routine, but many women are starting before then, motivated by early signs of aging, such as sun spots or crows feet, or simply eager to get a head start and utilize the latest technologies—under the careful watch of their dermatologist. “Your mid-twenties are a great time to start using retinol,” says Ellen Marmur, M.D. “Many patients who have used it for years swear by it.”
Integrate Retinol Slowly and Gently
“Balance is critical,” cautions Bowe. “Retinol can be very irritating if used too frequently or if the formulation is too strong for your skin.” She recommends starting off with a pea-sized amount of a low percentage over-the-counter formula (.01% to 0.03%), and using it “two times per week, slowly increasing the usage to give the skin a chance to acclimate.” Moreover, you should skip your retinol product on the day before you exfoliate (Bowe recommends exfoliating two to three times per week). “Exfoliating is abrasive and irritating, and you do not want to compound the skin irritation by heightening your skin’s sensitivity,” she says, adding that if you’re getting certain in-office treatments like lasers, microneedling, microdermabrasion, you will want to take a break from your retinol. In the spirit of not overdoing it, there’s a spate of new time-release formulas fit for skin types prone to redness or breakouts. “They’re a good option for people who have sensitive skin,” explains Fusco. “It releases the active ingredient over time and may offer less irritation.” In terms of prescription retinol versus something over the counter, the former is much more potent with a higher percentage of retinol and one may graduate to it over time, says Bowe.
Watch Out for Harsh Side Effects
While certain side effects, such as mild irritation, dryness, and sun sensitivity are normal as your skin adjusts to the active ingredient, intense flaking, redness, and burning are not—and those with especially sensitive skin, or who struggle with conditions like rosacea or eczema, should be wary of retinol or shy away from it all together. “If you cannot tolerate retinol, don’t worry,” says Marmur. “It’s not the only anti-ager! There are plenty of amazing anti-aging ingredients, such as wild indigo, that work beautifully without any irritation or sun sensitivity.”
Use Retinol Only at Night and Wear SPF Every Day
“Retinol makes your skin more sensitive to UV rays and sunlight decreases the efficacy of the product,” explains Bowe, who instructs patients to only use retinoids at night and be diligent about applying a daily broad-spectrum SPF 30 or higher during the day. Moreover, with retinol use, one should always be conscious of the weather forecast and trips to hot locales. “It should not be used during seasons or vacations when individuals will be spending extended time in direct sunlight,” warns Fusco.
Don’t Stop at Your Face
When applying a retinol-infused elixir, don’t neglect your neck or décolletage, which are areas notorious for showing the signs of aging, yet often overlooked. “If those zones seem too sensitive for your current formula, add a squirt of ceramide-enriched moisturizer before smoothing it on, or pick up a separate retinoid made specifically for the area in question,” says Bowe. “They typically contain a lower dose of vitamin A, zero fragrance, and loads of soothers.”
No matter how much beauty ads promise, there really is no such thing as a magical cure-all that’ll make you look like a woman who always drinks enough water and clocks eight hours of sleep each night. Even if you are that woman (secrets, please?), dark circles can still be hereditary.
However, there really is some truth to the best eye creams. No, they won’t entirely get rid of that puffiness and blueish tinge or erase wrinkles overnight, but there are a handful of options with ingredients that actually do tighten, brighten, and generally make your need for concealer a little less. Since the skin under our eyes is more delicate, targeted formulations with active ingredients like retinol (or bakuchiol), vitamin C, and caffeine can pack more pick-me-up power than your average face cream or serum.
Best Overall: Tata Harper Boosted Contouring Eye Balm
It’s not just that Tata is the queen of formulating with the cleanest ingredients—it’s that she pushes the envelope so we can have clean ingredients and clinically proven skin rejuvenation in one little bottle. This eye cream is gentle on my reactive skin and highly effective in softening lines and hydrating that thin, delicate, and previously crepey skin around my eyes. —Katey Denno, celebrity makeup artist and Glamour Beauty Awards judge
Best Luxury: La Prairie Platinum Rare Cellular Eye Cream
I made it all through my 20s without undereye issues, but I swear the second I turned 30, the effects of a late-night Netflix binge (or God forbid, a night out) started to manifest on my face. And that’s when I decided it was time to call in the big guns. La Prairie’s Platinum Rare Cellular Eye Cream gets its muscle from a potent blend of peptides and hydrators to brighten, smooth, and tighten your skin. It’s basically Spanx for your eyes. —Lindsay Schallon, senior beauty editor
For someone who spends way too much time up late in front of a computer screen, this serum is like the equivalent of a cup of coffee for my eyes. It’s formulated with caffeine and green tea to jolt awake their appearance and minimize the look of dark circles and puffiness. Best $7 I ever spent. —Aimee Sy, contributor
Best for Puffiness: Sisley Paris Black Rose Eye Contour Fluid
After a few rotations around my eye socket with this mysteriously cold ceramic applicator, I was hooked. Like all of the products in the Black Rose Collection, this formula smells (no essential oils, just May Rose water) and feels amazing. Best of all, it depuffs, hydrates, and brightens and instantly makes me look more rested. —Robin Black, makeup artist and Glamour Beauty Awards judge
Best for Tired Eyes: Estée Lauder Advanced Night Repair Eye Supercharged Complex
Since I’m still in my 20s, I usually just need moisture under my eyes, but when I need something more (like when I’m hungover) this is what I reach for. I love the classic Night Repair serum, and this eye treatment is just as effective. It has a cooling gel texture, and it instantly makes me look more awake, less puffy, and as if I could be the kind of girl who meditates and drinks green juice every day. I’ve even noticed that if I use this one consistently, my dark circles look slightly better (it’s a cream, not a miracle) thanks to the brand’s ChronoluxCB complex. —B.C.
Best for Dark Circles: It Cosmetics Confidence in an Eye Cream
I have pretty bad dark circles (genetics, unfortunately) and have tried everything from very expensive products to drugstore brands. It wasn’t until this one that I noticed a difference—literally, after a day of using it. It’s super lightweight and makes it look as though I hit snooze just a little longer each morning. —Azadeh Valanejad, contributor
Over the years I’ve tried various eye creams, from drugstore buys to mysterious potions I’ve picked up from the Glamour beauty closet, but Dr. Barbara Sturm’s was my first foray into a luxe product line, and man, did it not disappoint. Just a slight tap of the cream every night has made the fine skin around my eyes look tighter and more youthful. The cream feels indulgent and rich on my skin, while still having a super-light, airy consistency. I don’t know what kind of voodoo magic Dr. Barbara Sturm works with, but consider me all in. —Caitlin Brody, entertainment director
Best for Fine Lines: Tatcha The Silk Peony Melting Eye Cream
Your eyes may be the window to your soul, but they’re also the first place to show signs of aging. That’s why I’ve been using eye cream since I was a teenager. But as you get older, you need different formulas, especially if you wear makeup. The key is an eye cream that will help act as a barrier so concealer and foundation won’t settle into fine lines, but will also still hydrate. I’ve found that with Tatcha’s Silk Peony, which has a unique melting texture to smooth and blur the look of fine lines and wrinkles. It contains 30% Hadasei-3, which is the brand’s signature trio of pure Japanese superfoods, including Uji Green Tea (to detoxify), Okinawa maluku algae (to help retain moisture), and protein-rich Akita rice to nourish and go on smoothly. And as with all Tatcha products, it’s cruelty-free and formulated without sulfates, parabens, and synthetic fragrances. —Jessica Radloff, West Coast editor
Best Multitasker: Glossier Bubble Wrap Eye and Lip Plumping Cream
Wrinkles aren’t my top concern yet, so when it comes to eye cream, I’m looking for something no-fuss that hydrates, plumps, and is a great base for the gobs of concealer I need to hide my sleeping habits. Bubblewrap is the answer to my prayers; if I could bathe in it, I would. It’s a cushiony eye and lip cream that has a thin yet lush texture and is packed with hydrating ingredients like hyaluronic acid, squalane, and avocado oil. Tapped on my undereyes, it made me look more awake, refreshed, and made my concealer glide on crease-free. While it’s a fab eye cream, I’m also obsessed with it in place of lip balm at night for full, plush lips by morning. And of course, the packaging looks perfect in my medicine cabinet. —B.C.
Best Soothing: Volition Beauty Helix AM/PM Eye Gel
I’m one of the people who think eye creams are kind of B.S.—a regular light moisturizer does that trick just fine for me—but I’ve recently noticed how damn puffy my area looks. Blame it on an excess of salt and not enough water, but I started using this collagen-rich gel, which I keep in the fridge, and found it actually works to depuff and hydrate. It also promises to blur fine lines, though I don’t have those yet, but I’m planning to stick with it, mainly thanks to its powerful helix complex, an organic compound rich in allantoin, collagen, elastin, and glycolic acid. —Perrie Samotin, digital director
Best Brightening: Dermalogica Biolumin-C Eye Serum
I’ve been obsessed with finding the right treatment for the dark circles under my eyes, and this is definitely the winner. This serum doesn’t have the stinging retinol sensation that a previous eye cream had, nor does it leave my skin feeling tacky. I’ve been using it for the last two months, and the difference is noticeable. I’m already dreading the day I have to replace it. —Khaliha Hawkins, producer
Best Primer: Bobbi Brown Vitamin Enriched Eye Base
My undereyes are regularly dry, and my concealer always creases no matter what, until I tried Bobbi Brown’s new Vitamin Enriched Eye Base. Its creamy shea butter formula means a pea-size amount is plenty to go around both eyes. I use my fingertips to gently pat this soothing primer into my skin before concealing my uninvited dark circles for a smooth canvas that never creases. —Talia Gutierrez, beauty assistant
I’ve been slowly replacing the skin-care products in my beauty routine with ones that are plant-based—and my latest fixation is Haoma’s Eye Cream. Rich in skin-brightening ingredients like yarrow, licorice, mulberry, and CBD, this balm has an airy, velvety texture that goes on smooth and absorbs in no time. I dab a pea-size amount under my eyes after cleansing, and it straightaway makes the purplish circles feel lighter and brighter. That, and it’s the perfect second step in my morning routine to trick my mind into instant “awake” mode. —Talia Abbas, commerce writer
I’ve always been a fan of Embryolisse’s skin-care products. They’re a staple in makeup artists’ kits. The same goes for this undereye stick. It’s multifunctional: It refreshes tired eyes, diminishes signs of fatigue (like puffiness), firms, is highly hydrating, and reduces the appearance of fine lines. It also brightens your undereye area and improves texture. Not to mention it’s incredibly cooling when you glide it on. I like to use it right before I put on makeup, during skin prep. —Carola Gonzalez, celebrity makeup artist and Glamour Beauty Awards judge
Best Eye Serum: Lancôme Advanced Génifique Yeux Light Pearl Concentrate
There’s nothing I love more than popping a jade roller in the fridge and running it under my eyes in the morning to wake up. This is the eye serum equivalent. The metal applicator is cool and refreshing as you glide it on, and the gentle but tough-acting mix of caffeine, prebiotics, and vitamin E go to work to jolt life back to your undereyes. Bonus: You can use the serum on your lashes to make them look more nourished. —L.S.
I’ve tried tons of eye creams that do literally nothing, but Belif’s eye cream doesn’t have that problem: This spin-off of its moisturizer leaves my undereyes looking smooth and way less crepey within minutes. —Sarah Morse, contributor
Best Hydrating: Hada Labo Tokyo Age Correcting Eye Cream
Hada Labo makes reliably excellent skin care, and this eye cream is no different. It’s packed with hyaluronic acid, caffeine, collagen, and light-diffusing pigments. Smooth it on and it’ll blur and diminish your dark circles while giving your delicate undereye area a noticeable boost. —Sarah Wu, beauty contributor