In the beauty world, not being able to withstand a retinol product is an Achilles heel. Touted as one of the strongest and most effective products to treat fine lines, uneven texture, discolouration, and even acne, retinol is basically the Holy Grail. It also happens to be the only ingredient the skin either absolutely can not stand, or it loves it. About an hour after putting on a retinol–even the gentlest ones on the market–some people’s skin begins to peel, develop bumps all over the face, and it’s a general mess. BUT…
“This texture is so smooth and hydrating, which is always a good sign, since retinol products are notoriously drying. After layering it with a moisturizer, I went to bed and prayed I woke up to a decent face. To my immense surprise, my skin felt silky smooth, I wasn’t having a bad reaction at all, and I even felt confident to try it again, two nights later.” – ELLE Beauty Editor
This product is a blend of retinol with fatty acids derived from sunflower seeds–which makes it less irritating–along with line-reducing stevia extract and hydrating mongo grass root extract.
The long, dark days of winter are officially behind us, but the effects may linger in the form of dull, lackluster skin. Fortunately, the seasonal shift brings a sense of renewal, the welcome shedding of layers—and there’s no reason that should stop with your wardrobe.
“Spring is an ideal time of the year to start incorporating retinol into your routine,” says Onyeka Obioha, M.D., a dermatologist in Los Angeles. She joins a perpetual chorus of experts championing the ingredient as a means to brighter, smoother skin. Plus, she adds, “in warmer months, people are able to better tolerate it.”
For the uninitiated, retinol and other derivatives of vitamin A (together, they fall under the umbrella category of “retinoids”) count among the hardest-working ingredients in the skin-care realm. Vitamin A offers a multitude of benefits for skin: Thanks to its ability to speed cell turnover and spur collagen production, it can help smooth out wrinkles and fine lines, brighten dark spots and discoloration, and even quell breakouts. (The prescription-strength form called tretinoin—known by its brand name, Retin-A—originally launched as an acne medication before people realized its broader utility.) “When it comes to visibly improving the texture and appearance of your skin while preventing signs of aging, retinol is unmatched,” says Austin-based esthetician Renée Rouleau.
There is a common downside. Because the ingredient is so powerful, explains Rouleau, “it can also come with unwanted side effects, like dryness, flaking, irritation, and sensitivity, for a lot of people, especially during the first four to six weeks.” (Retinoids are not advised for those who are pregnant or nursing.) Although over-the-counter forms of retinol tend to be milder than the derm-prescribed counterpart, it’s still wise to wade in slowly. Obioha recommends starting with a pea-size amount three nights a week, then gradually increasing from there. Following up with daytime sun protection is of utmost importance, since retinol can increase skin’s sensitivity to sunlight.
Even if you’ve had a touch-and-go experience with retinol in the past, recent formulations designed with tolerance in mind offer an incentive to dip back in. There’s no better time for a fresh start.
Shani Darden Retinol Reform Serum
Created by Los Angeles aesthetician Shani Darden, this cream combines retinol with lactic acid and anti-inflammatory niacinamide. It’s a strategic pairing, with the lactic acid delivering immediate smoothing and hydrating benefits while retinol gets to work from within.
StriVectin Super-C Retinol Brighten & Correct Vitamin C Serum
While vitamin C certainly has a starring role in many retinol products, it doesn’t always match the power of a dedicated vitamin C serum. Not so with this dual-action serum, which offers that dream team at high concentrations to improve skin tone and texture.
La Roche-Posay Effaclar Adapalene Gel 0.1% Topical Retinoid Acne Treatment
If you’re experiencing acne lately, you’re not alone. “Warmer temperatures and an increase in humidity can cause buildup on the skin, which clogs pores and can result in breakouts,” says Obioha. This powerful treatment uses adapalene, which is the sole prescription-strength retinoid available without an Rx, to help maintain a clear complexion.
As protective face masks are still de rigueur, so is maskne. Retinol can help. “It can work to increase skin cell turnover and unclog pores,” says Obioha. Salicylic acid in this oil offers acne-fighting benefits on the spot, while the retinol works to prevent future breakouts.
RoC Retinol Correxion Line Smoothing Night Serum Capsules
Concentration isn’t the only thing that matters in a skin-care formula—potency does, too. These sealed, biodegradable capsules keep the combination of retinol and antioxidants fresh and at peak efficacy until it’s applied to the skin.
Why settle for one type of retinol when you can have three? This potent cream consists of a fast-acting retinol, a time-release version, and a retinol booster for peak efficiency. Lest your skin starts to feel dry just reading that, not to worry: Niacinamide gives it proper credibility as a calming night treatment, too.
To amp up the power of this night oil, retinol is paired with salicylic acid, which is prized in its own right for its ability to gently lift dead skin cells. In practice, this ultimately clears the way for retinol to better penetrate—in turn yielding results in as little as one week.
IT Cosmetics Hello Results Wrinkle-Reducing Daily Retinol Serum-in-Cream
Retinol is uniquely equipped to handle signs of aging. “Retinoids actually build collagen and thicken the dermis layer of the skin, which makes the skin appear plump and healthy,” says Obioha. This hybrid formula pairs both free and encapsulated retinol molecules—the better to reach multiple layers of skin—with soothing niacinamide.
Fine lines and deeper wrinkles can’t be blamed on a single culprit. Conversely, their treatment approach isn’t singular, either. That’s why this serum combines retinol with a collagen-boosting blend of peptides, vitamin C, and botanical extracts, which together work to firm and smooth skin.
Snail mucin. Bee venom. Glass skin. These are just some of the beauty trends to emerge from South Korea in the past five years. Whether you’ve dabbled in a bit of donkey milk (good for rejuvenating the skin with protein and fatty acids) or you’ve played it safe with a weekly face mask, K-beauty is everywhere. In fact, Allied Market Research says that by 2026, the K-beauty market will be worth an estimated $21 billion. According to Jenni Middleton, director of beauty at trend forecasting company WGSN, “During the coronavirus pandemic, consumers searched more for K-beauty, looking for innovative products to add to their lockdown beauty regimes.”
Like most cultural phenomena, K-beauty is ever-changing—what was big last year may not be as popular this year. As Middleton observes, we’re seeing the traditional 10-step routine give way to a more minimalist approach as conscious consumers react against fast fashion and excessive packaging. Elsewhere, playful gimmicks such as color-changing effects or jellylike substances are being passed over in favor of science-backed formulas.
1. Hanbang ingredients
Hanbang ingredients are traditional herbal ingredients used in Korean medicines and they’ve long been a staple in Korean life. For example, ginseng root, houttuynia cordata, sacred lotus, and rehmannia boast antiaging, anti-inflammation, and regenerative properties.
2. Acid layering
K-beauty has been incorporating more acid into its products, but with a gentle approach that focuses on striking the balance: Too much can irritate and aggravate your skin, too little will yield no results, so products with an optimal amount is key. Use the right balance of AHAs and BHAs (plant and animal-derived acids) to gently exfoliate dead skin cells and smooth skin texture.
3. Carrot seed oil
Carrot seed oil is an unsung hero at the moment, although it has been used in K-beauty for more than 10 years. It contains vitamin A and is a great antioxidant. It’s antiaging, antifungal, antibacterial, and anti-inflammatory—so it’s ideal for anyone looking to brighten up their skin.
4. Gentle retinol
K-beauty’s ‘skin first’ approach will continue through 2021, especially given that self-care and skin care are so important right now. There’s no denying retinol’s powerful antiaging properties, but the K-beauty approach uses a lower percentage, so the skin stays healthier and less irritated. Retinol is highly efficacious without causing unnecessary damage.
5. Centella asiatica
[The year] 2021 is less about what’s ‘buzzy’ and more about what’s tried-and-true, with a focus on calming the skin. Centella asiatica [an herb grown in Asia, known for being anti-inflammatory]—or ‘cica’—is huge right now. With everyone dealing with the prolonged stress of the pandemic and dreaded ‘maskne,’ soothing irritated, angry skin seems to be at the forefront of people’s minds. Cica is the ingredient that everyone wants to add to their routine.
6. Clean beauty
More brands are developing products free of chemical additives, artificial ingredients, and fragrance. Products will be even more gentle with effective plant-based ingredients, and many brands are becoming vegan as well. Consumers are more aware of what they put on their skin.
7. Pre-, pro-, and postbiotics
This year, inner and outer wellness brands and products will gain more popularity. For example, brands that focus on pre-, pro-, and postbiotics; microbiome-friendly skin care; and consumable supplements, which benefit both the skin and the gut.
“K-beauty will shift more towards a holistic approach, linking skin care and internal health. I take probiotic supplements for my bouts of eczema and I love using K-beauty products with fermented ingredients. I regularly use 107—it uses aged [seven- and 10-year-old] vinegar [that promotes good gut health]. Their vinegar tastes delicious with honey!”
8. Flexible minimalism
A few years back, we were oversaturated with the ‘10-step Korean skin-care routine.’ The ‘skin-care diet’ [using fewer products and steps] that followed was a pushback against that, but it was too restrictive for those who wanted more results than could be attained with just the basics.
Flexible minimalism is a focus on clean and simple product lines, which makes customizing your routine easier. There will also be a push towards pared-back lists of ingredients. Single and minimal ingredients are appealing because of their simplicity and high concentration of the hero component.
9. At-home indulgences
Skin care has a functional element—it has to work and deliver results—but I expect products that provide meditative, soothing, and spa-like moments to take off in a big way. They can transport you mentally and emotionally to another headspace.
10. Hyphenate and hybrid skin care
We’ve started seeing ‘skipcare’ as a K-beauty trend, where the focus is on a pared-down, simple, and minimalist routine. We will be seeing more efficient and effective multitasking and versatile products—what we like to call ‘hyphenates’ or ‘hybrid’ skin care.
11. Skin detoxifying and barrier strengthening
“The belief that ‘skin is a reflection of your mental state’ comes from Korea, and growing up, my mother emphasized this to me many times. We’ll see more barrier-strengthening ingredients that boost immunity, such as mushrooms, plus detoxifying herbs including mugwort and ginger. Ceramides [which form a protective layer to help prevent moisture loss and visible skin damage] will make a comeback too.”
12. A boost in body care
In Korea, many body-care rituals originate from the bathhouse culture, where milk treatments are slathered on the face and body, and baths are steeped with skin-beneficial ingredients, such as green tea and probiotics. During a difficult year, personal self-care has taken on new importance for many, so we expect to see the definition to include all of the skin, from head to toe.
Ask any skincare lover, and they’ll tell you there’s no better feeling than coming home after a long day, removing all your makeup, and applying your nighttime skincare routine. While you can use the same cleansers, toners, and serums that you applied in the AM, if you’re looking to really transform your skin, you should be using a night cream as the last step in your PM routine instead of your regular face moisturizer.
According to New York City-based dermatologist Dr. Debra Jaliman, that’s because “night creams are more nourishing and hydrating than your daytime moisturizer. Generally, night creams contain more moisturizing ingredients and are thicker in texture.”
Board-certified dermatologist Dr. Joshua Zeichner agrees on the importance of having a night cream in your beauty arsenal, telling InStyle, “We know that skin goes through circadian rhythms, where specific activities occur in the morning and others in the evening. Skin hydration levels start to decline in the afternoon and continue into the evening, and skin cell turnover increases while we sleep. So a night cream is important to address the specific issues that the skin faces in the evening — offering hydrating and enhancing skin repair and collagen production.”
When it comes to choosing the right night cream for your skin, Dr. Zeichner recommends looking for creams that are “designed for nighttime use, usually containing ingredients that stimulate collagen production to address fine lines and wrinkles, such as retinol, hydroxy acids, peptides, or specialized botanical ingredients.”
Meanwhile, Dr. Jaliman says that in addition to formulas that will stimulate skin cell renewal, the best night creams should also feature moisturizing ingredients like hyaluronic acid, shea butter, and ceramides. That’s because “improving our skin’s hydration as we sleep is very important.”
With so many night creams on the market, it can be tricky figuring out which ones are actually worth buying, so with these dermatologist guidelines in mind, InStyle editors rounded up 20 night creams that customers say help them wake up with glowing skin each morning. From a retinol-infused night cream to a multitasking option and an affordable drugstore pick, keep reading to shop them all.
Top-Rated Option: CeraVe Skin Renewing Night Cream
Over 10,000 Amazon shoppers are obsessed with this CeraVe night cream, with many calling it a “miracle in a jar.” The popular product is packed with ceramides and peptides that work together to soften and rejuvenate your skin overnight, so you’ll wake up with a refreshed and glowing complexion. Even better, it’s also infused with hyaluronic acid to target fine lines and wrinkles. “This product is amazing,” raved one shopper. “I saw results the first morning after use. Unbelievable. Significantly less redness and a huge reduction in acne. It’s been about two weeks now and my skin looks the best it has in years. I’ve even had compliments this week on my clear, youthful skin! I’m hooked for life.”
Best Dermatologist Pick: Senté Dermal Repair Cream
Santé’s night cream may be pricey, but Dr. Jaliman says it’s worth every penny. It’s one of her top picks because “it contains green tea and hyaluronic acid and has an ingredient called Heparin Sulfate Analog (HSA) that works to deeply hydrate and maintain your skin’s health. It helps lessen the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.” In addition to hydrating skin and reducing redness, Dr. Jaliman says it’s a great option “for those who need to repair the skin barrier.”
Best for Dry Skin: L’Occitane Ultra-Rich Shea Butter Cream
This L’Occitane night cream uses shea butter and glycerin as its active ingredients, which makes it a great deeply moisturizing treatment. Shoppers with extremely dry skin said this product is the only thing that finally got rid of their dry patches and flaky skin. Plus, they love that the night cream left their skin looking fresh and dewy and not greasy. “This is my holy grail product for my super dry and dehydrated skin. It is a lifesaver during the cold and drying winter in Massachusetts,” raved one reviewer.
Best for Dull Skin: Clarins Extra-Firming Wrinkle Control Regenerating Night Cream
Clarins’ overnight cream will revive lackluster skin and give you a more youthful appearance. Dr. Zeichner is a fan because it’s “a rich, hydrating cream that contains a blend of botanical extracts to help firm and improve the appearance of lines and wrinkles.” Reviewers say that it made their skin look firmer and smoother in just one use. One shopper called it “an overnight facial in a bottle,” before adding “My skin was glowing and plump. I was in awe of how much it changed my skin in less than seven hours. I repurchased this again finally and this morning my boyfriend mentioned how supple and radiant my skin looked”
Best Collagen-Infused: Maryann Organics Collagen Night Cream
This night cream by Maryann Organics is infused with collagen to help reverse prominent signs of aging. The multitasking product smoothes fine lines and wrinkles, diminishes the look of dark spots, and hydrates skin at the same time. Customers love how the cream is made in the U.S. from organic materials and that it doesn’t leave behind a sticky or tacky feel. “I love this moisturizer,” said one reviewer. “It’s not super pricey and it does exactly what I need, evens out skin tone and helps wrinkles — really makes me feel awake and young just after 20 minutes of putting it on. Especially overnight I wake up feeling great on my skin in the morning.”
Best Drugstore Option: L’Oreal Revitalift Night Cream
If you’re looking for an effective night cream that won’t break the bank, thousands of Amazon shoppers recommend L’Oreal’s Revitalift version. The product’s three main ingredients (pro-retinol, hyaluronic acid, and vitamin C) hydrate and smooth skin while evening out your complexion. According to the brand, you’ll see brighter and firmer skin with just one week’s use, and tons of customers agree. “After a week, I felt that I had a younger glow. After at least two weeks, my skin actually does look a more consistent texture and color — I haven’t even been wearing makeup,” raved one shopper. “It’s lightweight and smells delicious and is very inexpensive, which surprised me. I almost feel like it’s too lightweight to work, but the ingredients must be doing something for my skin.”
Best Multitasking Option: RoC Multi Correxion 5-in-1 Restoring Night Cream
The best beauty products can tackle more than one issue at once, so it’s no wonder this multitasking RoC night cream is so popular with Amazon shoppers. The five-in-one product smooths wrinkles, reduces the appearance of hyperpigmentation, tightens and hydrates skin, and evens out skin tones at the same time. Plus, the product is non-comedogenic, so you never have to worry about it clogging your pores or causing breakouts. One shopper wrote, “I can’t rave enough about this product! I’ve been using it for over a year now and can really tell the difference when I miss a few days. When you put this on the night before, your skin feels so smooth and supple the following morning. Some days I can actually skip my day moisturizer, this product works that well. It is definitely a workhorse against fine lines and pores. I’ve used products costing far more that do much less.”
Best Cruelty-Free Option: Kleem Organics Anti-Aging Retinol Cream
If shopping cruelty-free products is important to you, check out this night cream from Kleem Organics. Along with toning and firming your skin, the paraben-free product also works to improve the look and feel of your skin’s overall texture. For these reasons and more, over 4,000 customers have given it a perfect five-star rating, with one writing, “This stuff feels like silk going on and works great. Soaks in immediately. I used it twice a day when I first received it because of the cold weather my face turns into scales. It worked overnight it seemed. My face is as smooth as a baby’s tushie.”
Best Brightening Option: Caudalie Vinoperfect Brightening Glycolic Overnight Cream
Using viniferine and hyaluronic acid, this brightening night cream by Caudalie will visibly reduce the appearance of dark spots and hyperpigmentation while also plumping your skin. In a clinical self-assessment study, 95 percent of users said their skin looked brighter and 100 percent of users said their skin looked more rested after using the night cream for just 56 days. “I’ve used this consistently at night for a least a year now, and I can honestly say this is one of the BEST night creams on the market,” raved one shopper. “No matter what my skin is going through, this cream restores my skin texture at night and leaves it bright come morning. I’ve also seen the effects of brightening as my dark spots have faded tremendously.”
Best Firming Option: StriVectin Advanced Retinol Intensive Night Moisturizer
To start off their day with firmer and smoother skin, hundreds of Amazon shoppers slather on this StriVectin night cream before they go to sleep. It’s loaded with powerful ingredients like copper tripeptide and retinol to minimize the look for wrinkles, tighten crepey skin, and increase your skin’s elasticity. “I have definitely noticed a positive effect on my skin. I’m 58, and have fair skin with a tendency to dryness, and, in this recent foul weather, redness. This intensive night moisturizer has done a lot to alleviate that. It goes on easily, and you don’t need a bunch to get good coverage. My skin is clearer, firmer, and some of my fine lines have already started to disappear,” said one shopper.
Best Strengthening Option: Lancome Bienfait Multi-Vital Overnight Moisturizer
This Lancome night cream is a favorite of Nordstrom shoppers who love how well it hydrates their skin and improves their complexion. The popular skincare essential uses a unique strengthening complex made up of omegas 3 and 6 and vitamins E and C, which work together to hydrate skin and protect it from external aggressors. “Absolutely love this night cream,” said one customer. “Best I’ve ever used. I suffer from dry skin on my forehead and cheeks and clogged pores on nose and chin. This has done wonders to hydrate and smooth my skin. I’m 41 and have finally found my holy grail! Better than any other high-end or drugstore brands I’ve used including those twice as expensive.”
Best Hydrating Option: Burt’s Bees Intense Hydration Night Cream
Target dryness by letting your skin soak up this Burt’s Bees Night Cream while you sleep. Made from 98.9 percent natural ingredients like jojoba oil and Clary sage, the top-rated night cream promises to hydrate your skin for up to 24 hours at a time. After using the cream for a few weeks, many shoppers said it not only softened and moisturized their skin, but it also reduced redness and inflammation. “This feels amazing and creamy,” wrote one customer. “Rubs in well, leaves a little oily sheen, but I like that. I have super dry skin, particularly in the winter so it’s very soothing. I’m sensitive to smells and this doesn’t bother me. I’ve tried multiple natural night creams but none of them leave my skin feeling as hydrated as this one.”
Best Fast-Acting Option: It Cosmetics Confidence In Your Beauty Sleep Night Cream
While most skincare products can take weeks or months to work, It Cosmetics says you’ll see results from its night cream in just seven days. The fast-acting formula is full of hyaluronic acid, adenosine, and ceramides that smooth out fine lines, wrinkles, as well as revive dull, dry, and saggy skin, all while you sleep. Shoppers also love how great it smells. “What’s not to love with this cream? It has a pleasant, light lavender scent — perfectly relaxing for nighttime,” wrote one shopper. “I love that it’s thick enough to have that luxurious feel on my face, yet so absorbent that it immediately sinks into the skin. I never knew just how thirsty my skin was until I started using this. And bonus — my fine lines on my forehead have started diminishing after one week of use. It’s noticeable!”
Best Day & Night Option: Tula 24-7 Hydrating Day & Night Cream
Looking for a super hydrating night cream that’s also lightweight enough to be used during the day? Check out this option from Tula. The moisturizing treatment gives your skin a dose of olive oil squalane, shea butter, grape seed oil, and vitamin C to increase skin hydration and target dark spots, fine lines, and more. Meanwhile, the probiotics in the cream work to calm skin and reduce inflammation. “This product is amazing and is by far the best moisturizer I’ve ever used,” wrote one reviewer. “I first started using it when I was getting hormonal acne and it soothed my skin almost immediately (along with the salicylic acid gel). Then, I moved from a humid climate to the Arizona desert and it supported me through that too! The only con is the price, but the little jar lasts me well over a month, so no big problem.”
Best Vitamin C Cream: Derma E Vitamin C Intense Night Cream
This Derma E night cream is loved by hundreds of Ulta customers because it uses vitamin C to make dark spots and hyperpigmentation much less noticeable. The vegan face cream also helps smooth wrinkles, improve skin texture, and even out skin tone. “I apply a thick amount right before I go to bed, and magic seems to happen overnight. I’m a skincare buff and have tried so many products. I’m hooked on this night cream. My acne scars are slowly fading and skin is consistently smoother and more radiant. And the price for this cream is incredible, compared to hundreds I’ve spent on other brands that haven’t worked half as well.”
Best for Wrinkles: No. 7 Lift & Luminate Triple Action Night Cream
Ulta customers say their wrinkles have met their match with this night cream by No. 7. According to the brand, your fine lines will be reduced and skin will appear firmer with just two weeks of use. The product also targets dark spots and scarring at the same time, leaving you with a brighter and smoother complexion. “This cream does exactly what it states it does, just better. In less than two weeks, I could see a huge difference in my skin,” raved one shopper. “Both my face and neck are so amazingly soft now. It has made me just speechless at how wonderful this product works.”
Best for Sensitive Skin: Clinique Smart Night Custom-Repair Moisturizer Cream
If you suffer from sensitive skin and need a night cream that won’t cause any outbreaks or irritations, consider this Clinique option. Along with being non-acnegenic and allergy-tested, the cream is also free from any fragrances, parabens, sulfates, and phthalates. Shoppers love the skincare product because it revived their dull and dry complexions and left them with smoother, firmer, and plumper skin. “I’ve been using this moisturizer for a little over a month now and I am quite pleased,” wrote one customer. “It is not heavy, has not caused any breakouts and I have noticed improvement in the appearance of my skin. I’m sure the longer I use it, the more it will help, and I look forward to further results.”
Best Splurge: Shiseido Future Solution LX Total Regenerating Moisturizer Night Cream
If you’re willing to splurge on a top-of-the-line night cream, Nordstrom shoppers say to make it this Shiseido option. The rich and hydrating formula features the brand’s signature SkingenecellEnmei complex, which “slows down the appearance of visible signs of aging and helps restore and prolong a youthful look.” The cream is also infused with Brunet extract and Japanese botanicals that make your skin look and feel more supple. One shopper wrote, “This cream is amazing. It makes pores tiny, leaves a beautiful texture on your skin, and my face has a healthy glow all day. I went on vacation and forgot my regular very expensive cream at home. Had a sample of the Future Solutions cream and used it. I kept looking in the mirror because my skin looked gorgeous after one day. By the time I got home, I had to buy cream! It continues to make my skin look terrific, and I will continue to buy it.”
Best Retinol Option: Murad Retinol Youth Renewal Night Cream
Retinol is the main ingredient in this Murad night cream, meaning it will boost skin’s natural collagen production and help reverse prominent signs of aging. The cream’s ultra-hydrating formula also features niacinamide and picolinamide, which help even out skin tone and leave you with a glowing complexion. In a four-week clinical trial, 83 percent of users said they “noticed firmer, more supple skin,” while 80 percent said they “saw increased radiance and glow.” One shopper called it their “holy grail” before adding, “This night cream is great for those who want to reduce fine lines and reduce breakouts. I was struggling with acne after stopping birth control and was under quite a bit of life stress (i.e. wrinkles formed) and this stuff has saved my skin.”
Best Mask: Glow Recipe Watermelon + AHA Glow Sleeping Mask
This Glow Recipe Sleeping Mask is one of Sephora’s most popular overnight treatments with an impressive 205,000 “loves” from shoppers who say it has transformed their skin. Like the other night creams on this list, the nighttime product should be applied to your face before you go to sleep. The hyaluronic acid and AHAs in the formula to exfoliate dead skin cells and shrink the look of pores, while the watermelon extract and peony root work together to hydrate and brighten the skin. “This stuff is amazing! The first night that I tried it, it made my face tingle. The next morning I woke up with a very noticeable difference. My pores were minimized, my skin tone was even, my fine lines were less noticeable, my skin looked healthier than it has in a long time. Very polished. The results got even better as I kept using it.”
Dermatologists consider retinol the holy grail of noninvasive wrinkle-prevention. When applied topically, this vitamin A derivative stimulates collagen production and cell turnover, which reduces the appearance of fine lines, evens out complexion, and unclogs pores.
That said, retinol does have its drawbacks. Side effects can include dryness, peeling, and skin irritation, and some people may see their acne flare up. So before you start slathering these products on your face and neck, you’ll want to keep a few tips in mind.
“To reduce irritation, start every other night with the product and move up to every night only when tolerated,” says Elizabeth Tanzi, MD, founder director of Capital Laser & Skin Care and assistant clinical professor at the George Washington University Medical Center. “Add extra moisturizer when using, and use only a very mild, creamy cleanser to compensate for the extra dryness.” You’ll also want to guard your skin with SPF 30—retinol may make your skin more sensitive to the sun’s harmful UV rays.
Though you can ask your doc for a prescription-strength retinoid—which is a much stronger version of what you can buy over the counter—the derms we spoke to said drugstore and beauty counter brands do the same thing, and that it just may take longer to see results. Read on for the retinol recommendations from Dr. Tanzi and other top skin doctors.
Neutrogena Ageless Intensives Deep Wrinkle Moisture, Night
“I recommend this product to my patients all the time because Neutrogena is a reliable company and the products are easy to find in any drugstore. The ingredients are of good quality and I have never had anyone complain about any skin reaction or difficulty managing this retinol.” —Jessica KrantMD, board-certified dermatologist at the Laser & Skin Surgery Center of NY and assistant clinical professor of dermatology at SUNY Downstate
“This is a great intro-to-retinol product because if features microencapsulated retinol complex, which delivers results without the irritation and drying.” —Francesca Fusco, MD, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City
Neocutis Nouvelle Plus Retinol Correction Intensive Anti-Aging Cream
“One of my favorite retinols utilizes only 0.6% retinol in a special microbead formulation that helps penetrate the skin deeper with less skin irritation and less flaking. As an added bonus, it contains melaplex, a hydroquinone-free skin-brightening complex, that diminishes the appearance of dark spots and evens out skin tone. We recommend our patients start applying retinol two to three times a week, just before bedtime and slowly progress to nightly as tolerated.” ––Ulysses Scarpidis, New York City plastic surgeon, Scarpidis Aesthetics
“A key goal within any retinol skin care program is maximum retinol effectiveness with minimized potential for irritation. Because of this, high potency nano-encapsulated retinol formulations such as Amarte Wonder Cream (which also contains multiple potent natural antioxidant ingredients) are ideal. They will ensure maximized retinol efficacy with a virtually non-existent potential for irritation.” ––Craig Kraffert, MD, Redding Derm
“I love recommending the HydroPeptide Anti-Wrinkle Polish & Plump Peel to clients as it’s an extremely effective over-the-counter option for brightening skin and tightening pores. Instead of retinol, which can be irritating to sensitive skin types, it actually utilizes Retinyl Palmitate—an ester of Vitamin A that’s converted to retinoic acid once absorbed by the skin. I use it weekly, on Sundays, (which is my pampering day!), to ensure my skin always has a healthy glow.” –– Joyce Imahiyerobo-Ip, MD, MPhil, Vibrant Dermatology
“One of my favorite OTC retinoids is Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Moisturizer SPF 30. It works against fine lines during the day with a unique sunscreen and moisturizer hybrid. A glucose derivative is combined with this retinol formula to help brighten discoloration. I especially like that it contains hyaluronic acid which holds up to 1,000 times its weight in water.” ––Jeanette Jacknin M.D. and Brand Ambassador for ZSS Skincare Solutions
“When patients want a particularly gentle formulation, I like SkinMedica Retinol Complex .25. It is one of the mildest non-prescription retinols available and is in an elegant moisturizing formulation.” —Dr. Krant
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, is often misused or underutilized.
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.”
Who is Retinol best for?
While retinol can be beneficial for most skin types, it’s not one-size-fits-all. “Retinoids are notoriously difficult to manage for people with sensitive or easily irritated skin,” says Krant. “Technically speaking, everyone could use one, but not everyone is able to figure out how to make it work for them. The conditions that make it the trickiest are rosacea, dryness, contact allergies, and general sensitivity.” She recommends people with sensitive skin try using Adapalene (like Differin), which has a gentler effect on skin and is FDA-approved for treating acne, but can also be used for antiaging.
“I always try to get my patients on the highest retinoid that they can tolerate, but because of initial redness and dryness, this often requires starting at a lower strength and building up over time,” says Marchbein, who recommends Skinbetter AlphaRet Cream (which you can get through a derm) or the CeraVe Renewing Retinol Serum as entry-level products.
Pay attention to what percentage of retinol you’re using too: 0.05% is a good place to start if you don’t have sensitive skin, and you can work up to stronger amounts over time. If you have more serious acne, your doctor can prescribe you a prescription retinoid (adapalene or tretinoin), that will be more potent, but can also be more irritating.
What side effects does retinol have?
Retinoids have a reputation for being a harsh on your skin—you can expect some dryness, redness, and peeling—but according to Krant, this is just a side effect of the retinoids effectively turning over cells. While this irritation can be, well, irritating, it can be managed with the proper routine. Marchbein recommends using acids (like AHAs, BHAs, and PHAs) sparingly when using a retinol, and to be careful with treatments like chemical peels and lasers (i.e., tell your derm or skin tech what retinol you’re using before getting a treatment so they can make a proper assessment). If you’re fighting acne, she recommends not layering benzoyl peroxide and retinoids, since they can cancel out each other’s efficacy.
How do you use retinol in your skin-care routine?
“Retinoids are the backbone of nearly every good skin-care routine,” says Marchbein. “I recommend using both a vitamin C serum and retinoid daily, since they serve different purposes and work synergistically to help your skin look its best.” Since vitamin C protects your skin from free radical damage caused by the sun and pollution, your serum should be applied in the morning, whereas retinoids build collagen and help repair, so they should be used at night.
She also says to stick with gentle cleansers (she likes CeraVe), and to always follow your retinol with a moisturizer, especially those with hyaluronic acid and ceramides. If your skin is really irritated, you can try buffering, where you apply moisturizer before retinol to reduce side effects. Most derms also recommend easing into retinol, starting with application once a week, and working up to every other or every night, depending on how tolerant your skin is.
No matter what, “a broad-spectrum SPF 30+ should be worn religiously every day of the year, not only to prevent skin cancers, wrinkles, and sun spots, but because retinoids can make your skin more sensitive to the sun,” says Marchbein.
Begin in Your Mid ’20s or Early ’30s
Thirty has long been the banner year for introducing retinol into one’s routine, but 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, many women are starting before then and 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.” And in that spirit, 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 New York dermatologist Francesca Fusco, MD. “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.
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 neglected. “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.”