When it comes to achieving a youthful glow, retinol—otherwise known as vitamin A—is the best active ingredient for the job. Finding the best retinol creams for your skin, however, can be quite a challenge, as it has the capacity to cause irritation, dryness and flakiness, no matter your skin type.
What is retinol?
“Retinol is a synthetic derivative of vitamin A. Within the world of dermatology, retinol is regarded as the gold-standard ingredient for anti-ageing because of its clinically-proven ability to promote collagen building and accelerate the rate of surface skin turnover to bring youthful, healthy looking skin to the surface,” says Dr Meghan O’Brien, Kiehl’s global consulting dermatologist.
What are the benefits of using retinol?
“Retinol is a long-term game-changer for the skin. Skin cells are much better at interacting with it than many other ingredients. Retinol stimulates collagen in the skin, helping to keep the scaffolding under the skin firm, and smoothing lines and wrinkles in the process. It refines the skin by speeding up the normal exfoliation process, giving clarity, smoothness and a much more even-toned complexion. It also stimulates the internal hyaluronic acid in the skin, keeping skin moisturised, hydrated, plump and bouncy,” says Dija Ayodele, aesthetician and founder of West Room Aesthetics and the Black Skin Directory.
What types of retinols are there, and what are the key differences?
Prescription retinoids/retinoic acid examples include “tretinoin, isotretinoin and adapalene; they are dosed at a lower concentration compared to over-the counter retinol because they are forms of retinoic acid that act immediately in skin and are intended to treat medical skin conditions,” says Dr O’Brien.
Pure retinol. “This is the most potent form of retinol available over the counter. Once applied to skin, it converts to retinoic acid for effective treatment of skin and visible ageing signs.”
Retinol derivatives. “These forms (i.e.retinyl palmitate, retinal) are retinol esters that require several conversion steps to become retinoic acid in skin. The conversion causes a loss of potency but can also be more well tolerated by skin than pure retinol (especially if pure retinol is not paired with other barrier-protecting ingredients).”
Retinol alternatives. “These ingredients, such as bakuchiol, phytomimetic vitamin A, and granactive are not retinol, but can help improve cell turnover and address some of the same concerns as retinol, such as lines and firmness. These forms can take longer to work than pure retinol.”
How much retinol do I put on my face?
“It really does depend on the version of retinol you are using, as there are many variants with different strengths. Always refer to the practitioner that’s providing it to you. If in doubt, a pea-sized amount is just fine. It is always better to use a smaller amount than larger—less is always more with retinol,” says Ayodele.
Can I use retinol everyday?
“You can work up to using retinol every day. Again, it depends on the strength of the vitamin A, regardless of the variant. There are some brands that will say their product is gentle enough to be used everyday from the onset. But it is ultimately up to the strength and the integrity of your skin at the time.
“Start off including retinol in your routine twice a week. I always advise a Wednesday and a Sunday, just to allow skin enough rest time in between. Retinol can compound in the skin, so if you were to apply it everyday, you might find your skin is okay on day three, only to have a lot of irritation on day four. So space retinol use out—apply twice a week in the first few weeks, then three times a week, then four, and so on,” shares Ayodele.
What age should you start using retinol?
“You should consider using it from the age of 25, as collagen starts to decline and deplete around this age. If you are using prescribed retinol for a skin condition like acne however, there is usually no age bracket—this is at the discretion of your doctor or dermatologist – though many of us avoid giving retinol products to those of a very young age,” Ayodele explains.
What should you not mix retinol with?
“There isn’t anything you shouldn’t use retinol with. Anything you use alongside retinol and vitamin A is very much dependent on your skin’s integrity and health. My personal preference is to use retinol on its own at night after cleansing my skin. I cleanse with an alpha hydroxy acid-based cleanser. I then go ahead and use things like glycolic acid, vitamin E, lactic acid and hyaluronic acid (not all at once). If you are on prescribed medication, you may want to avoid alpha hydroxy acids and opt for milder poly hydroxy acid, such as gluconolactone or lactobionic acid. Dermatologists should ideally give their clients an appropriate skincare routine to follow.
“The question really, is what should you be using retinol with. Hydrating ingredients like glycerin, peptides, ceramides, when sandwiched with your retinol, all help to support the integrity of the skin,” says Ayodele.
The best retinol for sensitive skin: La Roche-Posay Retinol 0.3% + Vitamin B3 Serum
La Roche-Posay knows its way around an excellent skincare product—this serum is just one among many. Combining the vitamin B3 with 0.3 per cent retinol, it’s a gentle one, and good for even the most sensitive skins.
$79.90, available at Guardian
Best retinol for daily use: Kiehl’s Retinol Skin-Renewing Daily Micro-Dose Serum
This retinol is great for beginners and people with sensitive skin alike. And, it just so happens to be Kiehl’s first retinol serum, formulated for daily use. Unlike other retinols which require a lead-up time for daily use (and you’d still need to weather through common side effects such as redness, peeling and flaking), this micro-dose serum combines a breakthrough formula with micro-dose technology that helps you bypass all the discomforts of skin purging and irritation. Through low and precise doses of retinol, the skin is renewed: left visibly firmer with wrinkles and texture minimised. Also unlike other retinols, this product can be used both day and night, along the eyes, neck, décolleté and back of hands. Just don’t forget to pair this with your broad-spectrum SPF if using this in the day.
$130, available at Kiehl’s
Best loaded-yet-gentle retinol: SkinBetter Intensive AlphaRet Overnight Cream
Only available at reputable aesthetic clinics such as Freia, this overnight treatment not only retinoids but lactic acid, niacinamide and glycolic acid. While this has the potential to sound irritating and drying, this skin rejuvenating cream offers the benefits of a retinoid minus the irritation with a host of antioxidants that help to protect the skin and neutralise free radicals.
$190, available at Freia
Best affordable retinol: The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid 2% in Squalane
The Ordinary is renowned for bringing us premium ingredients at affordable prices, and this product comes in at well under $50. High potency, minimal irritation, low price—what’s not to love?
$32, available at Lazada
Best retinol serum: Institut Esthederm Intensive Retinol Face Serum
Perfect for deep-set wrinkles, this emollient-rich retinol serum effectively locks in moisture while working hard to bring plumpness back to the most sullen skin.
$99, available at lookfantastic
Best retinol booster: Paula’s Choice 1% Retinol Booster
Designed to be added to your favourite serum or moisturiser, Paula’s Choice 1% Retinol Booster offers a more customisable approach to retinol use, making it perfect for beginners.
$74, available at Paula’s Choice
Best retinol overnight mask: Allies of Skin 1A Retinal and Peptides Overnight Mask
This antioxidant-rich formula delivers a jolt of nourishment to thirsty mature skin. Fortified with Ally-R™, an encapsulated form of time-release retinaldehyde (a vitamin A even more powerful than retinol), this moisture barrier-maintaining formula helps promote firmness and smoothness in lacklustre skin.
$189, available at lookfantasic
Best retinol for acne: Lixir Night Switch Retinol 1%
For those who simply can’t tolerate retinol, or who want a natural approach, look to bakuchiol, a plant-based alternative to retinol. This serum smooths, plumps, brightens and stimulates collagen production, while centella asiatica (otherwise known as cica), helps soothe and calm. You can also use it morning and night.
$81, available at lookfantastic
Best retinol for sun damaged skin: Dr Dennis Gross Skincare Ferulic and Retinol Anti-Ageing Moisturiser
In this brilliant formula, a powerful antioxidant, ferulic acid, helps neutralise free-radical damage to cells caused by external aggressors such as pollution and UV light. The addition of retinol means it’s a potent moisturiser that helps reveal healthier and smoother skin.
$114, available at Sephora
Best retinol cream for the face: Kate Somerville +Retinol Vitamin C Moisturiser
Consider this your ultimate moisturiser. A blend of retinol and vitamin C, it will firm, brighten and nourish, while improving skin’s appearance over time.
$147, available at Sephora
Best retinol night oil: Sunday Riley Luna Sleeping Night Oil
Sunday Riley’s bestselling Luna Sleeping Night Oil combines retinoid oil with blue tansy and cold-pressed chia, grape seed and avocado oils to renew the skin’s surface overnight. A celebrity favourite.
$83, available at Sephora
Best retinol for wrinkles: Elizabeth Arden Retinol Ceramide Capsules Line Erasing Night Serum
By combining retinol with skin-loving ceramides, Elizabeth Arden allows you to swerve any flaking. The capsule format means you won’t apply too much, and also keeps the formula fresh.
$153, available at Metro