I’m turning 30 this year, so if there’s one thing that’s on my mind a lot, it’s retinol. How could it not be when every dermatologist and skincare expert says it’s the best possible addition to your anti-aging routine? I’m not a fan of the concept of anti-aging—aging is a part of life and I feel lucky to keep getting older—but I am a fan of having a smooth, clear complexion, which retinol can help deliver.
Retinol is a popular skincare ingredient that is a type of retinoid and comes from vitamin A. The reason it gets all the hype is that it can help fight a myriad of different skin problems including acne, wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, dull complexions, fine lines, and sun damage.
According to Dr. Jeffrey Hsu, MD, FAAD, Founder of Oak Dermatology, “Retinol is the holy grail of skincare and should be used by almost everyone.” Dr. Hsu explained that while retinol is no overnight miracle, it is as close as it gets, as it delivers instant and long-term transformative results. He equates retinol to the modern secret to the “fountain of youth.”
“Retinol encourages cell regeneration as well as helps bind cells with moisture within the dermis so the skin becomes plump,” says Dr. Hsu. “It also synthesizes collagen and elastin production, which are crucial for anti-aging. As collagen is replenished, old skin cells are shed, fine lines recede, and skin begins to reveal a brighter, smoother texture.” When it comes to the right time to get started with retinol, that depends on your unique skin needs. “Everyone’s skin is very different and has very different concerns,” Dr. Hsu noted. “I start my acne patients on retinol as early as late teens. Otherwise, if there are no skin concerns, I would usually advise starting retinol in your mid-twenties.”
The main downside of retinol is that it can cause irritation, redness, and dryness for some users. If you’re new to retinol, it’s best to introduce it slowly into your routine (Dr. Hsu has his patients start with twice a week and work their way up to nightly after four weeks), use a moisturizer, and wear sunscreen during the day to help avoid irritation.
When most people think of retinol, they picture intense prescriptions that require a doctor’s office visit, but nowadays, there are some really amazing formulas on the market. The fun part? Retinol comes in so many different formats that make it so almost anyone can find their perfect fit.
I’ve tried dozens of products claiming to exfoliate and reduce aging over the years, so trust me when I say: these, right here, are the best retinols.
Best for: Major results
My skin saw huge improvements after incorporating this retinol serum into my nightly routine. Within a few weeks, my skin felt smoother and brighter, and I swear my pores look smaller. Since using this retinol, my breakouts also seem to heal faster, which is a major win for someone who experiences stubborn hyperpigmentation after every breakout. This serum contains a large concentration of retinol (15%) but is gentle enough that I can still use a chemical exfoliant a few times a week.
Best for: Travel
Because I had such success with the serum from this Peter Thomas Roth collection, I recently started using these peel pads, which have an even higher percentage of retinol in it: 20%. So far, we’re off to a good start and I’m not feeling any sensitivity when I use them. I’ll be picking up another pack once I start traveling again since the peel pad format is just so darn convenient.
Best for: Dry skin
This retinol face oil is a bit of a splurge, but similar to the Glow Recipe Avocado Melt Retinol Sleeping Mask, when my skin needs some tender love and care, I always reach for it. It’s one of those face oils that makes your skin look like a million bucks and traps in all the moisture. Because this face oil only contains 1.2% retinol, I feel totally comfortable layering it on top of a more heavy-duty retinol serum.
Best for: Beginners to retinol
If you’re new to retinol, may I suggest you try this gentle 1% retinol treatment? The Peter Thomas Roth Even Smoother Glycolic Retinol Resurfacing Serum contains a whopping 15% of retinol, which makes the formula quite powerful, but if you’re scared to dip your toes into retinol (I sure was at first!), this is a great one to start with. It is gentle, is non-irritating, and will get your skin prepped to advance to higher-concentration formulas one day.
Best for: Dry environments
Another travel-friendly option is this neat retinol face stick, which would be doubly perfect for airplane travel, as it’s easy to pack and use, and is a super moisturizing balm that locks in your other serums and moisturizers. This stick may look small, but it contains a mighty combination of a 3% encapsulated retinol blend, fruit enzymes, and bakuchiol (more on why that matters in just a second).
Best for: Sensitive skin
Last but not least, let’s talk about bakuchiol, which isn't retinol but is the most buzzed-about gentle alternative to retinol on the market. If you’ve had a bad reaction to retinol in the past and aren’t eager to try it again, consider using a product with bakuchiol in it, which is a vegan skincare ingredient that comes from the leaves and seeds of the Psoralea corylifolia plant. Bakuchiol delivers a nice dose of antioxidants and helps reduce discoloration and the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, all while being really soothing for the skin. This serum is a gentle addition to my skincare routine and is really hydrating.
Our readers’ favorite retinols…
Consider this the cream of the crop. If you're ready to level up to a high-end retinol, our readers have loved this one for years. It contains both retinol and lactic acid to retexturize, firm, and brighten skin.
This retinol checks every box: gentle, good for beginners budget-friendly, effective, clean—the list goes on.
For a mid-range retinol, this one has over a thousand five-star reviews. If anti-aging is a goal of yours, we love this one, thanks to the addition of moisturizing ingredients like hyaluronic acid and glycerin.