Retinol cream is one of the few proven cosmetic treatments that can reverse the effects of aging on your skin.
Retinol is a form of vitamin A, and it helps heal damage to skin by increasing skin cell turnover and decreasing the breakdown of collagen, the critical protein that makes skin soft, smooth, and elastic.
Because of this, retinol creams can drastically reduce the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines, as well as increase your skin’s thickness, softness, and smoothness. We’ve dug through the scientific research and ranked the ten best retinol creams for fighting skin aging.
1. Simple Beauty Age Defying Retinol Moisturizer
For people looking to effortlessly reduce and reverse the signs of aging, Simple Beauty age-defying retinol moisturizer is our #1 recommendation.
Combined with various clinically-backed ingredients, such as tocopheryl acetate, aloe vera, Retinyl palmitate, and chamomile extract, this retinol cream helps enhance collagen production and skin elasticity to reduce wrinkles and fine lines.
There are no inflammatory agents either, such as parabens and petroleum.
Bodynutrition’s best retinol moisturizer, by far.
2. LilyAna Naturals Retinol Cream
LilyAna Naturals gets high marks for its natural and organic ingredients. The retinol concentration is solid, at 2.5%, and it’s combined with natural oils and extracts like aloe, hyaluronic acid, jojoba oil, and shea butter oil.
These moisturizing compounds help combat the tendency of retinol to dry out your skin, and the hyaluronic acid in particular is a useful anti-aging compound in its own right—it helps skin collagen stay healthy. With these advantages, it’s our top pick.
3. Niara Beauty Retinol Cream
Niara Beauty uses a great strategy with their retinol cream: a high retinol concentration (2.5%) along with an array of natural oils and extracts to moisturize, heal, and protect the skin.
You’ll find the usuals, like aloe leaf juice and jojoba seed oil, plus some less common ingredients, like geranium extract, dandelion extract, and green tea extract. These add antioxidant power to this formulation that’s already fairly strong in its moisturizing abilities.
4. Amara Organics Retinol Cream
Using a mixture of aloe vera, sunflower oil, and palm oil as a base, Amara Organics delivers a 2.5% retinol concentration in a simple and natural formula that is a good pick if you are not a big fan of many different herbal extracts (which may cause irritation in people with sensitive skin) in your cosmetic products.
It’s got hyaluronic acid and vitamin E as well, making it a good all-around solution for fighting aging in skin.
5. Baebody Beauty Retinol
Baebody Beauty combines a 2.5% retinol concentration with antioxidants and moisturizers like green tea extract, jojoba oil, vitamin B5, and vitamin E.
It’s a solid pick if you want to combat oxidative damage in your skin, as well as fight aging and gain some moisturizing benefits from the cetyl alcohol and shea butter oil.
6. Organys Retinol Cream
Organys uses a pretty standard retinol formulation, and while it does have a fairly strong concentration (2.5%), it’s hampered somewhat by a lack of strong moisturizers compared to some of the other products on the market.
Still, it does include a substantial amount of hyaluronic acid, though it does not appear to be sourced from plant materials. If you don’t need anything fancy, and if you find that retinol doesn’t dry out your skin very much, it could be a good choice.
7. Yeouth Retinol Serum 2.5%
If you’ve already got a pretty solid skin care routine and are just looking to add a nightly retinol regimen, Yeouth Retinol Serum is a good way to go.
It’s 2.5% retinol, and doesn’t have much in the way of extra active ingredients, aside from aloe vera leaf juice. It’s not the best if you don’t already use a nightly moisturizer, or if you are looking for additional anti-aging compounds like hyaluronic acid.
However, for people who just need an effective and high-concentration retinol serum, it’s one of the best choices.
8. Tree of Life Retinol Serum
Tree of Life makes a 2% retinol serum that’s distinguished by its inclusion of witch hazel and the fact that the serum is a liquid instead of the usual cream-base.
The serum is a little more difficult to use, and unfortunately, it’s a bit harder to use compared to a cream. The serum base is also less effective at moisturizing, so you’ll likely have to pair this with a separate moisturizing cream.
9. Body Merry Retinol Surge Moisturizer
Body Merry has historically been lauded for its anti-aging properties, though more recently users have been upset about a change in the formula that seems to have blunted its efficacy and may have made it more likely to cause irritation.
It’s still got some solid ingredients, like aloe vera leaf juice, jojoba oil, and shea butter oil, but many of these ingredients are listed further down the ingredients list than you’d like. With an unclear retinol concentration, you’re also taking a shot in the dark if you are switching to this product after trying a different retinol cream.
10. RoC Retinol Correxion Deep Wrinkle Night Cream
RoC’s retinol formulation is strong, but fairly harsh. While other companies use natural oils and extracts to soothe the skin, RoC opts for mostly synthetic compounds.
As demonstrated by user testimonials, many people do find it quite effective, though users with sensitive skin may want to opt for something a little more suited for soothing the skin.
11. Advanced Clinicals Retinol Advanced Firming Cream
With an uncertain retinol concentration and a conspicuous lack of high-quality moisturizers and skin soothing agents, Advanced Clinicals is a little too focused on delivering retinol and misses the mark when it comes to countering some of the negative effects of retinol, like redness and dryness.
Instead of a natural plant or seed oil base, Advanced Clinicals uses mineral oil—which is fine, but it’s definitely a missed opportunity to include a better moisturizer. Some users also complain that this product actually exacerbates redness and irritation instead of soothing it.
Who Should Buy Retinol Cream?
Retinol cream is safe for most individuals and is great for reducing the appearance of wrinkles, fine lines, and aging. It can also help improve skin healing and reduce sun damage. Using a moisturizer along a retinol cream is ideal, as it will provide better results. It is also advised to use an exfoliator alongside the retinol cream to further enhance results.
Pregnant women or those looking to become pregnant should avoid retinoids in all forms.
How We Ranked
Since retinol is sensitive to light exposure, proper packaging was extremely important. We looked specifically for products that were packaged in opaque and air-restrictive containers to limit oxidation. This is why products like LilyAna and BaeBody ranked so well highly on our list. We did give exception Tree of Life and Yeouth as the bottles were dark enough to filter out most light.
Next, we looked for products with pure retinol. While there are a ton of retinol derivates on the market, the science is clear: pure retinol works. Some of these derivatives still have some benefits, but without extensive studies, we didn’t feel confident about including these products as our recommendation. We did give the exception to Simple Beauty, as they provided a very effective and pure product. In addition, their vitamin A derivative, Retinyl palmitate, is a little more reliable.
Dosage and ingredients were also important. We preferred products that contained 2.5% retinol for our rankings, which is Amara ranked in our top 5. In terms of ingredients, we looked for products that were free of parabens and other inflammatory agents. Products that included skin-supporting ingredients like aloe vera were rewarded for helping to support the effects of retinol cream.
Lastly, we looked for stabilizing agents – since retinol works better when combined with liposomes. As such, products that included liposomes ranked a lot higher than those that didn’t.
Retinol cuts down on wrinkles and fine lines. Retinol has shown a consistent ability to improve skin that is wrinkled across many scientific studies, finding itself in most wrinkle creams.
It does so by preventing the degradation of collagen, which is a key molecule that gives skin its elasticity and suppleness. The anti-aging effects of retinol are very robust, and have been tested in a number of clever studies which have been designed to prove decisively the benefits of retinol.
One such study was published in 2007 in the Journal of the American Medical Association Dermatology (1). This study involved 36 elderly subjects who were in their 80s.
Each subject was given a retinol cream and was instructed to apply it three times per week for 24 weeks to one arm. The subjects were also given a placebo cream, which had all of the same ingredients as the retinol cream, except for the retinol.
This placebo cream was applied to each subject’s alternate arm. After 24 weeks, the subjects were evaluated by an impartial observer who did not know which arm had received the retinol and which arm had received the placebo cream treatments.
The researchers found a statistically significant improvement in fine wrinkles as a result of retinol use.
Retinol increases the skin’s ability to heal itself. In the same study, the researchers also took a biopsy of the skin of each arm and used a biochemical analysis to get an objective measure of skin healing.
They found that the retinol cream resulted in greater expression of glycosaminoglycan, a key building block of connective tissue in the skin, compared to the skin expose to the placebo.
This further underscores the benefit of retinol, because the subjective observations (fewer wrinkles) are backed up by a biological mechanism (increased skin healing).
Retinol reverses skin damage caused by chronic sun exposure. Two reasonable objections might be raised about the previous study.
First, it wasn’t conducted on facial skin, which may well behave differently than skin on your arm. And second, aging to skin by the sun may respond differently than other skin aging processes.A study published in 2010 by researchers in Japan set out to address some of these concerns.
The experiment, described in an article in the Journal of Dermatological Treatment, had 57 women with sun-damaged skin use a retinol cream every night for 26 weeks (2).
The women put the retinol treatment on half their face, while they used a placebo cream on the other half. At the study’s conclusion, the researchers found a much greater success rate for the retinol cream at treating both deep wrinkles and fine lines on the face.
Retinol cream is less likely to cause irritation than other anti-aging creams. In 2006, a team of researchers in Germany and India published a review article in the journal Clinical Interventions in Aging describing the current state of affairs in skin aging treatments (3).
In this review, they compare the effects of various retinoids, a category of chemical to which retinol belongs. They noted that retinol is much less likely to cause burning, irritation, redness, and dermatitis compared to other retinoids.
They also cite a raft of studies supporting the efficacy of retinol at decreasing the appearance of wrinkles and reversing the effects of “photoaging”—damage to skin caused by exposure to sunlight.
While retinol is a powerful anti-aging treatment for skin, it does have a number of potential side effects that you should be aware of. First among these is skin irritation.
As noted above, retinol appears much less likely to cause symptoms of skin irritation like redness, peeling, scaling, and dermatitis, but the risk is still not zero.
One study found that approximately five percent of its participants withdrew because of skin irritation caused by a retinol cream (4).
The effects of skin irritation can be mitigated by starting off by applying retinol cream only every other night, then gradually transitioning to more frequent (i.e. daily) application as tolerated.
The effects of retinol on the skin can also be improved by using a moisturizer, either alongside retinol cream or simply by selecting a retinol cream that uses moisturizing ingredients already.
The other major side effect of retinol is an increased sensitivity of the skin to sunlight, termed “photosensitivity” in the medical literature.
The reason why retinol decreases your skin’s ability to resist damage by ultraviolet light seems to be related to its propensity to increase skin cell turnover, though the exact mechanism is not entirely clear. Still, when you use retinol, you should also use a sunscreen to protect your skin from ultraviolet light.
This is a good idea anyways, given that damage from the sun is the single biggest cause of aging in skin. Dermatologists recommend applying retinol at night, both to reduce your exposure to sunlight while your skin is sensitized to ultraviolet light, and to increase the efficacy of the treatment.
Retinol itself is also chemically reactive in the presence of ultraviolet light, and has a tendency to break down when exposed to sunlight. Thus, it’s best to apply retinol cream right before bed, and apply a moisturizer with sunscreen in the morning to continue protecting your skin.
What is retinol cream? Retinol cream is a topical cream that contains a form of Vitamin A called retinol or retinoic acid. Retinol cream is a clinically tested cosmetic used to treat the appearance of aging skin, as well as address other common skin issues (5).
Retinol promotes cell turnover in the skin and improves the appearance of blemishes, wrinkles, and skin discoloration (6). It is widely accepted to be a more tolerable form of vitamin A and converts to retinoic acid when applied to the skin, allowing the chemical to improve skin conditions.
What does vitamin A in retinol cream do? Vitamin A encourages the reproduction of cells. It is beneficial to many functions in the body, including boosting the immune system and having healthy bones as well as maintaining healthy growth and keeping strong vision. Vitamin A includes retinol, retinal, and retinoic acid.
Will retinol cream thin my skin? Yes retinol creams thin the stratum corneum (the outer layers of the skin). It helps peel away dead skin cells, revealing a more rejuvenated appearance to your skin. By exfoliating the outer layers of the skin, retinol creams help the skin stay hydrated, which can bolster its strength.
How does retinol cream improve skin conditions? As the body ages, the natural cell turnover rate in the skin decreases (7). The decline in cell turnover causes a rougher and thicker skin texture, as well as uneven skin tones. Retinol improves the turnover of surface cells, which causes dead skin cells to be removed quickly and keeps them from clogging pores.
How does retinol compare to other forms of Vitamin A treatments? Tretinoin is another chemical compound that comes from Vitamin A and is a purely pharmaceutical form of retinoic acid. A prescription is required to use tretinoin. It is used to treat many of the same issues as retinol, such as wrinkles, acne, and skin discoloration.
However, tretinoin is also known to be irritable, resulting in dry and red skin. Peeling can also occur as a result of these adverse symptoms. Research suggests that over-the-counter retinol cream is potentially less irritating than tretinoin (8).
Is retinol cream safe to use? Retinol cream is generally safe for use by the average person. In clinical trials, retinol creams have not demonstrated significant side effects, although slight skin irritability is not uncommon (9). There are a few exceptions to keep in mind when considering if retinol cream is safe.
Retinol cream and other Vitamin A derivatives are not recommended for pregnant or breastfeeding women. People with hypersensitive skin should also consult a skincare professional before proceeding with the use of over the counter retinol. Certain products like sunscreen are also imbued with retinol, which sensitive or pregnant women should avoid.
When should I use retinol cream? Retinol cream and all other retinol products are most optimal as nighttime routine products. Forms of Vitamin A degrade rapidly when exposed to sunlight and harsh weather conditions, meaning they are ineffective when applied to the skin and then exposed to the outdoors.
Retinol cream should also be used fairly quickly. When retinol is exposed to air, it begins to break down faster. Retinol cream can be used over the course of a few months. Retinol featured in daytime products such as retinol-infused makeup foundations is not as effective as creams applied at night.
How long does it take to see results with retinol cream? Retinol cream can take up to 12 months to show full results. During this period of use, the skin goes through retinization, which is where the skin starts to become acclimated to the retinol cream.
During this acclimation process, your skin may become dry, red, and itchy. Peeling can also occur. Typically, the skin should acclimatize after about four weeks. A method for lessening irritable symptoms is to start with light amounts of cream and gradually increase these over the four-week period.
Does retinol cream increase or decrease the chances of getting skin cancer? During the acclimation period, the skin is sensitive to UV rays. However, the normal UV protection levels of the skin should eventually return to normal. As long as the skin isn’t exposed to an excess amount of direct sunlight during the first few weeks of using a retinol cream, it is safe.
In some studies, retinoids may help decrease cancerous growth and aid in fighting cancer because of the retinoids increasing cell turnover (10). Retinoids may help correct pre-cancers, slow cancerous growths, and lessen the chance that new cancer develops in the skin.
Is retinol cream only useful for older people? Many mature adults find retinol cream useful for helping to manage the results of aging in their skin, but people in their 20s and 30s also incorporate retinol cream into their routines as a part of preventative skincare methods.
There is no evidence suggesting long-term use of retinol results in permanent skin damage. For those who want to prevent the signs of aging from occurring too soon, retinol creams may be a great choice. Those who start to use retinol cream at a younger age could help regulate skin function so that it continually looks younger, even as the skin ages.
How do I use retinol cream? Retinol cream should be used inside and during evening hours for optimal results. A pea-sized amount of cream is a good amount to use, as using too much retinol can contribute to possible irritation. Dab the retinol cream onto strategic places of the skin, and massage it in gentle circles until it is completely absorbed.
Allow the retinol cream to sit for 2-3 minutes on the skin and dry before applying any additional products. Start initial use at twice a week and slowly increase the frequency to nightly applications as your tolerance allows—lower retinoid usage results in less irritation (11).
Does retinol cream effectively address acne? Retinoids play a large role in treating acne (12). Retinol cream increases cell turnover, which can help unclog pores that are overactive in their oil production or clogged with dead skin cells. Fewer dead skin cells make the skin a less hospitable environment for the bacteria that causes acne blemishes.
Other methods of treating acne, such as mechanical exfoliation, can be overly abrasive and damage the skin. Retinol cream uses chemical exfoliation, which is generally healthier for the skin and results in less damage.
How can you treat negative reactions to retinol cream? In cases where irritation caused by retinol cream becomes more difficult than expected, the first step is to cut back on the use of the retinol cream. In some cases, it is necessary to cut out the retinol cream entirely along with other skin products featuring active ingredients. Once the reaction has sufficiently resolved, retinol is safe to reintroduce slowly.
Begin with smaller amounts of retinol cream to help the skin build up a tolerance and manage more frequent usage. Apply a pea-sized amount of retinol cream to your entire face twice per week, working your way up to 3-4 pea-sized amounts 2-3 times per week as your skin allows.
How should retinol creams be layered? When using other healthcare products, it is essential to know how to layer in retinol cream so that maximum results can be achieved, and minimal discomfort occurs. Dermatologists recommend that users start with their thinnest topical and move on from there.
You should apply any lotions first since they are thinner, then add the retinol cream. If you are planning on spending time outdoors, apply sunscreen as well. Make sure to give each layer sufficient time to sit and absorb before applying the next layer. Your face should be clean and washed before applying any of the products.
Is the effectiveness of retinol cream backed by science? Retinol cream is a powerful anti-aging cosmetic that actively heals and reduces the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines on your skin. Among a veritable sea of anti-aging cosmetics, retinol stands out thanks to the large body of scientific literature that supports its efficacy when it comes to objectively reversing the effects of aging on your skin.
Can retinol cream be mixed with other topicals? In order to achieve the best possible results, retinol cream should not be diluted with other substances. You should apply all topicals separately and allow each to sit and absorb before applying anything more. Certain lotions also contain other compounds that do not mix well with retinoids.
Alpha-hydroxy acids or benzoyl peroxide, both commonly found in other anti-aging and acne treatment creams and lotions, does not encourage retinol cream to achieve its maximum results. The combination can also result in longer periods of irritability and more severe redness and peeling.
Similarly, other products that are retinol infused should be used with caution. Sunscreens featuring retinol and any other Vitamin A derivatives should be avoided due to retinol’s high photodecomposition tendencies (13).
Can you apply retinol cream around your eyes? The skin around and under the eyes is the thinnest section of skin on the face. These areas are where the earliest signs of aging begin. While in the past, it was widely believed that an aggressive ingredient like retinol should not be applied near the eyes, current formulas are deemed safe to use.
There are even specific retinol creams available for the area around the eyes. These creams generally feature buffered dosages of retinol to decrease irritation and have an increase in hydrating ingredients.
What dosage of retinol cream is best? The right dosage comes down to the individual and how aged their skin is, as well as how sensitive the skin is. To treat more severe photoaging, a higher concentration is recommended. However, if the skin is more sensitive, a lower concentration of retinol in the cream is advisable.
In some countries such as Canada, 1.0% retinol cream is the highest concentration you can get over the counter. If the skin is reacting poorly to the retinol cream, a lower dosage than 1.0% is recommended. However, retinol cream is considered to be overall more tolerable than prescription-grade tretinoin cream (14).
Retinol cream is a strong anti-aging treatment that can reduce the appearance of deep wrinkles, fine wrinkles, and sun-related damage to your skin.
It’s been tested and validated across a wide range of studies, and it’s less likely to cause side effects compared to other retinoid treatments for skin aging. To minimize the risk of skin irritation and sun damage, it’s best to start out applying retinol only a few times per week, gradually increasing how often you apply it until you can tolerate it once every day.
Retinol cream is best applied at night, both to protect your skin and to increase the effectiveness of the retinol. With consistent use, you should see a marked improvement in wrinkles, and you’ll end up with skin that is younger, smoother, and softer.
For Bodynutrition’s #1 recommended retinol cream, click here.