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Best drugstore retinol products: Standout options for 2023

Our top 9 picks for some of the best OTC retinol skincare products that can help fight visible signs of aging.

Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Nov 10, 2023 • 10 min read
Medically reviewed by Elise Griffin, PA-C
Woman Applying Retinol on the Face
Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Nov 10, 2023 • 10 min read
Medically reviewed by Elise Griffin, PA-C
We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

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There’s no one-size-fits-all in skincare. What works for one person may not necessarily have the same results for someone else. But it’s only natural to want the best! Luckily our team of licensed dermatology providers are regularly reviewing and assessing products on the market and are happy to offer a few recommendations! So here, you’ll find the products that hold up to our rigorous standards.

There is no shortage of products that promise the ability to deliver visible anti-aging results. And among the most common ingredients in these kinds of products is retinol, an over-the-counter form of vitamin A. Known for its efficacy in diminishing wrinkles and fine lines and improving uneven skin texture, retinol has become a staple in many people’s skincare routines.¹ 

But you don't need to splurge on high-end brands to experience the benefits of this ingredient. Some of the best drugstore retinol products of 2023 have proven that effective skincare can be both accessible and affordable—that’s why our licensed dermatology providers give them a thumbs-up. Here, we’ll share a few popular OTC retinol options and breakdown the benefits of incorporating retinol into your routine.

What are the benefits of retinol?

As we age, our skin undergoes various changes. One of the most common is that our skin’s natural ability to renew and rejuvenate diminishes significantly. This leads to skin that feels drier, looks thinner, and lacks the elasticity it once had.² But why, exactly, does this happen?

Research indicates that the rate at which these changes occur can be influenced by several factors, including our genetics, various environmental exposures including harmful UV rays, and hormonal changes.³

Enter retinol—a game-changer in skincare. Retinol is part of a family of compounds known as retinoids, which are derived from vitamin A.⁴ This might sound like a regular vitamin, but it’s a powerhouse in the realm of skincare. So, what makes retinol so special?

First, retinol has the ability to combat the appearance of wrinkles. It achieves this by working on a cellular level—thickening the outermost layer of our skin (the epidermis).⁵ As a result, with regular retinol use, your skin may appear plumper and smoother, reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.

Additionally, retinol encourages faster skin cell turnover. In simpler terms, it helps our skin shed old cells and replace them with newer ones more quickly. This not only gives our skin a fresher appearance but also aids in lightening dark spots.⁶ If you have age spots or patches of hyperpigmentation, retinol can be a helpful ally in evening out your skin tone.

So, if you’re looking for an ingredient that can give your skin a boost and combat the signs of aging, retinol is a potential option. Its ability to thicken skin and speed up cell turnover makes it a valuable addition to many skincare routines.

Our top 9 picks for best drugstore retinol 

Retinol has proven its effectiveness against signs of aging and photoaging.⁷ Retinoids (the family that includes retinol) are available in both prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) products. 

An OTC retinol offers the benefits of affordability and easy accessibility, allowing you to enjoy the benefits without the hefty price tag or an office visit. So, if you’re looking to add retinol to your routine without breaking the bank, you’re in luck! Below, we’ve curated our top 9 picks for the best over-the-counter retinol. 

BYBI Beauty Bakuchiol 1% Booster

What we like about it:

  • Bakuchiol isn’t technically a retinol, but it works similarly and has comparable effects⁸

  • Some may find bakuchiol more gentle on the skin compared to retinol⁹

  • Can be added to your serums or moisturizers for an anti-aging boost

Derma-E Retinol Concentrated Serum

What we like about it:

  • Contains 0.5% encapsulated retinol as well as bakuchiol for anti-aging effects

  • Uses a concentrated, timed-release formula for increased effectiveness

  • 100% vegan and cruelty-free certified

Paula’s Choice RESIST Intensive Wrinkle-Repair Retinol Serum

What we like about it:

  • Contains 0.1% stabilized retinol concentration

  • Also includes vitamins C and E to brighten skin

  • Contains squalane which is a powerful source antioxidants and fatty acids

Good Molecules Gentle Retinol Cream

What we like about it:

  • Formulated with 0.1% retinol

  • Vegan and cruelty-free

  • Fragrance-free, making it appropriate for sensitive skin

Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Serum

What we like about it:

  • Lightweight serum absorbs easily

  • Contains hyaluronic acid for moisturizing properties

  • Claims to provider younger appearing skin after a week of daily use

Paula's Choice BOOST 1% Retinol Booster

What we like about it:

  • Made with 1% encapsulated retinol, meaning it releases slowly

  • Also contains ceramides and peptides to increase skin hydration

  • Can be used alone or added to other skincare products

Biossance Squalane + Retinol Night Serum

What we like about it: 

  • Time-release formula with both retinol and retinal

  • Also includes squalane to increase moisturizing properties

  • Vegan and cruelty-free formula

RoC Retinol Correxion Line Smoothing Daily Serum

What we like about it:

  • Slow-release formula remains active for up to 12 hours

  • Includes ashwagandha to calm the skin and squalane to increase hydration

  • Claims to increase hydration immediately as well as over time

Versed Press Restart Gentle Retinol Serum

What we like about it:

  • Contains 0.03% microencapsulated retinol

  • Specifically formulated for sensitive skin and first-time retinol users

  • Also contains bakuchiol, shea butter, and aloe

What to consider before buying an OTC retinol

Thinking about adding retinol to your skincare routine? It’s a popular choice for many who want to combat the signs of aging. However, before you grab a product off the shelf, here are a few key things to consider:

Formula type: Retinol isn’t a one-size-fits-all ingredient. It comes in various formula types, including creams, serums, moisturizers, and oils. Additionally, many retinol products are combined with other anti-aging or moisturizing ingredients. When deciding on the best formula for you, consider your skin type and how you’d like to incorporate retinol into your skincare routine.

Concentration of retinol: Over-the-counter retinol products can have a wide range of concentrations, typically between 0.05% and 1%.¹⁰ It’s important to understand that a higher concentration won’t always lead to better results. If you’re new to retinol, it’s a good idea to start with a lower concentration to see how your skin reacts. Interestingly, a study found that 1% and 0.3% retinol concentrations were similarly effective. However, the lower 0.3% concentration had fewer associated side effects.¹¹

Potential side effects: All skincare products can have side effects, and retinol isn’t an exception. Some people may experience irritations like burning, scaling, or dermatitis. But here’s the silver lining—retinol is generally less irritating than other retinoids.¹² 

That said if you’re seeking a more potent treatment, you might want to consider prescription strength tretinoin. It is 20x more potent than over-the-counter retinol!¹³ There is a risk that with an increased strength that you may experience more irritation, so this is something to keep in mind.

Pore-clogging ingredients: While you’re reading the ingredient list, be on the lookout for components that might clog your pores. This will help ensure that acne-prone skin remains clear and avoids breakouts.

So, if you’re considering an OTC retinol, understanding your skin’s needs and doing a bit of research can go a long way. With the right product, you’ll be on your way to smoother, more youthful-looking skin!

What about prescription-strength retinoids?

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Your skin and your goals are unique. For some people, drugstore retinols will be enough to get the anti-aging results they’re looking for. Others may want to consider prescription-strength retinoid options.

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That’s why Curology offers Future-Proofᴿˣ for anti-aging, a prescription-strength formula that can be customized for your skincare goals. When you sign up with Curology, you’ll complete a skin quiz and snap a few photos of your skin. A licensed dermatology provider will then review your information and (if appropriate) prescribe you a formula containing up to three active ingredients to target your skin concerns. 

Your custom formula could include proven anti-aging ingredients such as tretinoin (a topical retinoid), azelaic acidniacinamide, or tranexamic acid. The best part? As you progress towards your skincare goals, your formula ingredients can evolve with you.

FAQs

Is a prescription retinoid better than over-the-counter retinol?

The effectiveness of retinol, whether prescription or over-the-counter (OTC), really depends on individual skin needs. Everyone’s skin is unique. Some might find OTC retinol perfectly suitable for their skincare goals, while others, seeking more potent solutions, might benefit from consulting a dermatology provider for prescription options. Ultimately, what’s “better” is determined by personal skin conditions and desired outcomes.

Is over-the-counter retinol effective?

Absolutely! Over-the-counter (OTC) retinol products can be effective for their anti-aging benefits. They can help reduce the appearance of wrinkles and improve skin texture. Additionally, drugstore retinol options have the advantage of being more affordable and easily accessible compared to prescription alternatives. So, if you’re seeking an effective and convenient solution for skin aging, OTC retinol might be a great choice for you.

Should you put moisturizer or retinol first?

When adding retinol into your regimen, remember the general skincare rule—products are typically layered from thinnest to thickest. 

This ensures each product is effectively absorbed and maximizes the benefits for your skin. We also recommend starting with a lower strength retinol and increasing the strength once your skin tolerates it.

What is the highest level of OTC retinol?

Retinol, a popular ingredient in skincare products, is available over-the-counter (OTC) in various concentrations, ranging from 0.05% to 1%.¹⁴ However, a higher concentration doesn't necessarily mean better results. For those new to retinol, it’s best to begin with a lower concentration to gauge your skin's response. Interestingly, one study found that both 1% and 0.3% retinol concentrations delivered similar benefits. However, the 0.3% concentration had the added advantage of causing fewer side effects.¹⁵ The best advice is to choose a product that suits your skin's needs rather than simply going for the highest concentration.

Is 1% retinol too strong?

While 1% is typically the upper limit for over-the-counter products (though some products may have as high as 2%), it doesn't necessarily mean it's the best for everyone. Strength isn't always indicative of effectiveness. In fact, a study found that 1% and 0.3% retinol concentrations were equally effective, but the 0.3% version resulted in fewer side effects.¹⁶ So if you're new to retinol, it's wise to start with a milder concentration to see how your skin reacts. 

• • •

P.S. We did the homework so you don’t have to:

  1. Draelos, Z.D. and Thaman, L.A. Cosmetic Formulation of Skin Care Products. CRC Press. (2006, n.d.).

  2. Mukherjee, S., et al. Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clinical Interventions in Aging. (December 2006).

  3. Mukherjee, S., et al. Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clinical Interventions in Aging. Ibid.

  4. Mukherjee, S., et al. Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clinical Interventions in Aging. Ibid.

  5. Mellody, K.T., et al. Multifaceted amelioration of cutaneous photoageing by (0.3%) retinol. International journal of cosmetic science. (December 2022).

  6. Draelos, Z.D. and Thaman, L.A. Cosmetic Formulation of Skin Care Products. CRC Press. Ibid.

  7. Mukherjee, S., et al. Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clinical Interventions in Aging. Ibid.

  8. Dhaliwal, S., et al. Prospective, randomized, double-blind assessment of topical bakuchiol and retinol for facial photoageing. The British Journal of Dermatology. (February 2019).

  9. Dhaliwal, S., et al. Prospective, randomized, double-blind assessment of topical bakuchiol and retinol for facial photoageing. The British Journal of Dermatology. Ibid.

  10. Mellody, K.T., et al. Multifaceted amelioration of cutaneous photoageing by (0.3%) retinol. International Journal of Cosmetic Science. Ibid.

  11. Mellody, K.T., et al. Multifaceted amelioration of cutaneous photoageing by (0.3%) retinol. International Journal of Cosmetic Science. Ibid.

  12. Mukherjee, S., et al. Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clinical Interventions in Aging. Ibid.

  13. Mukherjee, S., et al. Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clinical Interventions in Aging. Ibid.

  14. Mellody, K.T., et al. Multifaceted amelioration of cutaneous photoageing by (0.3%) retinol. International Journal of Cosmetic Science. Ibid.

  15. Mellody, K.T., et al. Multifaceted amelioration of cutaneous photoageing by (0.3%) retinol. International Journal of Cosmetic Science. Ibid.

  16. Mellody, K.T., et al. Multifaceted amelioration of cutaneous photoageing by (0.3%) retinol. International Journal of Cosmetic Science. Ibid.

Elise Griffin is a certified physician assistant at Curology. She received her Master of Medical Science in physician assistant studies from Nova Southeastern University in Jacksonville, FL.

*Cancel anytime. Subject to consultation. Results may vary.

• • •
Our medical review process:We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
Our policy on product links:Empowering you with knowledge is our top priority. Our reviews of other brands’ products in this post are not paid endorsements—but they do meet our medically fact-checked standards for ingredients (at the time of publication).
Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team

Elise Griffin, Physician Assistant Curology

Elise Griffin, PA-C

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