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Best retinol creams for different skin types

Plus, what you need to know before incorporating this product into your routine.

Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Dec 6, 2023 • 19 min read
Medically reviewed by Maria Borowiec, NB-BC
Brunette Woman in White T-shirt Applies Retinol Cream
Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Dec 6, 2023 • 19 min read
Medically reviewed by Maria Borowiec, NB-BC
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.

In this article

What is retinol?
More

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, so our team of licensed dermatology providers reviews and assesses countless products on the market to offer a few recommendations. So here, you’ll find the products that hold up to our rigorous standards.

Are you ready to revamp your skincare routine for an improved complexion and a more radiant appearance? Retinol may be the key ingredient missing from your routine. A form of vitamin A, this popular skincare ingredient is known for its ability to address a broad spectrum of skin concerns. However, not all retinol products are the same—and not every product is suitable for every person. 

With so many options on the market, choosing the best retinol cream for your skin type may be challenging. That’s where we can help. If you want to reduce the appearance of wrinkles and dark spots, here we’ll help you find the best retinol cream for your concerns.

What is retinol?

Retinol is a vitamin A derivative, a substance that can help slow down the aging process of the skin.¹ It belongs to a category of compounds called retinoids. Retinoids can help improve various skin conditions, such as acnewrinklesdark spots, and psoriasis, by increasing cell turnover and promoting collagen production.²

They can also reduce certain types of inflammation and unclog pores.³

Is retinol the same as vitamin A?

Retinol is a vitamin A derivative.⁴ Vitamin A has various physiological roles in the body and must be included in our diet. Retinol is a common and active form of vitamin A found in animal sources, such as liver, eggs, and dairy. Plant sources of vitamin A, in the form of carotenoids, are found in carrots, spinach, mangos, and sweet potatoes.⁵

What are retinol creams?

As the name implies, retinol creams are products that contain retinol or other forms of vitamin A, such as retinaldehyde or retinyl palmitate.⁶ These are also retinoids, but they have different structures and activities compared to retinol. 

Retinol creams aim to stimulate cell turnover and increase collagen production. Topical retinoids may also help reduce UV damage, smooth wrinkles, and fade certain dark spots.⁷

Types of retinol creams

Not all retinol creams are the same. The right retinol cream for you will depend on your skin type and goals. 

Over-the-counter (OTC) retinol

You can easily find and use OTC retinol creams. They contain retinol or other topical retinoids, such as retinaldehyde or retinyl palmitate.⁸ These retinoids change into retinoic acid, the active form of vitamin A, on your skin. This typically makes them gentler and less irritating, but also potentially slower and less effective than prescription retinoids such as tretinoin.⁹

OTC retinol creams are generally a good option for those who are just starting to use topical retinoids.

Here are some retinol products to consider:

Prescription retinoids

Prescription retinoids, including tretinoin, are another option to consider. They are generally more potent and may be more effective than over-the-counter or cosmeceutical alternatives, but you need a prescription from a licensed healthcare provider to use them.¹⁰

However, prescription topical retinoids may be more likely to cause dryness or irritation upon initial use.¹¹ That said, your medical provider prescribing the product can offer guidance and tips on how to help minimize this side effect.

Benefits and effects of using a retinol cream

Wondering why you might want to use a retinol cream? Here are some key benefits you may see from this kind of product.

1. Anti-aging benefits

The best retinol creams may help reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles by boosting the elasticity and thickness of your skin. They help prevent the degradation of collagen and also boost collagen production, which helps firm up the skin and slow down the appearance of aging.¹²

2. Skin brightening effects

No one wants to have an uneven complexion. Using a retinol cream may help improve the glow and smoothness of your skin by increasing cell turnover and collagen production. Furthermore, they may also help lighten dark spots,¹³ which may help even out the skin tone.

3. Improved skin texture

Many retinol creams are formulated to help improve the texture and clarity of your skin by unclogging pores, reducing inflammation, and regulating the formation and turnover of the outer skin layers. Retinoids may also help prevent or treat acne breakouts by regulating sebum production and preventing comedones.¹⁴

How to choose the best retinol cream for your skin type

Here are some tips to help you choose the best retinol cream for your skin type.

Acknowledge skin sensitivity

Retinol creams can cause irritation, dryness, redness, peeling, or flaking in some people,¹⁵ especially those with sensitive skin.

If you have sensitive skin or are new to retinol, it’s generally a good practice to start with a mild product with a lower concentration of retinol and start slowly (once or twice a week) until your skin adjusts. You can also apply a gentle moisturizer (like this one from Curology) before or after using a retinol cream to minimize irritation.¹⁶ Consult with your licensed healthcare provider to see what’s best for your skin.

Test your retinol product

Before using a retinol product on your face, do a patch test on a small area of your skin (such as behind your ear or on your wrist) and wait for 24 hours to see if you have any adverse reaction. 

If you notice any signs of irritation or allergy (such as swelling or rash), do not use the product. If you have no reaction, you can proceed with caution and follow the instructions on the label.

Personalized skincare with Curology 

Retinol is a powerful skincare ingredient that can improve the appearance and health of your skin. It can reduce the signs of aging and can help brighten your skin. However, retinol can also cause irritation, dryness, or sensitivity in some people, especially if used incorrectly or excessively. 

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

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That’s why you need to find the right retinol cream for your skin type and follow expert advice to use it safely and effectively

Regardless of which skincare products you choose, always remember to consult a dermatology provider before using retinol and follow their instructions on how to apply it properly. 

With Curology, you can gain access to a personalized skincare formula based on your specific needs. To get started, all you need to do is answer a few questions and take a small handful of photos of your skin concerns. Then, our team of licensed dermatology providers will prescribe products with the specific ingredients needed to treat your skin concerns, leading to healthier, more vibrant skin. 

Try Curology with our 30-day trial. Unlock your offer today!

FAQs

Is 1% retinol too strong?

The short answer: not for most people. However, it may be too strong for retinol beginners or those with sensitive skin. A study suggests that 1% retinol combined with 4% hydroquinone was found to be mild for a majority of people.¹⁷ 

Beginners should generally start with lower concentrations of retinol (0.1% or less) for safe measure and gradually increase the strength as their skin tolerates.

What’s better: vitamin C or retinol?

Generally speaking, vitamin C is excellent for hyperpigmentation as it has been shown to inhibit melanin synthesis and brighten your skin tone.¹⁸ Retinol, on the other hand, is used to minimize the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines. This is because it works to stimulate collagen production and improve skin elasticity.¹⁹ 

One study suggests that they work well together for signs of aging and photoaging, as they can enhance each other’s antioxidant effects and reduce oxidative stress in the skin.²⁰

Should I use retinol every day?

We don’t recommend using retinol every day when you’re just getting started, as it can cause irritation or sensitivity in your skin. Begin by using it once or twice a week at night and gradually increase the frequency as your skin adjusts.

How many days should I use retinol as a beginner?

As a beginner, we think it’s best to introduce retinol slowly:

  1. Start by using it once or twice a week at night for the first one to two weeks. 

  2. Increase usage to every second night for the next two weeks.

  3. After 4 to 6 weeks of use, if your skin is tolerating well, increase usage to every night.

Always listen to your skin and decrease usage if you experience any discomfort or adverse effects.

What not to use with retinol?

There are some ingredients that you should be cautious about using with retinol, as they can cause excessive irritation or dryness in your skin. 

These include:

  • Other retinoids: Using multiple retinoids at the same time may be too harsh for your skin and increase the risk of side effects. 

  • Chemical exfoliants: Using chemical exfoliants (such as glycolic acid, salicylic acid, or lactic acid) with retinol may increase the risk of irritation, especially when first starting out with retinol. 

We recommend discussing your routine with a licensed dermatology provider for specific advice on what products to use or avoid with retinol.

• • •

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

  1. Zasada, M. and Budzisz, E. Retinoids: active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatments. Postepy dermatologii i alergologii. (August 2019).

  2. Zasada, M. and Budzisz, E. Retinoids: active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatments. Postepy dermatologii i alergologii. Ibid.

  3. Zasada, M. and Budzisz, E. Retinoids: active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatments. Postepy dermatologii i alergologii. Ibid.

  4. Zasada, M. and Budzisz, E. Retinoids: active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatments. Postepy dermatologii i alergologii. Ibid.

  5. Gilbert, C. What is vitamin A and why do we need it?. Community Eye Health Journal. (2013, n.d.).

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

  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. Spierings, N.M.K. Evidence for the Efficacy of Over-the-counter Vitamin A Cosmetic Products in the Improvement of Facial Skin Aging: A Systematic Review. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. (September 2021).

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

  10. Motamendi, M., et al. A Clinician’s Guide to Topical Retinoids. J Cutan Med Surg. (January 2022).

  11. Motamendi, M., et al. A Clinician’s Guide to Topical Retinoids. J Cutan Med Surg. 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. Gendimenico, G.J. and Mezick, J.A. Pharmacological effects of retinoids on skin cells. Skin Pharmacology. (1993, n.d.).

  14. Zasada, M. and Budzisz, E. Retinoids: active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatments. Postepy dermatologii i alergologii. Ibid.

  15. Yin, S., et al. Retinoids activate the irritant receptor TRPV1 and produce sensory hypersensitivity. The Journal of Clinical Investigation. (2013, September 3).

  16. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Retinoid or Retinol?. (2021, May 25).

  17. Rendon, M.I. and Barkovic, S. Clinical Evaluation of a 4% Hydroquinone + 1% Retinol Treatment Regimen for Improving Melasma and Photodamage in Fitzpatrick Skin Types III-VI. J Drugs Dermatol. (2016, November 1).

  18. Sanadi, R.M. and Deshmukh, R.S. The effect of Vitamin C on melanin pigmentation – A systematic review. J Oral Maxillofac Pathol. (May-August 2020).

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

  20. Seité, S., et al. Histological evaluation of a topically applied retinol-vitamin C combination. Skin Pharmacol Physiol. (March-April 2005).

Maria Borowiec is a certified Nurse Practitioner at Curology. She received her Master in Nursing from University of California, Los Angeles in Los Angeles, CA.

*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).
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Maria Borowiec, NB-BC

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