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. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. 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.
8. 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.
9. 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.
10. 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.
Retinol cream benefits and side effects
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.
We’ll take a look at exactly how retinol can help your skin look and feel younger, thicker, and smoother, plus some of the side effects to watch out for.
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.
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.