In the skin care world, retinol reigns supreme — and luckily, you don't have to spend hundreds of dollars to reap the benefits of this unparalleled ingredient. That's because you can buy plenty of great drugstore retinols right over the counter. The best drugstore retinol for you, though, will depend on your budget, your skin type, and whether you prefer a fast-absorbing serum, a lightweight lotion for layering, an oil-free gel (ideal for acne-prone skin), or a richer, more moisturizing cream.
If you’re new to using retinol, start off slowly to help counteract the initial redness and irritation many people experience while their skin gets used to turning over at a faster rate. To reduce those short-term side effects, experts advise waiting 30 minutes after cleansing to use your retinol, and then applying only a pea-sized amount to your face. Use it just a couple of times a week at first until your skin builds up a tolerance. If your skin seems to be adjusting well, you can then move on to applying it every other night.
Finally, after using your retinol, apply a nourishing moisturizer to balance out its potentially drying effects. Also, keep in mind that retinol can make your skin more sensitive to the sun, so be extra vigilant about applying your broad-spectrum sunscreen (with an SPF of at least 30) daily. Lastly, retinol should not be used by people who are pregnant, nursing, or considering pregnancy.
Now that you're well-informed on retinol 101, scroll on to shop six of the best drugstore retinols you can buy over the counter.
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1. The Overall Best Drugstore Retinol
There are a lot of reasons CeraVe's Skin Renewing Retinol Serum made the top spot on this list. Not only is it affordable and wildly popular with consumers — it's been awarded over 4,000 five-star ratings (and counting) on Amazon — but it's a safe bet for just about any skin type. The noncomedogenic, fragrance-free formula contains soothing niacinamide, hydrating hyaluronic acid, and ceramides, which are found in every CeraVe product to help reinforce a strong skin barrier. These nourishing ingredients help balance out retinol's potentially drying/irritating effects, so this is a good choice for people with dry or sensitive skin. Last, the lightweight formula absorbs into skin almost instantly, making it great for layering underneath a richer night cream. Top that off with an under-$30 price tag, and you've got yourself a winning product.
2. The Best Drugstore Retinol Under $20
A drugstore classic, RoC's Retinol Correxion Deep Wrinkle Night Cream is a popular pick with dermatologists, and it also counts Kim Kardashian as a fan. (Over 8,000 Amazon reviewers left it a five-star review or rating after purchasing, as well.) Though it's a cream, the oil-free, noncomedogenic formula sinks in quickly, and won't leave any sticky or greasy residue behind. Note that in addition to moisturizers like glycerin, shea butter, and squalane, it does contain fragrance and glycolic acid, so people with sensitive skin may want to use this with caution.
3. The Best Drugstore Retinol For Acne-Prone Skin
The retinoid adapalene was once only sold as a prescription medication, but you can now buy it over the counter from Differin in 0.1% form. Free of alcohol, fragrance, and oil, the formula is quite minimal, and ideal for treating acne. It'll help prevent breakouts and promote smoother, more even-looking skin, thanks to its ability to encourage skin cell turnover.
Not only has Differin gel won awards from Glamour and Allure, but over 20,000 Amazon reviewers left it a perfect, five-star rating, while thousands of others went out of their way to leave it a glowing review.
4. The Best French Pharmacy Retinol
Obsessed with French drugstore products? Then La Roche-Posay Redermic R may be for you. It's formulated with skin-soothers and moisturizers like glycerin and thermal spring water, but also contains lipo-hydroxy acid for even more skin-resurfacing benefits, as well as the brand's Retinol Booster Complex, which helps enhance the effectiveness of the retinol. The formula itself is like a gel serum, so it feels lightweight and wears nicely under moisturizer.
5. The Best Drugstore Eye Cream With Retinol
Though you can apply your regular retinol under your eyes, buying a retinol cream that was specifically formulated for the delicate skin around your eyes — like Neutrogena's Rapid Wrinkle Repair Eye Cream — is a safer choice. Formulated with the brand's Retinol SA, which helps "optimize and slow the retinol delivery" within your skin, this also contains skin-smoothers and moisturizers like glycerin, dimethicone, and hyaluronic acid. Plus, though eye creams tend to be extremely expensive, this one costs less than $20, so it's definitely worth giving a shot.
6. Honorable Mention
One last drugstore retinol for you to consider: Olay Regenerist Retinol 24 Night Moisturizer, a rich, silky cream that feels airy and pillowy-soft upon application. Enriched with glycerin, niacinamide, and dimethicone, in addition to retinol, the brand says it'll provide 24 hours of hydration (hence its name), while also working to promote smoother, clearer skin as you sleep.
Bonus: Your purchase also comes with a free, seven-day sample of Olay Regenerist Whip Moisturizer, so you can give that other, popular cream a spin for yourself.