The Best Drugstore Retinols, According To A Derm

We only recommend products we love and that we think you will, too. We may receive a portion of sales from products purchased from this article, which was written by our Commerce team.

Originally Published: 
Elite Daily/Amazon

“Not all Retinols are made equal!” dermatologist Azadeh Shirazi tells Elite Daily — and that especially applies to drugstore retinols. “Retinoid is the umbrella term for the class of molecules that bind to retinoic acid receptors. Retinols are a less potent type of retinoids — the latter being a prescription,” says Dr. Shirazi, who adds that the “active form of vitamin A is retinoic acid.” When it comes to shopping for the best drugstore retinols, “The percentage of retinol is important to determine if the product will actually deliver all the goodness and magic that vitamin A has to offer. Studies show prescription-strength retinoic acid is 10 times stronger than retinols, so it’s best to at least start with a 0.25 to 0.5% retinol [over the counter] to see results,” the dermatologist explains.

What types of retinol are available over the counter?

There are other things to consider aside from the percentage, such as the type of retinol being used in an over-the-counter product. “Retinyl palmitate is the weakest since it has to undergo the most steps in converting to retinoid acid, with retinol being the second most effective after retinal. The latest skin care MVP is retinal (retinaldehyde) because it delivers the same [benefits] as retinol but in a faster (up to 11 times) and more efficient way,” shares Dr. Shirazi, who says that retinal is the most effective form of retinol available without a prescription. There’s also adapalene, which is “a synthetic retinoid derived from napthoic acid that does not need to be converted to retinoic acid before it becomes active.” Dr. Shirazi says that adapalene is better known for treating acne than other types of retinols, which are known for their abilities to stimulate collagen and elastin production, and promote generally smoother, firmer skin.

What other ingredients pair well with retinol?

“Ingredients that work well with retinols are niacinamide to help reduce inflammation and [calm skin], hyaluronic acid, and vitamin C to formulate a more comprehensive product. I also find formulations with bakuchiol to be more potent as the star antioxidant further improves skin texture, yet reduces inflammation and irritation,” explains Dr. Shirazi.

What ingredients should you avoid when using retinol?

“Exfoliating Acids often combined with retinol can be irritating, so I suggest skipping the retinol the night you use your exfoliant,” says Dr. Shirazi, whether that’s an AHA or BHA product.

How to use retinol:

According to Dr. Shirazi, these are the top tips for incorporating retinol into your skin care routine — safely.

  1. “Start low and go slow. Start with a lower potent form with applications every other night before gradually working your way up to nightly.”
  2. “Use [a retinol that comes] in a measured pump [bottle] to avoid applying too much. If you have a prescription or one that comes in a tube, use a pea size amount for the entire face.”
  3. “Apply your retinoid from the outside in, meaning start on the outer cheeks and move towards the central face, as the area around the nose and mouth is most prone to irritation.”
  4. “Wait 20 [minutes] after cleansing before applying your retinol, particularly when you’re starting out.”
  5. “Apply an ointment such as Vaseline or Aquaphor to your lips and eyes to protect this delicate skin from irritation before applying your retinol.”
  6. “If you have sensitive skin, cleanse and moisturize earlier in the evening and apply your retinol on its own later on closer to bedtime after you brush your teeth.”

What are the best drugstore retinols?

1. Best For Sensitive Skin: CeraVe Skin Renewing Retinol Serum

2. Best Retinol Capsules: RoC Retinol Correxion Line Smoothing Night Serum Capsules

3. Best For Acne: Differin Adapalene Gel 0.1%

4. Best French Drugstore Retinol: La Roche-Posay B3 Retinol Serum

5. Best Drugstore Eye Cream With Retinol: Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Eye Cream

Derm’s Pick: Best Drugstore Retinol For Sensitive Skin

“Cerave Skin Renewing Serum is more gentle for sensitive skin, [being] formulated with niacinamide and ceramides,” says Dr. Shirazi. Niacinamide is soothing and ceramides help reinforce a strong skin barrier, and the formula also contains hydrating hyaluronic acid. Combined, these ingredients help balance out retinol's potentially drying/irritating effects, which is why this is such a great choice for dry, sensitive skin in particular. The lightweight, fragrance-free 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.

Derm’s Pick: Best Drugstore Retinol Capsules

These retinol capsules are cleverly formulated so that you always know exactly how much product to apply. Inside of each capsule is one dose of retinol serum — the serum itself has a smooth, fluid texture — enough to cover your entire face (and maybe a bit of your neck, too). To balance out the retinol, these capsules are formulated with antioxidants and soybean oil, which contributes to the serum’s silky glide and nourishing feel.

Derm’s Pick: Best French Drugstore Retinol

Made by French pharmacy brand La Roche-Posay, this serum combines two types of retinol (both pure and time-released) with vitamin B3 (aka niacinamide), one of the ingredients Dr. Shirazi says is great for pairing with retinol. It also contains hyaluronic acid, so this is another great OTC option that shouldn’t irritate your skin, even if it’s on the drier side.

Derm’s Pick: Best Drugstore Retinol For Acne

As Dr. Shirazi explains, adapalene is the best type of retinol for treating acne. That’s the key ingredient in this gel treatment — also from French drugstore brand La Roche-Posay, like the product above — which works to deep-clean pores of acne-causing dead skin and oil to treat and prevent breakouts. It’s as close to a prescription product as you can get over the counter — adapalene did, at one point, require a prescription.

Best Drugstore Retinol For Acne Under $20

As previously mentioned, the retinoid adapalene was once only sold as a prescription medication, and now, it’s the star ingredient in Differin’s best-selling acne treatment gel. Free of alcohol, fragrance, and oil, the formula helps prevent breakouts and promotes smoother, more even-looking skin, thanks to its ability to encourage skin cell turnover. This is a very similar product to La Roche-Posay’s above, but obviously, this one is a lot less expensive. Still, you only get a half an ounce of product in here, whereas La Roche-Posay’s tube contains 1.6 ounces of product. This also has the benefit of being housed in a pump-top bottle, so you know exactly how much product to apply (one pump!). That said, Differin gel does come in a tube, in case you prefer that delivery system.

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.

Best Newcomer

This new retinol serum from spa brand Bliss is a great, under-$25 option. It comes in a handy pump-top bottle, which Dr. Shirazi likes, and it’s blended with other skin care superstars like squalane for hydration, antioxidants to fight off environmental damage, peptides to plump and boost your skin, and more. With this serum, you should notice results both immediately and over time.

Editor’s Pick

“Versed is one of my favorite new skin care brands, and lately, I’ve been loving their Press Restart retinol serum,” says Elite Daily beauty editor Adeline Duff. “Unlike a lot of other retinol serums, this one has a nice, creamy texture, so it’s a lot more pleasant to apply on my skin.” Versed made this serum for retinol newbies and/or people with skin sensitivities, so it’s a much more gentle option — and it comes in one of those coveted pump bottles. In here, you’ll find a blend of microencapsulated retinol and naturally derived alternatives to retinol, such as arophira and bakuchiol (another one of those ingredients Dr. Shirazi said to look out for).

Honorable Mention: A Drugstore Retinol Serum That’s Also Hydrating

L'Oreal Paris Revitalift Night Serum is a drugstore classic, and it’s a great option in its price range. It’s formulated with 0.3% pure retinol that was smartly designed so as to not lose its potency, but it also contains moisturizing ingredients like glycerin and hyaluronic acid to balance out retinol’s effects, which include dryness and irritation. The serum has a light, hydrating feel to it, and it blends into skin beautifully — perfect for layering under your other p.m. skin care products.

Honorable Mention: A Gentle, Nourishing Retinol Cream

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.


Dr. Azadeh Shirazi, board-certified dermatologist

This article was originally published on