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Editor’s Picks: The 15 Best Retinol Creams (and How to Choose the Right One for Your Skin)

Age-defying treatments for all.
Best retinol cream

If you're concerned about the signs of aging, retinol cream is a must-try. Besides helping to reduce fine lines and wrinkles, it can also reverse sun damage, smooth rough texture, fade dark spots and even minimize breakouts.

But finding the right retinol cream isn't easy. 

Over-the-counter, you can choose from not only retinol but other vitamin A derivatives, including retinol esters, retinaldehyde and retinoic acid esters. 

They all come in different strengths and different formulations, making it a tough job to figure out which one will suit your skin.

But that's where this guide can help. I found all the best retinol creams on the market, ranging from mild to strong, and from lightweight to rich. (If you prefer an even lighter texture, see my guide to the best retinol serums instead!)

Before I share my picks, here's how I go about choosing a retinol cream.

What to Look for in a Retinol Cream

Best retinol cream

A313 Vitamin A Pommade 

The first general rule is to always avoid retinol products in jar packaging. Jars expose the active ingredient to light and air, making it oxidize faster and lose its effectiveness. Instead, choose products that come in opaque tubes or bottles with airless pumps.

Next, look for one of the following types of retinoids in the ingredients list. (Find out more about them in my retinoid vs retinol tutorial!)

  • Retinol esters: These include retinyl acetate, retinyl linoleate, retinyl palmitate and retinyl propionate. Although they are the weakest types of retinoids—since they must be converted into retinol, retinaldehyde and finally, retinoic acid—they can be appropriate if you're a beginner or if you have sensitive skin. 
  • Retinol: The most common over-the-counter retinoid. Formulas with 0.1-0.25% are a good starting point. Once you build a tolerance, you can move up to 0.5% or 1% for the best results. 
  • Retinaldehyde (retinal): The direct precursor to retinoic acid. It's not only stronger than retinol, it also works 11 times faster. It's usually found in a 0.05% or 0.1% concentration.
  • Retinyl retinoate: A retinoic acid ester that is eight times more active than retinol, with less irritation. 
  • Hydroxypinacolone retinoate: Another retinoic acid ester (also known as "granactive retinoid" when combined with the solvent dimethyl isosorbide). Although the strength is comparable to a prescription retinoid, it produces little to no irritation. (Note: In Canada, HPR is no longer allowed over the counter, as it is now classified as a tretinoin derivative.)
  • Adapalene: A synthetic retinoid that does not require conversion and binds directly to select retinoid receptors. (Note: In the US, 0.1% is available over the counter, but in Canada, a prescription is required for all strengths.)

I also recommend prioritizing products that are:

  • Low in fragrance: Synthetic fragrance and essential oils are the most common skin irritants. 
  • Low in PUFAs: Oils high in polyunsaturated fatty acids, a.k.a. PUFAs, are volatile and oxidize quickly, generating harmful free radicals. I suggest avoiding any products with PUFA oils in the first five ingredients (which typically represent around 80% of a product). The more PUFAs a product contains, the faster it should be used up, ideally within three to six months.
  • Low in silicones: These slip agents create a film on top of your skin that can trap acne-causing debris and slow down cellular renewal. They can also interfere with the penetration of active ingredients (including retinoids).

The Best Retinol Creams of 2021

A313 Cosmetic Cream with Retinyl Palmitate

A313 Cosmetic Cream with Retinyl Palmitate

A313 Cosmetic Cream with Retinyl Palmitate

  • Details: A313 Cosmetic Cream with Retinyl Palmitate (also known as A313 Vitamin A Pommade) contains not retinol but a retinol ester, in a base of polyethylene glycol that greatly enhances penetration and stability. So it's common to experience some initial itching and peeling, but this should subside within a few weeks as your skin adjusts. It has an ointment texture that is similar to Vaseline, but even acne-prone skin should not find it comedogenic. See my in-depth review here
  • Active ingredient: 200,000 IU of vitamin A in the form of retinyl palmitate. (As mentioned in my review, I'm uncertain of the equivalent retinol concentration, but it acts like a prescription-strength retinoid because of the base ingredient.)
  • Other ingredients: Polyethylene glycol.
  • Best for: Experienced retinol users.

La Roche-Posay Effaclar Adapalene Gel 0.1% Acne Treatment

La Roche-Posay Effaclar Adapalene Gel 0.1 Acne Treatment

La Roche-Posay Effaclar Adapalene Gel 0.1% Acne Treatment

  • Details: La Roche-Posay Effaclar Adapalene Gel 0.1% Acne Treatment is a prescription-strength retinoid that is now available over the counter in the US. Its active ingredient, adapalene, penetrates quickly to clear and prevent acne, blackheads and clogged pores. Bonus: it can also help with wrinkles and mild to moderate sun damage. It's in a non-greasy gel that is free of fragrance, oils, and silicones. 
  • Active ingredient: 0.1% adapalene.
  • Other ingredients: Propylene glycol.
  • Best for: Acne-prone skin and signs of aging.

ProactivMD Adapalene Gel 0.1%

ProactivMD Adapalene Gel 0.1

ProactivMD Adapalene Gel 0.1%

  • Details: ProactivMD Adapalene Gel 0.1% is another strong, adapalene-based retinoid that you can buy over the counter in the US. While it's marketed for treating and preventing acne, the active ingredient has also been found to help with mild to moderate sun damage. It has a cream-gel texture, and is fragrance-free, oil-free and silicone-free. 
  • Active ingredient: 0.1% adapalene.
  • Other ingredients: Propylene glycol.
  • Best for: Acne-prone skin and signs of aging.

Differin Adapalene Gel 0.1% Acne Treatment

Differin Adapalene Gel 0.1 Acne Treatment

Differin Adapalene Gel 0.1% Acne Treatment

  • Details: Differin Adapalene Gel 0.1% Acne Treatment has been around since the 1990s, and is now sold over the counter in the US. This prescription-strength adapalene treatment starts clearing acne in as little as two weeks, and doubles as a potent anti-aging product. Like the other adapalene formulas, it is a fragrance-free, oil-free and silicone-free gel.
  • Active ingredient: 0.1% adapalene.
  • Other ingredients: Propylene glycol.
  • Best for: Acne-prone skin and signs of aging.
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From The Skincare Edit Archives

Avène TriAcnéal Night Smoothing Lotion

Avene TriAcneal Night Smoothing Lotion

Avène TriAcnéal Night Smoothing Lotion

  • Details: Avène TriAcnéal Night Smoothing Lotion is an acne treatment with retinaldehdyde, a retinoic acid precursor, as its active ingredient. While it's meant for acne sufferers, other skin types could easily use this, too, since the active ingredient is also effective on signs of aging. The lotion formula also includes exfoliating enzymes and soothing thermal water, and is silicone-free.
  • Active ingredient: 0.1% retinaldehyde.
  • Other ingredients: Thermal water, glycerin, papaya enzymes.
  • Best for: Normal to oily and acne-prone skin. 

African Botanics Retinal Night Cream

African Botanics Retinal Night Cream

African Botanics Retinal Night Cream

  • Details: African Botanics Retinal Night Cream is a fragrance-free and silicone-free cream powered by retinaldehyde. So it targets blemishes as well as fine lines and wrinkles, and with little to no irritation. It has gentle exfoliants to improve the appearance of pores and pigmentation, and a blend of oils and fatty alcohols to lock in moisture.
  • Active ingredient: 0.1% retinaldehyde. 
  • Other ingredients: Marula oil, squalane, azelaic acid, lactic acid.
  • Best for: All skin.

Advanced Skin Technology Green Cream High Potency Retinol Level 9

Advanced Skin Technology Green Cream High Potency Retinol Level 9

Advanced Skin Technology Green Cream High Potency Retinol Level 9

  • Details: Advanced Skin Technology Green Cream High Potency Retinol Level 9 is an advanced retinoid treatment with a high concentration of retinol. Although it has a cream texture, it is also high in alcohol, which acts as a penetration enhancer. So that, along with the potent dose of retinol, may require a good moisturizer on top to offset any dryness.
  • Active ingredient: 0.9% retinol.
  • Other ingredients: Glycerin, aloe vera, cucumber extract.
  • Best for: Experienced retinol users. (According to the brand, it is for people who have already used Level 6 without side effects—starting out at Level 9 is not recommended.) 

GlyMed Plus Retinol Restart Rejuvenation Cream

GlyMed Plus Retinol Restart Rejuvenation Cream

GlyMed Plus Retinol Restart Rejuvenation Cream

  • Details: GlyMed Plus Retinol Restart Rejuvenation Cream is a nourishing moisturizer featuring the highest concentration of encapsulated retinol that I've seen. It's also high in peptides to stimulate collagen, and helps to protect your skin barrier with various emollients (and no silicones).
  • Active ingredient: 5% encapsulated retinol. (So the pure retinol concentration could be as high as 0.7%.)
  • Other ingredients: Glycerin, stearic acid, fatty alcohol, peptides, hyaluronic acid. 
  • Best for: Normal to dry, sensitive and mature skin.

Advanced Skin Technology Green Cream High Potency Retinol Level 6

Advanced Skin Technology Green Cream High Potency Retinol Level 6

Advanced Skin Technology Green Cream High Potency Retinol Level 6

  • Details: Advanced Skin Technology Green Cream High Potency Retinol Level 6 is a medium-strength retinol cream. Like Level 9, it does include alcohol to enhance penetration, which I don't consider a problem—just follow with a good moisturizer if it makes you too dry.
  • Active ingredient: 0.6% retinol.
  • Other ingredients: Glycerin, aloe vera, cucumber extract.
  • Best for: All skin except sensitive.

Verso Night Cream