Editor’s Picks: The 13 Best Retinol Creams (and How to Choose the Right One for Your Skin)

Age-defying treatments for all.
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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

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 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.)

Other criteria to consider include...

  • Fragrance: Synthetic fragrance and essential oils are the most common skin irritants. 
  • 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.
  • 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).

Now, let's take a closer look at the best retinol creams on the market.

The Best Retinol Creams of 2021

Sobel Skin Rx 4.5% Retinol Night Treatment

Sobel Skin Rx 4.5 Percent Retinol Night Treatment

Sobel Skin Rx 4.5% Retinol Night Treatment

  • Details: Sobel Skin Rx 4.5% Retinol Night Treatment is a fragrance-free and silicone-free lotion with both retinol as well as the highest possible concentration of hydroxypinacolone retinoate (HPR). That makes it on par with a prescription-strength retinoid, minus the irritation. Since the texture is a lightweight lotion, you may need to layer a moisturizer on top if you are dry.
  • Active ingredient: 1% hydroxypinacolone retinoate (equivalent to 10% granactive retinoid, plus an unknown concentration of retinol. (But it's definitely not 4.5% retinol, which is unheard of and would cause extreme irritation. Unfortunately, the brand has declined to clarify how they arrived at this figure!)
  • Other ingredients: Aloe, chamomile extract, shea butter.
  • Best for: All skin except sensitive.

Avène TriAcnéal Night Smoothing Lotion

Avene TriAcneal Night Smoothing Lotion

Avène TriAcnéal Night Smoothing Lotion

  • Details: Avène TriAcnéal Night Smoothing Lotion is an anti-aging and anti-acne treatment with a high concentration of retinaldehyde as its active ingredient. The lotion formula also includes exfoliating enzymes, and is silicone-free.
  • Active ingredient: 0.1% retinaldehyde.
  • Other ingredients: Thermal water, glycerin, papaya enzymes.
  • Best for: Acne-prone skin. (But I think normal skin could use this, too, even if you don't experience breakouts.)

Drunk Elephant A-Passioni Retinol Cream

Drunk Elephant A-Passioni Retinol Cream

Drunk Elephant A-Passioni Retinol Cream

  • Details: Drunk Elephant A-Passioni Retinol Cream is a silicone-free and fragrance-free cream containing a high dose of retinol. It also has three peptides for additional anti-aging benefits, and a blend of fatty acids and seven different oils to moisturize and reduce irritation. Just be cautious with it you are acne-prone, as the oils could be quite comedogenic. (I can't use it for that reason!) See my brand review here.
  • Active ingredient: 1% retinol.
  • Other ingredients: Glycerin, stearic acid, coconut alkanes, niacinamide, passion fruit oil, jojoba oil, marula oil.
  • Best for: Normal, dry and mature 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.) 

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

Verso Night Cream

Verso Night Cream

  • Details: Verso Night Cream is a nourishing night cream spiked with retinyl retinoate, a new type of retinoid that is more active than retinol but less irritating. It's suitable for all skin types, and is silicone-free.
  • Active ingredient: 0.06% Retinol 8 (a patented complex containing retinyl retinoate and polyphenol extracts), which would be equivalent to 0.5% retinol.
  • Other ingredients: Glycerin, shea oil, squalane.
  • Best for: All skin.

CosMedix Define Age-Defying Treatment

CosMedix Define Age-Defying Treatment

CosMedix Define Age-Defying Treatment

  • Details: CosMedix Define Age-Defying Treatment is the brand's starter retinol formula. Not only does it have the texture of a rich cream, it also has an amino acid-based delivery system to prevent irritation. It also has alpha-hydroxy acids to exfoliate and aid absorption, and an an array of skin conditioners to moisturize.
  • Active ingredient: 2% encapsulated retinol. (So the pure retinol concentration could be as high as 0.3%.)
  • Other ingredients: Lactic acid, malic acid, tartaric acid, glycerin, olive oil.
  • Best for: Retinol beginners and dry and mature skin.

Advanced Skin Technology Green Cream High Potency Retinol Level 3

Advanced Skin Technology Green Cream High Potency Retinol Level 3

Advanced Skin Technology Green Cream High Potency Retinol Level 3

  • Details: Advanced Skin Technology Green Cream High Potency Retinol Level 3 is a gentle retinol cream that still has enough of the active ingredient to deliver good results. Alcohol is acting as a penetration enhancer, but you'll probably want to apply a separate moisturizer on top to counteract its drying effects.
  • Active ingredient: 0.3% retinol.
  • Other ingredients: Glycerin, aloe vera, cucumber extract.
  • Best for: Retinol beginners and sensitive skin.

Revision Skincare DEJ Night Face Cream

Revision Skincare DEJ Night Face Cream

Revision Skincare DEJ Night Face Cream

  • Details: Revision Skincare DEJ Night Face Cream is an oil-free and fragrance-free cream featuring both retinol and bakuchiol, a plant-based retinol alternative. It also has a vitamin C derivative to help with brightening, and various humectants and emollients to moisturize and minimize irritation. 
  • Active ingredient: 0.25% retinol.
  • Other ingredients: Bakuchiol, peptides, tetrahecyldecyl ascorbate, hyaluronic acid.
  • Best for: All skin.

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 contains not retinol but a retinol ester, in a base of polyethylene glycol that greatly enhances penetration. 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. (By my calculations, this should be equivalent to 0.12% retinol, but thanks to the penetration enhancer, it actually acts like a much stronger retinoid.)
  • Other ingredients: Polyethylene glycol.
  • Best for: All skin. 

Paula’s Choice 1% Retinol Booster

Paula's Choice 1 Retinol Booster

Paula's Choice 1% Retinol Booster

  • Details: Paula's Choice 1% Retinol Booster is the brand's strongest retinol treatment in a light, fluid lotion. It can be used alone or mixed with your favourite moisturizer, and with the help of eight skin-soothing ingredients, it should be tolerated by everyone.
  • Active ingredient: 1% encapsulated retinol. (So this would mean the actual retinol concentration is likely between 0.01-0.14%.)
  • Other ingredients: Ceramides, peptides, oat kernel extract, allantoin.
  • Best for: All skin.

La Roche-Posay Redermic R Dermatological Anti-Aging Treatment Intensive

La Roche-Posay Redermic R Dermatological Anti-Aging Treatment Intensive

La Roche-Posay Redermic R Dermatological Anti-Aging Treatment Intensive

  • Details: La Roche-Posay Redermic R Dermatological Anti-Aging Treatment Intensive is (despite the name) a mild, low-dose retinol treatment that is unlikely to cause irritation. The cream is light and non-greasy in texture, and surprisingly, is silicone-free.
  • Active ingredient: 0.1% retinol.
  • Other ingredients: Glycerin, hyaluronic acid.
  • Best for: Retinol beginners and sensitive 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 besides fine lines and wrinkles, it also targets blemishes, 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: Retinaldehyde (the brand doesn't disclose the concentration, but it is the sixth ingredient, which suggests that it's fairly potent).
  • Other ingredients: Marula oil, squalane, azelaic acid, lactic acid. 
  • Best for: All skin.

Shop Editor’s Picks

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