The 12 Best Over-the-Counter Retinols That Are Worth the Hype

Shani Darden Retinol Reform Treatment Serum gives dramatic results in a sensitive skin-friendly formula

In This Article

We independently research, test, review, and recommend the best products—learn more about our process. If you buy something through our links, we may earn a commission.

A woman holding a vial of liquid and a stopper

Getty Images

Retinols can be intimidating. Everything from the gulp-worthy price tags, to the careful application and storage instructions, and the notoriously irritating side effects makes these small bottles of skin-smoothing magic nerve-wracking to commit to and apply, especially for a skincare novice. But there’s a reason – scratch that – many reasons why beauty shoppers look past these intimidation points and celebrate these powerhouse over-the-counter (OTC) retinol formulas as the gold standard of anti-aging.

For starters, OTC retinols work; and really, really well at that. “Retinol is one of the vitamin A derivatives used topically to increase cell turnover and up the production of collagen and elastin, both important in giving the skin structure,” board certified dermatologist, Ranella Hirsch, M.D., told InStyle. It’s the powerful ingredient credited with keeping your skin looking smoother, glowier, and better-looking. “This is in addition to other benefits such as helping slough away dead skin cells and helping with sebum production, which can help acne,” Dr. Hirsch added.

With new retinol products appearing on the shelves every week, it’s hard to know which are worth the splurge. That’s where we helped to round up the best over the counter retinol formulas for every budget and skin type. Shani Darden Retinol Reform Treatment Serum earned best overall for its impressively hydrating texture which is gentle enough for sensitive skin.

Here are the best over the counter retinols to try now.

Best Overall: Shani Darden Retinol Reform Treatment Serum

Shani Darden

What We Love: It’s an exceptionally hydrating formula.

What We Don’t Love: This product is expensive.

This yellow-tinged, jelly serum is a rare, yet effective, combination of a standout retinol that smooths fine lines and evens skin tone, without a hint of irritation. The secret lies in the impressive cocktail of skin soothing ingredients including aloe vera, glycerin, rosemary leaf extract, which make this effective formula gentler than most, and well worth the splurge.

“I really love the texture, for one, but I also like how my skin reacts to it, and it doesn't typically respond well to retinol,” Pia Velasco, Senior Beauty Editor at InStyle told us. “I built up a tolerance to two days a week which isn't a lot, but is exactly what my skin needed to drastically improve my acne and I like the way it layers with other skincare.”

Retinol Concentration: N/A | Size: 1 oz.

Best Value: RoC Retinol Correxion Deep Wrinkle Night Cream

roc retinol


What We Love: It’s a gentle, budget-friendly retinol formula.

What We Don’t Love: The results are more subtle than other highly concentrated formulas.

Here’s proof that a quality over-the-counter retinol doesn’t have to come with an investment-worthy price tag. “It’s a fantastic value for a product of such great quality and stability, and it’s gentle enough for a beginner,” Dr. Hirsch, told InStyle. The creamy formula is spiked with moisturizing vitamin C, shea butter, and squalane which give skin a healthy dose of hydration while the retinol is at work, leaving skin with a more noticeable radiance.

Retinol Concentration: 0.1% | Size: 1 oz.

Best Splurge: PCA SKIN Intensive Clarity Treatment 0.5 Pure Retinol Night

PCA SKIN Intensive Clarity Treatment 0.5 Pure Retinol Night


What We Love: It’s great for acne-prone skin.

What We Don’t Love: It can be too drying for sensitive skin types.

For anyone with acne-prone skin who shivers at the thought of added irritation or dryness, but is also intrigued by the anti-aging benefits of retinol, here’s a gentle, yet effective, retinol formula made for you. “PCA Skin’s Intensive Clarity Treatment helps to reduce inflammation due to breakouts as well as clear the skin and minimize blemishes,” celebrity esthetician to the glowing faces of Kourtney and Kim Kardashian, Miranda Kerr, and Giselle Bundchen and PCA SKIN Peel Ambassador, Candice Miele, told InStyle. It’s formulated with salicylic acid to spot treat acne breakouts and alleviate inflammation, and witch hazel to control excess oil and draw out impurities from the skin. A little goes a long way, and the skin-clearing results make this splurge worth the investment.

Retinol Concentration: 0.5% | Size: 1 oz.

Best Drugstore: Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Retinol Moisturizer SPF 30

Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Daily Retinol Anti-Wrinkle Moisturizer


What We Love: It contains SPF 30 sun protection.

What We Don’t Love: It includes synthetic fragrance.

If you’re skeptical about the efficacy of a $20 retinol, peek the near 28,000 four- and five-star Amazon reviews of shoppers praising this standout formula, and you’ll find a plethora of reasons to jump on the bandwagon. While most retinols are meant for nighttime use, as they create an increased sun sensitivity, this drugstore staple was specifically formulated for daytime use. It’s spiked with a healthy dose of SPF 30 sun protection and works all day long smoothing crow’s feet and wrinkles around the face, while also adding noticeable hydration and a natural radiance to your complexion.

Retinol Concentration: 0.3% | Size: 1 oz.

Best for Sensitive Skin: La Roche-Posay Retinol Face Serum with Vitamin B3

La Roche-Posay Retinol B3 Serum


What We Love: The formula is gentle and non-irritating.

What We Don’t Love: The serum texture can feel slightly sticky.

Leave it to the beloved French brand known for being exceptionally gentle, to come up with a retinol formula that is non-irritating and equally as non-intimidating to those with sensitive skin. The lightweight serum contains both skin-smoothing retinol, and skin brightening vitamin B3, resulting in skin that appears hydrated and all around better looking, instead of dry, red, and flakey. The formula manages to strike the delicate balance between gentle and powerful, reducing fine lines, evening skin tone, and improving elasticity with continued nightly use.

Retinol Concentration: 0.1% | Size: 1 oz

Best for Dark Spots: Drunk Elephant A-Passioni Retinol Cream

Drunk Elephant A-Passioni Retinol Cream


What We Love: The creamy texture feels pillow-y and pampering on skin.

What We Don’t Love: It can be irritating if applied too close to under eyes.

The cream texture of this vegan retinol formula is a welcome change from serum retinols, and feels extraordinarily pampering when applied to skin. This is also due in part to the lineup of conditioning passionfruit, apricot, jojoba, and marula oils that balance the potent actives with a soothing blend of nourishment. It’s also a formula that plays well with other skincare products, as it was specifically designed to be layered (or mixed in the palm of your hand) with other skincare favorites without affecting the efficacy of the actives. Results took about 10 days to begin noticing, but the clearer, brighter, smoother canvas that appeared was well worth the wait.

Retinol Concentration: 1.0% | Size: 1 oz

Best for De-Puffing: Estée Lauder Perfectionist Pro Rapid Renewal Retinol Treatment

estee lauder perfectionist pro retinol treatment

Estee Lauder

What We Love: It makes skin feel instantly softer.

What We Don’t Love: This retinol may be irritating to sensitive skin.

This formula feels luxurious and pillow-y from the moment you squeeze it from the tube. The high-grade retinol is balanced by moisturizing ingredients like shea butter and borage oil which give skin a softer, suppler texture and does a number deflating under eye puffiness. It also ups the ante on skin-smoothing effects with a shot of skin-tightening caffeine and plumping hyaluronic acid, which make tone and texture noticeably softer and more even in as little as four weeks.

Retinol Concentration: N/A| Size: 1 oz

Best for Firming: Peter Thomas Roth Retinol Fusion PM Night Serum

Peter Thomas Roth Retinol Fusion PM Night Serum


What We Love: It contains a high concentration of time-release retinol.

What We Don’t Love: You’ll need some patience before you see results.

This formula strikes the delicate balance of containing a generous 1.5% concentration of retinol, while also remaining non-irritating. The time-release delivery makes it gentler than most other retinols, and the addition of skin-loving ingredients like vitamin C, vitamin E, and squalene, doubles the hydrating and conditioning benefits to keep skin feeling supple and smooth. Results could take up to three weeks before you really start to notice a difference, so you’ll have to be patient, but applying a serum this moisturizing each night before bed is a treat.

Retinol Concentration: 1.5% | Size: 1 oz

Best Night: SkinCeuticals Retinol 1.0 Maximum Strength Refining Night Cream

Retinol 1.0 Maximum Strength Refining Night Cream


What We Love: It significantly reduces discoloration.

What We Don’t Love: It’s more expensive than others on our list.

The encapsulated retinol in this formula ensures a steady release of retinol while you snooze, instead of all at once, which makes this gentler on your skin. “In my mind, it represents perhaps the best over the counter option you can easily access in the US,” Dr. Hirsch told InStyle. “It’s a quality product with a nice spectrum of retinol percentages so you can acclimate and increase as your skin tolerates,” she added.

It’s also spiked with skin soothers derived from chamomile and frankincense to help calm the skin and counteract any dryness or irritation that might result when you begin use. “It’s great if you’re used to using retinols, as this one has a higher concentration at 1% and helps target fine lines, discoloration and wrinkles all while still being on the gentler side,” Miele told InStyle. The results are noticeable in as little as three weeks and include clearer, firmer, supple skin with that lit-from-within glow.

Retinol Concentration: 1.0% | Size: 1 oz

Best Retinol Alternative: OLEHENRIKSEN Glow Cycle Retin-ALT Power Serum

OLEHENRIKSEN Glow Cycle Retin-ALT Power Serum


What We Love: It’s a gentler, yet effective, alternative to retinol that smells sweet.

What We Don’t Love: Noticeable anti-aging results appear after 6 weeks of continued use.

The pretty, pearlescent purple formula will make you do a double take, but allow the pastel elixir to serve as your first indication that this stuff is special. The lightweight, milky serum smells both sweet and citrusy, which is yet another indicator this is not your average retinol. In fact, it’s not a retinol at all. This plant-based retinol alternative is derived from bakuchiol, known for its anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial benefits and is spiked with alpha hydroxy acids, which mimic the gentle skin exfoliating of a retinol. Together, this unique blend keeps pores in check, fine lines plumped, and skin feeling hydrated and conditioned, all without the redness and irritation typical of traditional retinols.

Retinol Concentration: N/A | Size: 1 oz

Best Cream: Charlotte Tilbury Magic Night Cream

Charlotte Tilbury Magic Night Cream


What We Love: The rich formula feels fancy on skin and delivers fast, noticeable results.

What We Don’t Love: The fancy cream comes with an expensive price tag.

It’s certainly a splurge, but a regular dab of this deliciously rich cream applied over face and neck will instantly gift you firmer, smoother, glowier-looking skin, and that’s the type of win-win investment we can get behind. The formula boasts an impressive lineup of powerful and pampering ingredients like co-enzyme Q10 (for repair), red algae (for strengthening), and water daphne stem cell extract (for hydration), which give skin a beautifully rejuvenated appearance after a month of regular use. Plus if you’re looking for further reasons to justify the splurge, the gorgeous countertop-worthy jar is about 50% larger than most other retinol packages. 

Retinol Concentration: N/A | Size: 1.6 oz

Best Daytime: DR. LORETTA Concentrated Firming Serum

DR. LORETTA Concentrated Firming Serum


What We Love: The formula is gentle enough for sensitive skin.

What We Don’t Love: The silky formula may be too oily for some.

This serum incorporates a healthy dose of fatty lipids, like Phospholipid and Glycolipids, which help to counteract any redness and irritation caused by the retinol. The 0.5% concentration makes this a friendlier retinol that is gentler than others and allows you to work up to daily or twice daily use as your skin builds up a stronger tolerance. The retinol gently sloughs away dry, dead skin cells, while the lipids blanket skin in a layer of pampering goodness that instantly refresh complexion, revealing a natural radiance. It’s ok to use both day and night, just make sure to layer on the appropriate SPF sun protection for daytime use.

Retinol Concentration: 0.5% | Size: 1 oz

Related: How to Use Retinoids in the Summer Without Irritating Your Skin

What to Keep in Mind 

Skin Type

Your skin type, or rather your skin’s sensitivity can make a big difference in how you’ll tolerate retinol. Some people can use a max potency retinol nightly with no adverse effects or redness to show for it. While others will struggle with even a low dose retinol once a week. It may take some trial and error to determine the concentration of retinol and number of times per week that is right for your skin type. And remember, there are effective retinol alternatives, like bakuchiol, if vitamin A is too potent for you.

Retinol Concentration

The higher the concentration of retinol, the more potent the formula. This can often mean more noticeable results, but can also be met by more side effects, like irritation or dryness. Formulas range from the low end (0.1-0.5%) to the high end (1-2%). Retinol newbies should stick with a lower concentration until they know their skin will tolerate it well, then can consider increasing the potency.

How to use retinol: Start by gradually using the product once or twice a week — with a day or two in between each trial — until you build up a tolerance to consistent (or daily) use.

Your Questions, Answered 

What does retinol do?

Retinol prompts skin cells on the surface to die quicker, making way for new cell growth underneath. Faster cell turnover means less dead skin cells and clogged pores, as well as a smoother looking complexion aka diminished fine lines and wrinkles. It can also rev the production of collagen and elastin, the scaffolding of the skin, to give an overall clearer, firmer, smoother appearance. It also gently sloughs away dead skin cells and helps to control sebum production, which can help control acne, Dr. Hirsch noted.

How to start using retinol?

The short answer: slowly. “Generally, I encourage starting once to twice a week and very gradually increasing frequency,” Dr. Hirsch says. It’s also important not to use too much. “Less is more with retinol,” she adds, recommending a pea-sized drop for the whole face. Expert tip: “After you apply it, take a tissue and stick it on the face. It should fall off. If it doesn’t, you’re using too much,” Hirsch says. You should also top your retinol with a moisturizer to seal in moisture, minimize irritation, and prevent dry, flaky skin.

Why Trust InStyle

Lindsay Colameo Peragallo is a seasoned beauty, fashion, fitness, and lifestyle editor. She has over a decade of writing and editing. To create this list of over-the-counter retinols, she researched the top sellers on the market, read product reviews, and spoke to experts, such as dermatologist Dr. Renella Hirsch to get insight on the best products to use and how to incorporate the anti-aging ingredient into your routine.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles