In our extensive search for non-irritating retinols, we’ve discovered plenty of standouts that are at once ultra-effective yet gentle enough for the retinoid-intolerant. What makes these non-Rx gems so transformative is that they all contain either pure retinol or a next-generation derivative shown to turn on those same aforementioned receptors to spark visible change.
What kind of skin-care products include retinol?
Before we explore their individual merits, heed this brief buyer-beware: There are a ton of serums and oils on the market masquerading as retinols. You won’t find retinol (or any recognizable derivative) on their ingredient lists since as they rely on plant extracts, like rosehip oil, as alternate sources of vitamin A.
“There is no evidence that natural sources of retinoids are safer than synthetic, and often their effectiveness is highly suspect,” according to cosmetic chemist Kelly Dobos. For instance, she says that rosehip oil contains only about 0.4 parts per million (0.00004 percent) of retinoic acid, which is further diluted in the final product.
To help you sort the amazing products from their suspicious or just-average counterparts, keep scrolling for our favorite, dermatologist-approved retinol creams.
Dr. Kim recommends Drunk Elephant’s A-Passioni Retinol Cream, which contains 1 percent retinol encased in nourishing oils like passionfruit, apricot, jojoba, and marula. It also happens to a Best of Beauty Award winner, in case that sways you. However, “it’s important to note that 1 percent retinol is a relatively high concentration and could be irritating to people with sensitive skin, especially patients with eczema or rosacea,” Dr. Kim cautions.
As we talked about earlier, the ideal frequency is different for everyone, so start slow and small (a pea-sized amount) in terms of dosage and build up over the course of a few weeks. “I typically recommend patients apply a moisturizer on top to alleviate any potential dryness,” Dr. Kim adds.
Instead of retinol, Eau Thermale Avène’s RetrinAL 0.1 Intensive Cream is formulated with its sibling, retinaldehyde, and the brand’s Thermal Spring Water, which soothes and calms the skin in the event of irritation. The brightening cream smooths and evens skin, leading to a more radiant glow. The brand recommends that users apply this product at nighttime and incorporate sunscreen into their daily routines. Mamina Turegano, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in New Orleans, Louisiana, deems this as a “good starter retinol for those with very sensitive and dry skin.”
Dr. Turegano bills Obagi Medical’s Retivance Skin Rejuvenating Complex as a “gentle yet effective retinol.” Why you ask? This lightweight moisture stars retinaldehyde, a stable and less potent form of vitamin A that is better suited for more sensitive skin but still packs a punch in terms of improving elasticity and curbing the appearance of wrinkles. Furthermore, ingredients such as chamomile, shea butter, and vitamin E act as calming agents.