Retinol is one of the very few over-the-counter drugstore anti-aging skincare ingredients that can provide the most consistent and visual improvement in the skin. By improvement, I mean brighter, clearer skin, improved skin texture, and a reduction in pore size. Over time, retinol can also help with hyperpigmentation, fine lines, wrinkles, and even acne.
Today the drugstore has an expansive selection of effective retinol treatments, some of which rival their more expensive luxury counterparts. Before we get into all of the retinol goodness that the drugstore offers, let’s take a look at what retinol is and how it works.
DECEMBER 2020 UPDATE: It’s so great to see drugstore brands introduce new affordable retinol products. I’ve added newly released retinol serums to this post, so scroll to the end of the section Drugstore Retinol Serums to check out new retinol products from L’Oreal and RoC.
What is Retinol?
Retinol is a derivative of vitamin A. Retinol is a type of retinoid, which is the umbrella term used for vitamin A derivatives. Discovered in 1909, retinol was first formulated in 1947. As a supplement, it is used to treat vitamin A deficiency, but we love it for other reasons, especially its topical use as an anti-aging treatment.
Retinol increases cell turnover and collagen production, smoothes the skin, reduces pigmentation, prevents wrinkles, improves acne, improves skin texture and radiance, and even affects gene expression. That’s quite an impressive list. But before you go to the drugstore and pick up the first retinol that you come across, it’s important to understand the difference between retinoid products.
The Different Types of Retinoids
There are so many different variations of retinoids. This makes it quite confusing when you are trying to decide which one to try. Just remember that all retinoids need to be converted into retinoic acid at the cellular level in order to be used by the skin.
Let’s take a quick look at the main retinoids from weakest to strongest:
- Retinyl palmitate must be broken down into retinol, then retinaldehyde and finally retinoic acid before becoming available for your skin to use.
- Retinol must be converted into retinaldehyde then retinoic acid before becoming available for your skin to use.
- Retinaldehyde gets converted into retinoic acid and then is available in its active form. This is a step up from retinol and stronger too.
- Adapalene (known under the brand name of Differin) is the strongest over-the-counter retinoid and a newer generation retinoid that has primarily been used to treat acne. It’s fat-soluble, making it less irritating than prescription retinoids.
- Prescription retinoids (i.e. the strongest) such as tretinoin or tazarotene contain retinoic acid and are best suited for those who have been using retinoids for a while and have built up their tolerance to stronger retinoids. It could take several months or even a year to build your tolerance to stronger retinoids.
Clearly using retinoids is not a quick anti-aging fix. Note that prescription retinoids will work quicker than over-the-counter retinoids. As a result, you should see improvements in your skin faster. In fact, while prescription retinoids may be seen in as little as 4-6 weeks, over-the-counter retinoids may take around 3 months to start seeing benefits.
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Retinoids for Sensitive Skin
These days you’ll find many retinoids advertised for sensitive skin. In this type of formula, retinoids are being used at lower amounts in the formula, therefore causing fewer side effects. These are the perfect introductory retinoid products.
As I’ve recently learned, the longer you use these products, the better your skin adapts. So as time goes on you can slowly start to increase the strength of retinoid that you use. If you have particularly sensitive skin, you may even want to apply the retinoid as the last step of your skincare routine, after a moisturizer, to lessen the potency of the retinoid.
My Retinol Journey
For the longest time, retinol was not my friend. I would spend countless dollars on drugstore retinol products only to have my skin rebel after the first use resulting in redness, itchy and peeling skin. In hindsight, I needed to give these treatments a little more time or perhaps layer them over other skincare products to reduce their strength.
Take Neutrogena for instance. Years ago, their Rapid Wrinkle Repair line was one of the most popular retinol lines in the drugstore. I purchased both the serum and face cream from this line only to be disappointed by the side effects that my skin could not withstand. I’m not sure if the formula has changed today, but before I gave up, I should have reduced the frequency of application.
The moral of the story is that when I gave up after one or two uses, I was doing my skin a disservice. It can take weeks for your skin to adjust to retinoic acid. So it is important to give it some time.
I don’t worry so much about the side effects of drugstore retinoids as their formulations are improving not only in effectiveness but also in gentleness. When my skin feels dry and irritated and fine lines look even more pronounced after starting a drugstore retinoid, I simply reduce the frequency to see if my skin can adjust.
How to Use Drugstore Retinoids
Depending on the sensitivity of your skin, you can add a retinoid serum into the treatment step of your skincare routine. Apply after cleansing and toning but before a moisturizer. Avoid using more than one retinoid product in the same routine. Also avoid using retinoids and potent actives (i.e. direct acids, vitamin C, or benzoyl peroxide) in the same routine.
If you have particularly sensitive skin, you may want to apply a retinoid near the end of your skincare routine, even after a moisturizer. This will dilute the strength of the retinoid and make it slightly gentler on your skin.
If you are new to retinoids, you can slowly introduce over-the-counter retinoids to your evening skincare routine by following this easy to remember rule of thumb:
- 1x a week for 1 week
- 2x a week for 2 weeks
- Gradually increasing your application depending on how your skin reacts
If you have excessive redness and peeling take a step back and evaluate whether or not you need a gentler retinoid or if your skin is currently too sensitive to use retinoids at all. Or you can continue to use a retinoid at 1x a week until your skin acclimates and move up from there.
Related Post: Olay Regenerist Collagen Peptide 24 Skincare Review
Retinoid Use – Sun Exposure and Pregnancy
Since retinol can make your skin more sensitive to the sun, be sure to use sunscreen while using retinol or any type of retinoid and for a week after. Actually, you should use sunscreen every day, but be extra careful when using retinoids.
If you are pregnant or nursing, be sure to speak to your obstetrician before starting a retinoid regimen.
Drugstore Retinol & Retinoids
Several brands offer drugstore formulations of retinol and retinoids in their product lines. It’s difficult to cover every brand, but by breaking it up into product type, this guide should give you some solid retinoid options for your whole face, all at drugstore prices.
New retinoid treatments are being introduced frequently, so while this list will give you several options to consider, please note that it is not all-inclusive.
TIP: Heat, light, and air can compromise the effectiveness of retinoids and cause them to degrade and lose efficacy, so look for products that are packaged in dark or opaque packaging and preferably air-restrictive containers.
Cosmetics companies are continually coming up with new formulations and packaging to keep their products stable. Case in point: For their Retinol 24 products, Olay encapsulates their retinoids in micro-droplets of an oil blend in a water emulsion to keep their retinoids stable.
Drugstore Retinol Toner
While alpha hydroxy acid and beta hydroxy acid toners are common, Pixi Retinol Toner is the first drugstore-based retinol toner that I’ve come across. This no-rinse toner is formulated with peptides to boost collagen production. It also contains Jasmine Flower to heal and balance the skin, and time-release retinol to smooth the skin and reduce fine lines. Apply after or in place of your regular toner.
Drugstore Retinoid Serums
Retinoid serums are my favorite way to use retinoids. Serums should usually be one of the first products applied after cleansing and toning. As a result, they will penetrate the skin the best. The drugstore retinoid serums pictured below are gentle enough for my somewhat sensitive skin to use as a first treatment step. Some stronger options are also provided.
The Inkey List Retinol Anti-Aging Serum contains RetiStar Stabilised Retinol at 1% (combining retinol with sodium ascorbate and tocopherol for maximum stability) and Granactive Retinoid at 0.5% (a next-generation low irritation ester of all-trans direct retinoic acid) in a slow-release formula. It also contains squalane for its anti-inflammation properties and hydration.
This cream is GENTLE. Unfortunately, I can’t help but wonder how strong a cream is when it doesn’t irritate my skin, but I know that I need to change my thinking. Today’s next-generation retinoids can deliver results without the irritation, redness, and sometimes burning and peeling that we’ve come to expect from retinoids.
One of The Ordinary’s many retinoid formulas, The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid 2% Emulsion also contains Granactive Retinoid at 2%. There is something about this retinoid that has made it one of my favorite gentle over the counter retinoids.
It is a white milky liquid consistency that absorbs quickly without any irritation. Over time I have noticed a refinement to my skin’s texture and pore size. And you can’t beat the price – this retinoid is under $10!
If you are ready to move on to stronger retinoid treatments from The Ordinary, you have additional options. They also formulate Granactive Retinoids in Squalane at 2% and 5% and Retinol in Squalane at 0.2%, 0.5%, and 1%.
PLEASE NOTE: This retinoid emulsion and all retinoid products from The Ordinary should be refrigerated after opening.
I am so impressed by Olay Retinol 24 products, especially the night serum. Of all the drugstore retinol serums that I’ve tried, I’ve probably seen the best results with Olay Regenerist Retinol 24 Night Serum.
This serum is potent. Unfortunately, my skin has not yet acclimated so that I can use it on a daily basis. When you hear that retinol improves skin texture, it’s really evident with this product, which combines retinol and retinyl propionate. Plus my pores appear smaller. For more on Olay Retinol 24, check out this post on the Olay Retinol 24 collection of products, which I’ve updated to discuss their Retinol 24 MAX products.
CeraVe Skin Renewing Retinol Cream Serum uses MVE Technology (MultiVesicular Emulsion Technology) for the controlled release of encapsulated retinol over the course of 24 hours. It also contains three essential ceramides (1, 3, 6-II) to help to restore the protective skin barrier
This was the first over-the-counter retinol product that I used that did not irritate my skin. For a while I was devoted to using this as a serum, often every night of the week. I’ve since moved on to what I consider more potent over-the-counter products, but this cream-serum may just be the perfect introduction to over-the-counter retinols if you have sensitive skin.
CeraVe recently introduced CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum to help reduce the appearance of post-acne marks and pores. It contains encapsulated retinol and licorice root extract to help brighten and resurface the skin and three ceramides to restore the skin barrier.
A new release in the summer of 2020, this highly anticipated retinol night concentrate is now available in the US. No7 Advanced Retinol 1.5% Complex Night Concentrate combines No7’s next-generation retinol complex with Matrixyl 3000+, a peptide technology, to address the signs of aging. These ingredients target skin tone and texture, to refine pores while brightening the skin, all with minimal irritation.
1.5% Retinol Complex
As noted in the title of this retinol product, this night concentrate contains No7’s 1.5% Retinol Complex. Don’t be fooled into thinking that it is 1.5% retinol. Instead, it contains the following:
- 0.3% Pure Retinol (.3%) – reboots and renews skin for a younger-looking complexion
- 1% Retinol Optimizer – slow-release system for optimal delivery throughout the night
- 0.2% Retinol Soother – to minimize irritation and calm the skin
I’m not sure why they just didn’t name this 0.3% Retinol since that’s the actual amount of retinol in the product. In regard to the soothing ingredient in this product, this concentrate contains bisabolol, which is a compound from chamomile that offers anti-inflammatory benefits. Please note that there is silicone in this product to give it slip and a smoother feel.
Also in this formula is Matrxyl 3000+. Matrxyl 3000+ uses matrikine peptide technology that contains two peptides to support the skin’s production of collagen, improve skin tone, and reduce deep wrinkles. This is a trademarked peptide by Sederma, Inc. a French cosmetics company.
How to Use No7 Advanced Retinol 1.5% Complex Night Concentrate
No7 suggests starting this concentrate on one or two non-consecutive nights a week. They say it is normal to take 4 weeks to reach nightly use. This concentrate should be applied prior to anti-aging serums and night creams and you should avoid the eye and lip areas. You should not use this with other products containing retinoids or alpha hydroxy acids or beta hydroxy acids, as it may irritate the skin.
While I’ve been using this product for about a month, I am still at the stage of using it twice a week. After my first use, I noticed that my skin was a little flaky and dry, so I’ve taken it very slowly. I make sure to use a rich night cream on nights that I use this concentrate and I sometimes add in a light oil at the end of my skincare routine like this rosehip seed oil or squalane to lock in moisture.
My skin is super smooth in the mornings after using this and I look forward to slowly increasing the number of days per week that I use it to see optimal results. I love the fact that there is not only a decent percentage of retinol in this product, there are also peptides that have been proven to address the signs of aging. This night concentrate is a little pricer than other drugstore options, but I think the combination of anti-agers make it worth it.
Pacifica Clean Shot – Granactive Retinoids
Pacifica recently introduced their Clean Shots line, a skincare collection made up of pure and powerful serums containing clinical ingredients and clean formulas. These actives can be added to your skincare routine anytime your skincare routine needs them. Layer them based on your skincare concerns.
I couldn’t wait to try the two following Pacifica Clean Shots serums that contain granactive retinoids. These retinoid serums are formulated without parabens, phthalates, petroleum, SLS, or mineral oil.
Related Post: Pacifica Clean Shot Serums: Better Than The Ordinary?
Pacifica Clean Shot Granactive Retinoid 5% in Seawater is Pacifica’s max-strength concentrated solution containing Granactive, their advanced petroleum-free retinoid complex. This type of retinoid is typically less irritating than retinol while providing just as good results.
This serum is formulated to address multiple signs of aging and skin texture without other ingredients that impede performance. It targets fine lines and wrinkles and uneven skin texture.
The serum also contains jasmine oil, which provides a lovely light floral scent upon application. It has a pale yellow gel-like consistency. The serum sinks in quickly and leaves the slightest bit of tingling on my somewhat sensitive skin. It doesn’t last long, only a few minutes. After trying other granactive retinoids, I am convinced of the effectiveness of this type of retinoid, as I can also see overnight improvements in my skin after using this product.
This serum is formulated for all skin types, and while it can be used either morning or evening, Pacifica recommends applying as part of your PM routine, as retinoids makes your skin more sensitive to UV rays during the day.
Pacifica Clean Shot Retinoid + Bakuchiol 3% in Seawater also contains Pacifica’s proprietary Granactive, an advanced petroleum-free retinoid complex. Granactive retinoids can be less irritating than retinol but will provide similar results. This retinoid serum is blended with bakuchiol, a plant-based retinol alternative for an extra dose of actives to target the signs of aging.
Bakuchiol is ideal for those with sensitive skin who still want an effective product to help reduce wrinkles, fine lines, and uneven skin tone and texture. The serum also contains jasmine oil, which provides a lovely light floral scent upon application. It is formulated for all skin types, and while it can be used either morning or evening, Pacifica recommends applying as part of your PM routine, as retinoids make your skin more sensitive to UV rays during the day.
This serum is gentler than the 5% Granactive Clean Shot serum. I didn’t notice an immediate change in my skin after using this product, but I do see more clarity in my skin the morning after using it. In my experience, this is typical of bakuchiol products as they typically don’t irritate my skin like retinol, but work a little slower than retinol.
Beauty Pie Super Retinol Ceramide-Boost Anti-Aging Face Serum is a gentle encapsulated retinol serum. It also contains lactic and hyaluronic acids, plus a concentrated ceramide blend. This blend of ceramides is formulated to repair the skin barrier, soothe, protect, hydrate, brighten, and smooth fine lines.
This serum comes from a leading Swiss skincare lab. They formulated this retinol by encapsulating it, which increases its stability and improves delivery to the skin. It’s a slow-release formula, which helps to maximize efficacy and minimize irritation.
The serum contains a 3% encapsulated Retinol complex, which works on the skin at 0.09% pure Retinol. You can use it up to twice daily in the AM and PM. Be sure to follow it with sunscreen in the AM.
I am so thrilled to find this, as this serum is effective and does not irritate my skin at all. My skin is more refined and brighter after using it without the dryness that often comes along with retinoids. For under $15, this is a no-brainer, although to purchase from Beauty Pie you must have a subscription (I currently pay $10/month). You can read all about Beauty Pie’s fantastic skincare products in this post.
L’Oreal Revitalift Derm Intensives Night Serum with 0.3% Pure Retinol is L’Oreal’s highest concentration of retinol in any of the brand’s products. This fragrance-free, silicone-free, and paraben-free serum contains pure retinol at 0.3% and uses L’Oreal’s international patent-pending technology, Retinol Guard, to ensure that its potency and stability are not compromised.
This serum also contains glycerin to soothe the skin and hyaluronic acid to hydrate the skin, which balances out the drying effects of retinol. The optimal concentration of retinol refines skin texture and over time, wrinkles and fine lines are reduced (including forehead wrinkles). This quick-absorbing serum will also help to brighten the skin and help the skin appear smoother. Plus it won’t clog pores as it’s non-comedogenic.
This is another over-the-counter retinol that has really produced results for my skin. It has a really nice texture and it seems that the hyaluronic acid really helps to keep my skin from drying out too much. This serum does not irritate my skin at all (yay!). It brightens and smooths with a respectable amount (0.3%) of retinol.
RoC Retinol Correction Line Smoothing Night Serum Capsules is the first retinol product that I’ve tried in this type of packaging: a capsule that twists to open and dispense a premeasured amount of serum. Retinol breaks down after prolonged exposure to light and air, so these little capsules take care of those issues while delivering the exact same amount of retinol every single use. It is formulated to be used on both your face and décolleté.
The serum capsules are formulated with pure RoC Retinol and a bio-derived antioxidant to improve the appearance of the signs of aging without irritation. In fact, there are only 8 ingredients in each capsule. The capsules are vegetable-based and 100% biodegradable.
Retinol smoothes and firms the skin. Dimethylmethoxy Chromanol is known to be a very potent antioxidant that protects the skin. Ceramide NP helps with hydration and supports the skin barrier. Glycine Soja Oil is an emollient and a moisturizing plant oil. This oil is rich in linoleic acid that helps with skin barrier repair.
I really like the consistency of this serum. It leaves my skin silky smooth with no irritation, redness, or dryness. After using it in the evening, I wake up in the morning with skin that is bright and clear with improved texture.
Even though the serum is in an oil base, it sinks in quickly without any greasiness. I think this is one of the best drugstore retinol products for travel, as you can just pack the number of capsules needed, and you’re done. No need to pack a full-size bottle or jar!
More Drugstore Retinoid Serums…
Honest Beauty Honestly Pure Retinol Serum contains a blend of retinol and hyaluronic acid. It is formulated with tapioca encapsulated time-released retinol.
Vichy LiftActiv Retinol HA Concentrate Retinol Serum is a light-weight serum with hyaluronic acid for plumper, smoother skin. When I use this serum its smooth consistency leaves my skin soft and my pores less visible.
Drugstore Retinol Eye Creams
You may think that you should avoid retinol around the eyes. Yet the eyes are one of the first places on your face that begin to show the signs of aging. Retinol can be extra effective around the eyes for brightening and smoothing the orbital area.
A few that I’ve tried and have great results with are RoC Retinol Correxion Eye Cream, formulated with pure RoC Retinol and their exclusive mineral complex and Olay Retinol 24 Night Eye Cream. I only use them at night and make sure not to get too close to my eyes with the cream. They have been helpful at smoothing and hydrating my eye area at the same time.
La Roche-Posay Redermic R Eyes Retinol Eye Cream is a bit on the pricey side for a drugstore product, but this award-winning eye cream is formulated with pure retinol, caffeine, and La Roche-Posay Thermal Spring Water. Suitable for sensitive eyes, this cream has a visible lifting effect.
Drugstore Retinol Moisturizers
The nice thing about drugstore retinol face creams and moisturizers is that many not only have retinol in them, but they also contain soothing and hydrating ingredients to offset retinol’s irritating ways.
Relatively new to me and quickly becoming a favorite is the Neutrogena Ageless Intensives Anti-Wrinkle Deep Wrinkle Night Moisturizer. It contains Retinol SA (sustained action), a combination of retinol SA, Glucose Complex, and hyaluronic acid. Retinol SA makes the formula act quicker. It also protects the skin barrier and helps improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.
I’ve been enjoying using this cream as the treatment step of my nighttime skincare routine. During the winter I will apply it over The Inkey List Hyaluronic Acid but under an additional moisturizer. During the winter my skin needs all the moisture it can get. It smooths and brightens skin noticeably.
Amazon’s Belei Retinol Refining Moisturizer contains retinol plus hyaluronic acid for hydration and soothing squalane for an anti-inflammatory boost. I experience no irritation with this cream and my skin is brighter and glowing after using it in the evening.
Olay Regenerist Retinol 24 Night Moisturizer contains Olay’s Retinol complex (which combines retinol and retinyl propionate) plus vitamin B3 for 24 hours of hydration without the typical irritation that comes along with retinol.
This cream is potent. It noticeably brightens and refines the texture of my skin. I’ve gradually built up to using it on alternate nights with a different retinoid product (while using no retinoid products every 3rd night). This currently works well for my skin.
More Drugstore Retinol Moisturizers…
If your skin is not sensitive, Neutrogena’s Rapid Wrinkle Repair line offers a Moisturizer with SPF 30, an Anti-Wrinkle Night Moisturizer and a Regenerating Cream. All of these products contain Retinol SA and Glucose Complex, a Retinol SA booster. It accelerates skin surface activity for fast results, plus hyaluronic acid for its hydrating and skin plumping properties.
L’Oreal Revitalift Moisturizer combines the anti-aging properties of their Pro-Retinol formula with vitamin C and hyaluronic acid. Plus L’Oreal’s patented Pro-Xylane, a sugar-molecule derived from the beechwood tree, helps improve skin elasticity and firmness.
If your skin is not sensitive and ready for a stronger drugstore retinoid, you may want to consider Differin Gel (Adapalene), which is now over the counter in the US. While it is FDA approved to treat acne, you can reap the anti-aging benefits from this retinoid as well.
Differin works to reduce breakouts, prevent pimples, regulate cell turnover, and reduce inflammation. I quickly gave up on Differin as it was too strong for my skin. I quickly experienced major peeling and irritation. Now I know that you need to slowly build up to stronger retinoids like these.
Drugstore Retinol Oils
I haven’t tried this product yet but Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Retinol Oil contains Neutrogena’s Retinol SA. This ingredient works throughout the day to reduce the appearance of wrinkles and dark spots. It is a lightweight oil that can be used both morning and night. Neutrogena recommends applying four to five drops on clean skin and then following with a face cream.
Concluding Thoughts on Drugstore Retinol
Drugstore retinols and all retinoids have come a long way. Drugstore brands are finally offering next-generation retinoids that have little to no side effects like redness, peeling, itchy and irritated skin that you typically associate with retinoids.
When you are starting out with retinoids, it can be overwhelming trying to figure out which products to use, especially with all of the marketing aimed at their quick ability to fight the signs of aging. How your skin reacts will help you determine which products will work the best for you.
I am currently strictly using over-the-counter retinoids. I hope to one day increase the strength to the point where I can consider prescription-strength retinoids. Until then, I am very happy with the results that I am seeing. I have brighter skin, more refined skin texture, clearer skin, and the minimization of fine lines and wrinkles. All thanks to drugstore retinoids. They really are amazing anti-aging superstars!
A Final Tip for Sensitive Skin
Don’t forget about bakuchiol, a retinol alternative that is sourced from plants! This 2018 study on bakuchiol determined that bakuchiol is just as effective as retinol without the irritation! I like to use basic bakuchiol serums alongside over-the-counter retinoids for a double dose of anti-aging goodness. While I’ve seen great results with bakuchiol, in my experience, they seem to work a little slower than retinoids.
What is your favorite over-the-counter drugstore retinol treatment? I’d love to know!
Thanks for reading, and until next time…