The Secret to Perfect Skin: Retinol

Among the multitude of anti-aging skin-care products on the market, one ingredient stands out: retinol. And it’s no surprise why. Dermatologists, plastic surgeons and aestheticians alike agree that this miracle ingredient (and its derivatives) has the power to make skin look younger, smoother and simply better. But with all the skin-boosting benefits of retinol, how do you know which type— be it a drugstore brand or a prescription-strength product—is right for you?

1. Over-the-Counter: The lowest level of retinol

Over-the-counter products that contain retinol can be found at drugstores, beauty boutiques and online, and usually offer retinol in low strengths. Over-the-counter formulas slowly convert retinol into retinoic acid, the active ingredient found in prescription versions. Most retinols are available as a serum (which is the best way for the skin to receive the ingredient) and are purchased through a retail outlet.

Who it’s for: All skin types and those who want to defy the first signs of aging
Who it’s not for: Those with serious acne and sun damage may benefit from something stronger
When to use: At night

2. Medical-Grade: Non-prescription-strength retinol

Stronger than over-the-counter versions but not as intense as prescription-strength products, medical-grade retinols are commonly found at doctors’ offices and can be obtained without a prescription. Medical-grade formulas slowly convert retinol into retinoic acid, which is the active ingredient found in prescription versions. “There tends to be less dryness and irritation with these formulas because they’re not as concentrated, since the retinol needs to be converted to be effective,” says Sarah Burns-Eggenberger, author of Guide to Product Selection. For the most part, medical-grade retinols are available as serums, creams or in a gel-like consistency. Some medical-grade retinols do not actually contain true retinol but rather retinyl palmitate, a retinol ester. To tell if your product contains retinol or retinyl palmitate, just look at the color of the liquid—if it’s yellow, then it’s probably retinol.

Who it’s for: Those who can tolerate a harsher concentration
Who it’s not for: Those with extremely sensitive skin
When to use: At night

3. Prescription Strength: The strongest option

Available only with a prescription from your doctor, these retinoids are the strongest option on the market and tend to provide results in about 12 weeks. Medically known as tretinoin, prescription-strength retinoids work quicker because they’re formulated as retinoic acid, so the body doesn’t need to convert retinol into retinoic acid. “Retin-A has been the standard for aging skin, but it’s strong, and a lot of people can’t tolerate it, so I always recommend to use it slowly,” says Englewood, CO, plastic surgeon Gregory A. Buford, MD. Most prescription-strength retinoids take anywhere from eight to 12 weeks to see results.

Who it’s for: Those with acneic and sun-damaged skin
Who it’s not for: Those with sensitive skin
When to use: At night 

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  • Elaine

    I love Pevonia's Micro-Retinol line. It doesn't sting and there's absolutely zero downtime. I used to buy the regular retinols from Watson's but then it would do nothing on my skin, just red spots so I just stopped buying. And then I started consulting a dermatologist and mentioned this. I bought it online and boy, it did an amazing job.

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  • Anonymous

    I use a 2.5 % retinol cream all organic and i love it, i buy it online from Florida.

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  • Cathy

    I really enjoyed this article. I use Philosophy retinal products and get great results from them.I am 56 and feel the need for retinal.

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  • sally d

    Thanks for sharing this article on Retinol products...I have found it very useful!

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  • Anonymous

    Jan Marini Retinol Plus voted BEST RETINOL PRODUCT by New Beauty past three years! amazing!!!

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  • AestheticsCosmetics

    Hi all....was reading this page and realized that none of you have received answers to your questions. Perhaps I can offer some advice for you all: LISA: OTC: ROC, Neutrogena & Olay are some of my recommended favs. MEDICAL GRADE: SkinCeuticals- Phyto+, C+AHA, Retinol tubes and Serum 10aox+ and 20aox+. Advanced Rejuvenating Concepts-Revit-A-Lift,Retinol pads 5x, 7x or 10x, Skin lighten bar, A+serum, Lighten Face and Lighten More. PRESCRIPTION: Retin-A, TriLuma, Tretinoin. I hope that list helps you :) JK-You may have skin that is entirely too sensitive for even the smallest doses of retinol. I encourage you to talk with your derm to discuss what alternatives you could use & to potentially rule out other ingredients that may be in those products that could be irritating your skin.

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  • Claudio Pinto
    Master Aesthetician - New York, NY

    Retin-a has been the standard of care in antiaging and the # 1 prescription treatment. What i really like about retin-a is that it addresses so many skincare concerns. It improves texture, helps to shrink pore sizes, assists in treating hyperpigmentation and just leaves your skin nice and glowing. For prescription treatment I recommend the Tretinoin Cream , the dosage and concentration will depend on your skin thickness and condition at the time of your appointment. Avene has an amazing product called Retrinal that comes in 2 different concentrations - SO even the most sensitive skin can tolerate this beautiful treatment - It has Retinaldehyde as the main ingredient and you will be amazed at the results you will receive. Retin-a or Retrinal - THe workout for your skin!

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  • Lisa

    What are some suggested retinol products for each of these categories?

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  • JK

    Whenever I use any concentration of retinol or retinyl palmitate at night, I wake up with red spots all over my face. They are flat spots, not pimples. Any ideas? I have used Night Repair by EL, retinol products by ROC, Lancome, BB, and more!

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  • Denise

    Very helpful article! Thanks!

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