If you had any lingering feelings about whether skin care is a sham, you need only look to retinol products. The skin-care-obsessed already know this, but retinol is a form of vitamin A that’s found in many anti-aging products, and it’s considered the gold standard for combating wrinkles and fighting acne, according to skin-care experts. Retinol breaks down into retinoic acid on the skin, which acts like an antioxidant, says dermatologist Whitney Bowe, M.D., that helps reverse skin damage plus premature signs of aging and acne. “It’s even been shown to increase collagen production, and brighten and exfoliate skin.”
And you don’t need a dermatologist to get the stuff. Retinols are a type of vitamin A called retinoids, and many retinoids — like Retin-A — do require a prescription. Retinols, on the other hand, are a weaker form of vitamin A (which means they can be sold over the counter). If you’re curious about all of the distinctions, check this handy guide that includes most of the products seen here.
But even though retinols are weaker than prescription retinoids, it can be tricky to find the right one for your skin, especially if it’s hypersensitive. To find the versions that are effective without causing redness or peeling, we talked to two dermatologists about the best over-the-counter retinol products for every skin type.
For Oily and Acne-Prone Skin
“Oily and acne-prone patients (not dry acne) can get clearer, smoother skin using Differin Gel, which was recently converted from prescription to OTC. The Differin formula is oil-free and fragrance-free, so aside from the retinoid, it doesn’t have any other irritants, which helps with oily skin.” —Ellen Marmur, M.D., associate clinical professor at Mount Sinai’s Department of Dermatology
“For oily or acne-prone skin, I would say to go with Differin. Differin is a prescription-strength retinoid that’s now available over the counter, and it’s the same exact product that we used to prescribe in our offices for acne patients. It’s the only retinoid that I’m aware of that’s prescription-strength and is FDA-approved for acne and is now available over the counter.” —Whitney Bowe, M.D., medical director at Advanced Dermatology, P.C. and author of forthcoming book The Beauty of Dirty Skin
For Dry and Sensitive Skin
“RoC developed a retinol that combines the retinoid with oxygen and antioxidants to make it safe and mild enough for everyday use.” —Marmur
“No. 7 makes a Restore & Renew face-and-neck multi-action serum that contains retinol in it, and it’s really hydrating. It contains a whole blend of ingredients, including calcium amino acids and peptides that help with fragile, delicate, crepey skin. It’s amazing that it has the Retin-A effect (and they’ve proved that in clinical trials), but it’s really gentle. You can imagine that if it’s gentle enough to use on the neck, which is so sensitive, it’s really great for people with very dry skin.” —Bowe
“Sensitive skin doesn’t love retinols, so use trace amounts. Try SkinBetter Science AlphaRet, which has been formulated to work well with sensitive skin. The SkinBetter Science product combines alpha hydroxy acid and a retinoid that are released through a unique double-hydrolysis process for little irritation.” —Marmur
For Combination Skin
“A good, happy medium between the oily, acne-prone and the super-dry skin is combination skin, and for those, Dermalogica has an overnight repair set that comes with two different products: a retinol and a buffer cream, so you can adjust to your own needs. So if your skin is feeling really dry, you can add that buffer cream, and only a drop of the retinol. But if your skin is feeling more oily on your T-zone, you might not need the buffer cream, and you can just use the retinol.” —Bowe
It’s available on Amazon, too — for a higher price.
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