Tretinoin Cream Is the Unsung Hero of Skincare Products—Here's Why

These 13 Dermatologist-Approved Retinoids Are All OTC

Updated 11/08/19
Margo & Me

Reading through a list of skincare ingredients can be like reliving a high school chemistry exam. And while balancing equations can be fun, we'd rather not work so hard during our skincare routine. That said, we're always hungry for more information about what we're putting on our skin and making sure we're spending our money wisely on effective products.

Recently, we reached out to leading retinoid expert Melissa Levin, MD, to ask her what ingredients the best anti-aging and acne-clearing moisturizers have in common. "As a dermatologist, one of the most common questions I get is, 'What is the best anti-aging product?' First and foremost, having a daily sunscreen to avoid wrinkles, brown spots, and broken capillaries from forming is important," she says.

The next best thing you can use? Retinoid. Levin says, "Of all the retinoids available, tretinoin still remains the most studied and proven for its anti-aging properties." If you aren't familiar with tretinoin, it's a retinoid derived from vitamin A. Keep reading to learn more about the differences between tretinoin and other retinoids–and what they can do for you.

Tretinoin for Anti-Aging

Levin says retinoid studies started in the 1980s and it's proven to diminish the appearance of wrinkles, fade brown spots and help even out skin tone. On the nitty-gritty cellular level, Levin explains that "tretinoin works by increasing collagen formation, decreasing the breakdown of collagen, and normalizing cell turnover."

So who should use tretinoin? As long as you're not pregnant or trying to get pregnant, she says it's safe for all women interested in anti-aging skincare. "From an anti-aging standpoint, I start my patients as early as their early 20s." Since cell turnover is a natural process, Levin says to be patient as the benefits appear over time.

Tretinoin as an Acne Treatment

"Since tretinoin promotes skin-cell turnover, retinoids such as tretinoin are the absolute backbone of an acne treatment—whether it's for treating blackheads, whiteheads, mild, moderate, or severe acne," says Levin. "Retinoids ... unclog pores." She said newer third-generation retinoids such as Differin or Adapalene also have anti-inflammatory properties.

And since tretinoin is considered a safe retinoid, it's even prescribed to treat acne in 12 year olds, says Levin.

Tretinoin's Side Effects

Any prescription can have side effects and retinoids can dry out the skin. Besides dryness, Levin says some of her patients on tretinoin have had irritation, redness, scaly patches or burning, so she suggest these work-arounds.

"For some—especially those with sensitive skin or skin conditions such as rosacea—a prescription-strength retinoid may be too irritating, and an over-the-counter retinol can be a great alternative," she says. A non-prescription retinol might not deliver results as quickly, but it can definitely improve discoloration and fine lines, according to Levin. Plus, you won't have to go to your dermatologist to get it.

If you do choose to use a prescription retinoid cream, Levin recommends using it in conjunction with a gentle cleanser and your usual moisturizer. She also advises avoiding products that contain salicylic acid, glycolic acid, and benzoyl peroxide if using a retinoid. And if you've got particularly sensitive skin, it might be beneficial for you to start off using a pea-size amount every other night to ease yourself into the treatment.

Where to Find Tretinoin

Not all retinoids are created equal. According to Levin, if you want to speak with your dermatologist about getting a prescription, the retinoids to know are tretinoin (the generic form of Retin-A or Retin-A Micro), tazarotene (the generic form of Tazorac), and Adapalene (the generic form of Differin). Retinoids can also be found over the counter in a weaker form called retinol.

If you're unsure of how to choose an over-the-counter retinol, choose something from our dermatologist-approved list.

Shop our Over-the-Counter Picks

SkinBetter Science Regenerating AlphaRet Overnight Cream
SkinBetter Science Regenerating AlphaRet Overnight Cream $120
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Levin suggests this gentle-yet-effective cream for people with sensitive skin. The hyaluronic acid in the formula draws moisture to the skin to offset dryness, and shea butter soothes.

Tata Harper Retinoic Nutrient Face Oil
Tata Harper Retinoic Nutrient Face Oil Mini $48
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Vegan and free of toxins, this is a great option for anyone who wants to detox their skincare routine while also introducing some anti-aging ingredients. 

Kate Somerville RetAsphere 2-in-1 Retinol Night Cream
Kate Somerville RetAsphere 2-in-1 Retinol Night Cream $85
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Designed to infuse skin with pure retinol, this two-in-one night cream will even out texture and smooth fine lines and wrinkles. 

DermaDoctor Poetry in Lotion Intensive 1% Retinol
DermaDoctor Poetry in Lotion Intensive 1% Retinol $75
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This lotion contains 1% retinol, so it's effective but it also treats the skin gently thanks to hydrating ingredients and botanicals like meadowsweet, oats and turmeric in the formula.

100% Pure Retinol Restorative Overnight Balm
100% Pure Retinol Restorative Overnight Balm $49
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This certified organic moisturizer contains 2.5% retinol and improves the elasticity of your skin thanks to a supporting cast that includes vitamins C and E.

MZ Skin Hydrate and Nourish Age Defense Retinol Day Moisturizer
MZ Skin Hydrate and Nourish Age Defense Retinol Day Moisturizer $149
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Rich in vitamins A, C, and E, this moisturizer encourages cell renewal, corrects imperfections, and evens out skin tone. And it includes SPF30 to help protect your newly acquired glow.

Verso Day Cream
Verso Skincare Day Cream With Retinol 8 $110
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Created in Stockholm, this moisturizing and rejuvenating day cream contains a highly effective retinol-8 complex and antioxidants including turmeric for radiant, youthful-looking skin.

Luna Sleeping Night Oil 0.5 oz/ 15 mL
Sunday Riley Luna Sleeping Night Oil $105
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When you're looking for an oil treatment to incorporate into your nightly routine, reach for this brilliant one that gets its color–and antioxidants–from blue tansy flowers. It delivers intense hydration and that leaves your skin with a more supple look. 

Avène Retrinal Day Cream
Eau Thermale Avène RetrinAL 1.0 Intensive Cream $70
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All of Eau Thermale Avène's products are infused with spring water with minerals that calm and soften skin. That's just one of the reasons Levin recommends this cream someone with sensitive skin who wants to try retinol.

Differin Adapalene Gel for Acne
Differin Adapalene Gel 0.1% Acne Treatment $14
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Many dermatologists consider this former prescription treatment their go-to for patients with acne, and it might become yours too since it's so effective, available and affordable. If you have acne-prone skin, you'll want to keep some on hand.

Skin Medica Retinol Complex
SkinMedica Retinol 0.5 Complex $78
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Here's a retinol cream that's ideal for anyone with normal skin who wants to jumpstart an anti-aging regimen. SkinMedica also makes gentler (.25 retinol) and stronger (1.0 retinol) versions of this complex so you can find the one that's just right for your skin.

Zelens Power A High Potency Vitamin A Treatment Drops
Zelens Power A High Potency Vitamin A Treatment Drops $195
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Thanks to a hardworking formula that includes encapsulated retinol and two retinoids, all you need is three to five drops each night to help diminish the appearance of fine lines, enlarged pores and sun spots. Spinach, sweet potato and tomato are among the good-for-you botanicals that smooth skin and get you glowing.

Ren Skincare Bio Retinoid Anti-Ageing Cream
Ren Skincare Bio Retinoid Anti-Ageing Cream $65
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For sensitive skin, this anti-aging cream formulated with gentler retinoid from an exotic Brazilian flower is ideal. It boasts the same effect as retinol–sans irritating side effects–and you'll enjoy the subtle Damascus rose scent that's one of Ren's signatures. 

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