There's no question that retinol is the anti-aging skincare hero of the moment. While derms and estheticians are constantly touting its skin-smoothing, texture-refining benefits (and all but dubbing it the fountain of youth), retinol enthusiasts have likely noticed that most ingredient labels have strict instructions to avoid applying it around the eye area. What gives? Are our peepers doomed to hasty aging at the hands of fine lines and wrinkles? Thankfully, the answer to that is no!
"Retinol can help prevent and treat fine lines and wrinkles by stimulating collagen production," says NYC-based dermatologist and Kiehl's consulting dermatologist Meghan O’Brien. Now, this tidbit isn't news, but it certainly reaffirms that using the ingredient around our eyes where fine lines, crow's-feet, and puffiness abound could seriously slow the formation of said giveaways. So we just had to ask: Is retinol safe for use around the eyes? And according to O'Brien, the short answer to that is yes! (More on that later.)
Ahead, find our derm-approved edit of the 20 best retinol eye creams, along with the answers to more of our burning questions about the anti-aging eye product—including how it stacks up against Botox.
First things first: What are the most common signs of aging around the eye area?
"Several changes occur around the eyes as a result of aging of the skin and age-related changes of the face," says O'Brien. Among them, she lists collagen loss and loss of elasticity resulting in fine lines and crepey texture, crow's-feet from muscle movement, and under-eye circles or a shadow effect accentuated by volume loss of the tear troughs. While retinol can't take on all of these factors on its own, it can certainly lend a hand in slowing surface skin changes. "Retinol eye cream can help improve the smoothness of the skin and improve fine lines. However, this is an effect that happens over continued and prolonged use of a retinol product," she adds.
This Kiehl's eye cream deploys pro-retinol, red grape-seed extract, vitamin C, and glycerin to reduce the visible signs of skin aging around the eyes. It combats fine lines and wrinkles, dark circles, and puffiness all while providing a dose of hydration to the delicate area.
Beauty editors (including this one) maintain that this anti-aging eye cream is plain magical. In addition to highly effective ingredients like copper tripeptide growth factor and hyaluronic acid, it also contains vitamin A–derivative retinyl palmitate.
If you thought retinol eye creams had to cost big bucks, this one from buzzy British brand The Inkey List says otherwise. It contains a stabilized, slow-release retinoid that helps to circumvent irritation.
If you'd prefer a more natural formula, this one from Kora Organics is a solid option. The hero ingredient is Kahai oil, a superfood with a high concentration of vitamin A. It's dispensed through a soothing rose-quartz rollerball, making for a luxurious and less messy application experience.
Okay, so this cream isn't explicitly designated for use around the eyes, but it is gentle enough to use on that delicate skin if you so choose. Skin-loving ingredients like hyaluronic acid, vitamin E, green tea, shea butter, and jojoba oil make it a super-gentle and moisturizing formula.
Is retinol safe for use around the eye area?
"Eyelid skin is thinner than it is elsewhere on the face and, therefore, more susceptible to potential irritation and dryness that can result from retinol use," O'Brien says. This skin difference is the reason lots of retinol skin products warn against applying it around the eyes, but retinol in the proper formulations and doses is totally fine. "Use a small amount of the retinol eye cream and follow its application with a moisturizer," O'Brien instructs. "Start by using it every other night to give the skin some time to adjust."
This one's for the makeup lovers. Created by legendary makeup artist Charlotte Tilbury, this retinol-infused eye cream is the product of nearly 20 years of research and meticulous formulation. It brightens dark circles, reduces puffiness, and improves skin texture using botanical stem cell extracts red algae, vitamin C, and vitamin E.
This non-greasy, fragrance-free formula has been a drugstore staple for years. The formula contains pure, stabilized retinol to help stimulate collagen production and a mineral complex of zinc, copper, and magnesium to increase cell turnover. And it's only $20.
This edit would be utterly incomplete without options from the ever-popular (and ever-effective) French skincare category. This one by La-Roche Posay combines adenosine and retinyl linoleate to smooth out the appearance of wrinkles and visibly firm the skin. Hyaluronic acid and caffeine are also in the mix to hydrate and perk up the entire eye area.
If you've got sensitive skin, you might consider a formula that's a little less intense. This one uses both traditional retinol and babchi seeds, the source of the up-and-coming natural retinol alternative bakuchiol.
This formula goes above and beyond by providing the tightening, anti-aging powers of peptides and retinol, but it also offers skin repair using ultra-hydrating ceramides and vitamin C.
Is retinol eye cream as effective as Botox?
The short answer? Sort of. As mentioned above, retinol can help prevent and treat fine lines and wrinkles, which can also be treated with Botox. According to O'Brien, the main difference is that Botox targets muscles. "Botox works to prevent dynamic wrinkles, which result from muscle contraction. So while retinol can help prevent fine lines, it will not prevent the crow's-feet that develop around the eyes due to repeated contraction of the muscle around the eye (orbicularis oculi) that occurs with smiling," she explains. So while retinol eye creams won't be able to inhibit lines and wrinkles on a mechanical level, it still greatly improves smoothness of the skin.
Image Skincare is known for its clinically proven formulas that combine smart botanicals and safe, highly active ingredients. This eye cream pulls in glycolic acid, retinol, cucumber extract, hyaluronic acid, and resveratrol to not only smooth out the delicate eye skin but also gently exfoliate and plump it up with moisture and protect it from free radicals.
Dr. Dennis Gross's eponymous skincare line is chock-full of highly effective, dermatologist-formulated skincare that really works. This eye cream is no different! It uses ferulic acid to bolster antioxidant sun damage protection and retinol to smooth the appearance of wrinkles and lines while increasing moisture. It also has a proprietary blend of collagen and gentle acids to defend against photoaging.
This rejuvenating eye cream supports natural collagen production using retinol, but it also calls in plant-derived phytoestrogens to improve elasticity.
It's no surprise that the line started by a man affectionately dubbed The Baron of Botox would offer an eye cream aimed at mimicking the injectable treatment. Time-release retinol softens the lines and wrinkles while ruby crystal complex brightens the eye contour, and olive fruit pulp protects skin against environmental stressors.
Don't let the drugstore label fool you—all of Olay's retinol-infused skincare products are super effective. It uses retinyl propionate, a retinol ester, to visibly smooth out fine lines and wrinkles.
What other skincare ingredients complement retinol eye creams?
While retinol is known to get along great with other actives like vitamin C, O'Brien says that the key to avoiding irritation while using retinol eye creams is moisture. "A moisturizing product with ingredients such as ceramides, hyaluronic acid, and squalane will help combat any irritation or dryness that the retinol may cause, " she explains.
This eye cream takes a more proactive approach to avoiding skin irritation by employing hyaluronic acid at three different molecular weights to ensure intense skin hydration and defense against any potential irritation from the micro-encapsulated retinol.
Neutrogena is known at the drugstore and beyond for its comprehensive offering of products formulated with retinol. This one uses a special stabilized retinol, combined with a glucose complex and hyaluronic to combat lines and crepiness from every angle.
Per usual, the French are all over their anti-aging remedies. This eye cream from famed pharmacy brand Avène uses retinaldehyde, a stable version of retinol that our skin converts into retinoic acid. HA helps to further smooth and plump the delicate eye skin.
Courtney Higgs is a Cancer sun, Libra rising beauty enthusiast with about six years of experience in the editorial space. She was previously Who What Wear's associate beauty editor after spending many years working on the West Coast edit team at InStyle Magazine. She graduated from California State University, Northridge, with a BA in communication studies and pivoted to editorial after spending her college years working in the legal field. Her beauty philosophy is simple: She believes there are no wrong answers and that discovering our favorite beauty products and rituals is a journey, not a sprint. When she's not geeking out over products, she can be found adventuring around L.A. with her fiancé; watching reality TV with their French bulldog, Bernie Mac; or relating way too hard to astrology memes.
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