This Skincare Ingredient Treats Wrinkles, Dark Spots, and Acne (Yes, Really)


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If there's one skincare ingredient most likely to be crowned "most commonly spotted on the vanities of people with really good skin," it's retinol. The once mystifying skin fixer is pretty well understood by the masses at this point (here's a comprehensive refresher), and just about every derm will co-sign its use from your 20s onward. On top of all this, it's now readily available—and in much more tolerable concentrations than its prescription-strength counterparts—on the shelves of every beauty retailer from Sephora to your local drugstore. Retinol has gone mainstream, baby, and we're here for it.

While plenty of folks have committed to incorporating this multitasking ingredient into their routines to tackle every skincare goal from smoothing fines lines and wrinkles to refining the skin's texture and tone and even treating and preventing acne, the wide variety of formulations is still a sticking point that deserves a bit more explanation. "Retinol can be confusing because it is marketed differently in different products," says board-certified dermatologist Elyse M. Love, MD. "Most retinols come in cream formulations, but they are typically presented in two ways. The first option is a dedicated retinol, which typically has the percentage of retinol included in the product. The other formulation is night creams that note that they include retinol," she explains.

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(Image credit: Courtesy of Elyse M. Love)

"The night creams that note that they include retinol, in general, contain lower concentrations of retinol than dedicated retinol creams," Love continues. "Facial creams that include retinol are great multitaskers for those looking to stick their foot in the retinol world and are likely the least irritating option, while retinol creams that explain the percentage are likely more effective products."

Any way you slice it, adding a retinol cream to your nighttime routine (countless pros suggest designating it as an evening-only ingredient due to its sensitizing properties that can lead to sunburns and worse) is a sure-fire way to get that much closer to achieving a ton of different skincare goals. As Love puts it, the ingredient can "do a little bit of everything we want." 

Long story short: Retinol night creams are worth a shot. Keep scrolling for Love's breakdown of how they can help you conquer wrinkles, dark spots, and acne. Then, check out our edit of the 13 best retinol night creams out there (plus, a few more editor-approved products to round out your routine.)

How does retinol treat fine lines and wrinkles?


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One of the most noticeable signs of skin aging is the natural loss of volume and decreased collagen production that happens as we get older and wiser. "Loss of collagen with age and sun exposure is the main contributor to the development of fine lines and wrinkles," Love explains. Believe it or not, retinol can actually help the skin recoup some of that collagen for more youthful-looking skin. "Retinols are scientifically proven to increase collagen production with routine use. By increasing collagen production, retinol slows the presentation of fine lines and wrinkles," says Love. While this isn't to say that retinol can magically erase deep wrinkles (no topical product can do that), it can certainly help to slow their progression and the formation of new lines.

How does retinol treat dark spots?


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"Retinols prevent hyperpigmentation and help certain types of hyperpigmentation resolve quicker," Love explains. "Retinols decrease pigment production by regulating tyrosinase and melanosome transfer, which are important steps in pigment production." So retinol can essentially disrupt your skin's habit of overcompensating in the pigmentation department. "Retinols also increase epidermal exfoliation. This exfoliates away superficial pigmentation with continued use," Love adds.

How does retinol treat acne?


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"Retinols decrease oil production and exfoliate the top layer of skin. These two things combined help to slow the buildup of whiteheads and blackheads," Love says. "Retinols also decrease skin inflammation, which decreases the appearance of whiteheads, blackheads, and red, inflammatory lesions." Sounds great, right? Well, it is, but it's only fair to mention that the concentration really matters here. "Although retinol and retinoids are equivalent in the anti-aging results, prescription-strength retinoids are more powerful for acne-fighting results. So those with more than mild acne should seek prescription care, while those with mild acne can start with [an OTC] retinol." No biggie. Just don't expect your cosmetic retinol to clear up intense acne flare-ups.

Editors' and Experts' Favorite Retinol Night Creams 


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More Editor-Approved Products to Use With Retinol Night Creams

Associate Beauty Editor

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.