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.
Meet the Expert
Photo: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?
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?
"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?
"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
Editors' and Experts' Favorite Retinol Night Creams
"Obagi Clinical is the retinol that I recommend to all retinol-naïve patients/friends. It has an effective strength (0.5% retinol) but is formulated with a slow-release formulation designed for tolerability, even on sensitive skin," Love says.
Just like the Obagi option Love suggests above, this option from celebrity-approved brand SkinCeuticals has its retinol concentration written right on the tube. It's the lowest of the brand's three strengths and is perfect for those looking to start low and slow.
Celebrity facialist Candace Marino recently told us this potent night cream is one of her favorites for smoothing texture and fighting fine lines and wrinkles. However, it's not for beginners. In addition to retinoic acid (the most active form of retinol), it has glycolic acid for even more exfoliation.
This French pharmacy classic has a huge fan base of devoted users and for good reason. It's technically not a retinol cream but rather utilizes retinaldehyde, which is a more potent retinoid that is comparable to the prescription stuff you can only get from your derm.
Love reminds us that creams like this one are hard to judge given that they use proprietary formulations and unknown concentrations of actives. But this Olay retinol cream is touted as one of the best drugstore options on the market. It's formulated with both retinol and retinyl propionate—a retinol ester that's not quite as strong but that's also way less irritating on the skin. Considering that retinol creams can easily cost triple the price of this one, it's fair to call it a great buy, especially for the price point.
The drugstore retinol cream conversation is also incomplete without a mention of this beloved formula from Neutrogena. People seriously swear by this stuff for warding off lines and softening the appearance of wrinkles. Something about it worth noting is the brand's use of its proprietary Accelerated Retinol SA, a patented emollient blend said to help the actives perform better by prolonging their delivery into the skin.
Here's another retinol night cream with killer reviews. It combines retinol, vitamin C, and wild gooseberry extract into a rich, moisturizing cream that smoothes the skin texture and leaves you looking brighter.
This best-selling night cream features a fast-acting retinoid, time-released retinol, and retinol booster in the same formula. Talk about covering all your bases.
Amazon reviewers will tell you that this cream is legit. It's potent and effective but also contains hyaluronic acid to make sure the skin is adequately hydrated.
Here's another drugstore option that always enters the chat whenever the topic of retinol night creams comes up. It's one of those tried-and-true formulas that's been around forever.
This cream helps to keep collagen production on point via retinol and Swiss alpine flower, which support that crucial function.
This night cream deploys two different kinds of retinol and encapsulated vitamin C that absorb into the skin slowly while you sleep, resulting in smooth, bright skin by morning.
This cream's hero ingredient is retinyl retinoate, a synthetic retinol alternative that's believed to be less sensitizing than traditional retinol due to its slower conversion to retinoic acid in the skin.
More Editor-Approved Products to Use With Retinol Night Creams
Sunscreen is probably the most important product to use in tandem with retinol. This one from EltaMD has gotten a gold star from countless derms.
This lightweight mineral sunscreen serum provides broad-spectrum protection and applies completely transparent on all skin tones.
While your skin is getting used to retinol, gentle cleansers like this one can give you a thorough cleanse to remove dirt, debris, SPF, and more without overwhelming your skin with more actives or harsh detergents that could increase your odds of experiencing irritation.
Here's another trusted cleanser that's gentle enough to use on the most sensitive skin types.
Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that can add to the smooth, luminous glow you get from your nightly retinol. As a rule of thumb, you should give your skin the chance to adjust to any highly active ingredient before adding another into your routine.
This innovative vitamin C gel-cream employs patented formulation technology that ensures its active ingredients are just as potent from the first pump of the product to the bottom of the bottle. It's quickly acquired a cult following due to this characteristic.