As cosmetic procedures become increasingly mainstream, more and more women are opting for these “quick fix” solutions. However, any elective surgery or non-invasive treatment can be inherently costly—and risky, with many people experiencing side effects like infections, scarring, allergic reactions as well as prolonged recovery times and even depression. 

So, it’s understandable if you’re wary of trying these procedures for yourself. Surprisingly, many people have reported similar results and improved confidence from consistently using safe, high-quality skincare products, like retinoids, that often prove to be as effective as many expensive treatments that require constant upkeep.

This is why dermatologists have been prescribing some form of retinoid for decades.  But, with hundreds of topical retinol creams and lotions on the market, how do you know which are safe and effective? We'll show you what retinoids are and what to look for in a quality product

How Do Retinoids Work?

To understand how retinoids work, we need to first know a little about collagen. Collagen is a protein that provides structure to the body, as well as sustaining firmness and elasticity. Any decrease in collagen causes our skin to become thinner. Aging of the skin is due to two factors: intrinsic (which includes our genetics, as well as the natural act of aging) and extrinsic (which includes damage from the sun’s UV rays, smoking, and pollution).2

Our cells are always going through a constant regeneration process, but it begins to slow down with age, and collagen manufacturing also gets reduced. This is where retinol creams come in. When you apply retinol topically, the enzymes in your skin convert them at the cellular level to retinoic acid, which has been clinically shown to address the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.3

Retinoids are chemical derivatives of Vitamin A that have been proven in numerous studies to be effective in boosting cell turnover in the skin’s top layers, as well as stimulating the synthesis of collagen.4

Tips For Safe & Effective Use

Give it Time

Nonprescription levels of retinol-based products can take up to 3 to 6 months of daily usage to achieve a noticeable difference.

Less is More

Use a pea-sized amount because more can cause irritation.
Use at night on clean, dry skin.

Avoid Using with Certain Products

Combining use with acne treatments, serums and masks containing benzoyl peroxide, sulfur, resorcinol or salicylic acid can worsen irritation.

Limit Time in the Sun

Apply sunscreen with SPF of 30+ and avoid exposure during peak hours.

Ingredients To Look For / Additives To Avoid

Retinyl PalmitateThe most stable form of Vitamin A

PeptidesSend signals to our skin cells to help them properly function

AntioxidantsProtect skin by limiting the production of free radicals

SulfatesCorrosive ingredient used in floor cleaners

ParabensSynthetic preservatives that can affect hormone levels

Heavy Mineral Oils Clog pores and suffocate skin

PetroleumAlso clogs pores and can't be metabolized

What To Look For In A Retinol Cream

Finding a retinol cream with the ingredients listed above is important, but there are some other factors we recommend considering:  

Transparent List Of Ingredients 

Many popular retinol creams on the market fail to list all of their ingredients on their labels. This means that you might be using a product with potentially harmful or unwanted chemicals. Look for a brand that isn’t afraid to list all of its active ingredients clearly on both its product label and its website. 

The Right Potency 

Retinol uses retinyl palmitate, an ester of Vitamin A. Because Vitamin A is not stable, it can lose its potency. Look for formulas that are stabilized or encapsulated to protect the integrity of Vitamin A. Additionally, sometimes creams contain too much retinol, which can inflame your skin. Unless your dermatologist prescribes more, try sticking to formulas with 1% retinol. 

Quality Moisturization 

Properly hydrated skin is key to a clear, even tone. Studies suggest that hydration helps maintain the skin’s barrier and promote regular melanin production. To get the most comprehensive results, look for a retinol cream that doesn’t just help smooth your complexion, but moisturizes skin, too.3

Money-Back Guarantee 

Americans spend millions of dollars every year for youthful skin, and they still find themselves unhappy with an apparent lack of results. It’s better—and safer—to invest in a product that offers a 100% money-back, no-questions-asked guarantee to show the company's faith in the potency of its product.

What Not To Do When Buying A Retinol Cream

Forget the Research

Contrary to popular belief, not all retinol moisturizers are the same. Brands use different formulas, so check that they contain the ingredients listed above.

Rely on Amazon Reviews

Up to 65% of Amazon reviews are written by paid individuals, and some of them might not have tried the product.

Prioritize Price Over Quality

We found that some brands tended to fall short on potency. Focus on quality ingredients to avoid compromising on your health.

The 5 Best Retinol Creams On The Market

Based on our own extensive research, the metrics provided by our Smarter Reviews Ranking System, and consideration of numerous reviews by Smarter Shoppers just like you, we've compiled a list of what we've found to be the top five products to help promote the appearance of flawless, smooth, even-toned skin.