You don’t need to break the bank to give your skin the numerous anti-aging benefits of retinol. These 12 retinol-infused products—everything from oil to night cream—all ring in at less than $40 and are beloved by dermatologists, aestheticians and beauty editors alike.
In this list of the best drugstore retinol skincare, you’ll find everything from entry retinol products to help introduce your skin to this powerful active, to more highly concentrated formulas paired with nourishing peptides. Curated by the experts in skincare, we take you from beginner to advanced retinol in this drugstore retinol roundup.
Gentle Retinol and Retinol Concentration
Retinol is an ingredient that’s known for it’s potential for irritation — it can cause redness and dry out your skin if you’re particularly sensitive to retinol, are using the wrong strength or just got started a bit too quickly.
“Your skin needs to get used to the ingredient,” says Saddle Brook, NJ dermatologist Fredric Haberman, MD. “If you don’t experience residual dryness, stinging or redness, then you can increase your frequency.”
Hamden, CT dermatologist Mona Gohara, MD advises patients to start using retinol one time a week for one week, then two times a week for two weeks, and so on. “Some may stick to two times a week while others can work up to seven without incident,” she says, noting that a pea-size amount is enough to cover the whole face.
You can also build up the concentration of retinol you’re using over time, beginning with a more gentle formulation and then kicking it up over time. Retinol is an ingredient that works over the course of weeks and months to achieve collagen promotion, so you can build up your retinol concentration naturally as you finish a product. Below you’ll find the best drugstore retinol to begin with, according to Mila Davis, aesthetician at Skin to Smile.
When choosing your retinol product, keep in mind the retinol percentage used in the formula. Our list ranges from around .1 to 2.5%. To get much higher than that, you’d need a prescription product. If, after a few months of using drugstore retinol, you are not seeing the results you want, you may need a higher concentration of retinol. You can do that by seeing a dermatologist, who can provide more potent formulations of retinol treatment.
The Best Retinol Formulas
The most effective retinol formulas will balance the active with what New York dermatologist Jody A. Levine, MD calls “buffering,” which is mixing retinol/retinoids with moisturizer to help skin adjust and prevent and reduce irritation.
You can even do this at home if your skin is especially sensitive.
Another way to buffer, which is great for dry and/or sensitive skin: “Layer your retinol or retinoid on top of a hydrating serum, like hyaluronic acid,” adds Joy. Or, try the “sandwich technique,” which is layering the retinoid between a thin base coat of moisturizer and a topcoat of hyaluronic acid serum.
So great retinol formulas tend to incorporate soothing and hydrating ingredients like hyaluronic acid or squalane to tamp down that potential irritation. The best retinol product for your skin will balance the power of the active with much needed moisture.
These top formulas are also meant to be used at night and require you to protect your skin from the sun. Retinol makes our skin more sensitive to UV damage, so upping your sunscreen routine is necessary, even with drugstore retinol.
Best Drugstore Retinol Products for Younger-Looking Skin
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“This serum is formulated with a lower concentration of retinol and antioxidants and is a great product for beginners. Retinol can be harsh initially if never used before, so it’s recommended to start with lower concentrations. But despite its lower retinol concentration, this product still produces visible anti-aging and resurfacing effects after consistent use.”
—Mila Davis, aesthetician at Skin to Smile
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“La Roche-Posay is the ultimate classic drugstore brand. This FDA-approved prescription-strength retinoid acne treatment is great for acne and really helps to clear blackheads, whiteheads, clogged pores, and acne blemishes. This is the perfect product for someone who is interested in a prescription-strength treatment and wants to start off gradually. Just remember to always wear sunscreen when using a retinol product.”
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Retinol is also one of the most commonly recommended ingredients for acne-prone skin, as it helps increase skin cell turnover to keep pores decongested. For those with post-acne marks and large pores, this serum is a must-try. The mix of encapsulated retinol, the brand’s signature ceramide blend and niacinamide allows for gentle resurfacing without aggravating the skin barrier. It can be used daily, but if you have dry skin, layer a good moisturizer on top (preferably a noncomedogenic formula that won’t clog pores), and always use sunscreen.
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“This is my top recommendation for drugstore retinol. Although the brand is very accessible price-wise, it stands up to the much pricier retinol options on the market. I love the glass bottle that it comes in, making it feel luxe, and the formula is very impressive. Sometimes retinol can be drying to our skin, but this product also contains squalane to hydrate and mimic the oil our own skin produces.”
—Joie Tavernise, medical aesthetician and founder of JTAV Clinical Skincare
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Rich and creamy, but not greasy, this fragrance-free night cream marries two of skin-care’s most popular ingredients, retinol and niacinamide, for one heavy-hitting anti-aging treatment while you sleep. The brand’s first fresh-pressed jar also keeps the formula more stable and dispenses the perfect amount for your face—use another pump for your neck and chest if you want to “take your skin-care down,” as the pros always recommend. With each use—start with just twice a week—skin looks brighter, smoother and more even.
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This nighttime cream-serum not only provides the line-smoothing benefits of retinol (in a nonirritating, slow-release formula), but also the firming benefits of Matrixyl 3000+, the most widely used peptide in the beauty industry that is clinically proven to help stimulate collagen production.
The actual percentage of pure retinol isn’t 1.5 percent (that would be way too strong!), but rather 0.3 percent. The 1.5 percent describes the entire Retinol Complex, which includes 1-percent retinol optimizer (where the slow-release system comes in) and 0.2-percent Retinol Soother, which is how the serum can treat with minimal to no irritation.
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“This oil has a fabulous feel to it. The product absorbs quickly, which is nice for applying before you to bed since you don’t have to worry about getting oil on your pillow. Although I have oily skin, I always love a good oil that is gentle and feels luxurious. Applying oil to oily skin may seem counterintuitive, but it actually help to keep your oil in your skin in balance. Peptides and ceramides firm, revitalize and provide time-released moisture throughout the day so your skin doesn’t feel dehydrated.”
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Boasting some big claims—Neutrogena has performed more than 100 clinical studies on 5,000 patients—this lightweight cream from the brand’s best-selling Rapid Wrinkle Repair collection is clinically proven to deliver smoother-looking skin in just one day and reduce the look of fine lines in one week and deep wrinkles in four weeks. Plus, the formula mixes retinol with hydrating hyaluronic acid to cut back on possible irritation.
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“Another great drugstore retinol find is the this multitasking serum that has an array of enhanced ingredients, including hyaluronic acid, vitamins C and E, and aloe vera, along with its 2.5-percent retinol. With the beautiful combination of these ingredients one will see an improvement in fine lines and wrinkles and rejuvenated skin that’s brighter, tighter and firmer. It can also be used under the eye area to treat eye bags and sagging skin.”
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“Retinols are true skin game changers that can make skin look radiant and rosy overnight. One drugstore retinol I’ve tried and really like is this one from Naturium that is clean, paraben- and cruelty-free and does not contain synthetic fragrances. It’s formulated with a photostable, synergistic blend of encapsulated retinol, a natural bio-retinol, and bakuchiol, a plant-derived retinol alternative that nourishes skin while diminishing the look of fine lines and wrinkles, hyperpigmentation and uneven texture.”
—Celebrity aesthetician Natalie Aguilar