Given the widespread availability of OTC topical retinol creams, it’s never been easier to give one a try. But, trying tons of beauty products and finding the best retinol cream for you are two different things. If you want to make sure you’re using the right drugstore retinol cream or wondering if you need to seek a dermatologist for prescription retinol cream, it’s important to know what the experts have to say about this incredibly versatile, pore-refining, skin care ingredient. For all your retinol questions, we spoke with dermatologists about the best tips to use retinol creams, serums, or gels. 

How do retinols and retinoids work?

If you aren’t already familiar with retinols and retinoids, they’re both vitamin A derivatives known for their near-panacean ability to smooth and reduce the appearance of fine lines, brighten and even out skin texture, and make skin look clearer overall. This is due to the fact that they expedite skin-cell turnover, which gets rid of dull, dead skin faster, strengthens the skin’s barrier, and boosts collagen production (you need collagen to maintain your skin’s structure and elasticity). Where retinols differ is their potency: Although both retinol and retinoid products come in a range of concentrations, retinols are generally regarded as weaker, while many retinoids are only available through a prescription.

What are the benefits of using a retinol?

Most dermatologists recommend retinols with surprisingly few caveats. Linda C. Chung Honet, MD, FAAD, tells SELF that, with patience, commitment, and the right skin care routine, people of all skin types could benefit from using a retinol. Meanwhile, Jerome Potozkin, MD, says retinols may be of particular interest to anyone embarking on a “skin rejuvenation journey,” in which they’re seeking to reduce dark spots and hyperpigmentation, address breakouts or fine lines, decrease the effects of sun damage, or prevent future signs of wrinkles. In other words, whether you want to even out your skin tone, calm your acne-prone skin, or just find a skin-care product that will provide reliable exfoliation, a retinol might just be what you’re looking for.

Keep in mind that you should always wear sunscreen (or a moisturizer that contains SPF) while using a retinol, as retinols can have irritating side effects including redness, dryness, itching, and increased photosensitivity. There are ways to build your tolerance to irritating skin-care products but this also means that your skin will probably need an adjustment period before you see results. 

How do you know what retinol product is best for you?

As with many matters related to skin care, it comes down to your skin type. 

Dry Skin: 

If you have dry skin or it skews toward the sensitive end of the spectrum, a retinol cream or lotion may be a better fit for you. “Creams tend to be thicker and better for more dry or mature skin,” Elizabeth Bahar Houshmand, MD, explains. Dr. Potozkin echoes this recommendation, adding that the specific product you use will naturally come down to personal preference, but ones that come in cream form will be less irritating for sensitive skin types overall and, with time, still deliver the kind of results you hope to see with retinol. 

Oily Skin or Acne-Prone Skin: 

Those with oily or acne-prone skin may prefer to use a product that’s lighter-weight, like a serum or gel. Provided that these products have a relatively low retinol concentration (say, 0.25% as opposed to 1%), they’ll still be beginner-friendly. “The lower the concentration the more tolerable and less irritation,” Dr. Houshmand says. Whatever formulation you choose, it could take anywhere from 3 to 12 months of regular retinol use to start seeing changes in your skin.

The best retinol creams and serums

With all of that in mind, we asked a range of dermatology experts what they consider to be the best retinol cream on the market now—and they had several highly regarded recommendations to share. Top picks include products from RoC, SkinCeuticals, and Vichy. Read on to find the retinol product that will jumpstart your own rejuvenation journey.

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