Yeah, yeah, we know: Retinols are confusing. They not only come in a billion different formulas and variations, each one promising to work lightning fast (which, hot tip, almost always translates to skin irritation), but each one also varies in price, consistency, and branding, all of which turns your maybe-I’ll-buy-a-retinol trip down the skin-care aisle into a mind-melting whirlwind.
So to help your brain out, we picked the four most-popular retinols that you’ve seen in magazines, on billboards, and in pop-up ads for years—the retinols that have cult-like followings, insanely high reviews, and celebrity backers, and we tested them out for ourselves to find you the very best drugstore retinol, once and for all.
Our tester, who has a “normal” complexion with zero sensitivity issues (lucky her), tested the retinols for two weeks per brand and applied them every third night to dry, clean skin, without using any other moisturizers or products (we definitely wouldn’t recommend this method to anyone who has ever had dry or sensitive skin, though; instead, massage in a hydrating moisturizer 20 minutes after you apply your retinol to stave off irritation and flakes).
Though retinols generally take a minimum of four months to produce results, we didn’t have two years to test this smack down—plus, in the end, all retinols have the same effect on your skin, regardless of their concentration—so we instead based our rankings on the formula’s texture, packaging, application, and its feeling on your skin. (If you hate any of those factors, you definitely won’t stick with a retinol routine every few days for a year.)
Keep reading to find out our favorite winner, and then get your butt to the drugstore ASAP. Your skin (in 20 years) will thank you for it.
Dear L’Oreal, why did you put your retinol in a jar?! We didn’t want to rule this product out from the get-go, but any skin-care product with active ingredients like retinol should be in an airtight pump, or, at the very least, a squeeze tube with a cap, or the retinol will eventually become ineffective after being exposed to air. Also, jars are often unhygienic and can become breeding ground for bacteria, even if you wash your hands before dipping in a finger.
But, jar aside, our tester was even more shocked to find that her steel-like skin started stinging and peeling after the third time she applied the retinol—a first for her. “It definitely could have been user error,” she admits, “the retinol is in a jar, so you kind of just dip your fingers in to apply it, which results in more than a pea-size amount on your face.” Still, she says, the cream “didn’t really sink into my skin as well as the others—it just kind of sat on top.”
Sensitive-skinned folks beware: This retinol means business (in case you couldn’t tell by its name). Olay claims that the formula will reduce the appearance of age spots, fine lines, and wrinkles in just eight weeks, which sounds totally amazing, but don’t expect miracles since retinols really do need at least four months to make an impact.
But just because it packs a punch doesn’t make this retinol is acid in a tube—nope, this sucker is formulated with glycerin and silicone, making it hydrating enough for those of you with dry-to-normal skin. So much so that our tester, whose skin was already a bit irritated from her L’Oreal testing, applied this retinol at night and woke up to softer skin. The only downside? “The formula’s consistency is pretty thin, so it oozed out of the tube pretty quickly,” says our tester. “It’s almost impossible to squeeze just a pea-size amount, so I had to be careful not to apply too much. Still, my skin felt softer and plumper at the end of the two weeks.”
When you think wrinkles, you think RoC (if that’s not the brand’s slogan, it should be). This deep-wrinkle night cream comes in a sturdy squeeze tube that’s stiff enough that the retinol won’t simply ooze out at the touch of the tube. Plus, the formula is more cream-y than serum-y so it felt more substantial to our tester. “Sometimes, retinols feel so thin and watery that I accidentally put on a few layers to make sure my skin is really covered, which is always a bad thing to do,” says our tester. “But this one felt creamy and spreadable, so I didn’t worry about over-applying it or using too much.”
And those without patience will be happy to know that this retinol works relatively quickly. “My under-eye area actually looked a bit smoother after only two weeks of using RoC, which was seriously impressive,” she says. “But because the formula is pretty powerful and meant for deeper wrinkles, I could definitely see it being too irritating for a wide range of skin types.”
Finally—a retinol in a pump! Hallelujah! If we could award winners based on packaging alone, Neutrogena would have won. But the real test was in its formula, which contains both glycerin and hyaluronic acid—two skin-plumping hydrators—and a hefty dose of retinol. Though Neutrogena says you’ll notice a difference in just one week, we’re throwing major skepticism at that claim, seeing as your skin cell turnover rate (responsible for creating new, wrinkle-free skin) is only every 28 days.
Still, our tester found that the retinol, which absorbed quickly into her skin, “made my skin feel way softer and look a bit more even after just two uses, which was an awesome surprise.” Overall, though, she felt that this retinol was the most do-able for daily use: “I’m in my late 20s and don’t need nor want a heavy duty, deep-wrinkle retinol,” she says. “This formula was mess-free and really lightweight, and it felt like it could be a long-term maintenance product for me, rather than a quick fix, which I liked.”