Best retinol to use for better skin

Getting ready at night with retinol serum. Getty/File

The Curator independently decides what topics and products we feature. When you purchase an item through our links, we may earn a commission. Promotions and products are subject to availability and retailer terms.

None of us are immune to aging or the genetic and environmental factors that can affect the health and look of our skin. Over time, the appearance of fine lines, blemish scars and undereye circles can make our skin look dull and weathered.

The solution for more radiant, better-looking skin may be simple: incorporate retinol into your skincare regimen.

Retinol is one of the most talked about ingredients in skincare because it’s backed by the most evidence-based research. It has been shown to improve skin texture, dyspigmentation, dryness and fine lines. In one study, researchers tested the efficacy of retinol on photodamaged skin over one year and found that it had improved crow’s feet fine lines by 44% and mottled pigmentation by 84%. In another study, researchers found a significant reduction of facial wrinkles following 12 weeks of retinol application.

How does retinol work?

Retinol is a milder form of retinoid and is a derivative of vitamin A. Prescription-grade retinoids are typically used to manage symptoms of acne, but dermatologists also prescribe it for other uses such as treating pigmentation. Because retinol is milder on the skin yet effective, it’s a popular ingredient in over-the-counter products.

Story continues below advertisement

Retinol does a lot for the skin, said Dr. Renita Ahluwalia, Medical and Cosmetic Dermatology Lecturer at the University of Toronto and Lead Dermatologist at the Canadian Dermatology and Plastic Surgery Centre. It increases skin cell turnover, which helps reduce the appearance of fine lines and pigmentation, and stimulates collagen production. It’s a smart molecule so it can regulate the thickness of the skin – if the skin is thin, it can help to thicken it and if the skin is too thick, it can help with the exfoliating properties to thin it, explained Ahluwalia.

How to use retinol safely

The benefits of retinol can be enticing, but it’s important to use it with care and consult your dermatologist for best use, particularly if you have sensitive or compromised skin.

“The trick is to go slow and listen to your skin,” said Ahluwalia who recommended applying it once a week, followed by a moisturizer, for a couple of weeks to start. You can then add an additional night if the product is tolerated well. If skin sensitivity occurs, the moisturize sandwich technique may help, which is what Ahluwalia recommends to her clients – first, moisturize with a lightweight serum to draw water into the skin, then apply the retinol product, and follow it with an emollient-based moisturizer to help make the process more tolerable.

It’s also important to wear sunscreen all year long because retinol can sometimes make the skin photo-sensitive, which is why if you’re using retinol for the first time, the fall season may be a good time for beginners as there’s less sun exposure. And be sure to hydrate, advised Ahluwalia, because retinol can dry the skin.

Story continues below advertisement

Although generally safe to use, it’s not recommended to use retinol if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding. If you have a known allergy to retinol, it should be avoided.

READ MORE: Fall skin care: Expert tips on what to change this season

Those with sensitive skin can still use retinol but may need to use a milder concentration and incorporate it more slowly. If the skin is irritated or the skin barrier is compromised, such as with eczema symptoms, it’s best to hold off on using retinol until the condition is under control, advised Ahluwalia.

Remember to be patient with the process. “Retinol is a long game,” said Ahluwalia. Expect that early irritation may occur and your skin may need time to acclimate – and that benefits won’t appear right away. It can take three months before seeing effects and six months for good results, said Ahluwalia.

It may also take some time to find the formulation that works best for your skin type as not all products are created equal.

Here are five best-reviewed and recommended products to get you started.

Neutrogena tube of retinol capsuls
Each fragrance-free, hypoallergenic capsule contains a precise dose of pure retinol gentle enough to use more frequently throughout the week.
More Recommendations
Story continues below advertisement


A gentle retinol serum that also contains ingredients like hyaluronic acid for extra hydration, niacinamide to soothe, and ceramides to lock in moisture.


An advanced formula with one per cent retinol, a potent blend of peptides, and vitamin C. And this 5ml package makes the ideal tester to see if your skin can tolerate it.


Skinceuticals night retinol cream
Recommended for first-time retinol users, it’s also a potent treatment that ensures a steady, even release and accelerated skin cell turnover.
Story continues below advertisement


Designed specifically to reduce deep wrinkles and even skin tone around the eyes and eyelids, this popular serum with hyaluronic acid is gentle enough for sensitive skin.

More from The Curator team

The most important skincare products for every age

7 Taylor Swift-approved red lipsticks

6 best under-eye patches for tired, puffy eyes



The Curator newsletter The Curator newsletter
The Curator

Be in the know before you shop with The Curator email sent twice a week.

Sponsored content