Do Over-the-Counter Retinol Products Work?

Get the most out of your retinol creams

Over the counter retinol products
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So you've heard the hype about retinol, that magical miracle product found in Retin-A and other prescription creams that dermatologists swear is the cream that can make your skin look years younger. But Retin-A and other retinoids are pricey if your insurance won't cover them (insurance rarely covers for cosmetic purposes). So this begs a question: Do over-the-counter retinol products work just as well? 


OTC retinoids—known as retinol creams—do work. They are simply not as potent and are therefore more gentle on the skin, which can be a very good thing. They happen to be perfect for someone looking to diminish the signs of aging but not ready to commit to a pricey prescription formula.

We've researched and come up with the best OTC retinol creams on the market today, so check them out.

Here are five facts you should know about retinol creams before you start using them.

Start Using Them BEFORE You Get Wrinkles

Many of retinol creams are marketed as "deep wrinkle creams" giving the impression they exist only to treat women with established lines, but retinol—like Botox—works wonderfully as a preventative measure. Start using it in your late 20s and your 60-something self will thank you. 

Know Your Potencies

Many women start with a prescription retinoid and then quit the moment their faces become red and start peeling. My dermatologist at New York Dermatology recommends using OTC retinol creams instead of the harsher prescription retinoids.

Retinol creams come in several potencies from the milder .25 percent versions on up to .5 percent, 1 percent and even 2 percent. Retinoids can be harsh on skin, so it's best to start with a low-potency cream and graduate to the higher potency once your skin adjusts.

If you have sensitive skin, you may find retinol creams to be a bit harsh on your skin. For this reason, you should start by choosing the lowest potency possible. We recommend the wonderful Skinmedica Retinol Complex .25.

Your Skin May React at First, This is Normal

Many women start out with retinols and then quit the regimen when their skin becomes reddened and peels. While some redness and peeling is normal with retinols at first, you can avoid the harsh reactions by following this advice:

  1. Use only a pea-sized amount on your face. 
  2. Start out with a low-potency, like a .25 percent or a .5 percent at most. 
  3. Use every other day for the first 2 weeks. 
  4. Graduate to every day after 2 weeks. 
  5. Graduate to a higher potency when you feel your skin isn't reaping the benefits anymore. 

Use Sunscreen

One word of warning for anyone on retinol creams: Wear sunscreen of at least SPF 30 daily. Your skin becomes more susceptible to sunburn on retinoids and we all know nothing prematurely ages you faster than the sun.

Bolster Your Skin Routine With an Anti-Aging Serum

While retinoids work seemingly magically to reduce fine lines and give you a dewy, youthful appearance, skin serums are like vitamins for the skin. We recommend also using an anti-aging serum packed with antioxidants during the day.