How to Choose an over the Counter Retinol Product

Retinol is a type of retinoid, a derivative of vitamin A. It's commonly available in various strengths in the form of gels, creams, and serums. It's been shown to improve skin texture and hyperpigmentation, as well as reduce the appearance of wrinkles, fine lines and age spots.  It can also help reduce blemishes and minimize your pores. It is a weaker member of the family of retinoids (like tretinoin and retinoic acid) and is found in variety of non-prescription creams, oils, and lotions. How can you choose a good over-the-counter retinol product? You don’t need to break the bank — just make sure to get the right active ingredient in the right amount.

Look at the product labeling. First of all, you’ll want to find an over-the-counter anti-aging product that actually works and actually contains retinol. Retinol content of 0.1% or less is fairly standard.

1% Retinol Cream

Know that similar sounding ingredients are not the same. You’ll probably notice that some skin care products have names that sound an awful lot like retinol. These are often other Vitamin A derivatives and are called "pro-retinols," i.e. retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate, retinyl propionate, and retinyl linoleate. Retinyl propionate is a derivative of retinol, but it doesn’t offer the same anti-aging benefits as retinol. Derivatives of retinol are in general weaker and less effective than retinol. If your goal is to smooth fine lines and wrinkles, you’d probably be better off choosing something with plain retinol.

Buy a low-concentration retinol, to start. Retinoids and retinol tend to cause some skin inflammation and redness, especially in the beginning.  If you have naturally sensitive skin or red and inflamed acne, normal over-the-counter retinol products can make the situation worse. You might therefore want to start with a low-concentration and work your way up.  Topical retinoids can cause what’s called "retinoid dermatitis" even in people with normal skin. This is characterized by redness, scaling, dryness, and pruritis. The level of irritation correlates with the strength and concentration of Vitamin A in the product.  Look for the words "sensitive skin" on the label, which will generally mean that the product has lower concentrations of active retinol. Be aware that low-concentration creams and lotions are not as effective but are gentler.

Choose a moisturizer with soothing ingredients. While your skin gets used to retinol, it may become irritated. If possible, go with a retinol moisturizer that is not only lower in concentration but that also has added ingredients for sensitive skin. This should help to soothe the skin as it builds up a tolerance to the retinol. Moisturize your face every day to keep your skin looking fresh and healthy. You can also reduce inflammation further by
applying the retinol every other night and by following it up with a good moisturizer
Don’t be impressed by big names. There are a number of high-end, luxury retinol products on the market that boast impressive names. These are probably excellent, but you can get a quality product that works nearly as well for only a fraction of the price. Don’t think that a product will work better just because it costs more and has a fancy name. There are a lot of high-end retinols that sell for well over $100 a bottle, like NaturaBisse’s Essential Shock Intense Retinol Fluid ($120) or Kate Somerville DermalQuench Liquid Lift ($105). These probably work great but are very pricey.
Another bank-breaker is Youth Corridor by the surgeon Dr. Gerald Imber. This is most definitely for people with large budgets: $610 for a 50mL bottle!

Watch out for gimmicky ingredients. Some high-end retinols also make use of expensive or gimmicky ingredients that add to price but don’t necessarily add anything major to the product’s effect on your skin. Be wary of these, as well, to find a good value retinol.
Perricone MD OVM serum is a pricey example at $155 for a 30 milliliters (1 fl oz) bottle. They claim the "secret ingredient" is egg shell membrane, which is supposed to protect your skin from irritation.  The London-based surgeon Yannis Alexandrides offers a retinol product called "111 Skin Celestial Black Diamond," which contains actual black diamond powder and costs $230 a bottle. You can probably go without the powdered diamonds.

Aim for a price range of $15 to $30. You can find a range of great retinol skincare products for less than $50. In fact, you can get good value from recognized brands without any gimmicky or outrageously expensive ingredient. You really don’t need to pay much more than $15 to $30.

Try BNY Retinol Cream with Hemp Seed Oil it will make your skin feel like silk!
If you’re interested in a serum rather than a cream, try something like Tree of Life Retinol Serum with Hyaluronic Acid. $12.95


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This article was medically reviewed by Kaveri Karhade, MD. Dr. Kaveri Karhade is a board certified Laser, Medical, and Cosmetic Dermatologist in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her areas of expertise are acne and hair loss. She has advanced training in injectables, lasers, surgery, and other cosmetic treatments, and has published extensive research in medical journals. She holds a BS from Michigan State University and a Doctor of Medicine (MD) from the University of Michigan Medical School. She completed her internship in Internal Medicine at New York University School of Medicine and her Residency in Dermatology at Brown University School of Medicine. Dr. Karhade is a fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology and a member of the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery. This article has been viewed 10,695 times.

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