Five retinol products for baby-smooth skin in the new year

Get radiant skin using science.

Portrait of young happy smiling cheerful beautiful blond woman applying creme, at home, with copyspace
Take care of your skin.DepositPhotos

I’m a huge skincare buff, so I’m almost always swapping new products in and out of my rotation—we’re talking oil cleansers, toners, moisturizers, essences, the works. But no matter what, one product always stays constant: my retinoid. Retinoids are a form of vitamin A, and they boast a laundry list of benefits that, shockingly, all have some solid scientific research backing them up. In what often feels like a skincare landscape of smoke and mirrors, it’s comforting to have something to rely on.

For instance, my finicky, dry, combination skin is prone to acne and subsequent red marks, and retinoids have helped remedy both of those things since it increases the rate at which skin cells grow and turn over—keeping pores clearer and making scars fade faster. That mechanism can also make your skin’s texture exquisitely smooth. If that wasn’t enticing enough, retinoids even stimulate the production of collagen, a springy protein that gives your skin its structure. As you age, you lose collagen, and that’s a part of why you get wrinkles. But with a few extra collagen molecules, you can stay wrinkle-free for longer, and have a juicier, plumper complexion in the meantime!

Of course, you can’t expect these results overnight. Most doctors (who can also prescribe you prescription-strength retinoids!) will tell you to expect baby-smooth skin in around 12 weeks. And before you reach the good skin promised land, you’ll probably have to endure a few breakouts and some dryness, flakiness or redness. (Pro-tip: definitely start slow to avoid these symptoms, like once a week!) Plus, this product is definitely off-limits for pregnant women and people with especially sensitive skin. And if you’re going to start using a retinoid, definitely invest in a good sunscreen and wear it every day, even if it’s cloudy.

If you can weather the storm and are ready to take the vitamin A plunge, here are five excellent retinoids to get you started. Begin now, and you’ll be reaping the benefits come February.

Drunk Elephant’s A-Passioni Retinol Cream
Drunk Elephant’s A-Passioni Retinol CreamSephora

This one is my personal favorite! After using prescription retinoids that cracked and dried out my skin, this retinol (a less-potent form of a typical retinoid) feels soothing and nurturing in comparison. You should still definitely start slow—over the course of 3 months, I went from using a tiny, pea-sized amount every Sunday to slathering on a marble-sized amount almost every night. At a 1% retinol concentration, this cream packs a solid punch without totally devastating your skin.

Sunday Riley’s Luna Retinol Sleeping Night Oil
Sunday Riley’s Luna Retinol Sleeping Night OilSephora

This facial oil is packed with retinol, and I’ve gotta say, it’s the most fun product to apply on this list. It is fully, totally, extremely blue. It is phosphorescent. Dropper it onto your face and rub it in, and you can cosplay as Tobias Funke or a Blue Man. Well, ok… I might be exaggerating a little bit. You’ll be a little blue in the face, but after you crawl into bed and get your 8 hours, you’ll awaken with a normal skin-colored face—with added radiance!

The Ordinary’s Granactive Retinoid 2% in Squalane
The Ordinary’s Granactive Retinoid 2% in SqualaneSephora

A lot of products on this list are in the $100 ballpark, but this serum is less than $10. It contains a 2% concentration of a bonafide retinoid, which in theory is stronger than retinol, in addition to moisturizing squalane and jojoba oils. It’s a great starter retinoid, and The Ordinary makes a version without squalane or jojoba if you’re sensitive to those.

First Aid Beauty’s FAB Skin Lab Retinol Eye Cream with Triple Hyaluronic Acid
First Aid Beauty’s FAB Skin Lab Retinol Eye Cream with Triple Hyaluronic AcidSephora

It can be tricky using full-strength retinoids on thin, delicate under-eye skin, so First Aid Beauty formulated this gentler retinol cream for that purpose. It has hyaluronic acid, too, which despite its harsh-sounding name is a molecule that merely draws water into the skin, hydrating and plumping it.

Ole Henriksen’s Glow Cycle Retin-ALT Power Serum
Ole Henriksen’s Glow Cycle Retin-ALT Power SerumSephora

If retinols haven’t been working for you, this serum from Ole Henriksen might be your move. It uses a molecule that works very similarly to vitamin A called bakuchiol. In a 2019 study, researchers found bakuchiol worked just as well as retinol for getting rid of wrinkles and hyperpigmentation, and the study participants found their skin was less irritated by the alternative than with retinol.