Best Retinol Cream Starting Tips

Searching the drug store isles for the best retinol cream.

by Linda Robison

Are you shopping for best retinol cream for your skin type? Here is what you need to know about selecting and using retinol creams for the best results.

With so many choices, how do you know which is the best retinol cream for your needs? We're not talking about prescription retinols but over-the-counter retinol creams or serums.

Skin care ads are confusing and often times, misleading.

Without  knowledge, you might wind up paying a lot for a retinol cream that does not contain enough active ingredient (retinol) for optimal results. Or you may buy a cream that's too strong for your skin type.

Retinol is one of the best anti-aging, anti-wrinkle ingredient available without a prescription. And, if you're over 40, you should consider adding it to your anti-aging skin care regimen.

While there are a lot retinol creams to choose from, I was surprised to see how little retinol many of them actually contained. 

A lot of inexpensive drugstore brand retinol creams contain a very small amount of retinol (used as "window dressing") but not enough to be an effective anti-aging cream.

How much retinol do you need?

Well, there is no magic number – but researchers at Johnson & Johnson found that women who used a 0.1% retinol cream had significant improvement (fewer wrinkles and age spots) in 6-12 months. 

However, a study in the JAMA of Dermatology found that 0.4% retinol offered significant improvements in aged skin (fewer wrinkles, age spots, and increased moisture retention) in just 6 months. 

If the label does not list the percentage, then it might not contain enough to really produce dramatic results in a reasonable amount of time.

What's the best retinol cream for you?

When it comes to selecting the best retinol cream - check the ingredients.

And, keep mind, that although an over-the-counter retinol cream is not as strong as it's prescription cousin; non-prescription retinol creams can initially irritate those with sensitive skin.

This is usually temporary happens during the initial “break-in” period.

So it’s important to find one that’s strong enough to get the job done, yet gentle to the skin.

This will amount vary from person to person depending on their skin sensitivity and level of aging/damage. 

Here are a few things to consider before starting a retinol treatment:

  • If your skin is not very sensitive, consider starting with a 0.3% retinol cream. But only apply it only about 2-3 times a week - spaced out evenly through the week. This allows your skin to comfortably adjust to the higher retinol without suffering too much irritation.
  • If you're able to handle a product containing 0.3% retinol 5-7 times a week with no problem, then you're probably ready for a higher strength retinol cream like 0.6%.  

The problem with retinol creams

As you probably know - OTC retinol creams are one of the best anti-aging beauty treatments available without a prescription!

And most dermatologists agree. "Retinol is a tried and true ingredient that really works," says Dr. Jaliman, M.D., a New York City dermatologist and author of Skin Rules: Trade Secrets from a Top New York Dermatologist.

So what’s the problem?

Results are slow, be patient. It takes several months before you see results; so, it's important to stick with it. 

Also, some people find it difficult to use a potent retinol cream long enough to see results due to side effects like flaking, redness, and irritation. Many people give up after a few weeks, just short of the break-in period.

You see it’s a catch-22. You need a retinol cream that’s strong enough to be effective, yet the strong ones often irritated even the toughest of complexions.

At least that’s been my experience…

What retinol cream do I use?

Right now, I'm using a retinol serum that can be added to any moisturizer for extra protection against irritation. 

I like the idea of using a series of face creams with different retinol strengths, so I could slowly and comfortably progress to the next stronger level as my skin adjusted. 

This, in my opinion, would be the best way to easy into retinol treatments.

How to get the best results

What Can You Do?

Treat your skin with extra care during the first few weeks/months of starting a retinol treatment. Start slow, make sure to use a sunscreen every day and treat your skin gently.

  • Don't scrub or rub your skin
  • Cut back or temporarily discontinue chemical exfoliators like AHA or BHA exfoliating creams and peels
  • Use very gentle creamy cleansers - like Cetaphil
  • Add some healing facial oils to your current moisturizer to increase hydration and combat any extra dryness. Face oils are a wonderful addition during this period

Why is retinol so irritating?

Retinol is a vitamin A derivative and a cousin to the prescription cream known as retinoic acid (Retin-A). Once applied to the skin it converts to retinoic acid – which is the heavy duty anti-aging strong horse.

However, keep in mind that not all retinols are the same. It’s important to use a high potent, high quality stable product.

If not produced and packaged correctly – retinols can become unstable, and this could interfere with the ability to convert properly. 

That’s why buying a quality retinol is important. 

While not as strong as retinoic acid, retinols are very effective at gently exfoliate dead skin cells (increasing cell turnover) which in turn can help stimulate collagen production. 

But for many people this sudden increase in cell turnover can sometimes cause mild side effects – especially if the cream contains a high percentage of retinol. 

That’s why it helps to reduce the level/strength of retinol used or reduce the frequency of use in the first few weeks, starting a retinol treatment.

And this is also why you might need to try a product or two (in different strengths) to find the best retinol cream for your complexion type and need.

 One important warning if you plan on using retinol creams. Only apply it at night. And always use a sunscreen even during the winter.


Arch Dermatol. 2007;143(5):606-612. doi:10.1001/archderm.143.5.606