OTC Retinol Skin Products 

How do you know which over-the-counter retinol skin products are worth buying? We'll break it down to a few simple tips.

by Linda Robison

There are hundreds of retinol skin products to choose from. Are some better than others? How do you know which is best, you can't always go by price?

We'll show some easy tips on how to select the most effective and best product for your money.

Retinol Skin Products banner

We all know that retinols are important for anti-aging skin care, but how much are you getting in your facial cream or serum?

How do you know if it's going to be effective? 

The ingredient list and the packaging can help guide you to select an effective retinol product that will offer the best anti-aging results.

Here are some things to consider

Percentage of retinol

First – How much retinol does the skin cream actually contain? Is there an amount, strength, or percentage listed anywhere?

Check the back of the label before you buy any retinol cream.

Read the ingredient on the back to see where ( the ingredient retinol or vitamin A) is on the list. The closer to the bottom, the less it contains.

You could be paying extra money for a regular moisturizer cream that happens to have a small amount of retinol in it.

But are you going to experience the benefits with just a small amount thrown in as window dressing?

Right now, my favorite OTC retinol product is Naturium Rentialdehyde Cream Serum. And the label states on the front it contains 0.05%. You can get this at Target, Amazon and most places online.


Pick of retinol skin product.

Second – How is it packaged?

Does it come in a jar or a tube that gets exposed to the air and light each time you use it?

This is very important because retinols are sensitive to oxygen and light and degrades quick, which makes it less effective.

That’s why I’m a big fan of retinol creams and serums that come in airtight pump bottles.

Type of retinol


Several studies over the years compared retinaldehyde to other vitamin A forms like retinol.

One study said retinaldehyde worked as well as tretinoin for making skin better but with fewer side effects.

Another study found it was better than retinol at making skin stronger and firmer without causing irritation. These studies suggest it might be a better choice for improving skin without irritation.

Converts Better:

It also requires fewer steps to convert into the active form, making it more efficient and less irritating for many people, especially those with sensitive skin.

When applied topically, retinaldehyde converts directly into retinoic acid, which is known for promoting collagen production and reducing signs of aging.

Top 4 Over Counter with retinol products

How to select a Retinol Product...Click here.

Which retinol is best for beginners? 

Obagi 360 Retinol Cream

This is a good retinol for beginners. Retinol creams can be a bit irritating until your skin adjusts to it.

But the Obagi retinol cream contains entrapped retinol micro-sponges. So it slowly releases retinol onto the skin. Plus, it contains shea butter, so your skin stays super soft and hydrated. 

  • Creamy moisturizer keeps the skin soft and hydrated.
  • It comes in an opaque container and it not too expensive.
  • Contains shea butter to reduce irritation and dryness, making it a great retinol for beginners with sensitive skin.

Retinol Serum Booster with CoQ10 and Hyaluronic Acid

This 1% retinol lightweight serum can be used alone or under your face cream or moisturizer. It can also be layered under another retinol cream if you need extra oomph! Read: Why Retinol Serums?

  • It comes in a dark glass bottle with a dropper dispenser, so it stays fresher and is protected against oxidation from light and oxygen.
  • While it doesn't state the exact amount of retinol on the label, a company spokesperson told me it contains a 1% vitamin A in the form of retinyl palmitate.

Peter Thomas Roth 1.5% Retinol Treatment:

It contains the highest amount of retinol plus vitamin C and E.

  • Packaging is good, dark air pump bottles to protect the potency.
  • Contains a good amount (1.5%) retinol.
  • Includes anti-aging and hydrating ingredients to help prevent dryness and flaking that most new users experience.

NOTE: I love retinol serums because I don't have to purchase yet, Another Cream! I already have a favorite moisturizer cream (CFF CBD facial moisturizer) and do not wish to add more creams to my facial regime. But with serums, like retinol, all I have to do is add a few drops to my CBD moisturizer and I can control how strong or weak I want my retinol treatment to be. 

Green Cream Retinol Level 3, 6, 9 Potency

Green Cream Retinol is a favorite among many users, and now I understand why. They offer several levels/strengths of retinol creams (ranging from 0.3% to 0.9%) making it suitable for different skin types.

This product contains retinol (which is the whole vitamin A molecule, not an ester form.) Retinol acts more closely like the prescription retinoic acid – but without the intense irritation.

Since retinol converts to retinoic acid faster – results appear sooner.

The Packaging? This product line comes in airtight pump bottles that are also opaque.

Face cream with low strength retinol

Many people ask me about drugstore retinol creams like Roc retinol skin cream...

While I always loved Roc skincare products – I noticed the main ingredient "retinol" is way down the list. And it doesn't list the percentage of retinols in the products so you don't know how potent it is.

So what can you do if you already have these creams at home? Here is a cheap tip how you can "amp-up" your current face cream with more retinol.

So now that you know what to look for in retinol skin products. Here are some cautions to be aware of…

retinol skin products - side effects 

Remember, even over-the-counter retinols may cause dry skin, flaking, or peeling, especially for those with sensitive skin.

So it's best to slowly by using it a few times a week to see how your skin reacts. Here are some tips to reduce retinol side effects.

One final thought – most over-the-counter retinol skin products available at your local drugstore are not very strong.

But if you’re looking for ones with a little more oomph (without a prescription) consider shopping online and keep the percentage and the packaging in mind.

Use this Best Retinol Cream Starting Tips as a guide before you buy

Retinol Skin Products: FAQ's

Got questions about retinol skincare products? We're happy to help. Send your questions here.

Q: What does retinol do to your face?

A: Retinols help your skin look younger, firmer, with fewer lines, wrinkles, brown spots and discoloration. And it improves skin tone.

It accomplishes these anti-aging effects in a number of ways.

First, retinols help increase collagen production for firmer skin. Second, it helps stimulate the production of new blood vessels, which improves skin tone and color. Third, it helps increase skin cell turnover, which reduces discoloration, age spots and rough dry patchy skin.

Q: Is it OK to use retinol every night?

A: When first starting your retinol treatment, you should use retinols once a week. Everyone is different, so it's best to start slowly and experiment to see how your skin will react.

Once your skin has adjusted to the retinol treatment, you only need to use it about two to three times a week to maintain results.

Retinols can increase your skin's sensitivity to the sun, so it's best to use it at night, and you must use a sunscreen daily.

Q: What can you not mix with retinol?

A: When starting your retinol treatment, you should avoid using any skin product that can cause irritation. Especially, in the first few months.

You should avoid using any exfoliating acids such as Alpha Hydroxy or Beta Hydroxy (AHA/BHA) acids and any serums or creams that contain high amounts of vitamin C. And, just to note: benzoly peroxide (mostly used for acne skin) will cancel out retinol, so avoid those too. If you're under the care of a dermatologist for acne or other treatment, always inform them if you plan to use over-the-counter retinol products.

Q: Do you use moisturizer after retinol?

A: Yes! Always use a moisturizer when undergoing retinol treatment. In fact, if your skin is very sensitive, you should apply your moisturizer first, then the retinol. Or consider mixing your retinol together with your moisturizer.