7 Over-the-Counter Retinol Serums and Creams Dermatologists Highly Recommend

I like to think of retinoid products as special gifts for my combination (and sometimes acne-prone) skin, because applying them before bed helps to keep my breakouts at bay while treating existing dark spots. Retinoids, typically used to address acne and signs of aging, like wrinkles, can be prescription medications or obtained in over-the-counter products. Retinol, retinal, and retinoic acid are all types of retinoids, which are vitamin A derivatives. When used topically, retinoids stimulate processes that cause skin cells to shed more quickly and evenly, John G. Zampella, M.D., dermatologist and assistant professor in the Ronald O. Perelman department of dermatology at NYU Langone Health, tells SELF.

Whenever a person starts using a retinoid for the first time, there is typically an adjustment period in which the skin peels and reddens, Rita Linkner, M.D., dermatologist at Spring Street Dermatology in NYC, explains. “Oftentimes, people will break out a little bit as well as once the exfoliation process picks up, which is all to be expected and a good sign of clear skin to come.” As part of your skin-care routine, you should apply your retinoid of choice after cleansing and only once it’s completely dry (a moist base tends to enhance the uptake of retinoid on the skin, and cause increased irritation). Another pro-tip? Don’t forget the sunscreen! Of course it’s essential to apply every morning anyway, but even more important when adding a retinoid to your nighttime routine, as users may be slightly more sun-sensitive.

When searching for an over-the-counter retinoid, Melanie Palm, M.D., dermatologist, cosmetic surgeon, and assistant clinical professor at the University of California, San Diego, says there are two important factors to consider: The concentration of retinoid and the vehicle (or cream, serum, etc.) it’s delivered in. “Reputable companies develop very effective base vehicles that allow skin to see a higher concentration of retinol over a slow-released period of time, creating a more dramatic skin effect with less redness and irritation,” she says. “If you have sensitive skin, consider a lower concentration retinol and work up to a higher strength. Start with a lower percentage, lighter preparation formulas, and use them slowly and in small amounts. Those with normal to oily skin may tolerate higher strength retinols better.”

If you’re considering trying out retinol or any retinoid at home, read on for some of the best over-the-counter products dermatologists swear by.

NEOVA SmartSkincare's Intensive Retinol Spray

“For when I'm a little oilier and need something a little stronger, I rely on NEOVA's Intensive Retinol Spray that packs an additional boost of exfoliation by adding in lactic acid and glycolic acid. I lean on this retinol a couple of times a week.” — Dr. Linkner

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