Best Dermatologist-recommended Retinol Cream for Beginners

There are many retinol creams and serums on the market and I see patients coming in often to my dermatology practice using the wrong retinol product. I know it is so hard to decide which retinol to start with when you are a beginner and have not used a retinol before.  There is not one best retinol cream or serum that works for everyone. This article will tell you the information that I consider when choosing the best retinol for beginners in my medical practice. There are many different retinol products and not all of them are worth the price.

The thing I always consider before prescribing a retinol to someone who has not used one before is their Baumann Skin Type.  There are 16 skin types and knowing which you are makes it easier for me to choose a retinol to start with.  Take a moment to take the 3 minute quiz if you have not already diagnosed your Baumann Skin Type. Then we can discuss which retinol is best for your skin type.

Retinol is the most potent form of retinoid available without a prescription. 

 If you do not know what a retinol or retinoid is- you can click here to learn more.

There is not a prescription strength retinol. Retinol is designated by the FDA as a cosmetic which means it does not have to undergo the rigorous testing required of prescription retinoids like tretinoin, tazarotene and trifarotene. This is why it is very important to educate yourself before starting a retinol so that you buy a retinol that really works to treat your skin concerns.

Retinol is a good way to begin using a retinoid because it is easily accessible, effective, affordable, and comes in low strengths that are less irritating than prescription retinoids. 

There are many things to consider when choosing which retinol is best for beginners and the decision goes beyond brand. There are many medical grade retinols- so which should you begin with?

This blog will discuss what I  consider when putting one of my a patient on a retinol for the first time.

All retinols will work better on acne, dark spots, and wrinkles and have fewer side effects when used in a compete and correct skin care routine that is matched to your Baumann Skin Type (there are 16!).

5 best retinol products for beginners

Table comparing different retinols for beginners

The chart above compares retinol creams and serums for you to use when you are adding a retinol to your skin care routine for the first time.

Here are some of my reviews as a dermatologist of retinol face serums for beginners. Notice they are all low strength and none are prescription.

1. Alastin Renewal Retinol 0.25%

Alastin Renewal Retinol .25% is one of the best medical grade retinols and is only sold by doctors.   You can get it from us if you take the quiz. Although it is a low strength 0.25% retinol, it is potent because it has the correct form of retinol in it (not esters). To help beginners use it without a lot of side effects. it has several anti-inflammatory ingredients in it that help you adjust to the retinol quickly.  These anti-redness ingredients are niacinamide, bisabolol, and oat kernel extract. The Alastin Renewal Retinol also has coenzyme Q10 (also called ubiquinol) which gives skin cells energy to make more collagen and perform other antiaging functions. Although this product contains ceramide 3, it does not have the correct lipids to repair the skin barrier and should be paired with the right moisturizer for your Baumann Skin Type.

The Alastin Renewal Retinol retinol is a good choice if you have sensitive skin and want to begin a retinol for the first time, but make sure you follow the skin care routine advice and order we give you once we know your skin type so that you can use this potent retinol without side effects.

2. Essopi Retinol Treatment 3x

Essopi Retinol Treatment 3 is slightly stronger than the others on this list, but is still low strength enough even if you have sensitive skin. It is tolerated by retinol newbies because it has soothing ingredients like green tea and caffeine to help reduce skin redness that often occurs after beginning retinol. Green tea is also an antioxidant

Essopi Retinol 3x is the best clean retinol serum that meets the criteria for clean beauty. It does not contain triethanolamine or phenoxyethanol that are on the "toxic ingredient list" and are found in many retinol creams and serums. This is the strongest starter retinol on our list. Not only is it a higher percent of retinol but it also has hyaluronic acid in it which helps it absorb into the skin.

3. La Roche-Posay Redermic [R]

La Roche-Posay Redermic [R] - contains the retinyl ester retinyl linoleate,. This means it is weaker than the other 0.25% starter retinols listed here.

 La Roche-Posay Redermic has salicylic acid so it is good for oily skin types, acne-prone skin, and to clear clogged pores. This may be too drying for very dry skin types. If you want a "clean retinol"- this is not for you because it contain triethanolamine and phenoxyethanol although these are present in "acceptable levels'" in this product. The La Roche-Posay Redermic is a good retinol serum to start with when you have oily skin and acne because it is the most affordable and the weakest on this list of starter retinols. It is the best gentle low strength retinol for beginners, but it will take longer for your acne to clear. 

My advice if you choose this retinol is to use  one tube of it and then increase to a mid strength retinol.

4. Medature Encapsulated Retinol Serum

Medature Encapsulated Retinol Serum contains the correct form of retinol, however it also contains retinyl palmitate which means that it is likely a lower strength than 0.25%. This product should not be used in sunlight unless you are wearing SPF. (However, retinols should be used in the evening skin care routine anyway.) 

Medature Encapsulated Retinol Serum has tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate in it. This is a form of Vitamin C that can help treat hyperpigmentation. This is a good retinol to buy if you need antiaging benefits and skin lightening. It is a good product to start with to treat dark spots like sun spots and fine wrinkles.

5. Replenix Retinol 2x Regenerate Dry Serum 

Replenix Retinol 2x Regenerate Dry serum was previously called Replenix Retinol Forte Treatment Serum 2X. It has pure retinol with no retinoid esters. It contains polyphenols such as green tea. This is beneficial because polyphenols are antioxidants and help prevent inflammation and skin aging. 

Replenix Retinol 2x Regenerate is a favorite of dermatologists because it is gentle and clean. It does not contain triethanolamine or phenoxyethanol. It has anti-redness ingredients, antioxidants, and caffeine.

 This retinol is a good  one to start with if you have sensitive skin such as rosacea.

If you have rosacea, use an entire custom skin care routine for your rosacea skin type.  I suggest getting started on an anti-inflammatory skin care routine for rosacea before you begin retinol.

Best Natural Retinol for Beginners

There are some natural products on the market that usually contain beta carotene, lutein, carrots or another vitamin A derived ingredients that are retinoids but cannot penetrate into the skin.  These are useless! 

There are no good organic retinol products so don’t waste your money. 

You can learn more about natural retinoids and the Vitamin A family of retinoid compounds here.

Bakuchiol is not technically a retinoid because it is not in the Vitamin A family but it is often found in natural "retinoid- like" skincare products. It has actions similar to retinol. It works best when combined with retinol as in Derma Made Retinol+ Bakuchiol Serum which comes in different strengths. These Derma Made retinols are not all natural and organic but they are as close to it that I have found that are effective.

This is about as natural as a retinol that really work can get. To begin this retinol for the first time, start with the 0.25% and use one bottle and then increase to the 0.5% strength.

Choose a retinol to begin with by your skin type

Shop For Retinol By Skin Type

Best Retinol for Sensitive Skin

There are 4 main types of sensitive skin. Choose retinol by which type of sensitive skin you have. You can have more than one type of sensitive skin.  If you have complicated skin because you have more than one type of sensitive skin, please take the quiz.  It makes my advice for you more accurate. (Watch for monthly emails to tell you what to expect with retinol and when to increase the strength.)

This retinol is good for sensitive skin types who also have areas of hyperpigmentation (dark spots) on the skin.

Best Retinol for Acne

This is the best retinol for acne-prone skin with redness and aging. I love using it in my patients that are going through menopause.

You can find more details about this product in the top 5 retinol list above.

 This is the best retinol if you have dry skin and acne. It contains camellia sinensis leaf extract, dipotassium glycyrrhizate and bisabolol to soothe skin and shea butter and jojoba oil to hydrate. Note that this is a medium strength retinol so it will be too strong for you if you have rosacea or skin stinging.  Do not use if you have a lot of clogged pores or oily skin.

This is the best retinol for oily skin types with acne and dark spots caused by acne

Best for Baumann Skin Types 5 [OSPT] and 7 [OSPW]).

This retinol has  niacinamide, panthenol, and bisabolol to soothe and calm sensitive skin.  

It contains several skin lightening ingredients:

By reducing inflammation, it can help prevent dark spots from pimples called post inflammatory hyperpigmentation.

This is one of the best retinols for oily acne prone skin types. You can read more about it in the top 5 retinol list above.

Best Retinol for Rosacea

When you are first starting a new skin care routine for your rosacea-prone skin, I do not suggest beginning a retinol for rosacea until you have been on an anti-inflammatory skin care routine for at least 4 weeks. I like to use retinol in my rosacea patients but only after I have the redness under control.

Take the quiz to get a custom  rosacea skin care routine, then follow the directions in the emails you receive about when to add retinol to your rosacea routine.

This clean retinol is the one I like to put my patients on after their skin has calmed down on a rosacea skin care routine.

Best Retinol for Skin that Stings

If you skin is stinging, do not use retinol.  When you take our quiz, if you answer yes to the question about skin stinging, you will not receive a retinol. Instead your routine will focus o decreasing skin inflammation.  You will receive monthly emails to guide you on how to adjust your routine and eventually add retinol once the stinging has ceased.

Best Retinol for Allergic Skin

If you have allergic skin, which retinol to choose depends upon which ingredients you are allergic to.  Read the product labels to find a retinol that does not have the ingredient that bothers your skin.

Best Retinol for Wrinkles

This retinol is very different than the others in this blog.  It targets the microbiome in addition to having peptides and antioxidants. This can be paired with the DEJ Face Cream in the daytime.

Best Retinol for Dark Spots

This retinol has ascorbic acid and is hydrating enough for dry but not too heavy for oily skin. It is perfect for aging skin types with sun spots.

This retinol has a skin lightener that blocks tyrosinase and niacinamide that blocks the PAR-2 receptor.  All three ingredients work together to clear dark spots and target the causes of skin aging.

Best Retinol for Dry Skin

In addition to the Obagi 360 retinol, there are other retinols that dry skin types can use.  The cleanser and moisturizer that you choose really makes a huge different in how well you tolerate retinol so make sure your entire regimen is customized for your dry skin type.

This is a mid-strength retinol (0.5%).  It is best for dry skin types that are not very sensitive such as Baumann Skin Types 13,14,5 and 16). It has a lot of hydrating fatty acids but you still need to use it with a barrier repair moisturizer. Use it on top of your moisturizer every 3rd day in the beginning to reduce side effects.

This retinol is best for dry sensitive skin types.  It is a little weaker than the Essopi mentioned above.

Best Retinol for Oily Skin

This Skinceuticals is good for oily skin types because it contains alcohol but it does have isopropyl myristate which is comedogenic so not a great choice if you have acne.

What to look for when buying retinol?

There are many brands of retinol so it can be hard to choose which to start with. Here are some things you need to know before choosing which retinol to use.

  • Choose a serum because they absorb more rapidly into the skin.
  • Start with a 0.25% strength retinol which may be called 2x or 3x.
  • An ester form like retinyl linoleate or retinyl palmitate will not be as strong straight retinol so the % is misleading.
  • Hyaluronic acid makes retinol absorb more which can increase side effects in sensitive skin types.
  • Find a retinol that has ingredients to target your other skin issues such as dark spots, acne, fine lines or sensitvie skin.
  • Niacinamide and tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate are skin lighteners found in retinol products
  • Niacinamide, green tea, and caffeine can help prevent inflammation in sensitive skin types beginning retinol
  • Antioxidants in retinol creams can help prevent skin aging

How To Choose A Retinol

When you are using a retinoid for the first time, there are several things you need to consider to choose the best one. I always skin type my patients before prescribing a retinoid for them.  These are the things I think about when choosing retinols for my patients:

There are many good low strength brands of  medical grade retinols that really work. 

How to Begin Retinol

It is very important to consider your Baumann Skin Type® when choosing a retinoid to begin treating acne or wrinkles. There are 16 different Baumann Skin Types and each needs a different skin care routine. (Retinol is not right for all skin types!). We highly recommend that you take the quiz and let us tell you exactly which retinol products are best for your skin type so that you do not have to guess.

  1. Choose the best retinol for your skin type. You can read more about this below or take the quiz and we will give you a list of good options.
  2. Start with the lowest strength retinol
  3. Make sure that every product in your skin care regimen will work together with retinol because other products can increase the incidence of side effects.
  4. Choose the best moisturizers and cleanser to use with retinol
  5. Know what step in the skin care routine to use retinol. The order that you layer products on your skin matters. The biggest mistake when beginning retinol is not using the correct skin care routine order. The order is determined by your skin type and what other products are in your skin care regimen
  6. Follow the instructions found at this link to begin slowly to help your skin adjust gently to the retinol.

Advice When Using Retinol for the First Time

Retinoids have great evidence-based research trials and science to justify their use for treating acne, dark spots and wrinkles. This is why dermatologists recommend them often, but you must use them properly, especially when you are a retinol novice.

Retinol is the weakest and most tolerated of the effective types of retinoids.

It is a great way to begin using a retinoid because it:

The best way to find the right retinol for you is to find a dermatologist or specially trained or medical provider near you to diagnose your Baumann Skin Type or take the quiz and see our dermatologist's recommendations and get a skin care routine for your skin type.

These are the most important things to know before you start using one:

13 things to know before choosing a retinol

It is very important to educate yourself before starting a retinol so that you will not waste time and money buying the wrong retinol for your skin type. 

Here are some links and information to guide you when buying retinol for the first time:

  1. Retinol and adapalene are the most potent forms of retinoid available without a prescription.
  2. Retinol is a type of retinoid. You can click here to learn more about the Vitamin A family of retinoids.
  3. There is not one best brand of retinol!
  4. There is not a prescription strength retinol.
  5. Retinol is designated by the FDA as a cosmetic.
  6. Retinol skin care products do not have to undergo the rigorous testing required of prescription retinoids like tretinoin, tazarotene and trifarotene.
  7. Is retinol dangerous? Can I use it when pregnant?
  8. How long does it take to work?
  9. What happens when you stop using retinol?
  10. Does retinol make me sun sensitive?
  11. What do I do if I have a skin reaction to retinol?
  12. How long does a retinol bottle last once it is open?
  13. Can I use retinol, niacinamide, and Vitamin C together?

Retinol Tips for Beginners

Not all retinol products are created equal. In fact, there are many bad retinol products on the market because they are commonly formulated, manufactured, bottled or stored incorrectly. Many retinol products do not have the amount of retinol in them that they say they do. Also, many have retinyl esters or retinal which are not as strong as other retinoids.

Retinol Buying Tips:

  • Air and light inactive them so they should be used at night and kept in airtight packaging.
  • Never buy a retinol product in a jar, too much air gets in
  • There are many “retinol” products on the market that do not contain enough retinol or are not formulated properly so they are ineffective.
  • There are many expired, old or counterfeit retinol products sold on the internet, so buy from an online store you trust to store them properly in air conditioning. (We do!)

Retinol Cream vs Retinol Serum

In general, creams are for dry skin types and serums are for oily skin types. If you cannot decide, choose a retinol and use a moisturizer with it. (When to apply the moisturizer and retinol in your routine is discussed here.)

Shop for retinol wtht your Baumann Skin Type

What Retinol Strength Is Best When Starting a Retinoid?

A low strength retinol is such as 0.025% is the best retinol strength or percentage for beginners This is sometimes called a 2X strength. Note that .025% retinol is not the same strength as 2.5% retinol.

Retinol .25% is not equivalent to tretinoin 0.025%- they are different molecules- its like comparing apples to oranges. Retinol 0.25% is much weaker than tretinoin 0.025%.

Learn more about retinol strengths and see a strength chart here.

Resistant and oily Baumann Skin Types (there are 8 of these skin types) can begin with a retinol 0.05% (also called 5X) strength on top of their moisturizer.

Make sure you know your skin type before you buy a retinol.

How many side effects you will get when beginning a retinol depends upon:

  • How much you apply
  • The retinol strength
  • Retinol cream vs gel vs serum (gels are the strongest, then serums and last creams)
  • Which other products are in your regimen- especially cleansers and moisturizers

Please read these instructions before beginning any retinoids, whether they are prescription or nonprescription.

If you do not begin retinol properly- you will most likely experience side effects known as retinoid dermatitis.

Let our dermatologists recommend the best retinol products for when you are starting a new skin care routine. Our advice is free.

Once you know your Baumann Skin Type, will give you a list of the best retinols for you so you can choose based on your budget, preferences, and beliefs.

We can guide you and help you get on the right path.

Level up your skin care knowledge with medical advice from dermatologists

What retinol should a beginner use?

Use one that has retinol on the label, not retinaldehyde, Retinal, retinyl linoleate or retinyl palmitate. Choose a 2X, 3x or 0.25% strength. Buy one in an airless pump, not in a jar that lets in air and light.

Is 1% retinol too much for beginners?

Yes 1% is way to strong when beginning a retinol even if you do not have sensitive skin.

Is 0.1% retinol too strong for beginners?

The best strength for beginners is 0.25% or 2x or 3x.

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