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Retinol is a common ingredient in skin care products. Retinol products for acne may include serums, creams, gels, and oils. People with acne may choose retinol products to reduce inflammation, discoloration, and the signs of aging.

Acne is the most common skin condition in the U.S.. The American Academy of Dermatology Association (AAD) states that acne affects 50 million Americans annually. Over 5.1 million people sought medical treatment for acne in 2013.

This article explains the benefits of retinol for acne, the difference between a retinol and a retinoid, and lists a range of retinol products for acne.

A quick look at the best retinol products for acne

Retinol is a form of vitamin A. It is often used in skin care products as a supportive ingredient for aging skin. It is available in creams, gels, and serums.

The AAD state that over-the-counter (OTC) retinol products can contain doses of up to 2% retinol.

Higher doses, seen in retinoids such as tretinoin, are available with a prescription. A doctor may prescribe prescription-strength retinoids to treat severe or chronic acne.

Learn more about retinol here.

Retinoid refers to a wide range of vitamin-A-based products. Under retinoids, there is retinol, a sub-type of retinoid.

Retinoids are often available in stronger doses than retinol. As a result, a person is more likely to find retinol in over-the-counter products, and retinoids in prescription products.

Before choosing a retinol or retinoid, a person may wish to consider their skin type and how severe their acne is.

Learn more about retinoids here.

According to a 2017 review, topical retinoids may reduce acne and prevent new lesions. This review also notes that retinoids can reduce inflammation that causes inflamed pimples.

Retinol inhibits collagen destruction and promotes collagen synthesis. Retinoic acids like tretinoin, a prescription retinoid, stimulates cell turnover, along with other benefits such as treating acne and inflammation.

A 2019 review states that the dose of topical retinoid a person uses is more important than the type of retinoid. The review notes that retinoid treatment for acne is most effective when a person combines it with an antimicrobial agent, such as benzoyl peroxide.

Learn more about using retinol to treat acne here.

Retinol can also treat:

How we choose products

Medical News Today chooses products that meet the following criteria:

  • Price: MNT chooses products available for a wide range of budgets.
  • Ingredients: MNT chooses products that list all ingredients.
  • Skin concerns: Where appropriate, MNT selects products that target a specific skin concern, such as dryness, oiliness, or aging.
  • Safety: MNT chooses products that contain ingredients safe for topical use.
  • Reputable: MNT selects products from businesses that adhere to industry best practices.
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Best for minimizing irritation: SkinCeuticals Retinol 0.5 Refining Night Cream

The manufacturer claims this cream may reduce discoloration, blemishes, and the appearance of pores.

This night cream uses 0.5% retinol. It also includes bisabolol, a derivative of chamomile, and boswellia serrate extract. These may soothe the skin and reduce the irritation retinols can cause.

SkinCeuticals states that this product may suit people experiencing skin discoloration, acne, and signs of aging.

A 1 fl oz tube costs $80.

Best for hyperpigmentation: PCA Skin Intensive Clarity Treatment 0.5 Pure Retinol Night

PCA claims this serum may reduce discoloration and improve a person’s overall skin tone by exfoliating the skin and combatting the buildup of dead skin cells.

It contains 0.5% retinol, salicylic acid, and bakuchiol.

The company states that this serum addresses acne scarring, whiteheads, and blackheads and may suit people experiencing acne and hyperpigmentation.

A 1 fl oz tube costs $115.

Best slow-release treatment: Dermalogica Retinol Acne Clearing Oil

This Dermalogica oil uses slow-release retinol to help acne-prone skin recover overnight. Its retinol ingredient targets hyperpigmentation and fine lines.

This oil also uses 2% salicylic acid to help clear acne. Salicylic acid is a widely used ingredient that helps combat excess sebum and release dead skin cells from pores.

This product is cruelty-free and suitable for vegans. It does not contain gluten, parabens, or artificial colors and fragrances.

A 1 fl oz bottle costs $82.

Best for high dose retinol: Paula’s Choice Clinical 1% Retinol Treatment

Paula’s Choice claims that this lotion may help fight uneven skin tone and the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.

Ingredients include licorice and oat extract to soothe the skin and reduce redness and vitamin C to brighten skin tone.

This lotion contains 1% retinol, making it more potent than many similar retinol products. This may suit people who have experience with using retinol. However, beginners or people with sensitive skin may prefer lower-dose options.

The company recommends a person only use this product up to 3 times a week when first starting. It warns that reactions such as redness, flaking, tenderness, and dry skin as possible signs of an early reaction.

A 1 fl oz bottle costs $60.

Best for hormonal acne: Neova Dual Matrix Retinol DNA

Neova claims that this serum targets visible damage, such as changes in skin pigment and discoloration caused by hormonal acne.

Neova states that the retinoid called hydroxypinacolone retinoate (HPR) binds to retinoid receptions in skin cells, and helps to increase cell turnover by exfoliating away dead skin cells.

The company recommends this product for all skin types, including people with sensitive skin.

A 1 fl oz bottle costs $109.

Best for potency options: Alastin Skincare Skincare Renewal Retinol 0.5

Alastin claims that this product may help hydrate the skin by using antioxidants for the body’s natural production of hyaluronic acid. It also contains silver mushroom extract, which the company claims has hydrating properties.

Alastin Skincare also claims that retinol delivery is improved by encapsulating it within a solid lipid, and a co-enzyme Q-10 helps to protect retinol while it works.

This product is noncomedogenic, meaning it does not block pores. It is hypoallergenic, cruelty-free, and does not contain gluten or parabens.

This serum is available in two different strengths, 0.25%, and 0.5%

A 1 fl oz bottle costs $60-64.

Best gentle retinol formula: Peach & Lily Vitamin A Retinol Serum

Peach & Lily specifically designs this retinol serum for people with sensitive skin. It uses a very small amount of retinol, at 0.2% strength.

Ingredients including apricot kernel, argan, sunflower seed, sweet almond, and macadamia oils are used alongside vitamin E to improve the appearance of fine lines, dark spots, and breakouts.

This product may suit people who have very sensitive or dry skin.

The company recommends this product for people with dry and combination skin.

A 20 milliliter (ml) bottle costs $69.

Best retinol for dark skin: MELE Even Dark Spot Control Facial Serum for Melanin Rich Skin

This product was developed with dermatologists of Color and aims to help people with darker skin tones combat dark spots and discoloration due to acne.

The skin produces more melanin when inflammation occurs, which can cause dark spots to form. This hyperpigmentation can be more common in people with dark skin because melanin production is more active than in lighter skin tones.

Learn more about hyperpigmentation on dark skin here.

This product includes 0.3% pro-retinol to reduce the appearance of these dark spots, 3% niacinamide to help even a person’s skin tone, and 1% vitamin E.

A 1 fl oz bottle costs $25.99.

Best for mature skin: Cetaphil Healthy Radiance Renewing Cream

This lightweight cream uses a plant-based retinol alternative, bakuchiol, to reduce the appearance of dark spots. It is fragrance, paraben, and oil-free, and hypoallergenic.

Cetaphil claims that this cream protects against symptoms of sensitive skin, including:

  • dryness
  • irritation
  • roughness
  • tightness
  • weakened skin barrier

The formula also includes 2% niacinamide to combat hyperpigmentation.

Cetaphil recommends this product for sensitive and mature skin.

A 1.7 oz pot costs $24.99.

Best prescription-strength: La Roche Posay Effaclar Adapalene Gel 0.1% Topical Retinoid for Acne

This gel may suit people affected by blackheads, whiteheads, and clogged pores.

La Roche Posay claims that adapalene is the first prescription-strength product available without a prescription. It uses adapalene gel, which according to the company, is the first OTC retinoid for use against acne with Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval in 30 years.

The company states that adapalene helps to prevent new acne lesions from forming.

La Roche Posay recommends using it once daily.

A 1.6 oz tube costs $30.99.

Best on a budget: CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum

This serum helps to smooth skin affected by acne. It targets acne scarring and works to reduce the appearance of enlarged pores.

The ingredients include three ceramides, niacinamide, and licorice root extract, along with encapsulated retinol that helps to even skin tone and increase brightness.

This product is noncomedogenic and free from fragrances and parabens.

This retinol product for acne is lower-cost than most similar options.

A 1 fl oz bottle costs $17.99.

Best acne-fighting blend: TruSkin Tea Tree Oil Super Serum

This serum claims to have a strong acne-fighting blend of tea tree oil, vitamin C, salicylic acid, retinol, hyaluronic acid, and niacinamide.

TruSkin states that these ingredients can help fight inflammation, bacteria, and dehydration, improving the skin’s texture and the appearance of pores and scars.

This serum may not be suitable for people with sensitive skin because of its blend of potent acne-fighting ingredients. It may suit people with stubborn acne.

A 1 fl oz bottle costs $24.79.

Best retinol skin peel: Alpha-H Beauty Sleep Power Peel

This Alpha-H product is a leave-on overnight mask that contains 14% glycolic acid and 0.5% retinol.

The manufacturer states that this peel help to exfoliate and hydrate a person’s skin overnight, targeting dryness, pigmentation, and fine lines.

The high concentration of glycolic acid means dead skin cells will be exfoliated from the skin’s surface, potentially helping with the blocked pores.

It also includes blue tansy flower oil, which the company claims calms irritated skin.

A 1.69 fl oz tube costs $129.99.

Best retinol alternative: Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Advanced Retinol + Ferulic Texture Renewal Serum

The manufacturer claims this serum can smooth rough skin texture and reduce sebum production.

It uses bakuchiol, a natural extract from the babchi plant that the company claims has similar effects to retinol. The manufacturer claims it can hydrate the skin and provide the benefits of retinol without the risk of irritation. It also contains ferulic acid to help reduce inflammation.

People who prefer a natural retinol alternative may find this product suits their needs.

A 1 fluid ounce (fl oz) bottle costs $72.

The table below compares the products in this article on key features:

When choosing a retinol product, a person may wish to take the following factors into account:

  • Price: Some retinol products can be expensive, and a person should choose a product that will provide them with the benefits they want at a price point that will suit their budget. Many affordable retinol products contain the same percentage of retinol as high cost products.
  • Retinol percentage: Retinol can irritate the skin. If a person is experiencing an acne breakout or has sensitive skin, they may wish to consider how potent their chosen retinol product is to prevent further skin irritation.
  • Reviews: A person may wish to research reviews to see if people with acne found retinol products to be effective. A person may also wish to be aware of potential bias or limitations in clinical studies manufacturers cite to prove the effectiveness of their products.

Retinols are a typically milder form of retinoid, making them more suitable for people with dry or sensitive skin.

If a person has severe acne or they are unsure what type of retinol product for acne they should use, they may wish to contact a dermatologist for advice.

Additionally, if a person is prone to allergic reactions or if they have a reaction to retinol, a dermatologist may offer advice on which alternative products may be suitable for them.

Below are some answers to frequently asked questions about using retinol for acne:

How often can you use retinol?

The 2017 review recommends a person use prescription retinoid products for acne every other day for 2–4 weeks, washing off the product after 30–60 minutes when they first start the treatment.

After this period, a person should follow their doctor’s instructions closely, including stopping the use of the product if allergic reactions or irritation occurs.

People should follow the manufacturer’s instructions for OTC retinoids.

Does retinol produce side effects?

Retinol can cause irritation, but the severity of a person’s side effects may depend on the strength of the retinol they are using.

The American Osteopathic College of Dermatology (AOCD) lists the following potential side effects:

  • dry skin
  • skin redness
  • scaly skin
  • itching

Uncommon side effects may include:

  • skin discoloration
  • light sensitivity
  • acne and eczema flare-ups
  • skin swelling
  • blistering
  • stinging

If someone experiences any of these side effects, they should contact a doctor or dermatologist for advice.

At what age can you start using retinol?

A person can start using retinol products in adolescence under the direction of a dermatologist. Otherwise, a person can start using retinoids for acne in the mid to late 20s.

It is important to note that retinol is not safe for use during pregnancy or nursing.

Is there anything more effective than retinol?

A retinoid will be stronger than retinol, but retinoids are usually only available with a prescription. One type of retinoid, adapalene, may be as effective as more potent retinoids but may cause less irritation.

Salicylic acid is another ingredient used in acne treatments, which works differently from retinol. While retinol helps unclog pores by increasing the cell turnover rate deep within the skin, salicylic acid helps the skin to shed dead skin cells from the top layer of the skin.

Many serums and creams that claim to clear acne breakouts use retinol to promote skin cell turnover and help unclog pores.

Retinol can irritate the skin, so a person should be careful when choosing a retinol product for acne. Over-the-counter products often contain retinol, which is typically less irritating than prescription retinoids. Not everyone will need a strong retinoid to clear or reduce their acne. People with sensitive skin may tolerate more gentle retinol better.

If a person is unsure if retinol is right for them, they can consider contacting a dermatologist for advice.