Five top retinol products for 2012

woman looking in mirror applying retinol creamRetinol products are not all created equal. Like any anti aging product your choice of retinol cream can mean the difference between a waste of money and younger looking skin.

Vitamin A derivatives – or precursors as retinol technically is – have long been one of the few proven ingredients for skin rejuvenation – and that remains true in 2012. Of course that doesn’t mean that all retinoid creams get rid of wrinkles.

You need a high level of retinol and a good delivery system so it stays effective in the bottle and penetrates deep into your skin when you use it.

So – if you’re looking for a retinol cream that really delivers results – here’s some of the best currently available:

Retinol products that work

This article was originally published a while back and has been updated several times to reflect new products on the market.

The market for retinols has changed quite a bit in recent years – products are getting stronger and retinol is being offered at increasingly higher strengths in over the counter creams and serums.

There also seems to be a move away from a heavier cream formulation to something closer to a serum which enables the products to focus on the delivery of the single most important active ingredient.

Night time use is also a big trend in retinol formulations harnessing the power of natural skin renewal during overnight rest. Serums and lighter lotions tend not to have added moisturizers and separate creams are recommended for additional use if required.

Night time rather than day time application of high strength retinol is probably better since there is no risk of UV damage to the sensitized skin after application. Retinol also degrades in sunlight so potency is affected in day time use.

This is my most recent retinol review update based on what’s available in May 2012 and suggests five great products (including one very new offering) to try at different price points – depending on your budget. If you want more information on retinols and how they differ from retinoids then read my earlier article.

One thing to be clear about – all the products listed here are retinol (not retinoid) creams. They all come from excellent manufacturers, offer confirmed levels of the active ingredient and are well formulated.

1. Skinceuticals Retinol 0.5 Refining Night Cream – A brand that gets good feedback on most skin care sites – especially for their retinol based line.  Skinceuticals scores highly in my book for actually telling you how much retinol is in the product – unlike some other manufacturers. Product reviews on Amazon are affected by a problem with the pump dispenser. If you buy check out the return terms carefully.

Skinceuticals make two retinol skin care products – this one is the recommended starter cream at 0.5% retinol. You can safely leave the cream on overnight – it’s a top retinol night cream and 0.5% is the minimum effective level – try this if your skin is sensitive or you’ve never used retinol products before.  Move up to the Skinceuticals 1% retinol serum once your skin is acclimatized which until very recently was the highest level of retinol in any over the counter cream. If you want a higher level then several of the products reviewed below are stronger.

The retinol is stabilized and delivered to the deeper layers of the skin by Skinceuticals technology – so you should see significant anti aging results including: a reduction in fine lines and wrinkles.  If you have enlarged pores, blemishes or age spots then most retinoid products like this one should help with that too.

2. Skin Medica TNS Recovery Complex – A combination of three Pro-Retinoic acids (Retinol, Retinyl Actate, Retinyl Palmitate) – together with Vitamin E.  The overall effect of this combination is – according to Skin Medica the same as for a retinoic acid but without the redness and irritation.  Improves the radiance, texture and tone of the skin, diminishes fine lines, aging, and sun damage.

Creams with retinol need a good delivery system and SkinMedica believe microencapsulation is the best way of delivering the pro-retinoic acids safely to the deeper layers of the skin without contamination.  One of the best retinol products which you should use with moisturizer – especially effective as part of the superb Skin Medica TNS Regeneration System.

3. Dr Brandt Glow – the newest of the retinol creams listed here and the one with the highest level of retinol in the formulation. At 2% retinol Dr Brandt’s product is now officially the strongest retinol product available without a doctor’s prescription. It is described as a night time retinol serum designed to be applied before going to bed to utilize natural growth and renewal cycles. Follow with your favorite moisturizer if needed.

The formulation uses maslinic acid which is derived from the actives in olives to neutralize inflammation and reduce redness. The advice is to use a high strength sunscreen (SPF 30) during the day to further protect skin and to use only three times a week if you get any reaction. Difficult to evaluate this against other products as it is so new and there are few reviews online. On the plus side it comes from a great skin care brand but it is a high level of retinol to start with if you have sensitive skin.

4. Peter Thomas Roth Retinol Fusion Serum – this is a similar product to Dr Brandt’s but with a proven track record. It is a night time serum this time with 1.6% retinol in the formulation plus vitamin C and E to add moisture, brightness and protection from inflammation. Uses a dropper system to allow very small drops of clear, silky serum to be applied. Excellent results reported from Amazon reviewers including impacting age spots, fine lines and uneven skin tone. Good buy.

5. Watts Beauty Retinol Face Cream – Seems like an amazing product at a great price further discounted on Amazon – Described as a cream it looks more like a serum and comes in brown or green bottle presumably to protect the sensitive ingredients. Contains 1.5 % retinol in a completely organic formulation without parabens if that is an issue for you.

Reviewers comment on the efficient precise pump system. Harnesses the power of a long list of natural actives to offset irritation (milk thistle, hemp oil, nettle leaf and many others) – most of these are going to be at very low levels in the product so it would be the combined effect that counts. Ingredients are not protected by microencapsulation – at least no claim is made – so degradation could be an issue. Generally very good reviews.

Best retinol overall?

Any of these five great products should deliver excellent anti aging results  but some are more retinol-focused than others.

If you want a single retinol serum that works from a physician level brand then I would go for the Peter Thomas Roth Retinol Fusion Serum. The Skinceuticals retinol cream is a great product despite the dispenser issues but is a good choice if you want to start at a lower level and build up to avoid sensitivity reactions. If you have used retinols before then the Watts Beauty Retinol Face Cream could be a good budget buy.

About Eileen

I am the publisher of Simply Anti Aging and a web author researching and writing on all aspects of anti aging. I'd love you to connect with me on


  1. Debbie Simmons says:

    what are the results of retinol creams 100,000 iu with vitamin A

    • Debbie – I’m afraid I can’t help you with this one – probably better for you to consult a qualified dermatologist. Thanks for your question.

  2. I’ve started using an Ifonia product for skin bleaching of dark spots along with pure Argan oil on my face. Previously I had used the Obaji skin care which was too time consuming.

    What are your views on my current skin care face treatment and would you mix the Roc Retinol cream into the current Ifonia and Argan oil products?

    Thanks for your thoughts.

    PS – I am a young looking 71 years young.

    • Sandy – thanks for your comments and quesions. I am not aware of the skin bleaching product you mention and can’t find any information about it. Obviously I know of the benefits of Argan oil and I am a fan of the Roc Retinol range. My instinct is that I wouldn’t mix the retinol and the skin bleaching agent as the results could be too harsh for you skin. A bad reaction will cause inflammation which could ultimately lead to more wrinkles and skin damage. Argan oil is a moisturizer and skin soother so you should be safe to continue with that plus either of the other two products. These are just my thoughts and you know your skin and what is in each of the two active products – I would go for safety over speed when it comes to your skin health!

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  4. Your review of the top five best Retinol products was GREAT (I’ve been using the Skinceuticals 1% since it came out) and am going switch to a cheaper brand recommended here.

    I am ALSO looking for your views on the BEST RETINOL EYE CREAMS. I currently use MD Forte 0.5%–but am looking for another that may be just as good and CHEAPER.


    • JA – Glad you like the review – I have been planning a similar article for retinol eye creams as I think there is a lot to consider. One of the problems for me is sensitivity around the eyes – Roc retinol eye cream for instance causes inflammation for me although a lot of people swear by it and it is the best selling eye cream on Amazon. For that reason I included it in my article on general eye creams which might be worth looking at for some ideas. Hope that helps!

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