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Product Review: Which OTC Retinol Treatment is the Best?

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Above: The mechanism of action of retinoids. Source: Nature.

Editor's Note:  There is an updated version of this post on FutureDerm.com, available on June 3, 2011.

Retinoids are one of the most effective ingredients in skin care products today, running the gamut from increasing collagen production to decreasing the appearance of wrinkles. Although this 2001 study in the journal Clinics in Dermatology found over-the-counter retinol is 20 times less potent than prescription retinoic acid in the skin, over-the-counter retinol use is still recommended, as Dr. Ranella Hirsch, president-elect of the American Society of Dermatologic Surgeons says in the December 2007 issue of Allure magazine: “We have beautiful, profound data that shows if you use [retinoids] for 20 years, you’re going to look a lot better than someone who doesn’t.”

Some Notes About Retinol...

According to experts cited in this article, retinol should be used at night only, in small quantity (a pea-size amount to make a thin layer on your face) after cleansing, and NOT in conjunction with alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs). Retinol also should be used in conjunction with sunscreen every morning, as retinoids/retinol make your skin more photosensitive (sensitive to the sun). Finally, retinol may cause redness, flaking/peeling, and possibly stinging at first, and most experts recommend using retinol products once every 2-3 nights at first for the first 2-3 weeks. The negative effects should be short-term as the skin acclimates to retinol, but if they worsen, the product may not be right for your skin. If ever in question, ask your dermatologist! Now onto the products...
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Skinceuticals Retinol 0.5 ($35.70, Amazon.com)

Overall Rating: 9/10 (great product) What an expert says: According to Paula Begoun, the Cosmetics Cop: "Because it contains a significant amount of retinol, the claims you can bank on are building collagen and stimulating cell regeneration...Fortunately, this water-and-silicone-based serum does contain many other beneficial ingredients for healthy skin, including ceramides, cholesterol, lecithin, antioxidants, and the anti-irritant bisabolol. The opaque bottle with pump applicator helps maintain the stability of the retinol, which is a prerequisite for products with this ingredient." Begoun gives a similar review for Skinceuticals Retinol 1.0, with twice the concentration of retinol. Based on ingredients alone: On the plus side, the formulation contains both vitamin C (as ascorbic acid) and vitamin E (as tocopherol acetate), which are network antioxidants that synergistically enhance the power of one another, increasing sun protection and reducing free radical damage by impede or slowing the free radical chain reaction. On the down side, while this product says it includes 0.5% pure retinol, only retinyl palmitate (retinol combined with a fatty acid) is listed in the ingredients. Correction from L'Oréal/Skinceuticals representative Mary Mills Kennedy: The ingredients list on Amazon.com is incorrect, and Skinceuticals 0.5 and 1.0 does in fact contain retinol. I apologize - my source (Amazon.com) was incorrect, and I have contacted Amazon about their error. A new post about Skinceuticals 0.5 and 1.0 is available here. According to this 1997 study in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology, 0.6% retinyl palmitate is less effective in penetrating human skin than 0.025% retinol (the concentration similar to that found in many other over-the-counter skincare formulations). However, even though retinyl palmitate is less potent than retinol, it has been shown to exhibit the collagen-stimulating, smoothing, and wrinkle-reducing properties of retinol over time, and has also been shown to be less irritating. Ingredients: Water, Dihydroxyacetone, Octyl Palmitate, Glycerin, Helianthus Annuus (Sunflower) Oil, Erythrulose, Glyceryl Stearate, Cetyl Alcohol, Stearic Acid, Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate, Tocopherol Acetate, Retinyl Palmitate <--Retinol, Cholecalciferol, Assorbic Acid, Dimethicone, DEA-Cetyl Phosphate, Polyacrylamide, Isoparaffin C 13-14, Laureth-7, Phenoxyethanol, Methylparaben, Butylparaben, Ethylparaben, Propylparaben, Fragrance
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Philosophy Help Me Retinol Night Treatment ($45.00, Amazon.com)

Overall Rating: 8/10 (great product with retinol, but only one network antioxidant, and not good for oily skin or skin prone to breakouts) What the experts say: According to Dr. Leslie Baumann, Director of Cosmetic Dermatology at the University of Miami, “Philosophy Help Me retinol night treatment is less potent than a prescription retinoid but can diminish fine lines just as effectively over time.” Unfortunately, Begoun notes that the product should only be used normal to very dry skin, because it contains a fairly high concentration of emulsifying wax. Based on ingredients alone: Contains retinol (rather than less penetrating retinyl palmitate) and tocopherol acetate (vitamin E), a potent antioxidant, along with hydrating fatty acids, emulsifying wax, glycerin, and dimethicone. Ingredients in Philosophy Help Me Retinol Night Treatment (courtesy Sephora.com): Water, Caprylic/Capric Triglyceride, Emulsfying Wax, Glycerin, C10-30 Cholesterol/Lanosterol Esters, Cetyl Ricinoleate, Cetyl Alcohol, Dimethicone, Benzyl Alcohol, Cyclomethicone, Retinol, Tocopherol Acetate, Ascorbyl Palmitate, Acrylates Copolymer, Stearic Acid, PEG-10 Soya Sterol, Phenoxyethanol, Magnesium Aluminum Silicate, Methylparaben, Triethanolamine, Disodium EDTA, Bisabolol, BHT.
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Neutrogena Healthy Skin Original Formula ($14.17, Amazon.com)

Overall Rating: 10/10 (great product with retinol, plus green tea in high concentration and two forms of vitamin E in low concentration) What an expert says: According to dermatologist Dr. Mary Lupo in the October 2007 issue of Allure magazine: “With regular use, Neutrogena Healthy Skin Anti-Wrinkle Cream improves skin’s brightness, color, and texture, and softens existing lines and crepiness. If you start using it in your twenties, before you see these changes, you could push them off further.” Based on ingredients alone: Neutrogena Healthy Skin Anti-Wrinkle Cream contains a better form of retinol than Skinceuticals Retinol 0.5 and a high concentration of antioxidant green tea for a lower price than either Skinceuticals Retinol 0.5 or Philosophy Help Me Retinol Night Treatment. Unfortunately, it does not contain network antioxidants that reinforce the power of one another like Skinceuticals Retinol 0.5 , but it still contains an impressive concentration of antioxidant green tea. Ingredients in Neutrogena Healthy Skin Anti-Wrinkle Cream: Purified Water, C12-C15 Alkyl Benzoate, Glycerin, Cetyl Alcohol, Cetearyl Alcohol, Camellia Oleifera Extract, Octyl Hydroxystearate, Dimethicone, Retinol, Panthenol, Disodium EDTA, Tocopherol, Cetearyl Glucoside, Tocopheryl Acetate, Polysorbate 20, Triethanolamine, Methylparaben, Propylparaben, Diazolidinyl Urea, BHT, Carbomer.
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And the Winner is...

Thankfully, the cheapest product, Neutrogena Healthy Skin Anti-Wrinkle Cream, for having a better form of retinol than Skinceuticals Retinol 0.5 and for being suitable for most skin types, unlike Philosophy Help Me Retinol Night Treatment, with a high concentration of emulsifying wax. Keep in mind that the effects of retinoids are best with a prescription from your dermatologist. At any rate, if you are in the market for a retinol over-the-counter cream, happy shopping! :-) *Update January 8, 2008: Thank you to Mary Mills Kennedy from L'Oréal/Skinceuticals. I was unaware that the ingredients information at Amazon.com was incorrect for Skinceuticals Retinol 0.5, and I have e-mailed Amazon.com to make them aware of this error. Please visit this new page for more information on Skinceuticals Retinol 0.5 and 1.0.
FutureDerm rating:
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Date: January 6 2008 at 6:29 AM
  1. Kevin Katechis
    January 7 2008 at 6:51 AM

    Nicki, I am truly impressed with your blog and I am always happy to see retinoids put on the frontline of skin care (whether that is OTC or prescription). However, I think this is not a great list to use for OTC retinol products. Without sounding boastful, we were the first to really promote retinol as a viable alternative to prescription strength retinoids back in 2000. The only other company even producing a retinol in our concentration was TxSystems which only went up to .6% retinol. We were absolutely the first to go over that amount. I think there are a lot better representation of retinols on the market (including our own Green Cream). Since we have introduced our product I have come to respect Replenix, Young Pharmaceuticals, LaRoche Posay, SkinMedica, and Vivant as very good retinol products. They all have concentrations over .2% and garner great results. Neutrogena and Philosophy both have less than .2% The last thing I would point out is that concentration of retinol should be the second consideration when considering a OTC retinoid. Zoe Draelos clearly states that formulation plays anywhere from a 50% to 70% role in determining the efficacy of any active ingredient. I feel that it is even more important when looking a retinoid. Please don't think I am being critical because I'm not. We feel that any message that highlights retinoids as the gold standard in skincare is a good message. I'm only asking that you consider other products when comparing retinol products. I'm not asking that you publish my comments or not. My real intention was to get a private message to you and I didn't know how to do that. In no way am I trying to push my product or other products to your readers. Sincerely, Kevin Katechis Advanced Skin Technology

  2. S
    January 10 2008 at 6:59 AM

    What a surprise! I googled for some information, and found your blog. It's impressive! I am impressed with your studies and your passion. I have bookmarked your site. I have a question though, I just purchased the Affirm X2 Retinol, but I am currently using glycolic acid. Can these two products be used alternatly? Thank you!

  3. miami man
    January 11 2008 at 3:23 PM

    Nice site. Very informative. I too have bookmarked it and will be returning.

  4. what
    April 16 2008 at 3:44 PM

    Is Retinol the same as the Retin A cream I'm using?

  5. Stacey
    September 13 2008 at 1:19 PM

    Nikki, I have to completely agree with you about the Neutrogena Healthy Skin product...after trying prescription strength retin a from my derm. doc., I much prefer the Neutrogena! I actually put it on before my makeup in the a.m., and my 40 year old skin is noticeably brighter and smoother after just one week of use. Thanks for the affirmation! Stacey

  6. Ramin Ahmadi MD
    December 12 2008 at 12:29 PM

    Dear Nicki Thank you for the great review. I always read your reviews and find them very helpful. I just wanted to know how your previously reviewed Green Cream compares with the products above. Eversince your review of that cream I added it to my medspa skincare line and my patients love it. I want to know if it is superior to Neutrogena or not since there is a significant price difference. Thanks again. Ramin

  7. futurederm
    December 19 2008 at 11:00 AM

    Hi Dr. Ahmadi, "Off the record," an estimate of the amount of retinol in Neutrogena Healthy Skin is 0.025%; of course, Johnson & Johnson does not disclose actual concentrations to the public, so I cannot say this with absolute certainty. With that said, Green Cream runs 0.6% (with Level 6) and 0.9% (with Level 9). I hope that this helped you! Sincerely, Nicki

  8. Wendee B
    February 18 2009 at 5:42 AM

    Dear Nicki, Congrats on med school. I'm sure you'll make a fine dermatologist. Combining research with real world experience is key. I notice that you reference Paula Begoun in the few posts that I have read, but I dont see her antioxidant serum reviewed here. It does contain retinol as well as antioxidants. I would be curious as to your opinion. Thanks, Wendee

  9. Anna M
    February 20 2009 at 5:52 AM

    I have started using Help Me by Philosophy and it is truly the best. If you have sensitive skin, like me this is the product for you. Every other retinol treatment has irritated my skin and neutrogena was HORRIBLE to my sensitive skin.

  10. JakeK
    April 16 2009 at 12:57 PM

    Paula Begoun's website recommends many of the retinol products you do, but also Alpha Hydrox's Retinol ResQ. She says that it's nearly identical to Philosophy's retinol product for a third the price.

  11. SharleneH
    April 19 2009 at 1:39 PM

    If boht a cream product and a serum product contain the same effective ingredient, like retinol, which kind of product you will recommend? I am wondering cream or serum can reach a better result?

  12. Kathy
    April 22 2009 at 9:45 AM

    Hi! This is an amazing post and blog! I need to questions if the ingredients in Neutrogena Healthy Skin Anti-Wrinkle Cream have changed. In Peru, where I leave, the ingredients are not the same neather the order of them. For example, I can read a box of Neutrogena Healthy Skin Anti-Wrinkle which Retinol was one of the last ingredients. I do not what to think... Thanks.

  13. Margaret Smith
    April 28 2009 at 1:51 PM

    So which product has the most retinoid? I am confused

  14. p-ham
    April 28 2009 at 8:43 PM

    what is the difference between Neutrogena Healthy Skin Anti-Wrinkle Cream and their Healthy Skin Anti-Wrinkle Intensive Night Cream in terms of anti-aging abilities?

  15. Chris Wold
    May 17 2009 at 3:40 AM

    I just saw a infomercial on Natural Advantage. Can you speak to this system at all? It is a cleanser, daily spf moisturizer and evening retinol treatment. At about 30 bucks for a month supply, I wonder how this really works?? Thanks- Chris

  16. Steph
    May 22 2009 at 2:34 PM

    Nicki, What a great review! Could you please comment on Neutrogena Ageless Intensives line? They have an eye cream, serum, night cream and day cream (this last one contains SPF 20). Being a face cream junkie, I bought the whole line and started using it right away. I was never told to start out slowly using the creams, and didn't know not to use the serum and night cream together at the same time. So, long story short, my face is now flaky, dry, patchy and sensitive to the touch. Where I had redness, my face now looks sunburnt/brownish and I assume that will flake off soon. Needless to say, I'm laying off the creams for a while until my skin heals. But since all of the blogs say that you can get really great results from this Neutrogena line, once my skin heals I'm going to try the line again - but this time much more slowly. Do you think this is ok to do to my skin? Or should I just toss the Neutrogena and decide this line isn't for me? Thanks, S

  17. futurederm
    May 26 2009 at 2:28 PM

    Dear S., I am not familiar with the Neutrogena Ageless Intensives lines yet...I'll have to put it on my list of products to potentially review, thanks! It sounds like your skin reacted poorly to the retinol in the product. I think that you would be benefited best to talk to your dermatologist about this product and your use of retinol in general. In general, I have heard skin care experts advise starting a retinol product with a 1/2 dose every other night for the first 2 weeks, then a 1/2 dose every night for the next 2 weeks, and then a full dose every other night for the next 2 weeks, and then, finally, full dose. However, some patients have skin that is so sensitive that they cannot use retinol at all. Hope that this helps you - -Nicki

  18. Emma
    June 17 2009 at 5:57 AM

    Hi Nikki, Many people seem to have asked this question on various sites including here, but I am yet to find a solid answer... perhaps you can help? We all know that we are not supposed to use AHA's and retinoids together... but 1. does that mean it is ok to use them on alternate nights? 2. How would you recommend using both of these products in a regular skincare routine? Others have asked about leaving 30mins in between applying each, and others have asked about using retinoids for 4 weeks then one week of AHA's.... seems to be a lot of confusion on the best method of using both products. Your advice? Thanks so much. Emma

  19. HYoung
    June 17 2009 at 11:54 PM

    I love all the information posted! Having said that, I don't want to sound redundant but how do I alternate the use of all these products? I got the Neutrogena Retinol product and Olay regenerist night cream and absolutely love them and see great results.. I used to use the AHA but now I feel overwhelmed on how to juggle all these. Do you have a routine that you would recommend?

  20. Kathleen Kress
    June 29 2009 at 2:20 AM

    I love this site! Thank you! Questions: I am 55 years old, with generally good skin which I attribute largely to genetics. My mother is 80 years old and has beautiful skin now, although she had very bad acne when she was a teenager. Me too. But I digress. Currently, I'm developing some deep wrinkles between my eyebrows. I also have large visible pores, and I'm starting to develop puffiness under my eyes. I was a fanatic for Estee Lauder products for years, but can't afford them anymore. I agree with you that Neutrogena makes wonderful products...I just need to find those that are right for me. Here's what I use now: Clinique Exfolitating Scrub on my face in the shower, followed by Cetaphil or the equivalent skin cleanser. (This is the best type of skin cleanser I have ever found, and won't change it.) Now it gets complicated: In the morning I use: For enlarged pores, I use a new produce from L'Oreal called Skin Genesis. Your opinion on this product? I follow that with Neutrogena Healthy Skin Face Lotion SPF 15. I have just started using this and it burns a little, but not much. Burns less every day I use it. Eye cream: Neutrogena Healthy Skin. In the evening, I use Oil of Olay Regenerist Daily Regenerating serum, just because I got it fairly cheap at Costco. I follow that with Neutrogena Ageless Essentials night cream. Eye cream: Neutrogena Anti-Oxidant Age Reverse Eye Cream. This is too complicated! Can you give me a regimen that I can find at most drug stores, which will provide maximum benefit for my skin! Thanks in advance, Kathleen

  21. Anthea
    July 15 2009 at 3:40 PM

    Hi Nikki, I love your site, very informative! I'm trying to find a retinol cream that is good for both acne and wrinkles and am worried about how the dimethicone in all these products will affect my acne. I never had acne as a teen but now that I am in my thirty's I am breaking out pretty bad. All the wrinkle creams that I've tried seem to make me break out worse! I'm currently using Benaclyn for the acne. Do you have any suggestions?

  22. Laurie Allen
    September 1 2009 at 1:27 PM

    Hi Nikki, LOVE your site. Thank you - do more! The questions people asked are so intelligent too. I echo the one from Emma. Can retinol (neutrogena) and AHA be used together? I've heard yes and no. What about alternate nights? Have you heard of Neutrogena's Ageless Intensive line? They have a retinol product with vitamin A and antioxidants. Looks good - I bought some! - did I do the right thing? Do you recommend them.

  23. futurederm
    September 1 2009 at 2:01 PM

    Hey Laurie, While I like the Ageless Intensives line, I think that there are other options - like Neutrogena Healthy Skin, Advanced Skin Technologies' Green Cream (Level 6 or 9), and Skinceuticals 0.5 or 1.0 - that offer higher concentrations of retinol. I'm glad that you like the site! Best, Nicki

  24. futurederm
    September 1 2009 at 2:02 PM

    One other note: it is difficult to tell the concentrations of retinol in Neutrogena products for sure, as Johnson & Johnson does not as of yet release this information.

  25. Tanya
    November 12 2009 at 4:20 AM

    I have been using Neutrogena Healthy Skin (SPF 15) since about age 27. I just turned 40 a few days ago. I swear by this product. People always think I am in my mid-twenties.

  26. Tanya
    November 12 2009 at 4:22 AM

    Your Message

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  28. Jacqueline Pierce
    March 2 2012 at 9:02 AM

    I love this website and all the posts. I'll definitely bookmark this as I just happened to hit this while researching. Thanks for all the comments and valuable information.

  29. cj
    April 20 2012 at 4:29 PM

    hi there! I was curious can you use Help Me in conjunction with Philosophy's Miracle Worker Pads? I wasn't sure if combining the two was a smart idea.

  30. Kastie
    May 7 2012 at 6:25 AM

    hi - very interesting site - have read a lot about retinol just recently and thought would give it a try. Had already ordered Neutrogena Healthy Skin anti wrinkle spf15 cream before I read this blog. Was interested to learn that products with retinol need to be built up gradually as have always given away expensive anti-aging creams due to reactions before! I have Anew Genics treatment concentrate which looked great on my skin but made it feel funny and now think I will try it again at night and then go for the Neutrogena during the day. Could I please ask then, is it okay to use the neugrogena retinoid in the morning as it has an SPF in it and also does the Avon Anew Genics TC have retinol in it, in which case I will go even more slowly. Thanks, I'm hoping to be a right young looking stunner very soon!

  31. Nicki
    May 7 2012 at 10:14 AM

    @Jacqueline - You're very welcome! So glad you're enjoying the site! @cj - In general, I stand by the idea that retinoids should not be used in conjunction with acids, including salicyclic acid or glycolic acid, as in Philosophy's Help Me pads. Are there great products and superior lines that feature both? Sure. But do I feel that the optimal efficacy of retinoids is not achieved because retinol esterification occurs at a pH of 5.5-6.0 and these acidic products can have a pH as low as 2.0-3.0? You bet. So, to answer your question more directly, if you use a retinoid with Philosophy Help Me pads, you'll probably still get great results. But, I feel you'd get the best results using the retinoid one week, and then the Help Me pads separately the following week, and alternating back and forth. Hope this helps! @Kastie - Thanks for your question! Avon Anew Genics has glycolic acid, whereas Neutrogena Healthy Skin has retinol, as you said. In general, both of these ingredients can make the skin more sensitive to the sun, so I try to avoid using either during the day, even though the latter product has sunscreen in it. I recommend using them in off weeks at nighttime. For day, I love an antioxidant serum (such as CE Ferulic, my favorite) under a broad-spectrum UVA/UVB sunscreen. Hope this helps!

  32. Kastie
    May 9 2012 at 9:46 AM

    hi, yes thank you for the info especially re the Avon product. I will use them alternate forntnights and at night only. Stick to BodyShop vit E range for now during day, it makes me feel safe! Will also look up the other one you mentioned :-) thanks Kastie ps I've never had a reply from a forum before, it was quite exciting!

  33. laser for acne
    September 8 2012 at 7:48 PM

    First off I would like to say great blog! I had a quick question that I'd like to ask if you do not mind. I was curious to find out how you center yourself and clear your mind before writing. I've had a tough time clearing my thoughts in getting my thoughts out there. I truly do enjoy writing however it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are generally wasted simply just trying to figure out how to begin. Any recommendations or hints? Many thanks!

  34. smed
    September 20 2013 at 5:45 AM

    What is the matter with all the 'it lightens your skin'? To me that means one of two things: Aspiring to get the skin of Michael Jackson is a good thing. Or two, white/fair skin is "superior", i.e. white supremacy still showing its ugly head in a mainstream context. It seems disturbing unless I am missing something, because lighter skin otherwise doesn't sound like something given to want to achieve, nor a benefit.

  35. nataliekbell
    September 20 2013 at 10:32 AM

    Hello @Smed, I cannot find the "lightening" you are referencing, but I think that I can clear up you misunderstanding. When we refer to "lightening" we are generally talking about products that help with hyperpigmentation, which is a darkening of parts of the skin from sunspots or aging. These are often darker than someone's natural skin tone, making them very apparent and "lightening" creams used appropriately can help someone achieve a more even skin tone at their natural skin tone.

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