Friendly Fridays Q&A: What is the Best OTC Retinol Treatment in 2011?

Skin Care

Every Friday, I choose one reader’s question to answer on  This week, we’re hearing from Simran, who is coming back to the U.S. and wants to maximize purchase potential.  If you’d like to submit a question, please ask on our Facebook page, Twitter, or send a message to nicki[at]futurederm[dot]com!

Hey Nicki,
Do you still maintain your views on Green Cream despite the ethanol or are you recommending some other retinol product?  I’m going to be in the US and wanted to purchase retinol since I don’t get it in India. Please advise.
Thanks a ton!

Dear Simran,

Yes, I still love Green Cream.  There are currently three retinol creams/systems on the market I love:


1.  Peter Thomas Roth Retinol Fusion PM ($55.95,

This retinol serum has the highest concentration of retinol I have ever seen in an over-the-counter product:  1.5%.  Although I absolutely cannot recommend such a high concentration of retinol for first-time retinol users, it is an incredible power punch for patients with a retinol regimen of 0.9-1.0% currently.  The product is mostly cyclopentilosiloxane, a silicone, so it glides on the skin evenly, stretching out its 1 oz. size to potentially last for two months or more.

I generally don’t like products that contain vitamin C and retinol, because vitamin C is acidic, while retinol works best at higher pH levels, with optimized rates of esterification at a pH of 5.5-6.0.  However, I have personally used Peter Thomas Roth Retinol Fusion PM, and I can say that the vitamin C is not a problem, because there are significant results within the first week of use, and I am a regular retinol user.   The skin appears brighter, smoother, and more even-toned.  I’d love to see this reformulated without the vitamin C and see what happens!  At any rate, if you’re hardcore about your skin care, Peter Thomas Roth Retinol Fusion PM is the highest concentration of retinol you can get in a mainstream product without a prescription.  Love it.


31jyKgExaUL._SL500_AA300_2.  Neutrogena Dermatologics Retinol NX Progression Kit ($98.00, – plus get 2.5% back on all QVC purchases through eBates!)

I’ll admit it:  I love Neutrogena products, but I’m usually reluctant to purchase their retinol serums because they will not disclose the concentration of retinol.  Part of this is probably just sound marketing strategy on their part — my best estimate of their best-selling Neutrogena Healthy Skin Original Formula with Retinol is a meager 0.025% — and I don’t know how long Johnson & Johnson plans to stay competitive amongst increasingly savvy skin care consumers without this information.

I am also not impressed by the fact that Neutrogena Dermatologics Retinol NX Progression Kit contains a “highly stabilized form of retinol.”  Unlike highly reactive antioxidant ingredients like vitamin C, retinol is relatively stable upon exposure to light, as established by research in the Journal of Chromatography.  While retinol does break down with exposure to air, placing retinol in an airtight pump container removes this danger.  I also haven’t seen any published research establishing the difference in efficacy between Neutrogena’s stabilized retinol and non-stabilized forms.  So, again, I’m not recommending to buy this because it is “stabilized.”

So why do I like the Neutrogena Dermatologics Retinol NX Progression Kit?  Two reasons:  One, the concentrations of retinol, although undisclosed, are significant enough to work.  My best educated guess is that 0.025%, 0.1%, and 0.5% are contained within each of the three tubes, but who knows, it could be higher.  At any rate, even these minimal concentrations are significant enough to be effective over the 1-2 months’ time the kit lasts.  The second reason I like the Neutrogena Dermatologics Retinol NX Progression Kit is simply convenience.  People today are busier (and perhaps more distracted) than ever.  Who remembers to order another level of retinol 1-2 weeks after your skin has tolerated your current level?  I’m probably amongst the biggest skin care fans in the world, and sometimes I forget.  (!)  So, if you are getting into retinoids for the first time, the Neutrogena Dermatologics Retinol NX Progression Kit contains a pre-measured amount of product to get you accustomed to each level of retinol.  And by the time you’re done, you’re ready for the Big Mama product, like Peter Thomas Roth Retinol Fusion PM, with 1.5% retinol.

Ingredients in Neutrogena Dermatologics NX Serum: Water (eau), Cyclopentasiloxane, Glycerin, Dimethicone Crosspolymer, Tetrahydroxypropyl Ethylenediamine, Dimethicone, Ammonium Acryloyldimethyltaurate/VP Copolymer, Tocopherol, PEG-12 Dimethicone, Nylon-12, Zinc Gluconate, Magnesium Aspartate, Retinol, Polysorbate-20, Copper Gluconate, Hydrolyzed Wheat Gluten, Hydrophenyl Propamidobenzoic Acid, Bisabolol, Ascorbic Acid, BHT, Allantoin, Laureth-4, Laureth-23, Laureth-7, C13-14 Isoparaffin, Disodium EDTA, Polyacrylamide, Citric Acid, Phenoxyethanol, Propylparaben, Methylparaben, Ethylparaben, Yellow 5, Parfum


3.  Green Cream, Levels 3, 6, and 9.

I get some flack sometimes for liking Green Cream, partially because the formulation contains a high concentration of ethanol, and partially because the makers of Green Cream, Advanced Skin Technologies, have been one of my longest-standing advertisers.  But I wouldn’t have let them advertise in the first place if I didn’t love the product.  After speaking to the company, I learned that ethanol is included in the formulation as part of the delivery system and it has not been shown to induce inflammation as a part of this product, probably due to the inclusions of a high concentration of aloe vera gel and soothing cucumber extract.

Green Cream comes in 3 levels:  3, 6, and 9, corresponding to 0.3%, 0.6%, and 0.9% retinol.  According to the company, 83% of people can start with Green Cream Level 6 with little or no irritation.  I personally have used Green Cream, and I love it.  It has excellent brightening and smoothing effects on the skin, with less irritation than a lot of other retinol formulas.
Ingredients Level 3 – D.I. water, ethanol, glycerine, aloe vera gel,octyldodecanol, retinol & polysorbate 20, cucumber extract, butylene glycol, cetyl dimethicone copolyol, PEG-7 glyceryl cocoate, tocopheryl, acrylates/C10-C30 crosspolymer, tea-carbomer, propylene glycol, diazolidinyl urea, propylparaben, methylparaben, disodium edta, may contain FD&C yellow 5, red 40, blue1.

Ingredients Level 6 & Level 9 – D.I. water, ethanol, glycerine, aloe vera gel,octyldodecanol, retinol & polysorbate 20, cucumber extract, butylene glycol, cetyl dimethicone copolyol, PEG-7 glyceryl cocoate, tocopheryl, acrylates/C10-C30 crosspolymer, tea-carbomer, propylene glycol, diazolidinyl urea, propylparaben, methylparaben, disodium edta, may contain FD&C yellow 5, red 40, blue1.

Why Aren’t There Any Day Serums Listed?

That’s a simple one:  UV light has been found to be attributable for many of the signs of aging.  But retinoids can thin the skin, making it more susceptible to damage by UV light.  So why you would want to use retinoids during the day is beyond me, especially when there are ingredients like vitamin C, vitamin E, and carotenoids that can actually boost your sunscreen protection rather than increase your susceptibility to UV damage.  Which reminds me:  When you use any product containing retinoids, even if only at night, make sure that you use a sunscreen during the day!  🙂

Got a question?  Please ask on our Facebook pageTwitter, or send a message to nicki[at]futurederm[dot]com!

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  • Pat Field

    I wish I’d found this site before ordering my Clinique repairwear laser etc., etc., Could have saved myself some money! No I didnt know it was 30% silicone but thanks for that. Will now check in before every purchase. Love the site and its in-depth information!!

  • Andrea

    Hi! As an ex biology student, I really appreciate the scientific side of your reviews! I’m in my early twenties and still fighting acne while trying to mitigate the beginning signs of some fine lines so I’m very interested in retinols. I’m curious what kind of daily regimen (and products) you recommend. Retinols at night and sunscreen/vitamin c during the day? I’m oily and have old acne marks so I want to bang everything out! Any advice would be fabulous. Thanks!

  • Jamie

    What are your thoughts on Avene Eulage? I’m looking for an otc retinoid for the PM.

  • @Noel – Wow, thanks for the comment; I love hearing from such well-read, informed readers! With that said, I’m definitely interested in this NCN retinol cream. I contacted them after reading your comment earlier today, so we’ll see. Hopefully I will get more information and be able to possibly review this on the blog in the future.

    What is your background? Are you a chemist, physician, or just a very passionate and educated skin care enthusiast?

  • Noel

    As probably the world’s most skincare product obsessed male’s in existence, I have read a myriad of beauty blogs and product review articles. This is WITHOUT QUESTION one of the best I have ever read! It is so scientifically sound and accurate which is scarce at best! Excellent review!

    Since science dictates my product selections and not marketing nor hype, I’m obviously a retinoid advocate. I’ve been asked by many posters to try NCN’s product that states its 2% Retinol, which is the highest I have ever heard of OTC. Its such a small company, I’m rather skeptical. Do you have any experience with it?

  • @jc I think you are referring to the study with sunlight and retinyl palmitate?

  • jc

    somehow i missed this bit, i’m curious nikki(is it two ks? if not please forgive me!) isn’t it also pointless to apply retinol during the day? it’s one of those “i read somewhere” things, but i recall reading that sunlight basically deactivates the aspects of retinol which are the reasons for which we are probably using it? does that sound familiar or likely?

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