So What's Retinol Really All About?

Retinol: It's one of those ingredients that often comes with sweeping claims. It's a miracle worker — you have to try it! Once your skin adjusts, you'll be glowing! It's the only thing that cleared my breakouts! Spoiler alert: Yes, retinol is an amazing ingredient that has a surprisingly long list of benefits, but with so many formulas out there (read: thousands at Sephora alone), it's hard to know what's what — and where to start. Before you head out and on-a-whim add it to your nighttime regimen, let's start with the basics, shall we?
To start, retinol is just one of many forms of synthetic vitamin A derivatives. It also happens to be one of the most common forms because it's usually well tolerated on all skin types. And there are other versions, too — like formulas featuring its plant-based cousin bakuchiol. (Note you always want to start slow with lower concentrations and patch test on your wrist before fully adopting it into your routine.) As for what the ingredient actually does for your skin? It combats breakouts, fine lines, and wrinkles by increasing cell turnover and sloughing off dead skin cells in the process. That said, it's not quite that simple — it depends on the formula itself. Which is why we've rounded up seven retinol must-haves and what they're specifically formulated to do. So whether you're on the lookout for a night cream that'll help lighten stubborn dark spots or you have sensitive skin and need an extra-gentle version, here's how to navigate the sometimes-overwhelming skin-care aisle, ahead.
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Formulated with a plant-based retinol alternative, this ultra-hydrating OLEHENRIKSEN night cream does its due diligence — aka, exfoliates and targets dark spots — while you sleep for the ultimate I-woke-up-like-this-level glow.
The ultimate power couple — retinol and ferulic acid — shine bright in Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare's eye serum, which targets fine lines, under-eye puffiness, and dark circles. Feel free to use it all over the eye area — yes, even on your eyelids.
This serum from Biossance is perfect for sensitive skin thanks to its hero ingredient, a plant-based retinol alternative called bakuchiol, and squalane, a hydrating compound. Plus, you can even wear it during the day as it won't make your skin photosensitive.
Featuring 6.5% retinoid blend, Sunday Riley's advanced-strength formula is the ideal serum for those looking to clear up skin — or pretty much anyone who's already well-versed in vitamin A derivatives.
This Peter Thomas Roth ultra-nourishing night cream with 2% retinoid complex is basically a chill pill for your skin. Not only does it help calm the look of redness with hemp-derived cannabis sativa seed oil, 2% topical melatonin, and 5% colloidal oatmeal — yes, the same stuff your mama always made you bathe in at the first sight of a rash — but it also smoothes, revitalizes, and evens skin tone and texture.
We like to call this firming serum from Murad a perfect trifecta because it's powered by three different types of the vitamin A — a time-releasing retinol, a retinol booster, and a fast-acting retinoid.
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While mixing vitamin C and retinol is often a no-no, Kate Somerville's night serum is an exception considering it's been specifically formulated for stability. The vitamin C brightens and helps even skin tone, while the retinol helps firm, tone, and smooth the look of fine lines and wrinkles.
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Interested in learning more? Check out Sephora's buying guide, here.
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