Ask any derm: The one skin-care super ingredient that seems to trump all others in terms of research-backed results is retinol. Also known as vitamin A, the ingredient stimulates collagen growth, promotes cell turnover, and exfoliates away dead skin cells, resulting in more even skin tone, smoother skin texture, and the reduction of hyperpigmentation. In short, it’s the closest thing we have to a cure-all for the skin. But there's a catch: It's not cheap. Fancy options easily break triple digits and even drugstore versions of non-prescription retinoid tend to cost $30 or more. So when we found The Ordinary’s retinoid options online, we were downright shocked: There are two and each are sold for an astonishing $6.70 and $9.80. That’s right, suddenly, the most expensive component of our skin-care regimen costs less than an on-demand movie rental — something that makes us feel simultaneously skeptical and like the ultimate chumps: Can a $7 product really compete with the pricier formulas we’ve been using? And (cue the flying stacks of cash emoji) exactly how much money have we thrown away at retinoids over the years? To find out, we called in the big guns: S. Manjula Jegasothy, MD, a Miami-based dermatologist, and Randy Schueller, a cosmetic chemist and co-founder of The Beauty Brains. First, we looked at The Ordinary Retinol 1% (which sells for $6.70). The brand discloses exactly how much retinol is used in the formula right in the name, which Schueller says is a good thing. “The formula contains 1% retinol,” he says, “which is better than using an undisclosed bargain-basement potency that’s sold on the cheap.” Also important is how the formula delivers the retinol within. An effective formula will stabilize the retinol so it doesn’t oxidize and lose potency, Schueller notes. The best ways to stabilize the ingredient? Micro-encapsulation or using a waterless base. “Water is cheap. You could put retinol in a water-based cream or serum, but that would be a big red flag — and put the retinol at risk. This 1% formulation does not contain water,” the chemist says. “They’re taking the right approach.”
The brand’s second retinoid offering is The Ordinary Advanced Retinol 2%, which uses a retinol ester (called Solubilized Hydroxypinacolone Retinoate) rather than straight retinol in order to minimize skin irritation that the ingredient can cause. But there’s a price to pay for comfort (aside from the $2.10 difference between the brand’s 1% and 2% retinol products). Unlike with pure retinol, our bodies have to convert these esters into retinol in order for the ingredient to work — and that conversion process reduces the strength of the dose. “It is well known that retinoid esters, such as the active ingredient in this product, do not have as much efficacy in smoothing the epidermis and growing collagen in the dermis as pure retinol,” notes Dr. Jegasothy. “I do, however, believe that retinol esters are less irritating than pure retinol.” Schueller says that the particular ester used in this formula isn’t backed by a ton of research (he notes that the company may have completed proprietary research of its own). Still, he says, “In principal, the ester in combination with retinol seems like a reasonable approach.” The formulation for each seems sound. But should we expect these babies to replace our pricier go-tos? On this, our pros are split. Dr. Jegasothy holds some healthy skepticism as to whether these affordable options can replace luxe versions. “I would be cautious in recommending any retinoid-based skin-care product with a very low price point, regardless of a patient’s skin type, because the price hints at the sourcing of the product, which may be from non-pharmaceutical or non-USP grade manufacturers, she says. “Retinol and retinoid esters are generally expensive to manufacture and even more expensive to stabilize in a skin-care product, hence their usual price point,” she says. Dr. Jegasothy also notes that companies (like Neutrogena and RoC) have been able to stabilize quality retinoids at a lower price point because they manufacture in high quantities. But Schueller notes that the The Ordinary’s business model, which includes no-frills packaging and little-to-no advertising (much less a celebrity spokesperson) are other factors that may keep the price down. “Typically, the formula cost for a product is about 10-15%,” he says. “So much of the cost is marketing and package-driven. It could be that the brand is passing the savings off to the consumer.” We reached out to Brandon Truaxe, founder of DECIEM and The Ordinary, to confirm just that. He says that because retinol (and its delivery system) is well-studied, effective, and not a new innovation, the company doesn't believe in wasting money on marketing the products to convince consumers of the efficacy. "The low cost that we offer these products at reflects the fact that these inexpensive ingredients are massively marked up by most companies," says Truaxe. He breaks down the math for one ingredient: "Very pure L-Ascorbic Acid can be purchased for around $3-$5/kg which makes the L-Ascorbic content of this particular formula (23%) between 20 and 30 cents. The majority of the cost is actually in compounding, testing, filling, logistics and retailer margins and we still come to under $5 with our margin included." Hey, we'll take cheap and effective over a fancy jar featured on commercials any day. In all, the chemist thinks either option may be worth a try. “Everything looks like the brand has done a good job to put together efficacious formulas,” he says. “I'm not saying this is the best formulation ever — you can spend a lot of time in research and development stabilizing and encapsulating these ingredients, so there may be ways to optimize these formulations — but the science seems reasonable. In terms of finding a solid candidate at a very good price, I'd feel good about recommending either one of these products.” At less than $10 a shot, it seems like we have very little to lose — and a ton to gain (namely: buckets in saved loot), should either work just as well as our splurgy skin savers.