The 10 Best Retinols for Acne, According to a Dermatologist

8 min read


Ever heard of “botox in a bottle?” The phrase is making its rounds on the internet to describe pretty much any anti-aging product. And spoiler alert: most of them contain retinol. Retinol is one of the most powerful ingredients in skincare. It’s most famous for its anti-aging properties, like smoothing fine lines and creating an even complexion. And unlike many other so-called miracle products, retinol has been prescribed by doctors and dermatologists for decades. But the focus on retinol’s anti-aging properties may be obscuring one of retinols key benefits. That’s right, today we’re talking about the best retinols for acne—and giving this secret benefit the spotlight it deserves.

Featured image from our interview with Iskra Lawrence by Michelle Nash.

Image by Teal Thomsen

Retinol and Acne: The Key Benefit You Need to Know

According to Dr. Loretta Ciraldo MD FAAD, a Miami-based board-certified dermatologist and founder of Dr. Loretta Skincare, retinol is actually first and foremost a remedy for acne. Hormonal, fungal, blackheads, whiteheads—retinol acts like a magic eraser for any type of acne. It can work overnight to reduce the immediate appearance of acne, while also clearing up your skin long-term. So why don’t we talk more about retinol for acne?

“Retinoids were originally available as prescription topicals solely for the treatment of acne,” says Dr. Loretta. “Acne is caused by abnormal shedding of dead cells within pores which lead to a so-called follicular plug of dead cells.”

Whether you struggle with frequent breakouts or the occasional hormonal flare-up, retinol can be a long-term solution to your acne (while also delivering those fountain-of-youth-like benefits). And with the best retinols for acne, the formulas are typically not as strong as retinoids like tretinoin. This means no excessive dryness and no dreaded “purge.”

Below, Dr. Loretta shares the ins and outs about using retinol to clear acne and what to look for as you seek out the best products. And because not all retinol products are made alike, I ranked the best retinols for acne based on their active ingredients and retinol concentration (so you know how much bang you’re getting for your buck). Read on to discover which products are right for you.

Image by Tom Medvedich

What is retinol?

Retinol is a retinoid, meaning it is a type of topical vitamin A. Of all skincare ingredients to date, topical retinoids have the most studies proving their effectiveness in treating skin photo-aging. Retinol has been extensively studied by dermatologists since the 1990s and it has been found to be highly effective but considerably less irritating and better tolerated than the prescription retinoid, Retin A (aka tretinoin).

When skin cells are pre-treated with retinoids and then have damaging UV radiation, the retinoid prevents collagen breakdown and pigment production typically seen after UV. This is why I recommend retinol use.

Retinoids vs. Retinol

The term “retinoid” refers to a whole family of active molecules derived from vitamin A that have skin benefits when applied topically. Retinoic acid, also called tretinoin, is a prescription-only product, whereas retinol is available in many strengths as an over-the-counter (OTC) product.

Retinol gets converted to retinoic acid in the skin but since it takes a couple of steps to do this, it is generally less irritating than putting retinoic acid on the skin. Both compounds—prescription and OTC—are receptors in the skin that will make living skin produce more collagen.

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How Retinol Slows Aging and Treats Acne

Retinol is a very effective skin exfoliator, so it helps shed dead cells at a healthier rate. This works in both the surface skin—where we shed dead cells slower as we age—as well as within the pores, where slowed dead cell shedding leads to enlarged pore appearance and breakouts.

Retinol can effectively normalize dead cell shedding within our pores to both prevent acne and resolve existing acne. Also, retinol lessens sebum production to minimize acne by limiting the amount of acne-promoting oils we have on our skin.

Retinol Side Effects

You should never have retinol on your skin when you are out in the sun. Retinol makes you more acutely sun-sensitive so you will burn more easily if you get direct sun exposure with retinol on your skin.

How to Choose the Best Retinol Product for Acne

If your skin is sensitive, start with a low strength (0.25%) and use it only once or twice a week, at bedtime. If your skin is normal to oily, you can typically start with a slightly higher concentration of retinol but use it just every other night for the first week or two. Generally, your skin will build a tolerance to retinol and you’ll be able to use it more frequently eventually building up to every night for many people with normal to oily skin.

Image by Michelle Nash

The Best Retinols for Acne

When it comes to using retinol, there’s a product for every skin type, concern, and sensitivity. Discover the best retinols for acne below.

Every product is curated with care by our editors and we’ll always give an honest opinion, whether gifted or purchased ourselves. If you buy something through our links, we may earn a small commission at no cost to you.

The litany of five-star reviews says it all: this retinol treatment is worth the hype. Paula’s Choice is known for its hero chemical exfoliators, but this retinol treatment is a sleeper star in its arsenal. The clinical-level potency is balanced by hydrating and protective ingredients to deliver results without irritation. The slow-release delivery system and light texture allow for fast, consistent absorption for an effective retinol experience.

  • Key ingredients: Retinol, Peptides, Vitamin C
  • Concentration: 1%

When your skin gets too dry, your pores may overcompensate and begin to produce excess sebum. Cue: breakouts and irritation. Sunday Riley’s retinol serum fights congestion, calms irritation, and restores dry and dehydrated skin with barrier-boosting antioxidants.

  • Key ingredients: Retinol, CoQ10, Hawaiian White Honey, Bisabolol, Cactus Extract & Ginger
  • Concentration: 6.5% blend of retinol and retinol-like ingredients

Anyone with oily skin knows: La Roche-Posay Effaclar products are a godsend. Next time you’re restocking your supply of the Effaclar Duo, grab this retinol gel treatment. This oil-free acne solution helps clear current breakouts and prevent new ones without further clogging your pores.

  • Key ingredients: Adapalene (retinol)
  • Concentration: 0.1% retinol

Combination skin is one of the most acne-prone skin types because it can be so hard to nail down a routine. Products like this serum, however, help target both oiliness and dryness by delivering transformative, targeted results. Niacinamide diminishes oiliness, while hyaluronic acid and oatmeal address dryness—priming your combination skin while retinol works its magic.

  • Key ingredients: Retinol, Niacinamide, Hyaluronic acid, Oatmeal, Tiger grass

Celebrity esthetician Renée Rouleau is beloved for a reason: her treatments actually work. With each product specifically designed for different skin types, you can be sure you’re addressing your skin concerns with the right product for you. This serum is made for sensitive skin types, complete with soothing extracts and calming ingredients to ease your skin into retinol.

  • Key ingredients: Retinol, Extracts of Mugwort, Algae, Licorice
  • Concentration: 0.4%

This ultra-hydrating serum rejuvenates and replenishes mature skin. The hydrating blend of ingredients repairs sun damage and dryness, while firming ingredients restore skin elasticity. It prevents new blemishes, treats existing ones, and brightens sun spots and other signs of aging.

  • Key ingredients: Retinol, Phospholipids, Antioxidant blend
  • Concentration: 0.5%

Deeply exfoliate and transform your complexion with this retinol and lactic acid. Chemical exfoliant lactic acid combines with retinol to accelerate cell turnover and slough off uneven, pigmented skin. Both ingredients are tried and true solutions for dark spots, helping this serum effectively even your skin tone.

  • Key ingredients: Retinol, Lactic Acid, Apple Extract
  • Concentration: 2.2%

CeraVe is the drugstore brand to end all drugstore brands. Developed with dermatologists, its powerful, no-fuss formulas make popular ingredients like retinol accessible. This serum doesn’t shortchange the price for effectiveness.

  • Key ingredients: Retinol, Ceramides, Licorice Root
  • Concentration: 0.3%

The Inkey List makes buzzy ingredients easy to try at home. This beginner-friendly introduction serum is a great way to try retinol without breaking out more—or breaking the bank.

  • Key ingredients: Retinol, Squalane
  • Concentration: 1%

If you’re looking for your next splurge-worthy item, you can never go wrong with iS Clinical. This dermatologist-approved brand lines the walls of my esthetician’s office, so I know it’s good. This luxe serum combines retinol with antioxidant-rich vitamin C and botanicals to supercharge and soothe the serum’s powers.

  • Key ingredients: Retinol, Vitamin C, Zinc, Kojic Acid, Vitamin E
  • Concentration: 15% time-released L ascorbic acid


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