The best retinol creams, from gentle to potent

Retinol Creams That Actually Work - Elsa Hosk

Your guide to finding the right retinol strength for you

Beauty Crew Contributing Editor / June 29 2023

When it comes to fighting the signs of ageing, retinol would have to be the second most important anti-ageing product in your arsenal (sunscreen is the first!). Dermatologists swear by retinol, often referring to it as the gold standard of anti-ageing ingredients. Why? Because it’s backed by research and proven to work. It’s hard to argue with that!

What is retinol?

A derivative of vitamin A, retinol is a chemical exfoliant with powerful anti-ageing benefits. It’s also a great ingredient for acne and pigmentation.

Retinol works by encouraging cells to regenerate and turn over at a faster rate, which helps improve skin texture, elasticity and the appearance of skin. Buh-bye wrinkles and uneven skin tone, hello radiant, younger-looking skin. It also decreases oil production, hence why it’s a winner for acne-prone and oily skin types.

What retinol strength should I use?

Retinol comes in a variety of different strengths and the highest percentage isn’t always the best. While a greater concentration of retinol can provide quick results, retinol is extremely potent so high potencies can also irritate some skin types. And the last thing you want to do is end up with flaky, red skin in your quest for a youthful glow.

When using retinol for the first time, always start with a low percentage of retinol, such as 0.2 per cent, and once you’ve finished the product (without ongoing irritation), then work your way up to the next level. Sensitive skin types and dry skin types may find a low concentration is all their skin can handle. Don’t worry, you’ll still see great results!

A moderate retinol percentage is great for tackling uneven skin tone or texture and a loss of skin firmness. Deep wrinkles and pigmentation will benefit from a higher concentration of 0.5 per cent or more.

Good to know: Oily skin can tolerate a higher concentration better than dry skin and sensitive skin.

Always start by using a new retinol product just twice a week, then if no irritation occurs, increase usage to every other day. Eventually, you should be able to use retinol once daily - preferably at night, as retinol can cause sun sensitivity (you *must* use a sunscreen daily).

You can find retinol in pretty much every step of your skin care routine these days, from an eye cream to a retinol serum and a night cream, and even in a hand cream and body lotion formula. And you can buy one in just about any beauty retailer, from over the counter products at Chemist Warehouse and Priceline to prescription-only formulas at a cosmetic clinic.

It’s never been easier to get your hands on a good retinol product. But it can be tricky to choose among all the options!

To help you get started, these are some of our favourite retinol creams in Australia, according to the retinol strength you’re after.

Medik8 Night Ritual Vitamin A Age-Defying Retinol Cream

This deeply nourishing and age-fighting retinol night cream uses time release technology to gradually and gently deliver vitamin A to the skin while you sleep. The non-comedogenic formula also contains antioxidant-rich vitamin E and dragon fruit to protect skin against free radicals that accumulate on the skin during the day.

The review: “This was my first retinol product and I had no issues introducing it into my skin care routine. It is hydrating and feels my skin feeling lovely and smooth in the morning. I now use it to boost my retinol serum and can really see the difference in my skin between the nights that I wear it and the nights that I don't.” Nell, Adore Beauty customer

Retinol percentage: 0.2%

Cost: $87


Lancôme Visionnaire Skin Solutions 0.2% Retinol

Formulated with dermatologist ingredients and utilising Visionnaire's technology of jasmonate derivatives, which ensures the active ingredients make their way deep within the layers of skin, this face cream helps reduce fine lines and firm skin in as little as one week.

The review: “I had tried various retinol "solutions" prior to the Visionnaire Skin Solutions Retinol Serum...none of them were as effective as Visionnaire, nor did they provide visible results so quickly. I am very pleased with this Lancome product and highly recommend it!” granzowl, Lancôme customer

Retinol percentage: 0.2%

Cost: $115

La Roche-Posay Redermic R Retinol Cream

A calming anti-ageing retinol serum, this one is a great choice for sensitive skin types. In addition to retinol, it’s formulated with a Retinol Booster Complex of retinyl linoleate and adenosine, which enhances retinol’s efficacy, without irritating the skin.

The review: “If you're new to retinol and want to start using it, this is a really good product to start with. I find that this doesn't burn or irritate my skin, it just helps to even out any dullness and uneven tone, reduces marks, and keeps fine lines at bay, obviously in conjunction with a good skincare routine.” Belle, Adore Beauty customer

Retinol percentage: 0.3%

Cost: $59.95

La Roche-Posay Redermic R Retinol Cream

Skinceuticals Retinol 0.5

If you’re looking to take your retinol usage to the next level, this one delivers while still looking after even the more sensitive of skin types. The non-comedogenic formula uses stabilisation and delivery technologies to ensure the potent formula is slowly and evenly released (to prevent irritation and maximise efficacy). This retinol cream also comes in a 1% concentration.

The review: “I have been looking for a no frills, does what it says retinol for a while now, and this is it! Super gentle (I have used retinol before) so I can use it 3 times a week, and every time I use it my skin gets clearer and smoother!” Kelly, Adore Beauty customer

Retinol percentage: 0.5%

Skinceuticals Retinol 0.5

Dermalogica Overnight Retinol Repair

Microencapsulated pure retinol isn’t working alone to tackle your lines and wrinkles in this treatment. A copper amino acid complex helps improve skin elasticity, ceramides moisturise and soften lines, and vitamin C helps fight pigmentation and even out skin tone. This retinol cream also comes with a buffer cream, which you can mix with the 0.5 per cent formula to make it more gentle on skin.

The review: “Visible results almost immediately! I started using this serum twice a week and have ditched all other retinols I was using previously. In the morning when you wake, your skin appears tighter and younger. If used too often I found I had a little sensitivity to the sun but if used as directed this is a wonderful product for skin rejuvenation! Highly recommend it.” Sally, Beauty Crew member

Retinol percentage: 0.5%

Cost: $134

Paula’s Choice Clinical 1% Retinol Treatment

This retinol treatment has over 480 five-star reviews on the Paula’s Choice website! It has a sheer lotion formula that hydrates in addition to fighting signs of ageing, so it’s a great choice for normal to dry skin. It’s also fragrance-free, contains soothing plant extracts, and uses a controlled-release delivery system for a non-irritating and consistent absorption.

The review: “I have gone back and forth using this retinol and others (including prescription Retin-A) and this is the product I come back to every time. It smooths my skin and evens it out in a way no other product ever has, and it hasn't ever irritated my skin. Love it! Will always repurchase!” Becdab, Paula’s Choice customer

Retinol percentage: 1%

Cost: $79

Drunk Elephant A-Passioni™ Retinol Cream

One of the Internet’s favourite retinol creams (it has over 100 five-star reviews on Mecca alone), this vegan retinol treatment also contains ceramides, jojoba and peptides, along with anti-inflammatory vitamin F to reduce irritation and help maintain a healthy skin barrier. As the formula is strong (some reviewers say it feels stronger than the Paula’s Choice one, even though they have the same retinol percentage), you need to ease in nice and slow with this one. Try mixing it with moisturiser for a more nourishing and gentle dose.

The review: “I’ve used various retinol treatments in the past and this one is by far the best. No dryness or tightness at all. I started off by only using it twice a week and using the Drunk Elephant glycolic serum on the other nights but now I use them both and my skin is practically flawless.” Jess985, Mecca customer

Retinol percentage: 1%

Cost: $113

Want more insider tips for younger-looking skin? Here are eight things you can do to slow down the signs of ageing. 

What do you think is the best retinol cream? We’d love you to share your reviews with us below.

Main image credit: @hoskelsa

Chelsea is BEAUTYcrew’s Contributing Editor. She has a sweet spot for anything that claims to make skin glow and won’t leave the house without a slick of mascara. Chelsea has 10 years of experience as a beauty editor and her words can be found on BEAUTYcrew, Women’s Health, Daily Addict, The Joye and Primped.