05 January 2021
When it comes to tackling skin woes like acne, fine wrinkles and pigmentation, one skincare ingredient that has been regarded as the fountain of youth is retinoids. Retinoids (sometimes incorrectly called retinol) are active ingredients well loved in dermatology for their multi-tasking benefits. At the same time, starting on retinoids can be intimidating for some because of the much feared side effects of retinoid uglies- purging and retinoid dermatitis.
Besides combating acne, retinoids lighten hyperpigmentation and improve skin texture by accelerating cell turnover. Retinoids are anti-aging powerhouses because of their ability to build collagen for firmer skin and less fine wrinkles. I am a personal fan of retinoids- afterall, who wouldn’t love these benefits?
Over the years of using retinoids- both prescription grade and over the counter products- I’ve also learnt how to use them while avoiding the side effects. In this review, I’ll be sharing 5 affordable, over the counter retinoid serums and creams that I’ve tried over the years. I’ll also be covering tips on how I choose retinoids and active ingredients to pair them with for better outcomes.
Before you start on this post, I would recommend reading The Beginner’s Guide to Retinoids first. This blogpost will help you take the guesswork out of retinoids and basic questions like the difference between retinol and retinoids, how they work and side effects of vitamin A.
Exactly what type of retinoid is in the product?
Is it retinol, retinaldehyde or retinyl ester? Each of these retinoids have different efficacies. If you’re new to the retinoid game, I suggest starting with retinol. If you’ve retinised your skin and want something stronger, retinaldehydes are my recommendation. I’ll be sharing an effective and affordable retinaldehyde in this review, so keep reading to find out which one this is!
Newer retinoids like granactive retinoids or encapsulated retinol cause less irritation. If you have sensitive skin, these retinols can be a consideration for you.
What other ingredients are included in the retinoid product?
Retinoid serums and creams that include additional active ingredients are my preference. The right combination of active ingredients can reduce retinoid dermatitis and dryness or add synergy to the effects of retinoids. Examples of these skincare friends to retinoids are vitamin E, ceramides and niacinamide.
For the rest of details such as ideal concentrations of retinols to start with, The Beginner’s Guide to Retinoids will share more. The key to using retinoids safely is to allow your skin to retinize by starting with a gentler retinoid before increasing the strength and frequency of use.
As with all my skincare product reviews, there are always two parts to how I review a product:
1. The objective aspect where the ingredients and formulations are examined
2. The subjective aspect where I assess the results and how the skincare product feels on my skin. With these over the counter retinoids, we should be expecting that skin looks brighter, fine lines are reduced, skin texture is smoother and firmer.
Please note that if you have acne, these over the counter retinoids will not be adequate. Prescription grade retinoids, antibiotics and medical treatments like lasers and chemical peels will be needed. Also, everyone’s skin type is different, so the subjective part of my review may differ from yours.
So here you go, my review of 5 affordable retinoid serums and creams, no prescription needed. I hope that you’ll find one suitable for your skin type.
CeraVe is a skincare brand from the US that was developed in 2006 together with dermatologists. The brand is best known for including ceramides in their products to strengthen the skin’s barrier and defenses, making it a good choice among users who have sensitive skin and eczema.
I’ve tried a couple of skincare products from CeraVe and I can understand why the brand has a cult favourite status among beauty insiders. The ones I have tested from CeraVe are effective, gentle on the skin and are very affordable.
What does CeraVe Skin Renewing Retinol Serum contain?
• Encapsulated retinol
Any other notable ingredients in CeraVe Skin Renewing Retinol Serum
• Niacinamide: antioxidant with anti-inflammatory and anti-acne benefits
• Ceramides, Phytosphingosine and triglycerides: combination of fats (lipids) that reinforce the skin barrier against transepidermal water loss (TEWL) and irritation from chemicals, infections…etc
• Tocopherol (vitamin E): antioxidant
The good about CeraVe Skin Renewing Retinol Serum
CeraVe Skin Renewing Retinol Serum is a great multi-tasking retinol serum that includes ceramides and niacinamide. This particular combination of retinol, ceramides and niacinamide is useful in reducing the dryness and skin irritation related to retinols.
It’s a lightweight serum that dries quickly too. This retinol serum is one of my favourites in this review. My skin was noticably brighter and smoother after using this for 3-4 weeks. There was also an improvement in my blemishes.
The bad about CeraVe Skin Renewing Retinol Serum
In spite of the addition of moisturers to the formulation, my recommendation is to pair CeraVe Skin Renewing Retinol Serum with another moisturizer. Using CeraVe Skin Renewing Retinol Serum alone caused very fine flaking of my skin the next day. This problem was easily overcome by using it with a moisturizer. I paired CeraVe Skin Renewing Retinol Serum with another favourite moisturizer of mine from CeraVe that contained hyaluronic acid and ceramides. This combination worked really well for me. You can read about CeraVe’s Daily Moisturizing Lotion and the rest of my hyaluronic acid serum and moisturizers in this review 5 Cult Favourite Hyaluronic Acid Serums and Moisturisers Reviewed.
I would say the biggest grip I have about CeraVe Skin Renewing Retinol Serum is that CeraVe’s skincare products are not available in Singapore. You’ll have to ship it in if you would like to purchase them.
My verdict on CeraVe Skin Renewing Retinol Serum
In short, CeraVe Skin Renewing Retinol Serum is an effective and affordable retinol serum. CeraVe Skin Renewing Retinol Serum cost me $35 after including shipping fees. I would recommend CeraVe Skin Renewing Retinol Serum if you have normal or slightly dry skin. This is also a decent retinol to get started on if you are new to using retinol.
About The Inkey List
The Inkey List is a UK skincare brand that was launched in 2018. It joins a growing list of beauty brands that feature ingredient led skincare products at affordable prices. Since its launch, The Inkey List has diversified its product range of familiar skincare heroes to include more interesting ingredients like polyglutamic acid. The Inkey List has very recently ventured into the realm of hair care products in June 2020.
In Singapore, The Inkey List’s products can be purchased at Sephora or via online retailers like ASOS. You can read my review of some of The Inkey List products that I have tried in this blogpost The Inkey List: Skincare Review and Ingredients Decoded.
What does The Inkey List’s Retinol Moisturiser contain?
The Inkey List’s Retinol moisturiser contains 2 newer types of retinoids- Retistar and granactive retinoid.
Retistar is a stabilised form of retinol that also has vitamin E, sodium ascorbate (a vitamin C derivative) and hydrogenated castor oil in caprylic triglycerides. The Inkey List states that the concentration of retinol in this product to contain 1% stable retinol (ie. Retistar) and 0.5 granactive retinoid. See screenshot above. However, the final concentration of retinol in Retistar is 0.05% i.e. 1% Retistar concentration 1% contains 0.05% retinol.
Granactive retinol is one of the newer types of retinol. It seems to bind to the same receptors as retinoic acid while causing less irritation to the skin. It seems promising. Currently, there aren’t many published clinical and independent studies on granactive retinol available.
Any other notable ingredients in The Inkey List’s Retinol Serum
• Propanediol and squalene: moisturisers
• Tocopherol and sodium ascorbate: antioxidants
The good about The Inkey List’s Retinol Serum
The Inkey List’s Retinol Serum is a decent for its price point- I paid under $20 for this. My skin was a little brighter and smoother after using The Inkey List’s Retinol Serum nightly at 3 weeks. However, blemishes did not improve.
The bad about The Inkey List’s Retinol Serum
The Inkey List’s Retinol Serum feels oily, perhaps due to the presence of squalene. It also takes a long while to dry. My other issue with The Inkey List’s Retinol Serum would lie with the misleading labelling of the ingredients by The Inkey List.
My verdict on The Inkey List’s Retinol Serum
The Inkey’s List Retinol Serum is a decent and budget retinol for beginners. If you have dry skin, I would recommend The Inkey List’s Retinol Serum. It is moisturising but has an oily feel.
I personally prefer Cerave Skin Renewing Retinol Serum as I felt the results were more pronounced for me.
Olay is another global drug store fixture. The brand originated in South Africa in the 1950’s. Started by a chemist who saw his wife’s frustration with using greasy beauty creams in shoe tins (as was the case for beauty products in that decade), founder Graham Wulff created the Oil of Olay Beauty Fluid, a cosmetic product with improved texture and fragrance. The rest was history for Olay and its products.
Today, Olay’s products are a fixture in drug stores globally. The brand image for Olay is that of affordable and reliable products. Olay’s Regenerist range is its premium anti-aging skincare lineup and the Olay Regenerist Retinol 24 lineup is the latest addition.
The Olay Regenerist Retinol 24 range consists of a serum, cream and eye cream. Olay’s website states that fine lines, wrinkles, brightness, dark spots, and pores show visible improvement with daily use of the products. The Olay Regenerist Retinol 24 range also had glowing reviews from numerous beauty bloggers and influencers so I was excited to try this out for myself.
What does Olay Regenerist Retinol 24 Night Facial Serum contain?
Retinol and Retinyl Propionate- a combination of retinol and retinyl ester.
Any other notable ingredients in Olay Regenerist Retinol 24 Night Facial Serum?
• Niacinamide: antioxidant with anti-inflammatory and anti-acne benefits
• Palmitoyl Pentapeptide-4: Also known as Matrixyl; it is a type of peptide used in anti-wrinkle cosmetics. Palmitoyl Pentapeptide-4 (Matrixyl) was created by Olay’s parent company (Procter & Gamble) together with a French ingredient supplier, Sederma.
The good about Olay Regenerist Retinol 24 Night Facial Serum
The addition of Niacinamide in Olay Regenerist’s Retinol 24 Night Facial Serum is a plus. Combining retinoids with niacinamide improves the user’s tolerance to retinoids as niacinamide reduces irritation inflammation. Palmitoyl Pentapeptide-4 (Matrixyl) sounds interesting, but the data to support it is very sparse.
Olay Regenerist’s Retinol 24 Night Facial Serum did not cause any irritation or redness at all on my skin. It dries quickly to leave a temporary smooth, velvety texture that felt very nice on my skin- this is likely because Olay Regenerist’s Retinol 24 Night Facial Serum has a high amount of silicones. Olay Regenerist’s Retinol 24 Night Facial Serum pairs better with a moisturizer on top.
The bad about Olay Regenerist Retinol 24 Night Facial Serum
I was most excited to try Olay Regenerist’s Retinol 24 Night Facial Serum because of the glowing review and hype online about it. Alas, there was no improvement in skin brightness, hyperpigmentation or comedones for me after using Olay Regenerist’s Retinol 24 Night Facial Serum nightly, even after finishing the whole bottle.
My verdict on Olay Regenerist Retinol 24 Night Facial Serum
Olay Regenerist’s Retinol 24 Night Facial Serum was the most disappointing of the lot that I reviewed. It’s mid priced at approximately $55, but I will not be repurchasing Olay Regenerist’s Retinol 24 Night Facial Serum.
One highlight of this product is that it did not cause any irritation or dryness, I would recommend Olay Regenerist’s Retinol 24 Night Facial Serum as a starter retinoid for people with sensitive skin.
Skinceuticals is a US skincare brand founded by a dermatologist, who is regarded as one of the pioneers in the development of topical antioxidants.The formulation of Skinceuticals’ products are guided by research. Case in point: its vitamin C serum (CE Ferulic) was developed based on parameters for optimal vitamin C efficacy as discovered by the founder, Dr Sheldon Pinnell himself.
Skinceuticals’ products are available in Singapore exclusively at selected aesthetic clinics and its flagship counter in Tangs departmental store.
What does Skinceuticals’ Retinol 0.5 Refining Night Cream contain?
Any other notable ingredients in Skinceuticals’ Retinol 0.5 Refining Night Cream
• Propanediol: moisturiser
The good about Skinceuticals’ Retinol 0.5 Refining Night Cream
Of all the retinol products in this review, Skinceutical’s Retinol 0.5 Refining Night Cream is the only product whereby the concentration of retinol is known. At 0.5%, the retinol concentration is one of the highest in most over the counter skincare products.
Skinceuticals’ Retinol 0.5 Refining Night Cream is slightly thicker than most serums but sinks into the skin quickly. Skinceuticals’ Retinol 0.5 Refining Night Cream was the first ever retinol that I started using 5-6 years ago and it remains my recommendation for an effective retinol (i.e. not mild; also not for beginners). It’s still my go to after all these years, even though I’ve progressed to use prescription grade retinoids. I still switch to using Skinceuticals’ Retinol 0.5 Refining Night Cream on nights when my skin feels dry or I just had a chemical peel.
Of all the retinols I’ve tried, Skinceuticals’ Retinol 0.5 Refining Night Cream gave me the most obvious benefits. With consistent use, my blemishes were lighter, skin was visibly brighter and smoother. My fine lines were a little better too. My whiteheads were also reduced. Another aspect that I saw improvement in was my horizontal neck lines (aka tech neck or necklace lines).
The bad about Skinceuticals’ Retinol 0.5 Refining Night Cream
Skinceuticals’ Retinol Refining Night Cream is a powerful and effective retinol, so I would not recommend this to beginners to use nightly as a start. When I first started using Skinceuticals’ Retinol Refining Night Cream, I experienced the side effects of using retinoids- the dreaded Retinoid Uglies- purging and dermatitis. Lots of dryness, peeling, flaking and pimples for 2-3 weeks.
I had to scale back to using Skinceuticals’ Retinol Refining Night Cream to twice a week before gradually increasing the frequency of usage. When it comes to using retinoids safely, it boils down to balancing strength and frequency of use (for visible results) vs your skin’s ability to tolerate the retinoid. You definitely have to use Skinceuticals’ Retinol Refining Night Cream with a moisturiser and sunscreen in the day. If you want to try using Skinceuticals’ Retinol Refining Night Cream, perhaps start by using it one to two times a week or use a milder retinols (like the other ones I’ve mentioned in this blogpost) before trying Skinceuticals’ Retinol Refining Night Cream.
Another drawback of Skinceuticals’ Retinol Refining Night Cream is that it is very basic. There are no other retinoid-friendly ingredients in Skinceuticals’ Retinol Refining Night Cream, unlike the other ones in this review which have included niacinamide, ceramides…etc. For a brand that has built a strong image of physician designed formulas, I expected more out of Skinceuticals’ Retinol Refining Night Cream, especially for the price ($100).
My verdict on Skinceuticals’ Retinol 0.5 Refining Night Cream
Effective and expensive. Skinceuticals’ Retinol 0.5 Refining Night Cream is worth the investment IMO- I’ve been repurchasing it for years because it’s the best performing retinol of all the ones I’ve tried so far.
Skinceuticals’ Retinol 0.5 Refining Night Cream is a relatively strong retinol serum, so start using it gradually first to avoid the Retinoid Uglies.
About Eau-Thermale Avene
Eau-Thermale Avene is another drugstore brand from France. Founded in 1990, Eau-Thermale Avene is best known for its Thermal Spring Water spray, which is said to be useful in relieving skin irritation and dryness. Thermal spring water has a higher concentration of minerals (e.g. calcium and magnesium) as the water absorbs these minerals when flowing through rocks and terrain.
Eau-Thermale Avene’s A-Oxitive skincare range is their newest anti-aging range lineup. I chose Eau-ThermaleAvene’s A-Oxitive Night Peeling Cream because it contains retinaldehyde, which is just behind retinoic acid in the conversion ladder. I’ve previously tried another two products from Eau-Thermale Avene that also contain retinaldehyde from their Physiolift and Ystheal. Avene’s Ystheal range has been discontinued.
What does Eau-Thermale Avene’s A-Oxitive Night Peeling Cream contain?
Any other notable ingredients in Eau-Thermale Avene’s A-Oxitive Night Peeling Cream?
• Avene thermal spring water- small studies show that thermal spring water can help to reduce symptoms of eczema and inflammation. Caveat: most of these studies are sponsored by the companies that manufacture them.
• Evening primrose oil: A type of fatty acid called gamma-linoeic acid derived from plants. A few studies suggest that topical evening primrose oil MAY help reduce symptoms of eczema (atopic dermatitis).
• Tocopherol (vitamin E): antioxidant
The good about Eau-Thermale Avene’s A-Oxitive Night Peeling Cream
Did you realise that Eau-Thermale Avene’s A-Oxitive Night Peeling Cream is the only retinoid cream that contains retinaldehyde in this post? I found that retinaldehyde serums and creams are not widely available as most beauty brands prefer to use retinols instead. Eau-Thermale Avene was the only drugstore brand in Singapore that I could find that used retinaldehyde! If you know of any products that contain retinaldehyde, please let me know- you can leave a comment at the end of this blogpost.
Although the concentration of retinaldehyde in Eau-Thermale Avene’s A-Oxitive Night Peeling Cream is not listed, this cream worked very quickly for me. At around the 2-3 week mark there was obvious brightness and a glow to my skin- even more so than with retinols. My skin was smoother and my whiteheads on my chin reduced in a few weeks. I would say that Eau-Thermale Avene’s A-Oxitive Night Peeling Cream is more effective than their other ranges which include retinaldehyde (Physiolift and Ystheal).
The bad about Eau-Thermale Avene’s A-Oxitive Night Peeling Cream
Don’t count too much on the other ingredients like evening primrose oil and Avene thermal spring water to reduce irritation. Eau-Thermale Avene’s A-Oxitive Night Peeling Cream is not one for beginners or people with sensitive skin. I did not experience any side effects with using Eau-Thermale Avene’s A-Oxitive Night Peeling Cream nightly, however two of my friends who tried this cream experienced purging and retinoid dermatitis. You may want to try using retinol before using Eau-Thermale Avene’s A-Oxitive Night Peeling Cream or start using once or twice a week before increasing your usage.
Eau-Thermale Avene’s A-Oxitive Night Peeling Cream dries quickly, but it leaves a sticky feel on my skin. You definitely need to use a moisturiser with this cream, so choose a lightweight one to avoid compounding this sticky feel.
Lastly, Eau-Thermale Avene’s A-Oxitive Night Peeling Cream’s airtight pump is a great dispenser but it is also very fragile! This is the same bottle for Eau-ThermaleAvene’s Ystheal and Physiolift range. I once dropped the bottle and the entire pump mechanism was damaged, so I had to dismantle the bottle to scavenge the cream.
My verdict on Eau-Thermale Avene’s A-Oxitive Night Peeling Cream
Eau-ThermaleAvene’s A-Oxitive Night Peeling Cream is an effective and reasonably priced retinoid. It contains retinaldehyde, so this is not one that I would recommend you try to use nightly if you are new to retinoids. This cream feels thick, but you definitely should use a moisturiser with this.
I hope that you have found this review on some of the retinols and retinaldehyde useful. I chose affordable and popular ones to share with you and in another upcoming blogpost, I’ll be sharing my review on the retinoid of the moment: Skinbetter Science’s Intensive Alpharet Overnight Cream. At $190 a bottle, Skinbetter’s Intensive Alpharet Overnight Cream is the most expensive retinoid that I own, so it deserves a post of its own. Also, it does not qualify as affordable to belong in this review of retinoids. Stay tuned for that!
Update Jan 2021: Skinbetter Science’s Intensive Alpharet Overnight Cream Review blogpost is up!
In summary, my favourite and recommended retinol for beginners is CeraVe’s Skin Renewing Retinol Serum. It’s effective, comes with ceramides and niacinamide, and is very affordable. If your skin has adapted to milder retinoids, you can consider using stronger retinoids. My two favourites are Skinceuticals’ Retinol 0.5 Refining Night Cream and Avene’s A-Oxitive Night Peeling Cream. Both these creams are what I would consider heavy duty retinoids and can cause retinoid dermatitis if you are not careful. Skinceuticals’ 0.5 Refining Night Cream contains 0.5% retinol and Avene’s A-Oxitive Night Peeling Cream contains retinaldehyde. I would recommend trying Skinceutical’s 0.5 Refinining Night Cream before escalating to Avene’s A-Oxitive Night Peeling Cream.
If your skin has adapted to retinaldehyde, you can consider moving up to the gold standard of retinoids- retinoic acid (retacnyl/ tretinoin)!
Lastly, if you have sensitive skin or are worried about the side effects of using retinoids, you can consider using a mild one like The Inkey List’s Retinol Serum or a plant derived retinol alternative called Bakuchiol. You can read about Bakuchiol and the science behind it in this blogpost Is Bakuchiol an Effective Retinol Alternative?
If you enjoyed this blogpost, you might also enjoy the following skincare reviews and educational posts:
I hope that you have found this blogpost useful. Have a good week ahead!