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The Best Retinol Face Washes

If you're an avid skincare fan, you’ve undoubtedly noticed just how many products mention “retinol” or retinoids in their ingredients list and marketing. 

Retinol (or more broadly, retinoids) isn't just another passing skin fad. Retinoids are clinically proven to be effective on a host of skin conditions and can be used in the morning or evening to promote a clear complexion. 

But what are they, how do they work, and how can they be incorporated into your daily routine? 

In this article, we'll be looking specifically at the best retinol face washes (available over-the-counter) and how they might transform the way you cleanse your face. 

Why does cleanser choice matter? Retinoids impact skin cell turnover, and products that are too harsh can cause sensitivity and redness for some people. Retinol-containing face washes can be a gentle way to ease into more effective retinoids, like tretinoin.

From the best retinol face wash to face washes to use with tretinoin, here’s the lowdown on this useful ingredient. 

What Exactly Are Retinoids?

Retinoids were first approved for use in the fight against acne in 1971. They have been hailed by many people as a cure-all for a broad range of skin problems such as acne, psoriasis, wrinkles, and pigment disorders.

That’s because they speed up how your skin heals, and they’re a workhorse of the dermatology field.

Derived from vitamin A, retinoids improve skin health and smooth issues by speeding up the rate at which your skin cells turn over, a natural process that typically takes 1-2 months. Retinoids can cut that time in half. 

The two most common retinoids that you'll see today in skincare products are retinol and tretinoin. Both offer several benefits, including unclogging pores, reducing inflammation, and reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. They can also help to regulate the growth of skin cells, rejuvenating the skin and promoting that healthy glow you want. With so many wide-ranging benefits it's easy to see why retinoids enjoy the limelight. 

The only downside to retinoids is that they can take some time to get used to. During the first few weeks of use, you might experience redness, dryness, and tightness, but this should fade as your skin gets used to the effects of these ingredients. It's definitely worth the wait as the benefits far outweigh some inconvenience at the beginning. 

Retinol and Tretinoin: What's the Difference?

While retinol and tretinoin are both in the retinoid family, there are several key differences. 

Retinol is an over-the-counter (OTC) retinoid that’s available without a written prescription. It's the starting point for many people in anti-aging and acne care because it's cheap and easy to get. But, this substance must go through a number of conversion processes before it becomes retinoic acid, the substance that actually affects your skin by binding to retinoic acid receptors.

As a result, retinol is fairly gentle on the skin compared to prescription retinoids, but it also means it doesn’t work as well. Pure retinoic acid (tretinoin), for instance, works quickly on those receptors. 

Retinol is susceptible to sunlight and can break down over time when exposed to UV rays. For that reason and some problems with shelf stability, getting a consistent concentration of retinol from OTC products can be hard.

Tretinoin is available with a written prescription only and is roughly 20 times more potent than retinol. It's one of the more gentle of the FDA-approved retinoids for treating premature skin-aging due to sun exposure, also known as photoaging. 

It's very commonly used, which is why we're focusing on it here. While there are other prescription retinoids, tretinoin has incredible depth of use and is available affordably thanks to generic drug manufacturers.

What Are the Best Retinol Face Washes?

Most face washes that contain retinoids will feature retinol because it's available OTC. Most are designed to prepare your face for further retinol or retinoid use, and the best retinol face washes will purify and exfoliate the skin to remove oil, dirt, and other impurities.

Retinol face washes often contain other nourishing ingredients such as vitamin E or hyaluronic acid, which can help to offset the effects of retinol on the skin during the first few weeks of use. When using retinol face washes, it's all about achieving balance and harmony. A face wash is one way to introduce retinoids to your skincare routine and prepare your skin to receive more or more potent retinoids in the future. 

The only issue with retinol-containing face washes is that retinoids work best when left on your skin rather than rinsed away. Prescription retinoids, for example, are typically applied at night, so they can work all night long helping your skin heal and improve. Using a retinol face wash without further retinol application after might be a little like starting a 30-minute jog for exercise, but jumping in a car after your first two blocks. 

The ideal use of retinol face washes may be to prep yourself for longer-lasting retinoid products.

A Quick Note About Sunscreen

Retinoids are sensitive to sunlight and can make your skin more sensitive, too. If you apply a retinol product and expose your skin to the sun soon after, this could lessen the effectiveness of your retinol products and may contribute to irritation. Choose a light sunscreen with an SPF of around 25 to use in combination to get the best results from your retinol products. Applying sunscreen also helps to protect the skin from the signs of aging you may be trying to fight, so you'll be doing your skin a favor anyway! 

Retinol Face Washes: A Buying Guide

Before selecting the first product you see on the shelf, there are a number of factors to consider when choosing a retinol face wash. The first to consider is your skin type. Is it dry, sensitive, combination, or oily? If your skin is very dry or sensitive, look for products with a lower level of retinol. Studies show that to be effective, products generally need at least 0.25% retinol or 0.025% tretinoin. It’s helpful to choose products that specify what percentage of retinoids they contain and always go for the lower end of the scale if you’re concerned your skin is highly sensitive.  

The next factor to consider is cost. Whether your budget is at the higher or lower end, the good news is that there are many effective products that can work for you. We're going to focus on some of the best over-the-counter face washes in this article. All of the face washes below are readily available, and we've also included the best face wash to use with tretinoin for those who need a little extra help. 

1. Olay Regenerist Retinol 24 Face Cleanser 

The Olay Regenerist portfolio is one of the most established ranges of skincare products on drugstore and beauty store shelves today. Their Retinol 24 Face Cleanser contains a blend of vitamin B3 and retinoid complex (retinol) that work together to rejuvenate the skin and prepare it for the next steps in your skincare routine. This particular face wash contains fewer potentially sensitizing ingredients and is formulated without fragrance. It's also rated 4 out of 5 stars by CVS users. 

2. Retinol-X Anti-Aging Gel Cleanser 

Another face wash that’s highly rated by users is the Retinol-X Anti-Aging Gel Cleanser. It contains retinol and vitamin E microbeads that give the skin a dose of hydration as it cleanses. As the retinol gently works on the top layer of the skin, vitamin E can help to reduce the dryness and tightness that retinol products can often create when they’re first used. Users on Amazon give this retinol face wash a rating of 4.6 stars out of 5. If you're looking for a retinol cleanser that preps and primes the skin for more, this is a great option. 

3. L de L Retinol Vitamin Enriched Anti-Aging Cleanser 

Like others, this anti-aging face wash from L de L balances retinol with antioxidants like vitamin E to give a boost of hydration. While retinol is working its magic on your skin, vitamin E provides nourishment and protects the skin from irritation and dryness. This added hydration can also combat fine lines around the eyes and mouth. Like most cleansers, this retinol face wash will remove makeup, dirt, and oil, and leave the skin feeling smooth and soft. Users of this retinoid wash report an improvement in skin texture, tone, and brightness. 

4. Burt’s Bees Renewal Refining Cleanser With Bakuchiol

Acne can be one of the most challenging skin conditions to treat. Harsh ingredients can cause more breakouts and irritation, and some products can strip the skin of essential oils. The good news is that retinol has a plant-based, vegan, natural cousin called bakuchiol that offers many of the benefits that OTC retinol products have to offer. This cleanser from Burt's Bees will give your skin a deep cleanse with natural ingredients. Amazon users with sensitive skin particularly liked how gentle this was and how it helped to clear blemishes after continued use. 

5. Paula’s Choice Omega+ Complex Cleansing Balm

As promised, we've included a top face wash to use with tretinoin. Tretinoin is one of the most effective ingredients you can put on your skin if you suffer from acne, and it’s also a powerful tool in fighting wrinkles. But due to its active form, you can only obtain tretinoin with a written prescription. 

When using it, it’s important to complement your tretinoin skincare routine with products that won't interfere with its good work and contribute to hydration and reduced irritation. This cleansing balm from Paula's Choice is one of the more luxuriously textured cleansers on the shelves today, designed to nourish gently as it cleanses. It also washes off without leaving any residue or clogged pores. 

Final Thoughts

Whether you choose to use retinol or prescription retinoids like tretinoin, a good cleanser can complement your plan. 

Retinoids work (some better than others) but they can take some getting used to. The dermatologists at Nava MD focus on custom prescription formulations for common skin conditions like acne and the signs of aging. We combine ingredients like tretinoin with niacinamide, a known anti-inflammatory agent that can help your skin acclimate to retinoids.

Our approach puts prescription skincare within reach for anyone, with treatments prescribed online by your own licensed dermatologist. It’s fast, easy, and more affordable than ever. 

Get started with a consultation today.

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This article is intended for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice.
Consult a healthcare professional or call a doctor in the case of a medical emergency