Top Of The Class: Retinol Products Comparison

Lingo buster: Retinol and friends

Retinol products contain one key ingredient: Vitamin A. However, delivery ‘vehicles’ vary between products, as do the types of Vitamin A used. Currently, up to 1% strength is permitted in topical creams although – if you’re looking for that extra ‘sandpaper’ effect, the highest retinol over the counter cream currently available is 2%!

Breaking it down: the 3 “Rs”

[list_item]Retinol is the clinical name for Vitamin A. Once in contact with the skin, Vitamin A converts into retinoic acid, which is its active metabolite – allowing it to penetrate deeper. Some Retinol products contain Retinyl esters and Retinyl palmitates, the latter of which has been shown to future proof skin against sun damage.[/list_item] [list_item]In Retin-A, tretinoin is the active ingredient. This is an acidic derivative of Vitamin A, which is also known as retinoic acid or all-trans retinoic acid. Retin A gained popularity in the 1980s for its anti-ageing effects, although it’s really more of a brand name than a type of Vitamin A. Other tretinoin-based products with ‘brand cache’ include Renova, Tazorac and Isotretinoin.[/list_item][list_item] Retinoid is a scientific umbrella term for Retinol/Vitamin A, and is also used to describe Vitamin A’s natural and synthetic derivatives. [/list_item]

AIRP jan marini
Second and third pictures taken at 1 month and 4 months after using Jan Marini Retinol Plus

Enter the new school: why use Retinol?

From stinging gels to sloppy creams, Vitamin A products have been available from the pharmacy and over the counter for a while now. But the ‘new school’ batch of cosmeceutical Retinols are the most lifestyle friendly; no longer must you book weeks out of your social diary to recover from an intense bout of redness and peeling from using Retinol, nor must you suffer the onset of fine lines and wrinkles sans prescription (those amateurish lip pencil ‘dots’ you drew on your face in order to convince the family doctor that, on account of your adult acne, that you really are worthy of “just one tube!” is a scenario that will never require revisitation).

The science of using Retinol in skin care

Keratinocytes are dead skin cells fused within an interlocked layer of protein, which remain on top of our skin for around two weeks. The application of topical Vitamin A expedites the natural process of sloughing and cell renewal, and in the short term, reduces incidents of breakouts. After several weeks of use, Vitamin A has a powerful anti-aging effect on lines, acne scars, skin discolouration and sagging skin. If you still remain unconvinced by over the counter, “watered down versions” of Retin-A, it is useful to know that Vitamin A’s most important active derivative – retinoic acid – penetrates faster and deeper with today’s Retinol formulas, due to their inclusion of delivery enhancing ingredients.

The sheer range of retinol options out there begs the question: what is the best over the counter retinol product?

Retinol Products Comparison

RETINOL #1: Biopelle’s Retriderm

  • Retriderm and I: This has long been one of my ‘client staples’ and I have been known to bet my life on the fact that any order I make will sell out within 30 days. Given my bold (if not slightly dangerous) conviction, it’s tempting for me to conclude that Retriderm continues to attract new fans who, until now, may have been at a loss regarding how to use retinol products in their daily regime.
  • Product breakdown: It comes in a handbag friendly pump jar, the design of which has since undergone a makeover courtesy of Aestheticare, making it much easier for UK Retinolistas to get their hands on it. Retriderm is available in concentrations of 0.5, 0.75 and 1%, allowing newbies to start low and aim high.
  • The trial: OK, so this formula has a very light, pleasant smell with a lightweight texture. Just be careful not to pump it out too enthusiastically; your 30mls will soon end up over your clothes! Its non-greasy consistency means that it’s amenable to daywear without feeling like you’re wearing a mud mask. Make up glides on easily afterwards; just remember to apply a dose of high quality SPF before you apply it. 
  • Best for?: Those who want to incorporate a Vitamin A product into their morning skin care regime. Retriderm is excellent for highly sensitive skins as well as PH imbalanced, oily complexions due to its non-greasy consistency, which also makes it ideal for use on the neck and chest. The availability of different concentrations means that tolerance can be built up gradually, reducing skin peeling and erythema. Exceptionally dry and/or mature skins would be better to experience the benefits of Retinol with an emollient base.
  • Rating: Versatility and usability score high where this product’s concerned – my verdict is 7/10!

RETINOL #2: PCA Skin’s Intensive Age Refining Treatment

  • PCA Skin and I: A new arrival to the UK (see my previous blog post), PCA introduced their advanced Retinol range in the US several months ago. Although it isn’t one of the highest retinol over the counter creams available today, I decided to trial PCA’s Intensive Age Refining Retinol (the dryness formula) due to the fact it’s Autumn and I’m getting dry patches on my usually hydrated skin. Billed as a night cream, it contains 0.5% pure Vitamin A combined with a host of natural ingredients, including Vitamin E (scavenges free radicals and protects lipids), Vigna Aconitifolia Seed Extract (stimulates growth factors and cell turnover), Sodium Hyaluronate (a ‘superstar’ moisturiser), and Superoxide Dismutase (a natural antioxidant).
  • Product breakdown: Intensive Age Refining Treatment comes in a very spa worthy brushed glass jar. All three of PCA’s Retinol products come in 0.5% concentrations, yet cleverly, PCA have included different ingredients and delivery vehicles in each one. The retinol benefits are designed to tackle distinct individual issues encountered during the ageing process. My own choice is a great option for those who wish to repair environmental damage in their night time skin care regime at the same time as getting their Vitamin A fix.


  • The trial: This cream is odorless and heavier texture-wise than Retriderm is, although I find that it sinks into the skin very well and absorbs fast. Although it’s billed as a PM cream with a luxurious feel to it, it’s not too thick and could be worn during the day. As it includes Sodium Hyaluronate, which holds 1000x its weight in water, there’s no need to layer on an additional emollient product in cold weather or cases of dry skins, thus decreasing clogged pores. Antioxidants help to repair the stresses of the previous day, and I’m thrilled to find that my skin feels smooth and glorious when I wake up.  
  • Best for?: Normal to dry skins, particularly those with fine lines and sensitive skin. It makes my skin feel lovely, yet I’m tempted to switch to PCA’s other Retinol product, Intensive Clarity Treatment, given my hyperpigmentation issues.
  • Rating: A highly targeted cream with a unique and innovative formula. It’s a departure from regular night creams which rely on plenty of added humectants to lock in moisture. Definitely a new school Retinol leader. My verdict –  8/10! 

RETINOL #3: Jan Marini’s Retinol Plus

  • Jan Marini and I: In the midst of the DermaQuest craze, I actually stopped offering Jan Marini products to clients. For a period of time, the pioneer of 90s cosmeceutical skin care looked to have been toppled. Lying low for a while in the face of competition, the brand made an unexpected comeback in 2012 with a new range of supercharged products. Retinol Plus is one that I’ve been steadily issuing to clients over the past year and certainly deserves a place in my Retinol products comparison.
  • Product breakdown: The major issue with Retinol Plus’ packaging is that there’s no disclosure of the Vitamin A percentage. It actually happens to contain 1%, which makes it one of the more potent Retinol product formulas available over the counter. It includes the traditional moisturising agent shea butter, and also hyaluronic acid for further hydration. Green tea acts as a natural anti-inflammatory, making it ideal for red, irritated and weather beaten skin. My rosacea clients are particularly enthusiastic about it!
  • The trial: It has a viscose consistency and a pleasant, luxurious scent. Quite a bit of prep is required in order for the cream to achieve maximal absorption; before trialling this product, I used a mild cleanser and allowed my skin to dry out for a little while. It’s tempting to pump out more than is needed, so be careful if you want your Retinol Plus to last a while. It makes an ideal night cream and a so-so day cream, although it would be great as a winter product.
  • Best for?: Those who suffer from chronically dry skin. Usually, these are people with mature skins who should use Retinol daily but have so far been frustrated by the irritation associated with it. Those with a significant degree of photo ageing would also benefit from using Retinol Plus, although those with oily skin would do better opting for Retriderm. For those who want a more traditional night cream formula, Retinol Plus is certainly worth a purchase.

So, we have a winner… and PCA Skin’s Intensive Age Refining Treatment takes the number one spot for me! There are plenty of other Retinol products out there with different actives, and various different benefits of using retinol for other skin conditions, such as acne. So, if you’re confused as to what is the best retinol over the counter product for you, it’s worth investing in a cosmetic dictionary (my personal favourite is Milady’s) and paying a visit to a skin specialist. Remember to maximise your Retinol usage by ensuring that you keep your product away from direct sunlight, as this will cause the product to oxidise and degrade. I hope you enjoyed my Retinol products comparison… if there’s another Vitamin A formula you think is worth a try (and there are plenty out there), please let me know!

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bea Skin Clinic offer cutting edge aesthetic skin treatments & bea Skin Care products in London's Crawford Street. Founded by experienced Skin Specialist & Clinical Director Bianca Estelle, bea Skin Clinic provide a range of expert skin rejuvenation procedures for all skin types. Call +44 (0) 203 322 5958 or email for further information.
  1. Hej
    Är detta Biancas eller Pernilla’ beby”?
    Vilka kedjor eller varuhus säljs produkten i?
    Det låter fantastiskt vad krämen” ämnet” gör med huden men är det sant?
    När det låter för bra för att vara sant så är det ofta det.😜
    Tack på förhand
    Andréa Myran

    1. Hi Andréa,

      This is a Jan Marini Retinol product that is retailed in many clinics.

      Kind regards,

      bea Skin Clinic

  2. […] Round Up: Bianca Estelle’s Product Review: http://www.biancaestelle… #retinol #vitaminA #retinA #antiaging #skincare #PCAskin #cosmeceuticals […]

  3. If your skin starts to get dry, irritated or flaky, stop using the retinol. Wait for your skin to return to normal and then try again with less product.

    1. Good advice!

      Kind regards, bea Skin Clinic

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