Last year, I shared that I incorporated retinol into my skincare routine. If you’re a beauty enthusiast, chances are you’ve heard about the benefits of retinoids for your skin. Retinoids are a type of vitamin A derivative that can help reduce the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and dark spots, and improve skin texture. However, not all retinoid products are created equal.
I have since quit OTC retinol products that you might buy from Sephora or the drugstore (…or, anywhere, really). If you use over-the-counter retinol products, you should quit them too – and I’ll dig into why below.
First, I covered it a bit in this post, but let’s revisit difference between retinol and retinoids:
The Difference Between Retinol and Retinoids
Retinol is a type of retinoid that is available OTC in skincare products. Retinoids, on the other hand, are available in both OTC and prescription-strength products. Prescription-strength retinoids, such as tretinoin and adapalene (which is available OTC now but was previously Rx-only), are more potent and effective than OTC retinol.
The Problem with OTC Retinol Products
One of the biggest problems with OTC retinol products is that they may not maintain their potency over their shelf life.
This is because, like Vitamin C compounds, retinol is highly susceptible to air and light exposure. This sensitivity and volatility can cause it to break down and become less effective. OTC retinol products also tend to have lower concentrations of retinol compared to prescription-strength retinoids, which means they may not be as effective in achieving the desired results.
Critically, over-the-counter topical products are not subject to the same scrutiny and regulations the way prescription-strength products are.
This study (Temova Rakuša et al., 2020), found that OTC retinol products can lose up to 90% of their potency within six months of opening. This means that even if you’re diligent about applying your retinol product nightly, you may not be getting the full benefits after a few months.
Additionally, OTC retinol products may not be strong enough to address certain skin concerns, such as severe acne.
Why Prescription Retinoids Are a Better Choice
Prescription-strength retinoids offer many benefits that OTC retinol products simply cannot match. For starters, prescription-strength retinoids are formulated to maintain stability and potency over their shelf life, so you can be sure that you’re getting the most out of your product. They are required to meet minimum standards, whereas Paula’s Choice, Shani Darden, Sunday Riley, and all the other shit out there is simply not.
Additionally, prescription-strength retinoids are more potent and effective than OTC retinol products – so, used as directed, they can produce better results in a shorter amount of time.
Prescription retinoids are also going to generally be free of a dozen other ingredients that, while perhaps well-intended, create reaction variables that make it difficult to understand if your skin is responding to the retinoid, or to something else.
Finally, it is often possible, even without insurance, to get topical retinoids at a lower price than buying OTC retinols (even from drugstore brands) for the same usage period. Telehealth providers such as Rory, Nurx, Curology/With Agency, and more provide options that include an appointment and the cost of the retinoid for less than you’d spend on two bottles from the above-mentioned brands you might find at Sephora (and, if you have insurance, many of them accept insurance). Personally, I tried Nurx (no, I am not sponsored) and have been happy with it – that’s another post – they offer topical retinoids for as low as $35 per 45g (almost 1.6oz) tube out-of-pocket without insurance. For context, Paula’s Choice 1% Retinol is $62 for an ounce. Some brands cost less, many cost more.
The Bottom Line
OTC retinol products may seem like an easy and affordable way to incorporate retinoids into your skincare routine, but you’re wasting your money.
The fact that OTC retinol products often fail to maintain their potency over their shelf life makes it clear that this isn’t a good way to invest in skincare. They simply cannot match the potency and effectiveness of prescription-strength retinoids, which only adds to the argument for choosing prescription-strength retinoids.
If you’re spending sixty dollars on a bottle of retinol, you can afford to get Rx strength and you will likely SAVE money. If you must use a retinoid and really, really don’t want to go the Rx route even with inexpensive telehealth options making it accessible – do yourself a favor and just buy CeraVe instead of spending Sephora money on it.
Temova Rakuša, Ž., Škufca, P., Kristl, A., & Roškar, R. (2020). Retinoid stability and degradation kinetics in commercial cosmetic products. Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, 20(7), 2350–2358. https://doi.org/10.1111/jocd.13852