A retinol oil is a face oil that is formulated with retinol. Even though we are more familiar with retinol serums and creams, retinol oils are gaining popularity all thanks to the skincare advantages that come with the presence of oils.
Retinoids (vitamin A) and their many derivatives like retinol have been the mainstream anti-aging and anti-acne ingredients. Backed by science and loved by dermatologists, retinol is a vitamin A derivative that encourages skin turnover and aids in skin renewal. That’s how retinol helps combat acne and wrinkles, uneven skin texture, and uneven skin tone (1).
On the other hand, retinol is widely known for being drying, and irritating for the skin. So there’s always an ongoing attempt to make retinol effective but tolerable while ensuring a pleasant feeling on the skin. And retinol oils are the latest trends born as a result of this endeavor.
Keep reading to learn more about how retinol oils work, what makes them unique, and the best retinol oils for your face.
What is the difference between a retinol oil and a retinol cream or serum?
The difference between a retinol oil and a retinol cream or serum is the vehicle used to deliver retinol into the skin.
The vehicle of retinol oil is oily substances like plant oils. And the vehicle of retinol cream is emollient substances like squalane or ceramides. And the vehicle of a retinol serum is usually humectants like hyaluronic acid.
In general, solutions like serums are better absorbed by the skin. Emollient vehicles like creams have lesser absorption but more secondary advantages like skin softening and increased moisture. And occlusive formulations like face oils have lower absorption but enhanced skin hydration (2).
So a retinol oil behaves differently than serums and creams. By nature, a retinol oil, just like a regular face oil, creates a physical barrier on the skin and does not penetrate the skin as much. And for an ingredient like retinol, this changes everything!
What are the benefits of a retinol oil?
Below are the benefits of a retinol oil for your skin:
- A retinol oil minimizes skin irritation associated with retinol because face oils don’t penetrate the skin as much as serums.
- There’s usually a skin dryness and flakiness we start to see after we use a regular retinol serum consistently for a few weeks. But due to the presence of oils in the product, retinol oils cause minimal to no dryness.
- Retinol oil is, by nature, moisturizing for the skin as oils are emollient, moisturizing compounds.
- The plant-based oils in a retinol oil product are innately antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory for the skin (3). This is majorly helpful in preventing retinol from causing redness and irritation for the skin.
- Unlike a retinol serum, a retinol face oil does not require any “buffering” from your part. Buffering is when you apply a retinol serum on top of a moisturizer to mitigate irritation. As face oils are used as the last step in a skincare routine, a retinol oil is already buffering.
- Retinol oils are overall more tolerable for the skin because they usually contain lower concentrations of retinol. And this makes it easier to incorporate retinol into your routine without facing a lot of setbacks that require you to stop using the product.
- Face oils tend to leave the skin more radiant and glowing. So retinol oils also have the added benefit of instantly dewy skin.
Who should use retinol oil?
People with dry skin or people who are prone to dryness from retinol are the ones that should be using retinol oil.
This isn’t new information. We all know that when you have dry skin that tends to get flaky or irritated easily usually go for active ingredients like glycolic acid in cream form. So someone with dry skin, ideally, exfoliates with an exfoliating moisturizer instead of an exfoliating serum. The added emollients protect the skin barrier and minimize potential irritation (4). So a retinol oil is one step further than that and an ideal way to benefit from retinoids without dryness.
So can you use retinol oil if you have sensitive skin? Though retinol oils are overall gentle products, some fragrant botanicals in retinol oils may not be suitable for people with sensitive skin. While oils can be therapeutic for sensitive skin, the fragrant component can worsen sensitivity. So keep this in mind.
Can you use retinol oil if you have oily or acne-prone skin? You can use retinol oil if the formulation is made with non-comedogenic oils. Normally, oils can worsen acne because they can cause congestion. However, some lightweight retinol oils, if you are open to the idea, can very well be used even if you have oily skin.
The Best Retinol Oils
Below are the best retinol oils on the market.
This was my gateway product to retinol oils. And currently, this is unrivaled because it’s gentle both content-wise and formulation-wise. This retinol oil is made with a retinoic acid ester, Granactive retinoid. It has a lesser irritation potential compared to retinol. That means you can fight signs of aging without having to worry about irritation. Moreover, the retinol oil packs incredibly nourishing oils like blackberry seed oil and avocado oil, which are rich in fatty acids to improve moisture. The oil has a nice blue color and a pleasant scent. I have sensitive skin and I’m prone to breakouts and I can confidently say that this is a very gentle formula and the best retinol oil for sensitive skin.
This is another retinol oil with an impressive formulation. In addition to Granactive Retinoid like the one above, this one contains pure retinol as well as a natural retinol, which is commonly known as bakuchiol. It’s a plant-derived compound that, just like retinol, boosts skin turnover and helps with the appearance of wrinkles and hyperpigmentation. Its advantage is that it’s not irritating like retinol. So you have three sources of vitamin A working in your favor. Additionally, the oils present include chia seed oil, which is basically a superfood that infuses the skin with antioxidants, lipids, and anti-inflammatories. To keep the skin barrier happy, the retinol oil has niacinamide in it too, which makes it an amazing retinol oil for dry skin.
Similarly, this retinol night oil is made with 2% Granactive retinoid as well as bakuchiol for maximum anti-aging effects and minimum irritation. But what I love about this one is that in addition to oils like cranberry seed oil, this one also has antioxidants like coenzymeQ10 and vitamin E. Both of these antioxidants are oil-soluble, by the way, which complements the formula. So the antioxidants protect your skin against free radicals while you’re actively fighting hyperpigmentation, wrinkles, and dullness with retinol. Plus, the texture is as light as a face serum.
If you have oily and acne-prone skin, this formula is for you. On its own, retinol is excellent for improving the look of acne scars, reducing existing blemishes, and decongesting pores. But this retinol oil contains salicylic acid to better target congestion and blemishes. The salicylic acid concentration is 2%, which is great for dissolving blackheads stuck inside pores and stimulating exfoliation. One thing to note here is that this retinol oil is made with a retinol ester. Esters are usually less irritating because they are less effective compared to retinol. Plus, it’s encapsulated for slow release and avoiding irritation. So the combination of the two in an oil-based product makes this retinol oil ideal for oily skin that is prone to dehydration and irritation from using each of these ingredients separately.
This is the best drugstore retinol oil if you’re looking for something more affordable. And quite impressively, the retinol concentration is 0.3%. What you should know about this formula is that, unlike other retinol oils, this one is really minimal. It’s a retinol oil but not really in the sense that we’ve been talking about. This one doesn’t contain botanical oils but oil-like substances. This means increased skin penetration but increased likelihood of irritation. In that sense, this is a good anti-aging retinol oil to effectively target wrinkles, uneven skin tone, and congestion if you prefer oil-based serums as opposed to water-based ones.
This was a much-needed product. They took our beloved Marula Oil and added retinol into it. Marula oil is already a nourishing face oil you can use to strengthen the skin barrier and boost resilience. And for that, this has 95% marula oil topped with barrier restoring ceramides as well as 0.5% retinol. So you have a very minimal but very rich oil content without any prominently fragrant essential oils. Plus, the oil leaves a visible glow on the skin. It helps reduce the look of signs of aging like dark spots and fine lines while keeping your complexion replenished and your skin barrier intact.
This one contains a whopping 1% retinol. But it is encapsulated for minimal irritation and to transfer retinol into the skin in a very slow and steady manner. But more importantly, it contains amazing oils that are readily rich in antioxidants. Olive oil, for example, is gold because it has a very high antioxidant capacity. So while retinol works to boost skin turnover and collagen production, the antioxidant-rich oils help to reverse existing sun damage on the skin and soften the look of lines and wrinkles too. Plus, despite the several oils, the formula is really lightweight and feels comfortable on the skin. So if you have mature skin that’s prone to dryness, this potent retinol oil can work overnight to smooth out wrinkles without sensitizing your skin.
Unlike microencapsulation, physical encapsulation is literally the encapsulation of the ingredients. If you’re not familiar, skincare capsules are single-use serums or oils. And they are very convenient in many ways. You know how long your product lasts. You use the optimum amount of the product -not less, not more. And the active ingredient is protected against oxidation from air or light. And these skincare capsules contain retinol in an oil-based environment. You pop open a capsule to use in your nighttime routine. And the oil infuses the skin with nourishing macadamia oil, cranberry seed oil, as well as skin-renewing retinol.
And lastly, I wanted to include this oil if you’re looking for a natural retinol oil. This is not like retinol oils we’ve been talking about. This is a rosehip seed oil, which is widely known for being rich in vitamin A. It’s considered a natural anti-aging oil. For comparison, think of a vitamin C face serum as opposed to a Kakadu plum serum, which is naturally rich in vitamin C. So if you prefer a natural retinol oil without the actual retinol, this is a great option. Plus, it contains moisturizing olive oil and soothing calendula. A budget-friendly alternative, minus the added oils, is The Ordinary 100% Organic Cold-Pressed Rose Hip Seed Oil.
So this is how retinol oils work, how you can benefit from them, and the best retinol oils to try. I think you’ll find these to be helpful when you want to try retinol but are intimidated by the drying effects. Additionally, consider using retinol oil during colder months when the skin tends to be drier. As always, don’t forget to wear sunscreen.
- Mukherjee, S., Date, A., Patravale, V., Korting, H. C., Roeder, A., & Weindl, G. (2006). Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clinical interventions in aging, 1(4), 327–348. https://doi.org/10.2147/ciia.2006.1.4.327
- Sethi, A., Kaur, T., Malhotra, S. K., & Gambhir, M. L. (2016). Moisturizers: The Slippery Road. Indian journal of dermatology, 61(3), 279–287. https://doi.org/10.4103/0019-5154.182427
- Lin, T. K., Zhong, L., & Santiago, J. L. (2017). Anti-Inflammatory and Skin Barrier Repair Effects of Topical Application of Some Plant Oils. International journal of molecular sciences, 19(1), 70. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijms19010070
- Draelos, Z. D., & Thaman, L. A. (2005). Factors influencing optimal skin care and product selection. In Cosmetic Formulation of Skin Care Products (p. 115). Taylor & Francis. https://doi.org/10.3109/9781420020854