I’ve already made it known here that I’m a huge believer in the power of retinol in skincare. A few months ago, I shelved my prescription-strength retinol for a supposedly less-irritating OTC version by Sunday Riley®. I’ll admit, I wasn’t expecting wizardry from an over-the-counter option, but I was ultimately quite impressed with the results. After confirming that an OTC vitamin A cream could actually make a difference in my skin, I decided to explore an even more budget-friendly retinol option — this time from the drugstore.
Retinol shouldn't be used by women who are pregnant, considering getting pregnant, or nursing. Please consult with your doctor before use.
The Neutrogena® Rapid Wrinkle Repair® Retinol Oil ($28) is the sixth product in the brand’s Rapid Wrinkle Repair line, and is supposedly the most potent of the bunch. The luxurious-feeling oil-based formula promises line-smoothing results in as little as one week. If there was such a thing as an affordable oil that could also combat lines and wrinkles, I was ready to test it out.
Seasoned aestheticians, dermatologists, and skincare experts alike agree on retinol’s profound skincare benefits. While the ingredient has proven itself in the treatment of acne and scarring, it got its real reputation — as an anti-aging powerhouse — from its ability to soften fine lines and wrinkles and improve overall texture. “Retinols increase collagen production and stimulate cell turnover,” says Michele Green, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City.
Before we can delve into the specifics of the Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair face oil, it’s crucial to understand what differentiates prescription retinoids from OTC versions. You may have heard the names of Vitamin A derivatives like “retinol,” “retinoid,” “retinal”, etc. used interchangeably; however, they’re not entirely identical. At the top of the family tree is pure retinoic acid (often referred to as “tretinoin”), which is prescription-only. Retinoic acid is the strongest form of vitamin A available, because it “goes to work immediately when applied to the skin, as it needs no conversion,” explains Dr. Green.
As always, talk to your doctor before starting any new medication.
Then, there’s the weaker (and usually less irritating) OTC form, called “retinol.” According to Dr. Green, the main difference between this molecule and its more powerful sibling is conversion rate; unlike prescription retinoic acid, which can be immediately used by the body, retinol must undergo a conversion process. This process converts retinol into retinoic acid. The process is gradual, notes Dr. Green, and “requires continued use of the retinol over several weeks to attain full conversion into retinoic acid.”
Finally, there’s the latest generation of vitamin A derivatives, which includes retinaldehyde (or “retinal” for short) and retinyl retinoate. Though these are also found in OTC formulas, they are actually considered to be stronger than regular retinols, because they require one less conversion to reach maximum benefit.
The good news is that all of these R-words typically do the same thing — they just take varying lengths of time to get the desired results.
Interestingly, the Neutrogena Face Oil contains the more concentrated retinal. While we don’t know the exact percentage (it’s proprietary information), I do know that it comes in the form of Retinol SA, which stands for “sustained action.” It’s patented technology that Neutrogena claims can provide “more benefits than other forms of vitamin A for visible results in just one week.” In addition, the brand adds that it’s the “fastest retinol formula for the most noticeable results.”
Cincinnati-based cosmetic chemist Kelly Dobos, however, says that “most retinoids take several weeks to show real efficacy,” so it may not be as miraculous as Neutrogena makes it sound. Dr. Green agrees: “You should give products a few months, since the retinol has to undergo a conversion from retinaldehyde to retinoic acid,” she says.
Besides retinal, the oil contains very few other ingredients, which is a definite plus for an anti-aging treatment that’s being sold at this price point. Most notably, there are several emollients that offer skin conditioning benefits. Dicaprylyl carbonate, in particular, caught Dobos’ eye because it’s a “penetration enhancer,” which means that it feels soft yet not greasy, and boosts the absorption of products into the skin.
Retinol Oil Application
According to the instructions from Neutrogena, the oil works best when applied daily after cleansing and before a moisturizer. For optimal results, the brand suggests layering it under the Rapid Wrinkle Repair Regenerating Cream ($29) for “two times the wrinkle-fighting power.” I did not have that cream on hand; plus, I’ve heard plenty of skincare savants say it’s best to finish layering with an occlusive product like a face oil. So, instead, I opted to make it the one and only thing I applied to my dry skin following cleansing.
The directions also state you can use the oil “every morning and evening,” but most skincare experts usually advise against daytime retinol use, so I chose to err on the side of caution and only applied it at night. “Retinol and retinoids can have unwanted side effects like dryness, peeling, and irritation,” Dobos says, adding that they “can also increase sensitivity to sun exposure and use of sunscreen is always recommended.” (Read more about precautions when using retinol during the day.)
Every night for two months, I dispensed about five drops straight onto various places on my face. (Note: The dropper is not the most precise, so oftentimes I ended up applying more than five drops.) Then I would use my fingertips to massage it in while also spreading it down my neck.
Personally, I love the process of applying face oil, and this was no exception. The smooth, slick formula made my skin look immediately nourished and radiant. Better yet, it absorbed quickly enough to spare my pillowcase any sort of oily residue. The one suggestion I would make to Neutrogena if I could, though, is to offer a fragrance-free option. As is, the oil has a floral scent that I personally found overwhelming.
Retinol Oil Results
Remember how the product description claimed “visible results in just one week”? Well, my experience did not align with that benchmark, at least as it applies to smoothing fine lines. Nevertheless, I did notice that my skin looked perkier, softer, and glowier every morning.
So, I’ll give the Rapid Wrinkle Repair Retinol Oil some points for hydration — especially since retinol-spiked products are notorious for causing skin dryness. Plus, moisturized skin does generally look more even, with a smoother texture. Alas — with retinal sitting in the seventh spot on the ingredients list — the “rapid” anti-aging benefits are overpromised and under-delivered, yet I believe with religious use that I’d inevitably see smoothing results.
As a seasoned retinol user, I admittedly ask a lot of my formulations. But, if you’re a beginner who wants to dip your toe in the vitamin A pool in a much milder way, this oil would be a decent option for you — especially if you tend to have dry skin. Just be sure to be patient with your results!
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