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Review: Does SkinCeuticals Retinol 0.3% Refining Night Cream Really Work?

dr jaggi rao Reviewed by Dr. Jaggi Rao, MD, FRCPC, Double board-certified dermatologist

The SkinCeuticals Retinol 0.3% Refining Night Cream is one of the newest SkinCeuticals products, and according to its product page, it is designed to reduce fine lines, wrinkles, and blemishes for those with sensitive skin. That’s a tall order, one that we aren’t so sure it can live up to. Although many of the reviews online are positive, they are extremely limited in number: after scrounging every review site we could find, we only came up with a few dozen reviews for the 0.3% Retinol Night Cream. We’ve based our review on the ingredients, suitability for sensitive skin, and price, and overall, we think there are better acne treatment products available.

Retinol is Good for Aging, But Not All That Effective for Acne

The main reason we are skeptical of this product is because its main active ingredient is retinol, at a concentration of 0.3%. Although studies show that retinol is an effective treatment for the signs of aging, there is little to no research demonstrating the same effects on acne.

When it comes to treating acne, we use retinoids instead. Retinoids are derivatives of retinol, and they have proven to be much more effective. Some common retinoids include Retin-A, Tazorac, and Differin, and they all work because they utilize the retinoic acid present in retinol. Retinoic acid serves as a pace car for our skin cells, encouraging them to grow—and die—at a relatively steady pace. This prevents skin cell buildup, clogged pores, and skin cell damage often associated with cystic acne or acne scarring.

Skinceuticals cream
Although SkinCeuticals is a great skin care brand, we have our doubts about the SkinCeuticals Retinol 0.3% Refining Night Cream.

Because retinol contains retinoic acid, you would think retinol would have the same effect as retinoids, but it definitely does not. The problem with using regular retinol is that the retinoic acid is not activated, and can be very unpredictable when it comes to how much of the retinoic acid will be activated when it is applied to the skin.

Specially Formulated for Sensitive Skin

If you have sensitive skin, you know how impossible it is to find a good acne treatment that doesn’t make your skin all kinds of irritated and red, but SkinCeuticals wants to change that. This Retinol 0.3% Refining Night Cream contains such a low concentration that it is supposed to be gentle enough for even the most sensitive skin—however, that’s one more reason we aren’t sure it will actually work.

As we said before, the retinoic acid present in retinol can activate in small and unpredictable amounts, so in order to see a real improvement, many products use it in high concentrations like 0.5% or even 1%. After all, 25% of 1 milligram is more than 25% of 0.3 milligrams. With a concentration as low as 0.3%, we believe that this cream is probably very gentle and non-irritating for those with sensitive skin, but we also believe there’s a good chance it won’t do what it’s meant to do: reduce your acne.

The Other Ingredients

applying cream on hand
Even though active ingredients are vital to a product’s effectiveness, the other ingredients can make a big impact on your skin as well.

When it comes to acne products, it’s easy to focus solely on the active ingredients, but the other ingredients that make up the base of the cream, serum, or gel are often just as important. Luckily, that is one thing the SkinCeuticals Retinol 0.3% Refining Night Cream has going for it. Even though we aren’t convinced that a 0.3% concentration of retinol would be enough to effectively treat acne, the cream itself is made up of gentle, non-pore-clogging, quality ingredients.

This cream contains several hydrating, protective ingredients that help prevent any irritation that could be caused by the retinol, including bisabolol, Boswellia serrata extract, and of course, water. None of these ingredients are likely to cause clogged pores, a common issue when trying to include skin-soothing ingredients, and they definitely make the product more sensitive skin friendly.

Why the Steep Price for a Single Ounce?

One of the most important aspects of any acne treatment (after effectiveness) is cost. We don’t automatically reject expensive skin care products, but we believe that if a treatment truly works, it should be accessible for more than just the fabulously wealthy. The SkinCeuticals Retinol 0.3% Refining Night Cream falls into a precarious position in this case. At $67 for one ounce of product, the price seems absurdly high. If you plan on using it to treat your acne, it’s not worth the money since it is unlikely to be very effective, but for those looking to reduce signs of aging, the price may actually be worth it.

Let’s break down why such a small amount of product would cost so much. First, SkinCeuticals products are always very well-packaged, which is vitally important when it comes to retinol products. If the retinol is exposed to too much sunlight or heat, it can activate the retinoic acid ahead of time, making it almost entirely useless. Additionally, SkinCeuticals claims that this cream contains retinol that is time-released, making it safer for sensitive skin. The site provides no proof for this claim, but if true, the development of time-release technology for retinol could very well contribute to the high price. Finally, as we noted in the previous section, SkinCeuticals did not skimp on the other ingredients in this product. It is made of quality ingredients, which could easily drive up the price of production, and thus the price for sale.

Other SkinCeuticals Products That Might Help Reduce Acne

Skinceuticals' products
SkinCeuticals is an expansive skin care line; even though we don’t recommend the Retinol 0.3% Refining Night Cream, there are several other products that could work for you.

In general, we would not recommend the SkinCeuticals Retinol 0.3% Refining Night Cream for acne treatment, but SkinCeuticals makes several other products that could provide much more significant benefits for acne-prone skin, including:

C + AHA Antioxidant Serum: This product contains 15% ascorbic acid (vitamin C) to help reduce inflammation and lighten pigmentation often leftover from past acne, along with three alpha-hydroxy acids to help exfoliate the skin: glycolic acid, citric acid, and lactic acid. Due to the high amount of vitamin C, people of color should consult a dermatologist before trying this product, as it could result in uneven skin lightening or even increased hyperpigmentation. An additional drawback is the price: $136 for one fluid ounce.

Purifying Cleanser Gel with Glycolic Acid: We really appreciate this product because it uses sulfate-free surfactants to help remove the buildup that accumulates on our skin throughout the day. Many facewashes use sulfates to remove this buildup, but those sulfates often irritate skin, especially sensitive skin. This Purifying Cleanser Gel uses gentle surfactants to reduce buildup and utilizes glycolic acid to chemically exfoliate dead skin cells, excess oil, and any remaining buildup. And at $35 for nearly 7 ounces, it’s a much better deal than the antioxidant serum.

LHA (Lipo-hydroxy Acid) Toner: This product contains popular acne treatment ingredient, salicylic acid, but it also utilizes a variant of salicylic acid called lipo-hydroxy acid, which offers many of the same exfoliating benefits, only it provides them slower and more evenly across the skin. In addition to using the best ingredients, this product also boasts a decent price: only $40 for almost 7 ounces. The only downside is that because it’s a toner, it contains denatured alcohol which is infamous for drying out the skin, meaning this product is best used with very oily skin.

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