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This time two years ago, I really struggled to recommend affordable retinoids; it was tricky because the products that worked for me were pricey, but at the same time, I really didn't want to tell you to spend your money on formulas that weren't up to par. Retinoids aren't easy to formulate in a way that's effective but non-irritating, however everyone wants a retinoid because they're the gold standard in well-ageing, with the power to reverse existing signs of ageing but also boost collagen production to keep your skin bouncy going forwards. If you're over 25 and not pregnant or breastfeeding, I really do recommend trying to incorporate retinoids as a regular part of your PM routine. Now, in 2024, there are actually some brilliant affordable formulas on the market, and they're what we're going to discuss today!
The first product I'm going to discuss is going to be accessible for the majority of those of you reading in the US, the UK (Boots and Superdrug both stock this product) and most of Europe; the Elf Youth Boosting Advanced Night Retinoid Serum | £22. It's definitely on the upper end of the pricing we'll be discussing for Affordable Beauty Month, but that's because retinoids aren't cheap generally and can make the most visible difference to your skin, so are one of the most 'worth it' actives to invest in. This product is formulated with both granactive retinoid (1%) and retinal (0.6%); this combination makes it a mid-level product for me, which shouldn't be your first ever retinoid, but will be suitable for most people who've had some experience and want improved results. Granactive retinoid (or HPR) is a retinoid ester, so should be very bioavailable for the skin to convert into retinoic acid (ultimately, all retinoids need to be converted to be processed by the skin) but it's generally considered to be very gentle. This is why it's included in a higher concentration; it's going to be much less intense than 1% retinol. The retinal included in this formula is what's actually really unique at the drugstore; this is one step closer to the goal of retinoic acid than retinol, so you can expect fast, visible results, and I personally find it way less drying and irritating for my skin. This serum is also formulated with hyaluronic acid (to draw in hydration), antioxidants (protecting the skin from free radical damage) and ingredients that help prevent discolouration like licorice extract.
One of the original drugstore-available retinoids that's still really great is the Indeed Labs Retinol Reface* | £24.99. This is your beginner retinoid; it combines an encapsulated retinol with bakuchiol and a retinoid-like peptide. What does this mean? Well, encapsulation technology ensures an active can penetrate the skin barrier but also to slow down its release, reducing any potential irritation. Using non-irritating 'retinoid boosters' like this peptide, which appears to have retinoid-like effects, and bakuchiol (often touted as a 'natural retinoid', it actually works synergistically so shouldn't necessarily be considered only as an alternative) allows you to maximise your results without increasing the % concentration of retinoid. This is a really advanced, well-formulated treatment, which is why it made it into Affordable Beauty Month; it's a great price for what it is, even though it's on the upper end of drugstore skincare pricing. It's not irritating to my skin (it's one of the products I was able to use on my neck, when I first started trying retinoids in that area) and it works to deliver smoother, plumper, more even skin.
This product is a 'membership access' find, but it's such a good one that I wanted to mention it anyway, and we'll be doing a whole post later this month on Beauty Pie and if the current membership structure is worth your money, but today let's discuss the Beauty Pie Super Retinol + Vitamin C Night Renewal Moisturiser* | £18.50 (for members). This is an active moisturiser, so it's two birds with one stone! This is formulated with a 1% encapsulated retinol complex, soybean extract (which can help amplify retinoids), there's an oil-soluble Vitamin C derivative (that's gentle on the skin), Vitamin E (which is fat-based) and ferulic acid to act as antioxidants, plus nourishing ingredients like shea butter to stave off any potential dryness. It's a great all-rounder if you want a one-step active; it leaves my skin soft, even, glowing and plump with long-term use, and I don't experience any dryness or irritation with this formula.
Finally, let's talk about possibly my favourite of the bunch, the Geek & Gorgeous A-Game 10 0.1% Retinal* | £17.95. This is both the simplest and 'strongest' formula in this post; it comes in a 0.05% version too if you're new to retinal (but have some retinol experience). There's not much too this besides an impressive (and usually very expensive) 0.1% concentration of retinal; just some glycerin, allantoin and panthenol to soothe and hydrate, so you're going to want to use it alongside a nice, fatty, barrier-supportive moisturiser. However, this formula just works! If you're on a budget and want the best possible non-prescription retinoid then this is perfect. Even without the added extras, I honestly find this so gentle that it really doesn't matter; if you've not used such a direct retinoid before, you might have to adjust a little, but it's not drying or irritating for me at all.
Have you tried any of these affordable retinoids? Are there any you'd add to this list?