Paula’s Choice Clinical 1% Retinol Review and Price Comparison

Affiliate Disclosure: I receive a small commission for purchases made via affiliate links.

It’s hard to think of a more formidable figure in science-based skincare than Paula Begoun. She’s been breaking through beauty marketing bullshit for 30 years, and while I don’t necessarily agree with all of her conclusions about skincare ingredients, it’s impossible to deny her positive influence. She launched her brand Paula’s Choice in 1995, featuring affordable and science-backed products, and it’s been a skincare nerd favourite ever since.

My personal favourite has been their 2% BHA Liquid exfoliant – it’s been one of my oily skincare essentials for a while, helping me clear blackheads and clogged pores. I recently road tested a few other Paula’s Choice products – my favourite of them has been, hands down, the Clinical 1% Retinol Treatment.

paulas-choice-retinol

What does retinol do?

Retinol is one of those ingredients that seems to do it all. It’s a vitamin A derivative (collectively known as retinoids), and it’s the strongest one you can get without a prescription. Vitamin A’s skincare resume is pretty impressive – its talents include:

  • repairing sun damage
  • reducing wrinkles
  • decreasing oil production
  • reducing acne-causing bacteria levels
  • increasing collagen production
  • lightening hyperpigmentation

Retinol will basically give at least one of your skin concerns a considerable ass-whooping, though sometimes it’s not enough, and you’ll have to step it up to the more powerful prescription retinoids like tretinoin, adapalene or tazarotene. However, like with most drugs, the more powerful it is, the more side effects you’ll get. For the retinoids, the side effects are dry skin, peeling, flaking and irritation.

Ingredients and packaging

Here’s the ingredients list for Paula’s Choice Clinical 1% Retinol Treatment:

Water, Dimethicone, Glycerin, Butylene Glycol, Isononyl Isononanoate, Castor Isostearate Succinate, Glyceryl Stearate, C12-15 Alkyl Benzoate, Dimethicone Crosspolymer, PEG-33, Polysorbate 20, Behenyl Alcohol, Retinol, Tetrahexyldecyl Ascorbate, Ceramide 2, Palmitoyl Tetrapeptide-7, Palmitoyl Hexapeptide-12, Sodium Hyaluronate, Dipotassium Glycyrrhizate, Glycyrrhiza Glabra (Licorice) Root Extract, Avena Sativa (Oat) Kernel Extract, Arctium Lappa (Burdock) Root Extract, Salix Alba (Willow) Bark Extract, Glycine Soja (Soybean) Sterols, Lecithin, Allantoin, Tocopheryl Acetate, Hydrolyzed Soy Protein, Sorbitan Laurate, Acetyl Dipeptide-1 Cetyl Ester, Disodium EDTA, Hydroxyethylcellulose, Sodium Hydroxide, Tribehenin, Caprylyl Glycol, Ethylhexylglycerin, Pentylene Glycol, PEG-100 Stearate, PEG-75 Shea Butter Glycerides, PPG-12/SMDI Copolymer, PEG-10 Phytosterol, PEG-8 Dimethicone, PEG-14, Pentaerythrityl Tetraisostearate, Polymethylsilsesquioxane, Magnesium Aluminum Silicate, Arachidyl Glucoside, Sclerotium Gum, Arachidyl Alcohol, Benzoic Acid, Carbomer, Phenoxyethanol.

It’s longer than I expected – there are a lot of moisturisers, anti-irritants and antioxidants in the formula. It’s packaged in an air-tight pump bottle, which is a great choice since retinol is air- and light-sensitive. The product comes out as a pale yellow, slightly alcohol-smelling lotion.

How it fared

I’ve been using Love Life Perfect Night Retinol Renewal Complex and Neostrata Enlighten Pigment Controller for about a year and they’ve been pretty good at making my skin smoother and brighter. I had no irritation with either of them, though they’re significantly less strong (Love Life’s product contains retinyl palmitate, which is weaker, and Neostrata’s product only contains 0.1% retinol). Since my skin is generally pretty resilient, I thought it would be a pretty easy transition…but wow. This product is hardcore, guys.

Two days after I first used Paula’s Choice Clinical 1% Retinol Treatment, the Much-Anticipated Peel began…and didn’t stop for 3 days. I had weird skin bits hanging off my face all the time, and even peeling gel couldn’t hold it back – the moment I got rid of the dead skin, it would just start shedding again. I gave up on make-up and carried a tube of moisturiser everywhere. It would’ve been enough to put me off, if it wasn’t for the thought of Future Good-Skin Michelle. 1% is one of the highest percentages you can get in a standard product – most of the other retinol products you’ll find have less than 0.5%.

There are a bunch of anti-irritant ingredients (licorice, oat extract) combined with the retinol, but they didn’t manage to counteract the irritation for me – luckily my persistence paid off and my skin was glowing and pimple-free after the adjustment period, which was admittedly quite short (though it felt longer at the time!).

How much does it cost?

This product is definitely very effective, but how does it compare to other options price-wise (especially with the good ol’ Australia tax)?

Versus the US site

Paula’s Choice Clinical 1% Retinol Treatment is $77 for 30 mL via the Australian website, $55 in the US.

Using the current conversion rate of AUD 1 = USD 0.82, this makes the Australian product worth USD 63.35 – a 15% mark-up, which is actually really reasonable, considering extra shipping and regulatory fees. Well done Paula’s Choice, for not slapping on the usual hefty Australia tax!

Versus other OTC retinol products

Paula’s Choice Clinical 1% Retinol Treatment: $77/30 mL = $2.57/mL for 1%.

The problem with comparisons here is that most retinol products don’t list the percentage of retinol in them – which is super frustrating for consumers who want to make informed choices, and it makes the maths a bit more hand-wavy as well. A lot of these formulas also contain active ingredients apart from retinol, and I have no idea about the quality of the formulas so higher prices could potentially be worth it. For this comparison though, I’m keeping it simple and just looking at amount of retinol you’re getting.

ProductPriceSizeRetinol %Price per mLScaled Price (per mL of 1%)Notes
Life Flo Health Retinol A 1%$19.5750 mL1%$0.39$0.39From iHerb. Jar packaging means the retinol content will drop drastically over time
Indeed Labs Retinol Reface$34.9930 mL?$1.17$2.33-11.66Assuming 0.1-0.5%; also contains retinyl palmitate
Paula's Choice Clinical 1% Retinol Treatment$7730 mL1%$2.57$2.57
StriVectin-AR Advanced Retinol Night Treatment$12050 mL?$2.40$3.00-24.00"below 1%", assuming 0.1-0.8%
Environ Retinol 2$11530 mL?$3.83$3.83-38.33"high percentage", assuming 0.1-1%
SkinCeuticals Retinol 1.0$115.5030 mL1%$3.85$3.85
SkinMedica Retinol Complex 0.5$93.7229.6 mL0.5%$3.17$6.33
La Roche-Posay Redermic R$59.9530 mL0.3%$2.00$6.66
PCA SKIN Intensive Age Refining Treatment$149.6029 mL0.5%$5.16$10.32
NeoStrata Enlighten Pigment Controller$49.9530 mL0.1%$1.67$16.70Retinol is not the headline ingredient
Medik8 Retinol 3 TR$7515 mL0.3%$5.00$16.77

Most of these products can be found in-store in Australia, but Paula’s Choice is online-only which means there’s probably going to be a $7-ish postage fee. Even when we take this into account, Paula’s Choice Clinical 1% Retinol Treatment is still the best value retinol product on the market, apart from the super-budget Life Flo product from iHerb which comes in unstable jar packaging. (Unless one of the products without a publicised retinol concentration is surprisingly concentrated, of course.)

Versus prescription retinoids

This time the problem is that prescription products are labelled in grams rather than in mLs, and the different retinoids are effective at different percentages, plus they have different usage profiles and irritation potentials. Again, let’s do our best anyway. These are the prices from Chemist Warehouse, a discount chemist, so if you go to a proper chemist with things like customer service and professional advice, it’ll cost a bit more. Assuming 1 g ≈ 1 mL:

ProductRetinoid%PriceSizePrice per gram
Retrieve 0.05% CreamTretinoin0.05%$48.9950 g$0.98
Epiduo 0.1/2.5% Gel (with benzoyl peroxide)Adapalene0.1%$31.99 30 g$1.07
Zorac 0.1% CreamTazarotene0.1%$33.3930g $1.11
Stieva A 0.1% Forte CreamTretinoin0.1%$29.3925 g$1.58
Differin CreamAdapalene0.1%$47.9930 g$1.60
Paula's Choice Clinical 1% Retinol TreatmentRetinol1%$7730 mL$2.57

This time, it’s obvious that all the prescription versions are cheaper per gram, and will be as effective, or more effective, than Paula’s Choice Clinical 1% Retinol Treatment. Which makes sense, since if it’s medication, it’s considered necessary, not a luxury, and so it should be more affordable for those who need it. However, on the flip side, the prescription creams tend to be more irritating, with formulas that contain less skincare ingredients, and of course you’ll need a prescription to buy them.

Verdict

Paula’s Choice Clinical 1% Retinol Treatment is a fantastic product – it’s effective at treating a range of skin concerns, and it’s really good value. You can’t really do better unless you go with a prescription product, which might work better, but will also probably be more irritating.

Paula’s Choice Clinical 1% Retinol Treatment retails for $77 for 30 mL, and can be purchased on the Paula’s Choice Australia website.

These products were provided for review, which did not affect my opinion. This post contains affiliate links – if you decide to click through and support Lab Muffin financially, thank you! For more information, see Disclosure Policy.

Skincare Guide


Related Posts

26 thoughts on “Paula’s Choice Clinical 1% Retinol Review and Price Comparison”

  1. This was an incredibly helpful post. Thank you. My insurance won’t cover prescription retinoids so it’s really pricey and I was looking for an alternative. Can I ask what you disagree with Paula Begoun on?

    Reply
    • She always counts fragrance as a bad ingredient when I think it should be more dependent on the amount and the type of skin you have (it’s problematic if it’s heavy and for sensitive skin, but in my opinion it’s fine for the vast majority of people most of the time). She also takes marks off if a moisturiser doesn’t include “cell-communicating ingredients”, even though the science behind whether those actually “communicate” with cells and what they’re communicating is usually shaky at best. There are a bunch more things too but these came to mind quickest!

      Reply
  2. Awesome post! This was very helpful. I’ve been wanting to try retinol products for ages but just never got into it. I mostly use glycolic acid and love it. I might have to give this a go, though I don’t like the sound of peeling skin…..

    Reply
    • I would start super slow then – a tiny bearing ball-sized blob mixed in with moisturiser once a week, then slowly going up to twice a week. I think if I did that instead of slapping it on, it wouldn’t have been nearly as crazy!

      Reply
  3. I started using this product about a month ago, and oh man, THE PEELING. I was using a low strength tretinoin cream (0.018%) before, but this made my face peel so much more. It really is a great product though!

    Reply
    • Haha I’ve just started using a tret cream and I have zero peeling – not sure if it’s less irritating, or if this retinol broke my face in!

      Reply
  4. Actually I use the Laroche Posay Redermic R Serum with 0.3% retinol. I really like it but don’t know when I’ll see results, nevertheless my skin is a bit better now 🙂

    Reply
  5. Thanks for your review! I had received a tretinoin prescription after a visit to a derm and have been too afraid to try after reading ppl’s reactions to purging… I’ve been wanting to try a retinol that’s OTC and this one from PC seems promising. Question — I currently use PC 2% BHA in the morning daily and the 8% AHA at night 3x a week — do you think I should stop the acids if I decide to try the 1% retinol? I still have some stubborn closed comedones that haven’t gone away.

    Reply
    • Purging doesn’t last forever, which is good 🙂 You should definitely stop the acids when you start the retinol to cut down on excessive irritation, but you can introduce them again when your skin’s adjusted to the retinol!

      Reply
  6. That’s a great article. I was looking at some reviews for this product and I was on the fence, as it is slightly expensive. Now I’m almost ready to invest! 🙂

    Reply
  7. Thank you so much for this post! I just purchased this product and am still in the “purging” phase right now. I never had smooth, soft skin but damn, when I woke up after using it, my skin literally felt like parchment in some places. It’s also flaky and peeling, mostly around my chin area. I kind of hope that eventually this will mean that it works.

    I have a question though, will the Retinol work even if I don’t use it every day? I think that might be too much for me and I also use the Weekly AHA-Treatment from Paula’s Choice and I don’t want to use the products together. But yeah… do you think using the Retinol only every 2 or 3 days will still let it be effective? Thank you so much!

    Reply
  8. You mentioned you’d used the Love Life Perfect Night Retinol Renewal Complex for about a year while understanding the jar packaging issue.

    Did you simply use it as usual or did you come up with anything to try to counteract the effect of it losing strength?

    Did you continue until each container was empty and if so, did you detect a difference in its affect as you got near the end of a container that had had more exposure?

    This was part of your skincare routine 2014 but you later were impressed with Paula’s retinal 1%. SO….. what retinol are using now?

    Reply
  9. The heat of summer can damage our skin. That’s why it’s really important to take care of our skin when summer comes. It’s expose to the sun always so we must have a protection to it. Your post is a great help for everyone especially to those who are already planning their summer getaway.

    Reply
  10. Hi Michelle,

    I’ve just come across your site and I think it’s pretty amazing.
    I’ve been testing Paula’s Choice recently and since I have combination skin (with very oily T-zone) I tried her 2% BHA. Since my black-heads are pretty stubborn, and at the moment my main focus is getting rid of them, do you think it’s worth trying the BHA9?
    Have you tried this product?

    Thanks,
    Madalina.

    Reply
  11. I read in Paula’s choice website that the retin A 1% treatment equivalent to the 0.02 retin A prescription tube.

    Reply
    • From Paula’s choice website:
      How does Clinical 1% Retinol Treatment compare to prescription retinoids?

      This product contains retinol, which is weaker than prescription retinoids but, over time, produces comparable anti-ageing and anti-acne results. A prescription retinoid may produce faster results, but it does so with the added risk of side effects like redness, flaking, and increased sensitivity.

      A product with 1% retinol is more comparable to a prescription retinoid with 0.02 tretinoin (the active ingredient in Renova and Retin-A).

      Reply

Leave a Comment