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.
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.
|Product||Price||Size||Retinol %||Price per mL||Scaled Price (per mL of 1%)||Notes|
|Life Flo Health Retinol A 1%||$19.57||50 mL||1%||$0.39||$0.39||From iHerb. Jar packaging means the retinol content will drop drastically over time|
|Indeed Labs Retinol Reface||$34.99||30 mL||?||$1.17||$2.33-11.66||Assuming 0.1-0.5%; also contains retinyl palmitate|
|Paula's Choice Clinical 1% Retinol Treatment||$77||30 mL||1%||$2.57||$2.57|
|StriVectin-AR Advanced Retinol Night Treatment||$120||50 mL||?||$2.40||$3.00-24.00||"below 1%", assuming 0.1-0.8%|
|Environ Retinol 2||$115||30 mL||?||$3.83||$3.83-38.33||"high percentage", assuming 0.1-1%|
|SkinCeuticals Retinol 1.0||$115.50||30 mL||1%||$3.85||$3.85|
|SkinMedica Retinol Complex 0.5||$93.72||29.6 mL||0.5%||$3.17||$6.33|
|La Roche-Posay Redermic R||$59.95||30 mL||0.3%||$2.00||$6.66|
|PCA SKIN Intensive Age Refining Treatment||$149.60||29 mL||0.5%||$5.16||$10.32|
|NeoStrata Enlighten Pigment Controller||$49.95||30 mL||0.1%||$1.67||$16.70||Retinol is not the headline ingredient|
|Medik8 Retinol 3 TR||$75||15 mL||0.3%||$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:
|Product||Retinoid||%||Price||Size||Price per gram|
|Retrieve 0.05% Cream||Tretinoin||0.05%||$48.99||50 g||$0.98|
|Epiduo 0.1/2.5% Gel (with benzoyl peroxide)||Adapalene||0.1%||$31.99||30 g||$1.07|
|Zorac 0.1% Cream||Tazarotene||0.1%||$33.39||30g||$1.11|
|Stieva A 0.1% Forte Cream||Tretinoin||0.1%||$29.39||25 g||$1.58|
|Differin Cream||Adapalene||0.1%||$47.99||30 g||$1.60|
|Paula's Choice Clinical 1% Retinol Treatment||Retinol||1%||$77||30 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.
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 editorial consideration, 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.