Retinol is one of the top skincare ingredients for softening and preventing fine lines and wrinkles, reducing pore size, encouraging collagen production, lessening the appearance of brown spots, increasing cell turnover, and improving skin’s texture — pretty incredible, right? Even though retinol encourages younger-looking skin, there are some crucial facts to understand about this powerful ingredient before incorporating it into your skincare routine.
So, what is retinol? It’s a particular type of retinoid in the vitamin A family. However, in most cases, retinol is deemed as a less potent version of vitamin A. When you hear the term “retinoid,” it’s referring to more robust prescription products such as Retin-A, Adapalene, or Tretinoin. But make no mistake, even though retinol isn’t as intense as more potent retinoids, it doesn’t mean it’s not incredibly useful when it comes to fighting the signs of aging skin. One of the best ways to incorporate this results-driven ingredient into your regime is with one of the best retinol serums for the face.
Best Overall: Formulyst Double Defense Serum, $45
Best for Fast Results: Medix8 Crystal Retinal 3
Best Budget: The Ordinary 0.5% in Squalene
Best for Hyperpigmentation: Verso Dark Spot Fix
Best High Dose: Sunday Riley A+ High Dose Retinoid Serum
Best for Brightening: Kate Somerville + Retinol Vitamin C Serum
Best for Oily Skin: Paula’s Choice 1% Retinol Treatment
Best for Acne-Prone Skin: CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum
Best for Beginners: First Aid Beauty Retinol Serum .25% Pure Concentrate
Best for Nighttime Recovery: Dr. Brandt Skincare 2% Retinol Complex Serum
Best Drugstore Buy: RoC Retinol Correxion Deep Wrinkle Serum
Best French Pharmacy Find: La Roche-Posay Pure Retinol Face Serum with Vitamin B3
When to Start Using Retinol Serums
While you can’t completely stop the clock when it comes to aging, preventative measures can help you slow things down a bit. Your mid-twenties are generally an excellent time to start using retinol, especially if sun spots and fine lines begin to creep up. Anyone younger can hold off a few years and put more effort into getting used to a solid skincare routine.
How to Integrate a Retinol Serum into Your Routine
Many people wonder which is better; retinol or hyaluronic acid? The answer? They’re two completely different ingredients. Here’s the thing about retinol. Unlike a gentle, lightweight, ultra-hydrating ingredient like hyaluronic acid, you have to use it more cautiously. When retinol is applied to the skin, cells at the basal layer (the innermost layer of the epidermis) begin to divide, which causes new epidermal cells to travel to the surface of the skin. As new cells arrive, the old ones shed, much like a molting snake. This is what’s known as the exfoliation process. While fine lines and wrinkles become less prominent and hyperpigmentation fades, there can be side effects such as dryness, mild irritation, and sun sensitivity as your skin adjusts to this new active ingredient.
Never hesitate to speak to your dermatologist when incorporating retinol into your routine —especially for those susceptible to rosacea, eczema, or ultra-sensitive skin. These individuals may want to skip retinol altogether (but there are plenty of other anti-aging ingredients, so as not to worry.) Even if you have the type of skin that can handle retinol, if you’re a newbie, it’s crucial that you gradually introduce it into your routine so your skin can build up a tolerance.
Apply Only at Night
Retinol makes the skin more sensitive to the sun, so always apply it at night and use sunscreen during the day.
Many people make the mistake of hitting the ground running because they’re anxious to see results. For most, this application method is problematic since the skin is still adjusting to the product. Start by using it every two to three nights. If you don’t experience any flakiness, irritation, or redness, you can gradually add an extra day, providing your skin can handle it. These side effects are typical in the beginning, so monitor how your skin is reacting.
Don’t Overdo It
You only need around a pea-size amount to reap the effects of retinol; a little truly goes a long way! In the beginning, you may even want to mix your retinol serum with your face moisturizer, so it’s a bit more gentle on the skin — especially if it’s dry or sensitive.
There’s no such thing as a quick fix, and consistency is vital if you want to see results — which can take at least 12 weeks in some cases. Don’t give up. Stick with it, and you’ll see an improvement over time. As proof positive, studies show that after four weeks, epidermal thickness increased. In twelve weeks, there was a significant reduction in facial wrinkles.
What to Look for in a Retinol Serum
As with vitamin C, retinol is one of the most challenging ingredients due to its instability. Look for serums packaged in an opaque container and formulated by a credible, reputable brand that can develop a results-driven serum — and this is not always easy to detect.
Also, make sure you’re choosing the right percentage for your skin type. If you’re new to retinol, start on the low end — around .25% — whereas more seasoned users can go upwards to 2%. Always speak to a skincare professional if you’re not sure which strength you should be using.
The 12 Best Retinol Serums for the Face
Best Overall: Formulyst Double Defense Serum, $45
Thanks to a powerhouse of antioxidants and a rich retinoid compound, this potent anti-aging formula reduces the appearance of wrinkles and blemishes while leaving you with youthful-looking skin that’s visually smoother, firmer, and more even without stripping the skin of vital moisture. It’s formulated with Hydroxypinacolone Etinoate, one of the most bioavailable non-prescription forms of Vitamin A. It also includes antioxidants like caffeine, vitamin C, and vitamin E that help to fight the effects of skin damage and premature photoaging.
Best for Fast Results: Medix8 Crystal Retinal 3, $59
Ok, we did say that there’s no such thing as an overnight success story, but this serum incorporates crystal-encapsulated retinaldehyde, which means it works 11 times faster than typical retinol. This is because it’s transformed into retinoic acid by the skin more easily. Your skin will experience less irritation and a moisture boost, thanks to skin-plumping hyaluronic acid and vitamin E. Another great feature is that you can choose your strength. Three is the middle of the road, but you can graduate up to a ten if your skin can tolerate it.
Best Budget: The Ordinary 0.5% in Squalene, $5.80
Retinol from The Ordinary may be a bargain buster, but it’s versatile and suitable for all skin types. The 0.5% strength is a good option for beginners or those with sensitive skin because the squalane in the formula mimics your skin’s natural oils, so no need to worry about dryness and flakes. There’s also a lower 0.2% and higher 1% strength formula in squalane.
Best for Hyperpigmentation: Verso Dark Spot Fix, $95
This serum contains the highest concentration of retinol 8, which is eight times stronger than traditional retinol (read: super collagen booster), yet only half as irritating. The trifecta of turmeric, niacinamide, and retinol 8 work synergistically to decrease the appearance of hyperpigmentation while restricting melanin production. The addition of hyaluronic acid promotes a plump and hydrated complexion.
Best High Dose: Sunday Riley A+ High Dose Retinoid Serum, $85
Full disclosure: This is not a retinol serum for rookie retinol users. This professional strength formula consists of a 5% retinoid ester blend, 1% liposomal-encapsulated retinol, and blue-green algae to provide antioxidant protection. The addition of encapsulated CoQ10 works to improve damaged or aging skin; and if you’re worried about irritation due to the strength, cactus extract, Hawaiian white honey, bisabolol, and ginger calm and soothe.
Best for Brightening: Kate Somerville +Retinol Vitamin C Serum, $98
It’s not too often that you see a serum incorporating retinol and vitamin C because they thrive in two different pH environments. However, Kate Somerville has managed to formulate a serum that harnesses both of these power-packed ingredients. It works while you sleep to brighten, tone, and revive a dull, uneven skin tone. Clinical studies indicate that 97% of users noticed improved fine lines and wrinkles after just one use. After one week, 93% saw an improvement in skin elasticity, and 90% said their skin tone looked brighter.
Best for Oily Skin: Paula’s Choice 1% Retinol Treatment, $58
One of the hidden benefits of retinol for oily skin is that it sloughs off dead skin cells that can stick to the surface and clog pores. The 1% strength in this formula helps decrease oil production, while licorice and oat extracts reduce the appearance of dark spots and soothe inflammation.
Best for Acne-Prone Skin: CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum, $14.79
Looking for a retinol serum for acne? Keep in mind that your skin can be on the sensitive side (maybe even inflamed.) This formula provides all the benefits of retinol, but with the addition of skin-soothing ceramides and niacinamide to even out the skin tone, reduce redness, and soften acne scars.
Best for Beginners: First Aid Beauty Retinol Serum .25% Pure Concentrate, $58
When it comes to retinol, everyone has to start somewhere. This formula is perfect for newbies, as well as those with sensitive skin. It contains a mere .25% strength of retinol, skin-plumping peptides, and First Aid Beauty’s proprietary “Skin Saver Complex” (hyaluronic acid, aloe vera, colloidal oatmeal, ceramides, allantoin, and vitamins C and E.) The result? Nourished skin alleviated from any irritation that’s traditionally linked to retinol.
Best for Nighttime Recovery: Dr. Brandt Skincare 2% Retinol Complex Serum, $69
Sure, retinol serums should technically be used at night. Still, this formula incorporates an immediate and time-released 2% retinol complex to improve skin tone and texture, diminish dullness, lessen redness, soften the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, and reduce pore size — that’s quite a tall order. This formula also brightens and soothes by virtue of lemon tree honey, phospholipids, and amino acids derived from sugar beets.
Best Drugstore Buy: RoC Retinol Correxion Deep Wrinkle Serum, $24.99
Everyone loves a good drugstore buy — especially one that’s about the effectiveness and not fluff. Formulated with RoC’s award-winning retinol, this serum is clinically proven to make the skin look ten years younger in as little as four weeks. Of course, that all depends on your age and the current state of your skin — but this serum wouldn’t be on the best-of list if it didn’t visibly produce noticeable results, especially over time.
Best French Pharmacy Find: La Roche-Posay Pure Retinol Face Serum with Vitamin B3, $39.99
While many French brands choose to go the more “au naturale” side, that doesn’t mean every product is restricted to pure essential oils and extracts. This serum from La Roche-Posay is formulated with gradual release retinol to prevent irritation. Glycerin hydrates, and vitamin B3 prevents water loss and soothes. You’ll see instant gratification via a luminous complexion, but signs of aging are reduced over time.
The Final Word
Retinol is one of the top skincare ingredients for softening and preventing fine lines and wrinkles, reducing pore size, encouraging collagen production, lessening brown spots, increasing cell turnover, and improving the texture of the skin. Even so, when purchasing over-the-counter retinol (not to be confused with prescription-strength retinoids), you still want to make sure you’re choosing a brand and product of integrity that’s the best strength for your skin type if you want the best result.
“A Comparative Study of the Effects of Retinol and Retinoic Acid on Histological, Molecular, and Clinical Properties of Human Skin,” National Library of Medicine National Center for Biotechnology Information,” November 2018.