Proof You Need a Retinol Facial Serum: Here are 12 of the Best


Best bet. The Carrot & Stick skincare bundle worth up to $240 for $88. Details below

Perhaps you’ve tried retinol creams — maybe even retinol body lotion — but what about retinol facial serum? 

Retinol is one of the top skincare ingredients for softening and preventing fine lines and wrinkles, reducing pore size and acne, encouraging collagen production, lessening the appearance of brown spots, increasing cell turnover, and improving skin texture — pretty incredible, right? You can even find a retinol oil or the best retinol for acne, so it’s an active ingredient with copious benefits.

What are the Best Skin Care Products of 2023?

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 the best retinol serum.

Retinol Facial Serum: The Best List


Best Retinol Serum: Carrot & Stick The Face Oil, $70

Best bet. The Carrot & Stick skincare bundle worth up to $240 for $88. Select 3 products, including our favorite Carrot & Stick The Face Oil. Use code DERM20 for 20% off. Offer applies to first shipment.


Best Retinol Serum Overall:  Formulyst Double Defense Serum, $45

Best Retinol for Acne: CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum, $14.79

Best Drugstore Retinol Serum: RoC Retinol Correxion Deep Wrinkle Serum, $24.99

Best Retinol for Beginners: First Aid Beauty Retinol Serum .25% Pure Concentrate, $58

Strongest Retinol Serum: Sunday Riley A+ High Dose Retinoid Serum, $85

Best Retinol and Vitamin C Serum: Kate Somerville +Retinol Vitamin C Serum, $98

Best Retinol Night Serum: Dr. Brandt Skincare 2% Retinol Complex Serum, $69

Best Retinol for Oily Skin: Paula’s Choice 1% Retinol Treatment, $58

Best Affordable Retinol Serum: The Ordinary 0.5% in Squalene, $5.80

Best Retinol Serum for Hyperpigmentation: Verso Dark Spot Fix, $95

Best French Pharmacy Find: La Roche-Posay Pure Retinol Face Serum with Vitamin B3, $39.99

What to Look for in a Retinol Facial 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 correct 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.

How to Integrate a Retinol Serum into Your Routine

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.

Related: Best Retinol Eye Cream

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.


Woman applying serum

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 — this is important because you can cause further damage and premature aging to the skin without sun protection.


Start Slow

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.


Be Patient

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.

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 Retinol Works

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 skin’s surface. As new cells arrive, the old ones shed, much like a molting snake. In other words, 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. One term for these side effects is the “retinol uglies.”

Related: How Does Retinol Work?, What Are The Side Effects?

Retinol Creams VS a Retinol Facial Serum

For the most part, retinol creams (even a retinol body lotion) versus a retinol facial serum or retinol oil is a matter of preference. These formulas are all effective. However, serums contain higher concentrations of active ingredients, and due to their texture and molecular composition, they can penetrate the skin more efficiently than retinol creams. And, since they’re grease-free, serums are a more desirable choice for those with oily or acneic skin.

Related: Best Retinol Cream

What is the Best Retinol Serum?


Best Retinol Serum: Carrot & Stick The Face Oil, $70
This formula contains a next-generation retinoid and potent antioxidants to help reduce visible signs of aging.


Best Retinol Serum 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 fight the effects of skin damage and premature photoaging.

Best Retinol for Acne: CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum, $14.79
Looking for the best 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 Drugstore Retinol Serum: 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 Retinol 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. You could say this is also the best retinol serum for sensitive skin.

Strongest Retinol Serum: 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 Retinol and Vitamin C Serum: 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 Retinol Night Serum: 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 Retinol 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 Affordable Retinol Serum: 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 Retinol Serum 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 French Pharmacy Find: La Roche-Posay Pure Retinol Face Serum with Vitamin B3, $39.99
While many French brands choose 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 prevent water loss and soothe. You’ll see instant gratification via a luminous complexion, but signs of aging are reduced over time.

Best Retinol Serum: The Final Word

What’s the Best Retinol Serum? Overall, we suggest Carrot & Stick The Face Oil.

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 skin’s texture. 

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.

What is the best retinol face serum, in your opinion? Let us know in the comments below!


Many people wonder which is better; retinol or a hyaluronic acid serum? The answer? They’re two completely different ingredients. Here’s the thing about retinol. You have to use it more cautiously than a gentle, lightweight, ultra-hydrating ingredient like hyaluronic acid.
No. Peeling and flakiness are just part of the adjustment process. To help put your mind at ease, no studies have proven that there’s a link between skin damage or signs of faster aging caused solely by retinol. However, using retinol in conjunction with sun protection during the day is vital.
Eventually, most people can tolerate retinol every day —or almost every day. However, it also depends on what kind of product you’re using, what percentage it is, and how sensitive your skin is.
In general, retinoids are stronger than retinol. They’re more highly concentrated, and the molecular structure of vitamin A in retinoids turns over skin cells at a faster rate than retinol.
You may have to stop using retinol for a reason, such as becoming pregnant — but if you really want to reap the age-fighting benefits of retinol, resume use when it’s safe to do so. As with any skincare product, consistent use is the key to optimal results.
A serum or retinol oil is not a replacement for a moisturizer, which will help hydrate your skin and reduce the risk of potential irritation from retinol.
What are your skin goals? Retinol helps unclog pores, stimulates collagen production to reduce fine lines and wrinkles, increases cell turnover to smooth the skin, and even out discoloration. A vitamin C serum is an effective antioxidant and brightener, but it isn’t as effective in collagen synthesis and fighting the signs of age as retinol.
Even though vitamin C can technically be used day or night, it’s ideal for daytime due to its antioxidant properties. In contrast, retinol is better applied at night when you’re out of the sun’s harmful rays. Nighttime is also when the skin repairs itself.
No. Only use one form of retinol in your routine — it’s all you need. Overdoing it will only lead to excessive irritation.

Photosensitivity due to retinoids: clinical and laboratory studies,”
Encapsulation and controlled release of retinol from silicone particles for topical delivery,” Science Direct.

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