When it comes to our skin care routines, aren't we all looking for that one special magic potion that will leave our complexions glowing and youthful-looking? Sadly, miracle ingredients don't actually exist. But you can still achieve stellar results with one skin care wonder: retinol.
If you're a retinol beginner and aren't sure where to start, a serum is a great way to wade in slowly. Read on to learn what exactly retinol is, how to use it, the do’s and don’ts of applying it and everything else you need to know about this popular skin care ingredient.
Best retinol serums
- Best overall: CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum, $23
- Best dual-action: RoC Retinol Correxion Deep Wrinkle Facial Filler, $20
- Best face oil: Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Face Oil Retinol Serum, $20
- Most budget-friendly: The Ordinary Retinol 1% in Squalane, $9
- Best for acne: Differin Adapalene Gel 0.1% Acne Treatment, $16
- Most lightweight: Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Retinol Anti-Aging Serum, $14
- Best for combination skin: Azure Skincare Hyaluronic and Retinol Facial Serum, $14
- Best for mature skin: La Roche-Posay Pure Retinol Face Serum, $45
- Best for travel: RoC Retinol Correxion Line Smoothing Night Retinol Serum, $24
- Best for uneven skin texture: La Roche-Posay Redermic R Anti Aging Retinol Serum, $55
- Most hydrating: Olay Regenerist Retinol 24 Night Face Serum, $18
- Best for sensitive skin: First Aid Beauty FAB Skin Lab Retinol Serum 0.25% Pure Concentrate
- Best K-beauty option: Peach and Lily Retinal For All Renewing Serum, $55
- Good for all skin types: Murad Youth Retinol Youth Renewal Serum, $92
- Most innovative packaging: Kiehl’s Fast Release Wrinkle-Reducing 0.3% Retinol Night Serum, $85
- Worth the splurge: Eve Lom Radiance Repair Retinol Serum, $185
What is retinol serum?
"It is a weaker version of the prescription strength retinoid, tretinoin (Retin-A). Prescription strength topical retinoids can be difficult to tolerate for some patients with sensitive skin, and retinols can be a gentler alternative for these patients," says Dr. Leah Jacob, an assistant professor of dermatology at Tulane University.
How does it work? “When applied to the skin, retinol works to increase cell turnover, in turn helping to refine the skin and signs of aging that are often caused by environmental factors,” explains Dr. Kim Nichols, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of NicholsMD of Greenwich in Connecticut.
“When used properly and consistently, retinol can reduce redness, inflammation and pore size, while simultaneously reducing the appearance of blemishes, hyperpigmentation and stubborn dark spots associated with problematic skin,” adds Nichols, who says retinol is the number one anti-aging ingredient that she recommends to her clients.
Are retinol serums safe for everyone to use?
If you have sensitive skin, plan on proceeding with caution so you give your complexion some time to warm up to the retinol.
"Those with dry or sensitive skin need to be more cautious with retinols. Start low and slow, using a small amount on the face twice a week at night and increasing every two weeks to every other night and then nightly as tolerated," Dr. Mary L. Stevenson, a dermatologic surgeon and associate professor of dermatology at NYU Langone Health, recommends.
"They are safe for most skin types, but you have to be careful that if your skin is sensitive you go slowly and be careful that you are not in too much sun exposure, especially when you start," Dr. Angela J. Lamb, a New York City board-certified dermatologist, explains.
Nichols notes, “I advise my patients who cannot tolerate retinol to switch to another active chemical exfoliant such as azelaic acid, glycolic acid or salicylic acid.” For personal recommendations, visiting a board-certified dermatologist is your best bet to help you achieve your specific skin care goals.
Best retinol serums, according to dermatologists
Best overall retinol serum: CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum
Size: 1.0 oz. | Other key ingredients: Hyaluronic acid, ceramides, niacinamide, licorice root extract
"It contains hyaluronic acid, glycerin and ceramides, which hydrate the skin, and niacinamide and licorice root extract, which help with uneven dark discoloration," says Dr. Debra Jaliman, board-certified dermatologist and author of the book, “Skin Rules: Trade Secrets from a Top New York Dermatologist."
Dr. Liia Ramachandra, a former pharma executive and skin care expert, enjoys the lightweight, gel-like consistency, calling it "great for acne," and Dr. Robert Anolik, a fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology, also appreciates the added ceramides, which help "soothe the skin" and counteract some of the side effects of retinol.
Best dual-action retinol serum: RoC Retinol Correxion Deep Wrinkle Facial Filler
Size: 1.0 oz. | Other key ingredients: Hyaluronic acid
Over 7,200 verified Amazon shoppers have given this bestseller a five-star rating; just like them, Lamb is also a huge fan of the dual-action wrinkle filler. It contains hydrating hyaluronic acid to help restore moisture, and the brand says it can improve the appearance of deep wrinkles in just four weeks.
Best facial oil with retinol: Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Face Oil Retinol Serum
Size: 1.0 oz. | Other key ingredients: Salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide
Retinol is pretty strong on its own, but when combined with other ingredients, it can become a true powerhouse, and this oil is a perfect example of that. "The addition of salicylic acid to this serum increases its efficacy and makes results more noticeable," Jacob tells us.
This facial oil formula absorbs quickly and targets deep wrinkles and dark spots. One happy shopper called it a "must-have holy grail product," and other reviewers used the following terms to describe it: "miraculous," "amazing" and "gentle yet effective."
Best budget-friendly retinol serum: The Ordinary Retinol 1% in Squalane
Size: 1.0 oz. | % of retinol: 1 | Other key ingredients: Squalane
Ramachandra digs this budget-friendly option because it's affordable and effective. Made for all skin types, it helps treat uneven skin tone, textural irregularities, signs of aging and dryness.
"There's no fuss. It's just retinol in squalane (a great hydrating solution), which makes retinol application easier," she explains.
The water-free serum contains a light concentration of retinol (1%, to be precise), making it ideal for anyone with sensitive skin.
Best retinol serum for acne: Differin Adapalene Gel 0.1% Acne Treatment
Size: 0.5 oz | % of retinol: 0.1
Sick of breakouts rearing their ugly head at the most inconvenient time? Retinol can whip your skin into shape, clearing and preventing acne. This popular Differin acne gel (seriously, it's accumulated over 53,000 verified Amazon ratings) takes things one step further and reduces inflammation to tackle pimples, blackheads and clogged pores.
Not sure where retinol is supposed to fit into your nighttime skin care routine? Board-certified dermatologist Dr. Ranella Hirsch offers one important piece of advice: "Apply to clean, dry skin only, and only use a pea-sized drop."
FULL REVIEW: Read three board-certified dermatologists' expert take on this popular over-the-counter retinoid.
Best lightweight retinol serum: Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Retinol Anti-Aging Serum
Size: 1.0 oz. | Other key ingredients: Hyaluronic acid
Lamb loves this serum because it's "oil-free and accessible," citing its affordable price tag. The silky formula brightens and evens skin tone, tackles fine lines and wrinkles and leaves skin feeling nice and smooth. It also has hyaluronic acid to add back moisture.
One reviewer called it a "delicious treat" for their face, and many cited the quick and noticeable results they saw when they started using the serum. "Works great and results shown immediately," another shopper said.
Best retinol serum for combination skin: Azure Skincare Hyaluronic and Retinol Facial Serum
Size: 1.69 oz. | Other key ingredients: Hyaluronic acid, collagen, vitamin B5, aloe vera
This anti-aging retinol serum is a force to be reckoned with and has several add-on ingredients to help nourish skin, all while it reduces the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.
"It incorporates hyaluronic acid, which is another great hydrating ingredient to help reduce potential skin dryness with retinol use," Anolik says.
As an added bonus, it’s sold at an accessible price, it's vegan, hypoallergenic and free of parabens and phthalates.
Best retinol serum for mature skin: La Roche-Posay Pure Retinol Face Serum
Size: 1.0 oz | Other key ingredients: Glycerin, niacinamide, hyaluronic acid
Jacob cites this serum as one of her top retinol picks, and Amazon reviewers agree: It has over 6,400 verified five-star ratings on Amazon. The lightweight yet effective hypoallergenic formula features niacinamide, glycerin and gradual-release retinol, making it a triple threat that offers effective results.
Customers are clearly impressed with its prowess, too.
"I have sensitive skin and other serums have burned in the past. I have had no redness or burning sensations!" one reviewer wrote. Another customer left the following review: "I have sensitive skin and it works amazing. After a month of buying it, I can see great results."
Best retinol serum for travel: RoC Retinol Correxion Line Smoothing Night Retinol Serum
Size: 0.35 oz. | Other key ingredients: Ceramide NP
More than 11,000 verified Amazon shoppers have bestowed a five-star rating on this bestseller that Ramachandra also adores. "The capsules make it so easy to apply. It's perfect when you're on the go or traveling, and it has clinically proven results," she says.
The encapsulated night serum is formulated with retinol and antioxidants that offer anti-aging benefits and leave skin ultra-hydrated.
One satisfied shopper compared it to "new skin in a jar" and another called it "magic in a bottle."
Best retinol serum for uneven skin texture: La Roche-Posay Redermic R Anti Aging Retinol Serum
Size: 1.0 oz. | Other key ingredients: Lipo-hydroxy acid, thermal spring water
When using a retinol serum, it's important to use sunscreen since the ingredient can make your skin more sensitive to the sun.
"Begin application once every two to three days, and increase to daily application as tolerated. If excessive irritation occurs, mixing the serum with your favorite moisturizer can help to improve tolerability," Jacob tells us.
The derm recommends this anti-aging formula that's ideal for reducing wrinkles on the upper lip, forehead and crow's feet. Aside from retinol, other notable ingredients include soothing La Roche-Posay Thermal Spring Water and exfoliating lipo-hydroxy acid.
Most hydrating retinol serum: Olay Regenerist Retinol 24 Night Face Serum
Size: 1.3 oz. | Other key ingredients: Niacinamide, amino peptides
Anolik is a fan of this fragrance-free find that features a vitamin B3 and retinoid complex. Apply this lightweight formula at night and it’ll do its job while you sleep — and continue hydrating your skin for up to 24 hours.
"Since the product is fragrance- and dye-free, it's an excellent option for people with allergic or sensitive skin types. This is particularly important for these sorts of people since retinols already can be a bit irritating in their own right," he says.
Best retinol serum for sensitive skin: First Aid Beauty FAB Skin Lab Retinol Serum 0.25% Pure Concentrate
Size: 1.0 oz. | % of retinol: 0.25 | Other key ingredients: Peptides
With over 25,000 Sephora "loves" under its belt, this is one serum that comes well recommended by Sephora customers. Lamb also lent it her seal of approval and tells us why it's worth every penny.
"It has a high concentration of retinol in a balanced fashion to permit results without irritation," she explains.
Made specifically for sensitive skin, this splurge-worthy find confronts fine lines, wrinkles, dullness and uneven texture like a champ. The vegan, cruelty-free formula also contains peptides to smooth skin and a Skin Saver Complex (the brand's propriety blend of signature blend of hyaluronic acid, vitamins C and E, aloe, colloidal oatmeal, allantoin and ceramides) to soothe your complexion.
One of the many happy users raved about it with this review: “Like liquid gold. A little goes a long way. I love it! Worth the price.”
More top-rated retinol serums we recommend
Best K-beauty retinol serum: Peach and Lily Retinal For All Renewing Serum
Size: 1.01 oz. | % of retinol: 0.1 | Other key ingredients: Hyaluronic acid, cloudberry seed extract, perilla leaf extract, heartleaf extract
Like its name suggests, you really can have it all with this serum: glowing skin without any flakiness, redness or irritation that retinol can cause if not used correctly.
Peach & Lily founder and CEO Alicia Yoon worked closely with clean cosmetic chemist Krupa Koestline, as well as a team of skin care experts, for three years to develop this innovative formula. After 288 (!) unique iterations, the final result is one you can count on for reducing fine lines and dark spots, visibly improving skin texture.
The rich yellow hue comes from potent retinal (yes, spelled with an “a”), which is 20 times more effective and works 11 times faster than traditional retinol, thanks to the brand’s so-called R-IQ Technology.
So, how is this product so effective and gentle at the same time? It’s filled with a potent dose of 0.1% retinal (the most powerful non-prescription retinoid available) as well as 0.3% ectoin, an extremolyte that prevents retinoid-induced inflammation.
On a personal note, Wendy, one of the writers of this piece, is currently using this product and — personally loves it!
Retinol serum good for all skin types: Murad Youth Retinol Youth Renewal Serum
Size: 4.8 oz. | Other key ingredients: Hyaluronic acid, swertia flower extract
According to the brand, the Murad Youth Retinol Renewal Serum is gentle enough for nightly use (although take Stevenson’s advice into consideration to start slowly). “This serum contains hyaluronic acid, which helps counteract the drying effect of the retinol and can be tolerated on skin that usually gets dry,” says Dr. Morgan Rabach, a board-certified dermatologist.
This formula aims to reduce fine lines and wrinkles, firm and smooth skin, as well as give it a glow after four weeks. It’s also made with swertia flower extract to help increase skin’s resilience.
Most innovative retinol serum packaging: Kiehl’s Fast Release Wrinkle-Reducing 0.3% Retinol Night Serum
Size: 0.94 oz. | % of retinol: 0.3 | Other key ingredients: Glycerin, panthenol
Looking for results ASAP? Think of this Kiehl’s retinol night serum as a time capsule in a bottle. It’ll work wonders while you catch those zzz's, delivering visible reduction of fine lines in just five days and visible improvement in deep wrinkles in two weeks, according to the brand.
The packaging is smartly designed to keep the formula fresh and ensure maximum efficiency: Upon the first use, push down on the capsule to release the pure retinol powder, give it a little shake and apply.
Kiehl’s website shows before-and-after photos from the clinical studies that had us shocked — in a good way. And if that’s not already a major reason to try, there are more than 650 users who gave it a five-star rating on the brand's site, with reviews like this one: “Such a great super light serum. Very liquid-y and glides on. I saw a difference the next morning. After a few months, I’m hooked.”
Retinol serum worth the splurge: Eve Lom Radiance Repair Retinol Serum
Size: 1.0 oz. | Other key ingredients: AHAs, prebiotic oat kernel ferment
This retinol serum by Eve Lom is a splurge, but one that’s worth it if you’re looking for a fast and effective skin care boost.
It's made with a blend of wrinkle-fighting liposome-encapsulated retinol and microbiome-rebalancing prebiotic oat kernel ferment, and it's fortified with alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs); all this means that it'll exfoliate your skin while plumping, hydrating and smoothing it.
A satisfied user who calls this serum a “miracle” noted, “I have been using this product for about a month, and I can hardly see any of my fine lines anymore. Also, my skin tone seems more even and radiant. I absolutely love the packaging as well. I would definitely recommend.”
What to expect when you use a retinol serum
Whenever you try a new skin care ingredient, it's best to take things slow to see how your complexion will respond, and that's especially true when it comes to retinol.
"The trick is that less is more. Using them to the point of redness, flakiness or irritation does not give you more benefit. You have to find the sweet spot for your own skin. Some can use more than others, so find the right balance for your skin type and work with a board-certified dermatologist," Stevenson says.
Occasionally, retinol users experience irritation known as retinoid dermatitis, but that usually resolves itself over time as your skin gets used to the ingredient.
"To ease the start of a retinol in a skin care regimen, I’ll often recommend starting use every other evening and applying a soothing moisturizer right on top of it. In some cases I even recommend a so called 'retinol sandwich,' which involves applying a moisturizer, then the retinol, and then another layer of moisturizer," explains Anolik.
FAQs about retinol, answered by experts
What is the best concentration of retinol to use?
“There is no right answer here because the percentage of retinol is a very individual matter," Rabach summarizes. "I like to start my patients on the lowest strength, usually 0.025% and then move them up 0.05% and then 0.1% as tolerated.”
Rabach notes that even at the lowest strengths, she advises her patients to start a few times a week, and use moisturizer with the retinol because all retinols cause dryness.
“After around a month of use, the skin gets more acclimated to the retinol, and then you can use it more frequently,” she says. “If a patient is using it every day with no dryness and the skin is still oily, you can move to the next higher-strength retinol.”
What are the do’s and don’ts of applying retinol serum?
“Incorporating retinol into your regimen is a marathon, not a sprint," Nichols says. The key is to condition your skin prior to using high concentrations of retinol.
“When you use too much at once, you risk the chance of irritation and dry skin. Your skin needs to adjust to the rapid cell turnover,” they advise. “Start with a lower concentration and slowly work your way up. I suggest my patients start off using retinol about every three nights, eventually working their way to nightly use.”
Retinol should be used at night only because it is deactivated by UV light, and thus, becomes ineffective. This powerhouse ingredient works synergistically with many ingredients. Nichols swears by the trifecta: an antioxidant, retinol and SPF.
She says, “This holy grail of products is the easiest and most affordable way to maintain healthy, glowing skin while combating signs of aging.”
Rabach mentions another important point when using retinol: “I recommend using a moisturizer with retinol and limiting other acids on the skin at the same time you are using it,” she says.
Retinols should be used sparingly (a pea-sized amount will do) and with moisturizer. Also worth noting: the skin around your eyes is very thin and sensitive, so it likely won't tolerate the same amount or frequency of retinol used elsewhere on your body.
How can I tell if retinol is working?
“Three to six months is the standard timeline where consumers can expect to notice changes in the skin,” Nichols explains. “It's essential to stick to the product before giving up for the skin to get used to the retinol.”
In general, you can tell that retinol is working when you notice your skin is smoother, softer, brighter and less congested overall.
How we chose the best retinol serums
The Shop TODAY team rounded up the best retinol serums for this story using a few methods: enlisting the recommendations of top dermatologists, reading through user reviews, filtering our searches for highly rated, bestselling, and favorably reviewed products, and testing some retinol serums ourselves to share our own tried-and-true favorites.
Meet our experts
- Dr. Robert Anolik, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist and a fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology. He specializes in cosmetic dermatology and laser skin surgery.
- Dr. Ranella Hirsch, MD, FAAD, is a Boston-based board-certified dermatologist. She frequently lectures to physicians in the fields of laser surgery and cosmetic dermatology
- Dr. Leah Jacob, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist and associate professor of dermatology at Tulane University's School of Medicine in New Orleans. Her areas of focus include cosmetic dermatology and skin cancer screening.
- Dr. Debra Jaliman, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist and author of the book, “Skin Rules: Trade Secrets from a Top New York Dermatologist."
- Dr. Angel Lamb, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist and the Director of the Westside Mount Sinai Dermatology Practice, as well as an associate professor of dermatology. She areas of expertise include acne, eczema, hair loss, skin cancer screening and more.
- Dr. Kim Nichols, MD, FAAD, is a board-certified dermatologist and cosmetic surgeon. She is the founder of NicholsMD of Greenwich.
- Dr. Morgan Rabach, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist and co-founder of LM Medical NYC.
- Dr. Liia Ramachandra, Pharm.D., Ph.D, is a former pharma executive and skin care expert based in Canoga Park, California. She is the CEO and founder of skin care brand Epilynx.
- Dr. Mary L. Stevenson, MD, is a board-certified dermatologic surgeon and associate professor of dermatology at NYU Langone Health.