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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? Sadly, miracle ingredients don’t actually exist. But you can still achieve stellar results with one skin care wonder: retinol.
If you’re new to the retinol game and aren’t sure where to begin, a serum is a great way to wade in slowly. To help you get started, the Shop TODAY team consulted several top dermatologists to find out everything you need to know about retinol serums. We also asked them to share a few of their favorite products!
What is retinol serum?
Much like other retinol products, retinol serums are sought after for their anti-aging benefits and they’re available over the counter, no prescription required.
“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,” Dr. Leah Jacob, an assistant professor of dermatology at Tulane University, revealed.
What does retinol serum do to your face?
Made of vitamin A derivatives, retinol serums have many potential skin care benefits, including the following:
- Acne reduction
- Increased cell turnover and dermal collagen production
- Decreased fine lines and wrinkles
- A more radiant complexion
Are retinol serums safe for everyone to use?
If your skin is sensitive, 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,” Mary Stevenson, MD, associate professor of dermatology at NYU Langone Health, advised.
Retinols should be avoided while you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, and there are certain skin conditions like eczema or rosacea that should also steer clear of the ingredient.
“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, explained.
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 said.
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,” Dr. Robert Anolik, a fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology, told us.
Best retinol serums to shop, according to experts
Three of the derms we polled cited this affordable CeraVe retinol serum as one of their go-tos.
“It contains hyaluronic acid, glycerin and ceramides, which hydrate the skin, and niacinamide and licorice root extract, which help with uneven dark discoloration,” Dr. Debra Jaliman, board-certified dermatologist and author of the book, “Skin Rules: Trade Secrets from a Top New York Dermatologist,” said.
Dr. Liia Ramachandra, a former pharma executive and skin care expert, enjoys the lightweight, gel-like consistency, calling it “great for acne,” and Anolik also appreciates the added ceramides, which help “soothe the skin” and counteract some of the side effects of retinol.
This anti-aging retinol serum is a force to be reckoned with and has several add-on ingredients to help nourish skin 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 said.
As an added bonus, it’s vegan, hypoallergenic and free of parabens and phthalates!
Ramachandra digs this budget-friendly option because it’s affordable and effective. “There’s no fuss. It’s just retinol in squalane (a great hydrating solution), which makes retinol application easier,” she explained.
The water-free serum contains a light concentration of retinol (one percent to be precise), making it ideal for anyone with sensitive skin.
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 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 offered one important piece of advice: “Apply to clean, dry skin only and only use a pea-sized drop.”
Retinol is pretty strong on its own, but when combined with other ingredients, it can become a true powerhouse, and this serum is a perfect example of that. “The addition of salicylic acid to this serum increases its efficacy and makes results more noticeable,” Jacob told us.
This 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.”
When asked for her top retinol picks, Jacob cited this serum, which has over 3,100 five-star ratings on Amazon. The strong formula features vitamin B3, 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.”
Lamb loves this serum because it’s “oil-free and accessible” with 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.
Over 10,000 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 said.
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.”
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 told 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.
Anolik is a fan of this budget-friendly find that features a vitamin B3 + retinoid complex and a lightweight formula that hydrates 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 said.
“This serum contains peptides and retinol to even skin tone and improve the appearance of fine lines. It has squalane, glycerin and ceramides to hydrate the skin,” Jaliman gushed. The derm appreciates the way this powerful serum promotes a more youthful complexion and fends off the visible signs of aging. It also has a PhytoShield Complex that contains antioxidants to confront irritation and uneven skin tone.
With nearly 24,000 “loves” under its belt, this is one serum that comes well recommended from Sephora customers. Lamb also lent it her seal of approval and told us why it’s worth every penny. “It has a high concentration of retinol in a balanced fashion to permit results without irritation,” she explained.
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 to soothe your complexion.
Nearly 6,000 Amazon shoppers have given this bestseller a five-star rating and 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.
“It makes my skin look 10-15 yrs younger!” one happy customer raved. Another shopper left the following review: “It works the first day you start using it.”