The 14 Best Retinol Serums for Anti-Aging Results
Turn back the clock by adding one of these serums to your anti-aging skin-care regimen.
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But what exactly is retinol? Orit Markowitz, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of OptiSkin in New York City, explains, “Retinol is a mild version of retinoic acid. Retinoic acid is a Vitamin A derivative that increases cell proliferation, leading to a thinner top layer of skin and a thickened inner layer of skin. It is most known as an anti-aging product used to prevent wrinkles as well as smooth out existing fine lines and wrinkles.”
Adding a product with retinol to your daily skin-care regimen is a great way to fight all the signs of aging such as dark spots and pesky crow’s feet. But where do you start? When looking to add a retinol product to your skin-care routine, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed with so many brands and choices.
In spite of all the over-the-counter options, which are less potent than prescription retinol, it’s not a selection that should be made lightly since it can cause irritation. Dr. Markowitz cautions that retinol can be very drying and cause redness when used too often or introduced too quickly. He ultimately recommends working with your dermatologist to determine the best skin-care routine for your skin.
How do you use retinol? It’s available in several different forms including gels, creams, and serums. According to Dr. Markowitz, regardless of which form you choose, you should apply it at night after washing your face and before you apply any other skin-care product. “You want your retinol to be the first thing that touches your face for the best results.”
Another important thing to note: retinol can make your skin more sensitive to sunlight. It’s crucial to use sunscreen once you’ve incorporated it into your regimen. In fact, Dr. Markowitz notes that preventative measures like wearing SPF every day are among the best ways to prevent wrinkles or even lessen their appearance. Another anti-aging skin-care powerhouse is Vitamin C serum.
Read on to learn about the best retinol serums on the market.
Our most trusted brand: Olay Regenerist Retinol 24 Night Serum
When it comes to the most trusted brands in America, Olay was our top pick for anti-aging skin care. Their fragrance and dye-free night serum contain Olay’s signature retinoid complex which plumps up fine lines and wrinkles, smooths, brightens, firms, lightens dark spots, and minimizes pores for more youthful-looking skin in just four weeks. It also contains Niacinamide (Vitamin B3) which keeps your skin hydrated and amino peptides which will cause it to look smoother and firmer.
Best drugstore retinol serum: L’Oreal Paris Revitalift Night Serum
The skin-care aisle at your local drugstore is packed with options that all promise to give you smoother, younger-looking skin. So how do you know which one will actually deliver? Rather than play what can ultimately turn out to be a costly and potentially skin-damaging guessing game, go straight for this retinol serum from L’Oreal Paris. It contains .3 percent pure retinol and soothing hyaluronic acid and glycerin. It works faster than brands that contain retinol derivatives and complexes, so your skin will be noticeably smoother, firmer, and brighter, faster. Still unsure of the differences between retinol and retinoids? You’re not alone. It’s one of these 20 things that most of us think are the same—but aren’t.
Best retinol serum for post-acne skin: CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum
If you suffered from acne and have the scars to prove it, then you’ll benefit from this gentle resurfacing serum. It contains encapsulated retinol thanks to CeraVe’s patented MVE technology—essentially akin to time-release technology. It allows the product to penetrate deeper into the skin before it begins working, and is known to cause less irritation than traditional retinol. This serum also contains soothing niacinamide, brightening licorice root extract, and restorative ceramides. Like all of CeraVe’s products, this serum is fragrance and paraben-free, making it an ideal choice for people with sensitive skin. And speaking of sensitive skin, don’t forget how important it is to use sunscreen when you’re using retinol. Here’s the only sunscreen the FDA wants you to use.
Best retinol serum for acne: Dermalogica Retinol Acne Clearing Oil
It turns out that acne isn’t just an adolescent issue. According to Dr. Markowitz, retinol is known to regulate oil and treat acne. So if you’re currently dealing with breakouts (maskne anyone?) this retinol acne clearing oil can help. This serum has time-released retinol to plump lines and decrease signs of aging. It also has salicylic acid, a beta-hydroxy acid that gently exfoliates your skin while unclogging pores, evening out texture, and brightening your complexion. You can expect to see improvements in the appearance of dark spots in just seven days. All around smoothness and radiance comes within eight weeks. And while we’re on the subject, here’s what the acne on every part of your body is trying to tell you.
Best retinol alternative: Tula Wrinkle Treatment Drops Retinol Alternative
Looking for a retinol alternative? Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, and people with very sensitive or dry skin should avoid retinol, explains Dr. Markowitz. Bakuchiol, which comes from the Psoralea coryifolia plant, is a well-known retinol alternative and the only one, according to Dr. Markowitz, whose genetic impact has been studied. Tula’s Wrinkle Treatment Drops are a blend of three botanical retinol alternatives: bakuchiol, alfalfa sprouts, and stevia. These drops condition skin and encourage renewal while lessening the look of fine lines and wrinkles without irritation. Olive-derived squalane nourishes and conditions skin. Probiotics work to lock in moisture, strengthen the skin barrier, calm the look of irritation, and improve skin’s smoothness.
Best retinol serum with Vitamin C: StriVectin Multi-Action Super-C Retinol Brighten & Correct Vitamin C Serum
What happens when you combine the two biggest anti-aging powerhouses into one serum? Magic. That’s what. Along with smoothing retinol, this StriVectin serum boasts two forms of stabilized Vitamin C and acerola cherry extract for firmness, brightness, and clarity. It’s also powered by StriVectin’s patented NIA114 technology, which is an optimized form of niacin and VitaminB3. This combination has been clinically proven to strengthen the moisture barrier and supercharge the performance of other ingredients. And speaking of clinical trials, 100 percent of subjects showed measured improvements in skin firmness after six weeks of use, and no skin irritation after 12 weeks of use. We think that’s pretty impressive!
Best customizable retinol serum: SkinCeuticals Retinol
Whether you’re adding retinol to your skin regimen for the first time or have been using it for years, SkinCeuticals has exactly what you need. This serum contains .3 percent of encapsulated retinol, which is a low dose ideal for beginners, and soothing botanical extracts. Once your skin has gotten used to retinol and you find you need something a bit stronger, you can level up without changing brands. SkinCeuticals offers this serum in two stronger doses: .5 percent retinol and 1 percent retinol so you can be sure you’re giving your skin exactly what it needs.
Best vegan retinol serum: Drunk Elephant A-Passioni Retinol Cream
Drunk Elephant is known for keeping the “suspicious six” out of their products, and this retinol cream is no exception. It’s completely free from SLS, fragrance/dyes, essential oils, chemical sunscreens, drying alcohols, and silicones. Instead of those ingredients which Drunk Elephant feels are at the root of just about any skin issue, they’ve combined 1 percent vegan retinol with nourishing superfood-rich ingredients like passion fruit, kale, apricot, and cherry. It’s also packed full of potent peptides and fatty acids to reboot your skin. Pro tip: mix a pea-size amount of this vegan retinol with one pump of Drunk Elephant’s B-Hydra Intensive Hydration Serum and one pump of their Protini Polypeptide Cream for a “Forever Young Smoothie” that delivers instant results.
Best retinol serum with microencapsulated retinol: Peter Thomas Roth Retinol Fusion PM Night Serum
Rather than hit your skin with a single shot of retinol, this potent serum will allow it to gradually soak in thanks to its time-released microencapsulated retinol. It gently exfoliates your skin all night long to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles and enhance your skin’s texture. Vitamins C and E are infused to provide anti-oxidant benefits along with hydrating squalane, making it suitable for all skin types. You’ll wake up looking renewed, refreshed, restored, and ready to take on the day.
Best retinol serum for around your eyes: Verso Super Eye Serum
This eye serum was one of our top picks when it comes to the best anti-aging eye creams, and we bet it will quickly become one of yours, too. It contains anti-wrinkle superstar Retinol 8, which is eight times as effective as traditional retinol. Niacinamide, also known as Vitamin B3, helps to repair skin barriers while the serum’s peptides work to strengthen tissue and reduce puffiness, circles, and lines.
Best retinol serum with SPF: Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Anti-Wrinkle Retinol Daily Face Moisturizer SPF 30
This Neutrogena daily face moisturizer with retinol does it all. It moisturizes, hydrates, and it offers protection from harmful UVA and UVB rays. Its accelerated retinol SA booster reduces lines and smooths skin. It also contains hyaluronic acid to plump up lines and hydrate. Glucose complex strengthens and protects the skin barrier. And, perhaps best of all, it’s an affordable choice.
Best retinol serum for beginners: RoC Retinol Correxion Line Smoothing Night Serum Capsules
It can take a lot of trial and error to create the perfect skin-care routine, so adding something new, like retinol, can be intimidating. This serum, which contains a high concentration of pure RoC Retinol and a bio-derived antioxidant that is two times more effective than vitamin E, comes perfectly portioned in biodegradable capsules. Beginners don’t have to worry about using too much. Simply open the capsule, apply the serum, and wake up to visibly reduced lines and wrinkles. So easy!
Most affordable retinol serum: Tree of Life Retinol Serum
You don’t have to spend a fortune to look like a million bucks. This retinol serum has almost 13,000 five-star ratings and it only costs $12. It contains retinol, botanical hyaluronic acid, and a host of other natural ingredients such as vitamin E, jojoba oil, green tea, and witch hazel. Some reviewers also share how this serum has helped their hands look younger. Since your hands (and neck) can always benefit from anti-aging skin care, you may also want to look into these 24 hand creams with nearly perfect reviews.
Best high dose retinoid serum: Sunday Riley A+ High-Dose Retinoid Serum
If you spent your youth shunning anything with SPF, because who doesn’t love a good tan, it’s OK. We’ve all made mistakes. But if your past mistakes are catching up with you in the way of dark spots and sun damage, then you may need something a bit stronger to combat them. This advanced strength serum delivers a 6.5 percent blend of retinoids and retinoid alternatives to improve the appearance of damaged skin and fight signs of aging. And to balance out its potency, this serum is also formulated with soothing Hawaiian white honey, cactus extract, and ginger to keep your skin hydrated and comfortable.
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- Dr. Orit Markowitz, a board-certified dermatologist, skin cancer specialist, and founder of OptiSkin