The 7 Best Retinol Serums for Anti-Aging Benefits and a Fresher Appearance
Add one of these best retinol serums to your anti-aging skin care regimen for brighter, smoother and more youthful-looking skin.
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Chances are you’ve heard of retinol or retinoids. If you take a stroll through your local drugstore, Ulta or Sephora, you’ll find tons of face serums, anti-aging creams and anti-aging eye creams boasting retinol as their magic ingredient. It’s true that there are plenty of retinol serum benefits, including fighting all the signs of aging, such as dark spots and pesky crow’s feet. But where do you start? We’re here to help.
First, what exactly is retinol? “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 that prevents wrinkles as well as smoothes out existing fine lines and wrinkles,” explains Orit Markowitz, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of OptiSkin in New York City.
Available in several forms, including gel, cream and serum, retinol is available via prescription from your doctor or in less-potent over-the-counter versions. Whichever you choose, you’ll want to start off slow, as Markowitz cautions that retinol can be very drying and cause redness when used too often or introduced too quickly. Work with your dermatologist to determine the best skin care routine for you and, when you’re ready, add one of the best retinol serums to the mix.
Best retinol serums
- Best overall: CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum
- Best budget: Olay Regenerist Retinol 24-Night Serum
- Best splurge: Murad Youth Renewal Serum
- Best for sensitive skin: FAB Skin Lab Retinol Serum
- Best on Amazon: Tree of Life Retinol Serum
- Best retinol alternative: Supergoop! Daily Dose Bioretinol + Mineral SPF
- Best for men: Dermalogica Retinol Acne Clearing Oil
Best overall retinol serum
CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum
Whether you’ve suffered from acne and have the scars to prove it, have a hard time finding products that don’t irritate your sensitive skin or have normal skin that gives you minimal trouble, 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 causes less irritation than traditional retinol.
This serum also contains soothing niacinamide, brightening licorice root extract and restorative ceramides. Like all of the brand’s products, CeraVe’s resurfacing serum is fragrance- and paraben-free.
- Contains soothing niacinamide and ceramides
- Gentle formula free from fragrances and parabens
- Available online and in drugstores
- Not specifically designed for anti-aging
Best budget retinol serum
Olay Regenerist Retinol 24 Night Serum
Aside from being affordable and easy to find online and in your local drugstore, Target or Walmart, Olay’s anti-aging skin care is also one of the most trusted brands in America. Their fragrance and dye-free night serum contains Olay’s signature retinoid complex, which plumps up fine lines and wrinkles, smooths, brightens and firms skin, 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.
- Won’t break the bank
- From a trusted brand
- Several users claim this serum does not irritate their sensitive skin
- Dropper application not for everyone
Best splurge retinol serum
Murad Youth Renewal Serum
Rather than hit your skin with a single shot of retinol, this potent retinol serum uses three different smart retinol technologies to gently and visibly minimize lines and deep wrinkles, even skin tone and produce glowing skin. First, a fast-acting retinoid gets to work as soon as it hits your skin to deliver visible results. Next, time-released retinol controls the release of retinol and minimizes the potential for irritation. And finally, a retinol booster amplifies retinol’s ability to increase cell turnover.
In addition, hydrating hyaluronic acid prevents the dryness that can often come with retinol use. This serum may be the priciest on our list, but you can be sure you’ll wake up looking renewed, refreshed, restored and ready to take on the day.
- Provides three different retinol technologies
- Results in as little as two weeks
- Works for balanced, oily, combination and dry skin
- Contains hyaluronic acid and other moisturizing ingredients
- Contains fragrance
Best retinol serum for sensitive skin
First Aid Beauty Skin Lab Retinol Serum
Battle fine lines, wrinkles, dullness and uneven texture with First Aid Beauty’s retinol serum. Though it contains 0.25% of pure retinol and skin-smoothing peptides, the brand’s Skin Saver Complex balances out the serum to make it the best retinol serum for sensitive skin. The Skin Saver Complex is a blend containing hyaluronic acid, colloidal oatmeal, allantoin, aloe, ceramides and vitamins C and E to help soothe, nourish, protect and boost overall skin health. It’s also free from fragrances, drying alcohols, parabens, dyes and a host of other ingredients that can irritate sensitive skin.
- Formulated for sensitive skin and beginner retinol users
- Free from fragrances, dyes and other irritants
- Works for other skin types, too
- On the pricier side
Best retinol serum on Amazon
Tree of Life Beauty Retinol Serum
You don’t have to spend a fortune to look like a million bucks. This retinol serum has over 17,000 five-star ratings and won’t break your budget for the month. The Tree of Life Beauty serum contains retinol, botanical hyaluronic acid and a host of other natural ingredients, such as vitamin E, jojoba oil, green tea and witch hazel. It supports collagen production and skin cell turnover, leaving you with firmer skin.
“I’ve been using this for about a month and I definitely notice a difference in my dark spots and fine lines,” writes verified purchaser, Ariel.
- Has thousands of rave reviews
- Made in the USA
- Has a scent that not everyone will love
Best retinol alternative
Supergoop! Daily Dose Bioretinol + Mineral SPF
Looking for a retinol alternative? “Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding and people with very sensitive or dry skin should avoid retinol,” explains Markowitz. Bakuchiol, which comes from the Psoralea corylifolia plant (known as babchi), is the only retinol alternative, according to Markowitz, whose genetic impact has been studied.
Supergoop’s Daily Dose Bioretinol is formulated with Bakuchiol along with a natural, collagen-boosting peptide (L-Carnosine) and mineral SPF. These drops reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles while helping prevent future skin damage from happening in the first place—all without redness or irritation. In fact, these drops are so gentle that they can be used daily and even be reapplied throughout the day if moisturizers with SPF are not in your skin care routine.
- Contains the only retinol alternative
- Gentle enough to use every day
- Lightweight formula made with mineral SPF
- Safe for sensitive and acne-prone skin
- Still has the potential to cause irritation
Best retinol serum for men
Dermalogica Retinol Acne Clearing Oil
Did you know that men tend to have larger oil glands and make more oil than women? According to Markowitz, retinol regulates oil and treats acne. So, even if you’re not currently dealing with breakouts, this retinol acne-clearing oil is one of the best retinol serums for men, as well as the best retinol serum for acne. This serum has time-released retinol to plump lines and decrease signs of aging. It’s also made with 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, and all-around smoothness and radiance come within eight weeks. Skincare products for men may be underrated, but they’re essential for maintaining healthy, smooth skin.
- Helps regulate oil and unclog pores
- Results begin to show in one week
- Made with salicylic acid to treat acne
- Recommended for all skin types
- On the pricier side
What to consider when buying the best retinol serum
When shopping for the best retinol serum, start by considering your skin type and needs. For instance, if you have sensitive skin, you’ll want to choose a product that’s specially formulated for that. If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, you’ll want to avoid retinol and buy a retinol alternative instead. And, of course, you’ll want to consider your budget, as retinol serums can range anywhere from under $20 to triple digits.
How we found the best retinol serum
As shopping experts, our only job is to help you find a winning product. We start with the research and reporting basics—what products are made of, what they look like and how much they cost—to ensure that we’re only recommending the buys that are worth your time and money. Then, we research the features that speak to the product’s quality, taking advice from industry insiders and subject matter experts on what makes a product a smart value (or worthy of a splurge). Finally, we do the work of combing through user reviews to see how real people interact with the product, and if it stands up to the test.
What is the most effective form of retinol?
Prescription retinoids followed by over-the-counter retinol are the most effective forms of retinol. That doesn’t mean you won’t see the same results if you use an over-the-counter retinol as opposed to a prescription retinoid. You will! It will just take longer.
What percentage of retinol serum is best?
Retinol serums vary in terms of their potency. You’ll often find serums that range from 0.25% to 1% retinol, as well as other high-dose retinol blends. While over-the-counter retinol is significantly less potent than prescription, beginners may want to start with a lower concentration and work their way up as their skin adjusts.
How often should you use retinol serum?
If you’re adding retinol to your skin care routine for the first time, less is more. Start by using a pea-sized amount a couple of nights a week until your skin adjusts. Slowly work your way up to more frequent use.
No matter if you choose retinol in a gel, cream or serum, you should apply it at night after washing your face and before you apply any other skin care product, including your night cream. “You want your retinol to be the first thing that touches your face for the best results,” Markowitz confirms.
What are retinol alternatives?
Retinol alternatives are ingredients that have anti-aging benefits, but are not retinol or retinol derivatives. Markowitz recommends bakuchoil, a plant-based alternative to retinol that’s similar to Retin-A (a form of vitamin A) in its ability to improve wrinkles.
She adds that other ingredients, such as rosehip oil, contain small concentrations of retinoic acids and glycolic acid, which boost collagen and elastin, and tout anti-aging benefits. She cautions that these ingredients don’y have regulations, unlike retinol.
- Orit Markowitz, MD, a board-certified dermatologist, skin cancer specialist and founder of OptiSkin
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