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The best retinol serums, according to experts: Our top picks for a youthful glow

These serums may have anti-aging benefits, but there are a few things to know before adding them to your skincare routine.

Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Nov 24, 2023 • 10 min read
Medically reviewed by Kristen Jokela, NP-C
Retinol Serum Pump
Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Nov 24, 2023 • 10 min read
Medically reviewed by Kristen Jokela, NP-C
We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

In this article

The benefits of retinol serum
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There’s no one-size-fits-all in skincare. What works for one person may not necessarily have the same results for someone else. But it’s only natural to want the best, so our team of licensed dermatology providers reviews and assesses countless products on the market to offer a few recommendations. So here, you’ll find the products that hold up to our rigorous standards.

Topical retinoids are a big hit in skincare, especially for fighting signs of aging. With so many over-the-counter (OTC) retinol serums out there, it can be tricky to pick the right one for your skin.

So, we’re here to share everything we’ve learned from our expert dermatology providers about the benefits of retinol, our top picks for the best retinol serums you can try at home, and some tips on adding topical retinol into your skincare routine. 

And, if you’ve tried OTC retinol products but want something stronger, we’ve got a recommendation for that too. Let’s help you find that perfect product to encourage a fresh, youthful look!

The benefits of retinol serum

When it comes to skincare, not every product is a one-size-fits-all. While not everyone may need a face serum, incorporating one, especially with retinol, can offer numerous advantages for your skin.

Retinol is a type of retinoid—a vitamin A derivative. When applied to the skin, retinoids penetrate the outermost layer, the epidermis, and to some extent, they also reach the deeper layers, namely the dermis and subcutaneous tissue.¹ But what does this mean for your skin?

Anti-aging benefits: One of the most impressive benefits of retinol serum is its anti-aging effects. Retinoids are proven to minimize visible signs of aging such as fine lines and wrinkles. They work to improve uneven skin tone and texture, and they can also help reduce dark spots or age spots.² In fact, retinoids stand out as some of the most effective substances at slowing down the skin’s aging process.³

Collagen and elastin boostCollagen and elastin are vital proteins that maintain the skin’s firmness and elasticity. Over time, their production naturally slows down, leading to sagging skin and wrinkles.⁴ However, retinol comes to the rescue by not only protecting existing collagen but also promoting the production of new collagen and elastin.⁵

Exfoliation: Another benefit of retinol serum is its ability to encourage the exfoliation of dead skin cells. This process rejuvenates the skin, helping it look fresher and more radiant.⁶

Enhanced skin firmness and hydration: Retinol serum plays a role in improving the firmness, hydration, and elasticity of the dermis—the second layer of the skin.⁷ This helps skin remain plump, hydrated, and less prone to developing fine lines.

Reduction of discoloration: For those troubled by skin discoloration or dark spots, retinol serum can be a game-changer. Studies have shown that topical retinoids can reduce skin discoloration and dark spots by about 60%.⁸

Our picks for best retinol serum

Neutrogena Wrinkle Repair Retinol Anti-Wrinkle Face Serum

What we like about it:

  • Single-dose capsules make application a breeze

  • Formulated without fragrance, alcohol, or mineral oil

  • Also includes vitamin E for added hydration

The Inkey List Retinol Serum

What we like about it:

  • Uses a slow-release formula that may be less irritating

  • Includes squalane for extra hydration and soothing

  • Formulated for all dry, oily, or combination types

Yeouth Retinol Serum

What we like about it:

  • Uses a gentle formula that may be less irritating for retinol beginners

  • Formulated for all skin types

  • Includes vitamin E, hyaluronic acid, and aloe for moisturizing and soothing

RoC Retinol Correxion Smoothing Night Serum Capsules

What we like about it:

  • Single-dose capsules keep serum fresh and are easy to apply

  • Fragrance-free for less irritation of sensitive skin

  • Vegetable capsules are 100% biodegradable

Shani Darden Retinol Reform Treatment Serum

What we like about it:

  • Time-released retinol formula delivers retinol throughout the night to help minimize the irritation

  • Fragrance-free and non-comedogenic for acne-prone skin

  • Cruelty-free and vegan formula

CeraVe Skin Renewing Retinol Serum

What we like about it:

  • Slow-release formula may be more gentle on skin

  • Also includes hyaluronic acid, niacinamide, and ceramides for hydration and soothing

  • Non-comedogenic and fragrance-free

The Ordinary Retinol 1% in Squalane

What we like about it:

  • A higher-strength retinol serum for more advanced users

  • Also contains squalane for hydration

  • Alcohol-free, gluten-free, and vegan formula

What to know when adding retinol to your routine

Before you dive into the world of retinol, here’s what you need to consider for a safe and effective skincare journey.

OTC retinol vs. prescription-strength tretinoin: Over-the-counter retinol may be gentler on the skin, causing less irritation compared to tretinoin, a prescription-strength retinoid.⁹ However, tretinoin tends to be more potent and may offer more pronounced benefits or results than OTC retinol.¹⁰

Skin sensitivities: If you have a history of skin allergies, dryness, redness, or inflammation, retinoids might not be the best choice for you. You’ll want to check in with a licensed dermatology provider who can guide you on the appropriate treatment options tailored to your skin’s needs.¹¹

Starting slowly: To minimize potential side effects when introducing retinol to your regimen, start with a product that has a lower percentage of retinol. Initially, apply it every other night. This gradual introduction gives your skin time to get used to the new ingredient.¹²

Monitoring your skin’s reaction: After a few weeks of alternate-day application, if you haven't experienced any negative side effects such as burning or redness, you can consider daily application. However, always be vigilant and monitor how your skin reacts.¹³

Sun sensitivity: Notably, topical retinoids can make your skin more sensitive to the sun.¹⁴ This heightened sensitivity means you’re more susceptible to sunburn. To counteract this, experts recommend applying retinol products only at night. During the day, arm yourself with sun protection measures—this includes applying a broad-spectrum sunscreen, wearing a hat, and opting for sun-protective clothing.¹⁵ 

While retinol can be a transformative addition to your skincare routine, it’s important to use it with caution and knowledge. Always listen to your skin, and when in doubt, seek advice from a dermatology expert.

Curology offers prescription-strength retinoids

Over-the-counter retinol serums are a great way to introduce topical retinoids into your skincare routine. However, if you aren’t getting the results that you’d like from drugstore retinols, a prescription-strength retinoid, like tretinoin, might be worth a try. 

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

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Curology offers tretinoin as one of the proven ingredients in its customizable skincare formulas. Getting started is easy, just fill out a quick skin quiz and snap a few photos. If Curology is right for you, you’ll be paired with a licensed dermatology provider who can prescribe a custom formula with ingredients such as tretinoin, azelaic acid, or niacinamide to help fight early signs of aging. 

FAQs

Which retinol serum is strongest?

The strength of retinol serums can vary, with many over-the-counter skincare products containing up to 2% retinol.¹⁶ This is considered the highest retinol concentration available without a prescription. However, if you’re new to retinol, it’s best to start with a lower-strength product and apply it every other night.¹⁷ This approach helps reduce potential irritation. After a few weeks, if you don’t notice any adverse reactions like increased burning or redness, you can then move to daily application.¹⁸

Do you put moisturizer on before or after retinol?

When adding skincare products into your routine, the general rule is to apply them from the thinnest consistency to the thickest so they absorb into your skin correctly. Given that serums are typically thinner in consistency compared to moisturizers, you should generally apply your retinol serum first. “However, it is usually fine to apply moisturizer prior to retinol if your skin tends to be more sensitive,” notes Curology provider Elise Griffin, PA-C. So whether to moisturize before or after retinol isn’t an issue you need to stress about.

Is prescription retinol better?

Determining whether a prescription retinoid is “better” depends on individual skin needs and reactions. While everyone’s skin is unique, over-the-counter versions typically cause less irritation than tretinoin, a stronger prescription-strength retinoid.¹⁹ However, for those who tolerate it well, tretinoin can offer added benefits compared to OTC retinol.²⁰ If you’re considering a switch or introduction to retinoids, it’s wise to start with a lower-strength product, apply it every other night, and gradually increase your usage as tolerated.²¹

What are the disadvantages of retinol serum?

While retinol serum offers numerous skin benefits, it’s not without its drawbacks. Individuals with skin conditions like allergies, dryness, redness, or inflammation might experience more symptoms when using topical retinoids and should check in with a licensed dermatology provider before use.²² Starting with retinol can lead to irritation in some people, which is why it’s recommended to begin with a lower-strength product and gradually increase its use.²³ 

Additionally, retinol increases your skin’s sensitivity to the sun. So you’ll need to be diligent with sun protection measures during the day, such as wearing sunscreen, hats, and sun-protective clothing.²⁴

What happens if you use retinol serum every day?

Using retinol serum daily can offer transformative skin benefits. Consistent use can lead to a noticeable improvement in signs of aging, such as the appearance of wrinkles, uneven skin texture, and dark spots.²⁵ Retinoids, which include retinol, are powerful agents that slow the skin aging process.²⁶ They promote the production of collagen and elastin and encourage dead skin cell turnover, leading to a fresher complexion.²⁷ 

However, it’s important to start with a lower strength and monitor for irritation.²⁸ If your skin appears to be tolerating retinol well after a few weeks, you can consider daily application.²⁹

• • •

P.S. We did the homework so you don’t have to:

  1. Michalak, M., et al. Bioactive Compounds for Skin Health: A Review. Nutrients. (January 2021).

  2. Michalak, M., et al. Bioactive Compounds for Skin Health: A Review. Nutrients. Ibid.

  3. Zasada, M. and Budzisz, E. Retinoids: active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatments. Postepy dermatologii i alergologii. (August 2019).

  4. Oikarinen, A. Aging of the skin connective tissue: how to measure the biochemical and mechanical properties of aging dermis. Photodermatology, Photoimmunology & Photomedicine. (April 1994).

  5. Michalak, M., et al. Bioactive Compounds for Skin Health: A Review. Nutrients. Ibid.

  6. Michalak, M., et al. Bioactive Compounds for Skin Health: A Review. Nutrients. Ibid.

  7. Michalak, M., et al. Bioactive Compounds for Skin Health: A Review. Nutrients. Ibid.

  8. Michalak, M., et al. Bioactive Compounds for Skin Health: A Review. Nutrients. Ibid.

  9. Ganceviciene, R., et al. Skin anti-aging strategies. Dermato-endocrinology. (2012, July 1).

  10. Zasada, M. and Budzisz, E. Retinoids: active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatments. Postepy dermatologii i alergologii. Ibid.

  11. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Retinoid or Retinol?. (2021, May 25).

  12. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Retinoid or Retinol?. Ibid.

  13. American Academy of Dermatology Association. How to prevent premature skin aging. (2021, February 25).

  14. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Retinoid or Retinol?. Ibid.

  15. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Retinoid or Retinol?. Ibid.

  16. American Academy of Dermatology Association. How to prevent premature skin aging. Ibid.

  17. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Retinoid or Retinol?. Ibid.

  18. American Academy of Dermatology Association. How to prevent premature skin aging. Ibid.

  19. Ganceviciene, R., et al. Skin anti-aging strategies. Dermato-endocrinology. Ibid.

  20. Zasada, M. and Budzisz, E. Retinoids: active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatments. Postepy dermatologii i alergologii. Ibid.

  21. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Retinoid or Retinol?. Ibid.

  22. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Retinoid or Retinol?. Ibid.

  23. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Retinoid or Retinol?. Ibid.

  24. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Retinoid or Retinol?. Ibid.

  25. Michalak, M., et al. Bioactive Compounds for Skin Health: A Review. Nutrients. Ibid.

  26. Zasada, M. and Budzisz, E. Retinoids: active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatments. Postepy dermatologii i alergologii. Ibid.

  27. Michalak, M., et al. Bioactive Compounds for Skin Health: A Review. Nutrients. Ibid.

  28. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Retinoid or Retinol?. Ibid.

  29. American Academy of Dermatology Association. How to prevent premature skin aging. Ibid.

Kristen Jokela is a certified Family Nurse Practitioner at Curology. She obtained her Master of Science in Nursing at the University of South Florida in Tampa, FL.

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• • •
Our medical review process:We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team

Kristen Jokela, NP-C

Kristen Jokela, NP-C

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