When it comes to tackling just about any skin problem—from fine lines and dark spots to uneven texture and breakouts—retinol is where it's at. It's one of a few vitamin A derivatives (aka retinoids) you can buy over the counter, often in the form of a serum. Retinoids work by increasing cell turnover, offering mild exfoliation, and stimulating collagen production, explains board-certified dermatologist Diane Madfes, MD. "Retinol regulates our sebum production, which is great for acne control," she adds. "When used consistently, we also see a decrease in sun damage in the top layers of our skin."
Clinically proven results are why retinol reigns supreme in the world of skincare. But which formula is right for you? We rounded up standout options touted by dermatologists, as well as a few fan favorites from the Byrdie team. After considering dozens of different brands, evaluating formulas on their active ingredients and targeted benefits, as well as extra features, like how quickly they absorb into skin, and their skin feel, we landed on the following best in show.
Peter Thomas Roth Retinol Fusion PM Night Serum
High retinol concentration
While over-the-counter formulas aren’t as strong as the prescription variety, Fusion PM holds its own. “I like this because the retinol is encapsulated and combined with vitamins C and E,” says Dr. Madfes.
This serum flaunts a generous 1.5 percent concentration of encapsulated retinol, meaning it releases slowly into your skin to sidestep irritation. In addition to the brightening antioxidants Dr. Madfes mentioned, she notes that the base is “very hydrating” thanks to the blend of humectants and skin-loving squalane, so you’re less likely to notice any dryness and inflammation from the retinol.
Price at time of publish: $65
Active Ingredients: Encapsulated retinol, vitamin C, vitamin E, squalane | Retinol Concentration: 1.5% | Dosage: A few drops nightly | Size: 1 oz | Cruelty-Free: No
What Our Testers Say
"I am happy to report that my skin is the smoothest it's ever been, and it looks refreshed all-around. Most importantly, this serum lived up to its claim of being gentle as I experienced no irritation or redness while using it." —Olivia Hancock, Product Tester
The Inkey List Retinol Serum
Results aren't dramatic
If you're on a budget, go with this option from The Inkey List. This brilliantly cheap serum contains a 1 percent concentration of stabilized retinol, 0.5 percent of granactive retinoid (the gentle cousin of prescription-only tretinoin), and squalane to deliver moisture while minimizing irritation.
Price at time of publish: $11
Active Ingredients: RetiStar stabilized retinol, granactive retinoid, squalane | Retinol Concentration: 1.5% | Dosage: Pea-sized amount nightly | Size: 1 oz | Cruelty-Free: Yes
Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Serum
Contains synthetic fragrance
"I recommend Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Serum because it contains stabilized retinol, and the formulation won't break you out," says board-certified dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, MD. In a clinical trial commissioned by the brand, 100 percent of users noticed an improvement in their skin after just a week.
Price at time of publish: $21
Active Ingredients: Stabilized retinol, hyaluronic acid | Retinol Concentration: 0.3% | Dosage: Pea-sized amount daily | Size: 1 oz | Cruelty-Free: No
iS Clinical Pro-Heal Serum Advance +
Reduces appearance of scars
Charlene DeHaven, MD, says this advanced serum is an excellent spot treatment for inflammation and blemishes. "It contains high levels of wound healers for acne lesions, anti-inflammatories, and antioxidants from botanical sources," she tells Byrdie. "This strong serum is also packed with vitamins A, C, and E and olive leaf extract."
Price at time of publish: $158
Active Ingredients: Retinol, vitamin C | Retinol Concentration: Not listed | Dosage: A few drops daily | Size: 1 oz | Cruelty-Free: Yes
Sunday Riley Luna Sleeping Night Oil
Get your beauty sleep with Sunday Riley Luna. This overnight oil boasts an active retinoid complex, calming chamomile, and skin-loving plant oils like blue tansy, which contains azulene—one of the most potent skin-soothing ingredients on the market.
Price at time of publish: $55
Active Ingredients: Trans-retinoic acid ester complex | Retinol Concentration: Not listed | Dosage: A few drops nightly | Size: 0.5–1.2 oz | Cruelty-Free: Yes
Best High Concentration
Yeouth Retinol Serum
May be too strong for sensitive skin
With 2.5 percent encapsulated retinol, this serum offers one of the highest concentrations you can get over the counter, while encapsulation allows for a slow release with minimal irritation. As Dr. Madfes explains, it creates a firming effect by activating the retinoid receptors within our skin, which "stimulates collagen and elastin production."
Price at time of publish: $28
Active Ingredients: Encapsulated retinol, hyaluronic acid | Retinol Concentration: 2.5% | Dosage: Pea-sized amount daily | Size: 1–2 oz | Cruelty-Free: Yes
Best for Crow's Feet
Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Ferulic + Retinol Triple Correction Eye Serum
According to Dr. Dennis Gross, a board-certified dermatologist and dermatologic surgeon, this eye serum is meant to be "applied both under the lid and on top for a lifting effect and incorporates retinol for treating crow's feet, fine lines, and 11s." What's more, he says the gel-like consistency offers a cooling, depuffing effect.
Price at time of publish: $69
Active Ingredients: Retinol, bakuchiol, ferulic acid | Retinol Concentration: Not listed | Dosage: Half a pump morning and night | Size: 0.5 oz | Cruelty-Free: Yes
RoC Retinol Correxion Smoothing Night Serum Capsules
A favorite of Dr. Madfes, RoC Night Serum Capsules boast a high concentration of pure retinol. In a clinical trial, 100 percent of people noticed a reduction in fine lines and visibly firmer skin after just four weeks of using the ceramide-infused anti-ager. This might be why it’s Amazon’s second best-selling face serum.
Price at time of publish: $33
Active Ingredients: Retinol, ceramides | Retinol Concentration: Not listed | Dosage: One capsule nightly | Size: 30 capsules | Cruelty-Free: No
Shani Darden Retinol Reform Treatment Serum
Contains an AHA
As Dr. Madfes explains, "All retinoids increase cell turnover." But Shani Darden's Byrdie-approved Retinol Reform takes it a step further. It calls on alpha-hydroxy acid to gently slough off dead cells, brighten your complexion, and improve uneven texture.
Price at time of publish: $88
Active Ingredients: Encapsulated retinol, lactic acid | Retinol Concentration: Not listed | Dosage: One to two pumps nightly | Size: 1 oz | Cruelty-Free: Yes
Best for Sensitive Skin
Maelove Moonlight Retinal Super Serum
Moonlight Super Serum contains retinal (short for retinaldehyde), which is believed to be more effective than standard retinol but still plenty gentle. Formulated with reactive complexions in mind, the Super Serum is filled with a medley of other soothing ingredients like aloe, witch hazel, green tea, and squalane. If you have eczema, rosacea, or your skin is particularly sensitive, this can be a gentle way to ease into using retinol in your regimen.
Price at time of publish: $37
Active Ingredients: Retinal, vitamin C, squalane | Retinol Concentration: 0.11% | Dosage: A few drops daily | Size: 1 oz | Cruelty-Free: Yes
Best for Dry Skin
CeraVe Skin Renewing Retinol Serum
Replenishes skin barrier
May leave behind slight residue
If your skin is on the drier side, go with CeraVe (words to live by). In addition to encapsulated retinol, this air-tight pump bottle is filled with ceramides to replenish and protect the skin barrier, plus hydrating humectants like hyaluronic acid and niacinamide.
Price at time of publish: $21
Active Ingredients: Encapsulated retinol, ceramides, hyaluronic acid, niacinamide | Retinol Concentration: Not listed | Dosage: Small amount daily | Size: 1 oz | Cruelty-Free: No
Best for Mature Skin
Josie Maran Argan Beta Retinol Pink Algae Serum
"Retinoids help to decrease wrinkles and brown spots and improve overall skin texture," says Dr. Madfes. If you want noticeable results, reach for this hot pink potion from Josie Maran. It combines retinol with quercetin, plant oils, and squalane to tackle photoaging without irritation.
Price at time of publish: $69
Key Ingredients: Retinol, plant oils, quercetin | Retinol Concentration: 2% | Dosage: A few drops daily | Size: 0.85 oz | Cruelty-Free: Yes
Best for Acne-Prone Skin
Differin Adapalene Gel 0.1% Acne Treatment
Board-certified dermatologist Melissa K. Levin, MD, recommends Differin Adapalene for clearing and preventing breakouts. "This powerful gel is the first FDA-approved acne-treating retinoid that's over the counter," she explains. "It's an absolute game-changer."
Price at time of publish: $15
Key Ingredients: Adapalene | Retinol Concentration: 0.1% | Dosage: Thin layer daily | Size: 0.5 oz | Cruelty-Free: No
Best for Uneven Texture
Glossier Universal Pro-Retinol
Results take time
If you're dealing with uneven texture or hyperpigmentation, this little tincture from Glossier has your name on it. It contains 0.5 percent "retinyl sunflowerate," a fancy name for a blend of pure retinol and sunflower seed oil. You'll also get a dose of smoothing stevia extract, moisturizing shea butter, and soothing aloe.
Price at time of publish: $35
Key Ingredients: Retinyl sunflowerate, stevia extract, aloe, shea butter | Retinol Concentration: 0.5% | Dosage: One pump nightly | Size: 1.3 oz | Cruelty-Free: Yes
Best for Fine Lines
Naturium Retinol Complex Serum
Texture is slightly gritty
This affordable formula combines micro-encapsulated retinol with retinol alternative bakuchiol to bring you a one-two punch of line-smoothing, wrinkle-preventing, skin-firming, pore-minimizing goodness, plus vitamin C to simultaneously brighten.
Price at time of publish: $20
Key Ingredients: Micro-encapsulated retinol, bakuchiol, linseed oil, vitamin C | Retinol Concentration: Not listed | Dosage: Thin layer daily | Size: 1 oz | Cruelty-Free: Yes
Best for Beginners
Revision Skincare Retinol Complete 0.5
Contains synthetic fragrance
Board-certified dermatologist Julie Russak, MD, is a fan of Retinol Complete, which addresses hyperpigmentation, dark spots, and other signs of photoaging by encouraging cell turnover. "It's formulated with humectant molecules that hydrate and also contains antioxidants," she tells Byrdie. "This makes it much more tolerable and decreases any redness or dryness."
Price at time of publish: $104
Key Ingredients: Retinol, bakuchiol, vitamin C | Retinol Concentration: 0.5% | Dosage: One to two pumps three times a week | Size: 1 oz | Cruelty-Free: Yes
Best Retinol Alternative
Ranavat Renewing Bakuchi Crème
Ideal for sensitive skin
Nourishing, oil-based formula
Wears well under makeup
Has a lingering scent
Given that retinol can be too harsh for some with sensitive skin, and derms recommend against using it if you're pregnant or nursing, you might be looking for an alternative with the same skin-restoring benefits. Bakuchi seed oil is the starring ingredient in this rich, concentrated cream. With lotus flower and ashwagandha, it's formulated to target hyperpigmentation. And to boot, it boasts recyclable glass packaging.
Price at time of publish: $95
Key Ingredients: Bakuchi seed oil, lotus flower, ashwagandha | Dosage: Morning and evening | Size: 1.7 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes
What Our Editors Say
"I'm a fan of this Ayurvedic brand, and was thrilled when I discovered this retinol-alternative. Although not technically a serum, it has a silky potent formula that's packed with botanic actives that my skin just drinks up, so it essentially functions as well, if not better than a serum, especially if you're prone to dryness or have combination skin like me." — Jill Di Donato, Senior Commerce Editor.
Best for Oily Skin
CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum
Feels cooling on the skin
Helps address hyperpigmentation
Some reviewers note breakouts can occur
In general, and especially if your skin is oily or acne-prone, you'll want to pick a retinol product that is formulated for your skin type. CeraVe's Retinol Serum is a fan favorite for its refreshing feel and the way it helps firm skin without aggravating breakouts. This light serum contains niacinamide and licorice root extract along with ceramides, making it a gentle option for sensitive skin. It's unscented and formulated not to clog pores, and rings in at a very budget-friendly price.
Price at time of publish: $12
Key Ingredients: Retinol, niacinamide, licorice root extract | Dosage: Small dots twice per day | Size: 1 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: No
Best Moderate Priced
baebody Retinol Facial Serum
Does not irritate skin
Addition of green tea to retinol doubles down on antioxidants
Some reviewers note castor oil might be too thick
We're fans of this lightweight formula that absorbs easily into skin, and feels silky smooth, thanks to the addition of castor oil to the formula. We love this as a moderately priced option that features a naturally-derived ingredient list. We also like that the formula is safe for skin that's prone to acne, as castor oil is known not only for its antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties, but also for its ability to diminish the appearance of scars.
Price at time of publish: $23
Key Ingredients: Retinol, vitamin E, castor oil, green tea | Dosage: Small dots twice per day | Size: 1 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes
Peter Thomas Roth Fusion PM is, hands down, the best retinol serum. The dermatologist-recommended formula contains 1.5 percent encapsulated retinol, plus brightening antioxidants and moisturizing squalane. However, if you want something a bit more affordable, you can't go wrong with The Inkey List Retinol Serum, an award-winning formula containing two retinoids, squalane, and hyaluronic acid.
What to Look for in a Retinol Serum
When shopping around, you'll see serums containing various forms of retinol, as well as some other over-the-counter retinoids. Dr. Madfes recommends encapsulated retinol (sometimes called sustained-release retinol), as it offers a slower release into the skin, which helps minimize irritation and excessive dryness.
You'll also find various retinoid complexes, which means multiple forms are combined into one. Then there's retinal (aka retinaldehyde), which has shown to be a little more effective than traditional retinol while still avoiding prescription-level side effects.
And if you're pregnant, nursing, or have ultra sensitive skin, you might want to look at bakuchiol-based retinol alternatives, like the Ranavat Renewing Bakuchi Crème.
Over-the-counter formulas usually contain about 1 percent retinol, though you'll find some lower and higher strengths. While OTC serums typically max out at 2 percent, they can go higher, depending on the form of retinoid used. Higher concentrations generally provide faster, more noticeable results, but if you have particularly sensitive skin, a lower concentration may be best.
Hydrating and Soothing Ingredients
Since retinoids can cause dryness, Dr. Madfes says, "the trick is to create a balance to not dry the top layer of our skin." She recommends formulas with hydrating ingredients like hyaluronic acid, glycerin, squalane, niacinamide (vitamin B3), ceramides, and plant oils.
Another common side effect is irritation. To minimize stinging and redness, opt for retinol serums containing soothing ingredients, such as chamomile, aloe, witch hazel, and green tea. Squalane and various plant oils can also offer a calming effect.
Are retinol serums safe for all skin types?
"Retinol serums are safe for all skin types," confirms Dr. Madfes. However, if you have sensitive, reactive, or dry skin, look for a formula containing some of the hydrating and soothing ingredients mentioned above. Some users can experience dermatitis, or irritation, from using retinol.
Are retinol serums safe to use while pregnant or breastfeeding?
"Retinol products are not to be used while pregnant," Dr. Madfes tells Byrdie. To achieve similar smoothing, brightening, complexion-clearing benefits, she says, "Substitute vitamin C, vitamin B, glycolic acid, lactic acid, and antioxidants into your skincare regimen."
How often should you apply retinol serums?
According to Dr. Madfes, a retinol serum should be applied daily, preferably at night. "If you experience dryness, change to every other night," she adds. "It's important to apply sunscreen in the morning to protect and continue the collagen-stimulating benefits."
What percentage of retinol is best for skin?
A 0.5 percent concentration is a good baseline. From there, you can gradually increase your dosage as your skin acclimates to the treatment until you reach a 0.25 percent concentration. The strongest concentration of retinol you can get over the counter is 1 percent. However, most dermatologist agree that this concentration is too high for those starting out on the treatment, or beginning with retinol.
What happens when you stop using retinol?
Although retinol products can improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, and can also help to clear up acne, when you stop using the treatment, your skin will often return to baseline or pre-treatment condition.
Do you need to wash retinol off in the morning?
Yes. You will need to cleanse your face to wash off retinol or any other active ingredients before exposing your skin to sunlight.
Why Trust Byrdie
Theresa Holland is a freelance copywriter and self-proclaimed skincare nerd. For this story, she asked a board-certified dermatologist for their serum recommendations and insight into formulations, usage, efficacy, and safety. Before landing on her final selections, she referenced several peer-reviewed studies and pored over ingredients lists. As a long-time retinol user, Theresa has tried a handful of products on this list, including RoC, Dr. Dennis Gross, Neutrogena, Maelove, CeraVe, and Yeouth. She covers skincare, haircare, and makeup at Byrdie.
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