The Best Retinol Serums for Anyone Who Doesn't Know Where to Start

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Best Retinol Serums

Byrdie / Chloe Jeong

Fact: Retinol reigns supreme as one of skincare's star ingredients. You've probably seen this little word written on countless product labels time and again and wondered, What is this stuff? Same. To clear up the confusion, retinol is essentially a vitamin A derivative used in skincare products for anti-aging and acne purposes. It's been proven to be an acne-fighting ingredient that diminishes the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, brown spots, and sun spots. It's known to work fast and effectively, which is why you see it in so many products. (To get a full breakdown of this hero ingredient, take a look at our detailed retinol guide.)

We're huge advocates of incorporating retinol serums into your routine to nourish and hydrate your skin with hardworking ingredients. And, no surprise here, there are a few retinol serums we can stand behind at Byrdie. We also tapped top dermatologists to share their all-time favorites.

Discover the most game-changing retinol serums below.

Our Top Picks
This cult-favorite retinol and lactic acid serum is clearer, smoother skin in a bottle.
This lightweight formula is super effective sans irritation.
This serum contains high levels of wound-healers for acne lesions, as well as anti-inflammatories and antioxidants.
At night, use this serum—which features an active retinoid complex and blue tansy—and you'll wake up with smoother skin.
This budget retinol serum targets signs of aging and acne blemishes without breaking the bank.
This retinol-based formula is so gentle that it won't harm even the most sensitive skin.
Humectant molecules make this retinol much more tolerable—a great choice for retinol rookies.
Best for Acne-Prone Skin:
Differin Adapalene Gel 0.1% at Amazon
This classic is the first FDA-approved, acne-fighting retinoid that's available over the counter.

Best Overall: Shani Darden Skin Care Retinol Reform

Shani Darden
What We Like
  • Boosts radiance

  • Clears blemishes

  • Reduces fine lines and wrinkles

What We Don't Like
  • Expensive

Put simply, this cult-favorite retinol and lactic acid serum from esthetician Shani Darden is clearer, smoother skin in a bottle—no wonder it's beloved by celebrities like Rosie Huntington-Whiteley and Jessica Alba.

It's also officially Byrdie-approved: Former wellness editor Victoria Hoff tested the product firsthand and her results were impressive. "The teeny whispers of forehead lines that I had first noticed a few months prior all but dissolved entirely," she says. "The stubborn acne scar on my chin disappeared within a week. There's an overall brightness to my skin that has edged me from using minimal foundation to ditching it altogether."

Active Ingredients: Retinol, lactic acid, pyrus malus (apple) fruit extract | Dosage: 2 to 3 pumps | Size: 1 fluid ounce | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: No

Runner-Up, Best Overall: Peter Thomas Roth Retinol Fusion PM Night Serum

peter thomas roth Retinol Fusion PM Night Serum
What We Like
  • Lightweight

  • Absorbs fast

  • Gentle formula

What We Don't Like
  • Expensive

You know how some retinol products are so strong that they sting and burn? We're all for this lightweight formula because it's effective sans irritation. Also nice? Because its formula is hydrating, too, it can help smooth the skin and reduce the appearance of fine lines.

Active Ingredients: Microencapsulated Retinol, vitamin C, vitamin E | Retinol Concentration: 1.5% | Size: 1 ounce | Cruelty-Free: No | Byrdie Clean: Yes

peter thomas roth retinol fusion pm night serum

 Byrdie / Olivia Hancock

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

Best for Acne Scars: iS Clinical Pro-Heal Serum Advance +

Shari Darden
What We Like
  • Clears blemishes

  • Provides antioxidant protection

  • Calms redness

What We Don't Like
  • Expensive

"This advance serum is an excellent spot treatment for lesions that are inflamed and enlarging," explains Charlene DeHaven, who is board-certified in both Internal and Emergency Medicine and is also the Clinical Director of iS Clinical. "It contains high levels of wound healers for acne lesions, anti-inflammatories, and antioxidants from botanical sources. The strong serum is also packed with vitamins A, C, and E and olive leaf extract."

Active Ingredients: Vitamin C, olive leaf extract, vitamin E, vitamin A, retinol | Dosage: 3 to 4 drops | Size: 0.5 fluid ounces, 1 fluid ounce | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: No

Best Overnight: Sunday Riley Luna Sleeping Night Oil

sunday-riley-night-oil
What We Like
  • Calms redness

  • Reduces fine lines and wrinkles

  • Provides a dewy glow

What We Don't Like
  • Expensive

Want to wake up looking extra fresh-faced? Apply this Sunday Riley product before bed. Its formula—which features an active retinoid complex, blue tansy (which gives it its color!), and German chamomile essential oils—can help smooth and even the complexion, as well as reduce inflammation.

Active Ingredients: Trans-retinoic acid ester complex, blue tansy essential oil, German chamomile essential oil, cape chamomile essential oil, avocado seed oil, chia seed oil | Dosage: 3 to 4 drops | Size: 1.18 fluid ounces | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes

Best Drugstore: Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Serum

Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Serum
What We Like
  • Affordable

  • Lightweight

  • Reduces fine lines and wrinkles

What We Don't Like
  • Contains fragrance

"While retinol is the most powerful anti-aging ingredient that we have on the market, it's not quite as powerful as prescription-strength retinoids in treating acne," explains Joshua Zeichner, Director of Cosmetic & Clinical Research in Dermatology at New York's Mount Sinai Hospital. "That being said, retinol is a great option for women with aging and acne-prone skin. I recommend Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Serum because it contains stabilized retinol and the formulation won't break you out."

Active Ingredients: Retinol SA, glucose complex, hyaluronic acid | Dosage: Pearl-sized amount | Size: 1 fluid ounce | Cruelty-Free: No | Byrdie Clean: No

Best for Sensitive Skin: First Aid Beauty FAB Skin Lab Retinol Serum 0.25% Pure Concentrate

First Aid Beauty FAB Skin Lab Retinol Serum .25% Pure Concentrate
What We Like
  • Great for sensitive skin

  • Soothes skin

  • Hydrating

What We Don't Like
  • Takes a while to see results

Key Ingredients

Hyaluronic acid is a naturally occurring polysaccharide found in the human body. It acts as a cushioning and lubrication agent for our joints, nerves, hair, skin, and eyes. When used in skincare, it acts as a moisture binder, which means that it will attach itself to the water in the cells (while also attracting and holding water from the air) making them plump.

Zeichner also recommends this serum from First Aid Beauty—especially if you have sensitive skin. "This retinol-based formula is so gentle that it won't harm even the most sensitive skin," he says. Its 0.25% retinol concentration makes it especially approachable, while a blend of hyaluronic acid, colloidal oatmeal, allantoin, aloe, ceramides, vitamin C, and vitamin E work together to hydrate, soothe, and replenish the skin.

Active Ingredients: Retinol, peptides, Skin Saver Complex | Retinol Concentration: 0.25% | Dosage: 1 to 2 pumps | Size: 1 ounce | Cruelty-Free: No | Byrdie Clean: TK

first aid beauty FAB skin lab retinol serum 0.25% pure concentrate

Byrdie / Joline Buscemi

What Our Testers Say

"It’s strong yet effective and is formulated with skin-loving ingredients to keep your face nurtured while retinol gets to work on imperfections." — Joline Buscemi, Product Tester

Best for Beginners: Revision Skincare Retinol Complete 0.5

Revision Skincare Retinol Complete 0.5
What We Like
  • Hydrating

  • Provides antioxidant protection

  • Calms redness

What We Don't Like
  • Expensive

"Retinoid helps to combat the early signs of aging, such as skin elasticity and the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles," notes board-certified dermatologist Julie Russak. "Most importantly, it decreases our cellular turnover rate for signs of dark spots and sun damage. I try to educate my patients early on to get into the habit of applying retinol as early as their 20s."

"There are different forms of retinoids, with retinol being the most tolerable and pure form of vitamin A. I have sensitive skin that gets irritated easily, and I love using Revision's Retinol Complete. It's formulated with humectant molecules that hydrate but also contains antioxidants. This makes it much more tolerable and decreases any redness or dryness."

Active Ingredients: Retinol, isosorbide dicaprylate, bakuchiol, ophiopogon japonicus root extract, THD ascorbate (vitamin C), sesame extract | Retinol Concentration: 0.5% | Dosage: 1 to 2 pumps | Size: 1 fluid ounce | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: No

Best for Acne-Prone Skin: Differin Adapalene Gel 0.1% Acne Treatment

Differin Adapalene Gel 0.1% Acne Treatment
What We Like
  • Affordable

  • Clears blemishes

  • FDA-approved

What We Don't Like
  • Can be drying

"Retinoids are the absolute backbone of any acne treatment since they treat acne by unclogging pores," says board-certified dermatologist Melissa Levin. "They also work to normalize skin cell turnover and act as an anti-inflammatory. Furthermore, retinoids have been proven to improve skin discoloration and texture and, therefore, restore the skin from prior outbreaks." While not all retinoids are the same, Levin loves Differin Gel because it was designed with tolerability in mind, which means it's a great starter retinoid or a retinoid for more sensitive skin. "This powerful gel is the first FDA-approved acne-treating retinoid that's over the counter," she says. "It's an absolute game-changer."

Byrdie contributing writer Bianca Lambert agrees. When she tested the gel to clear up hormonal acne on her neck and chest, she saw improvement in just eight days.

Active Ingredients: Adapalene | Retinol Concentration: 0.1% | Dosage: A thin layer | Size: 1.6 ounces | Cruelty-Free: No | Byrdie Clean: No

Differin Adapalene Gel 0.1% Acne Treatment

Byrdie / Bianca Lambert

Article Sources
Byrdie takes every opportunity to use high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial guidelines to learn more about how we keep our content accurate, reliable and trustworthy.
  1. Kong R, Cui Y, Fisher GJ, et al. A Comparative Study of the Effects of Retinol and Retinoic Acid on Histological, Molecular, and Clinical Properties of Human Skin. J Cosmet Dermatol. 2016;15(1):49-57. doi:10.1111/jocd.12193

  2. Draelos ZD, Diaz I, Namkoong J, Wu J, Boyd T. Efficacy Evaluation of a Topical Hyaluronic Acid Serum in Facial Photoaging. Dermatol Ther (Heidelb). 2021;11(4):1385-1394. doi:10.1007/s13555-021-00566-0

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