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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.
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-Whitely 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."
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. You'll wake up in the morning with silky-smooth skin from its hydrating properties that work together to present a smoother skin surface and diminish fine lines.
"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."
"I love Murad Advanced Acne and Wrinkle Reducer because it contains retinol, salicylic, and glycolic acids," explains cosmetic dermatologist Kenneth Howe. "The retinol modulates skin maturation and shedding, which prevents the formation of the plugs that cause acne. This is a medication-like effect. The addition of the glycolic and salicylic acid furthers shedding via loosening of the bonds between clumped dead skin cells, which is a chemical effect."
Want to wake up looking extra fresh-faced? Apply this Sunday Riley product before bed. Thanks to an active retinoid complex, you'll wake up with smoother, more even skin, while ingredients like blue tansy (which gives it its color!) and German chamomile essential oils work to calm the skin.
"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."
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.
"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, 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.
Ferulic acid, or hydroxycinnamic acid, is a powerful antioxidant that neutralizes free-radical damage from pollution, ultraviolet light, or infrared radiation, all of which accelerate skin aging. It's found in the cell wall of plants like oats, brown rice, peanuts, apples, and oranges.
The formula in this little orange bottle—which happens to be vegan and cruelty-free—will give your skin the ultimate glow-up. Infused with plant-based antioxidant ferulic acid and retinol, it does everything from protecting your skin from sun damage to smoothing out rough patches.
"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.