These Best-Selling Retinol Serums Are All Under $20

The Ordinary Retinol 0.5% in Squalane

The Ordinary 

Unless you've been MIA from social media for the past few years, chances are you've heard of The Ordinary. Sitting under Toronto-based skincare company Deciem, The Ordinary changed the beauty game when it launched a bunch of high-tech serums that give their expensive counterparts a run for their money. With ingredients such as niacinamide, zinc, and hyaluronic acid, the brand quickly went viral and is now available at major retailers like Ulta, ASOS, Skinstore, and more. 

One of the hero products in The Ordinary's initial launch was the Advanced Retinol 2% serum, now known as the Granactive Retinoid 2% Emulsion. The anti-ager was loved by all for its ability to refine and re-texture the skin. But since its initial launch, five retinoids have been added to the lineup. This now means every skin type, along with beginner and regular retinol users, can find their ideal concentration. Excited? So are we. Keep scrolling for the details. 

The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid 2% Emulsion

The Granactive Retinoid 2% Emulsion ($10) is the current name of the brand's original retinol serum and offers the same advanced retinoid complex in a creamier texture. Granactive retinoid is simply a form of retinoic acid (the part of retinol that actually changes the skin) that delivers the same results as normal retinol without the irritation.

"Granactive retinoid (or hydroxypinacolone retinoate) is a weaker cousin to tretinoin, a prescription ingredient commonly used to treat acne and signs of aging," says dermatologist David Lortscher. "Granactive retinoate may be an effective alternative to retinol and other less potent retinoids," and there's some evidence to suggest it might be gentler on the skin.

Meet the Expert

David Lortscher is a board-certified dermatologist and CEO/Founder of Curology.

Granactive Retinoid 2% in Squalane

The Granactive Retinoid 2% in Squalane ($10) is a more lightweight formula than the emulsion. It's still gentle enough not to irritate the skin and offers better compatibility for a multi-step skincare routine. Use this formula if your skin tends to be more on the sensitive side, and your regime is more complex.

"Over-the-counter (OTC) vitamin A derivatives such as retinol are thought to be significantly less effective than prescription-strength retinoids like tretinoin," says Lortscher. "Prescription retinoids are not right for everyone, though, so an over-the-counter retinol product may be the best choice for some people."

Granactive Retinoid 5% in Squalane

Like the above, the Granactive Retinoid 5% in Squalane ($14) is a higher concentration of the lightweight Granactive retinoid. This will deliver serious results with little to no irritation. This is an ideal progression from the above 2 percent option if you want to take it up a notch. As with all retinoids, this product should only be applied at night and used in conjunction with sunscreen to prevent extra damage from UV rays. Additionally, "applying a retinoid at bedtime means you will reap the most benefits; applying it in the morning may cause the retinoid to break down and be less effective," says Lortscher.

Retinol 0.2% in Squalane

The Retinol 0.2% in Squalane ($5) is a perfect entry point for those who are new to retinol products but have a high tolerance for active ingredients. The 0.2 percent formula is suspended in squalane—a natural antioxidant that hydrates without being heavy. Use every other night, but if peeling occurs, consider trying the Granactive retinoid 5% as an alternative.

Retinol 0.5% in Squalane

Retinol 0.5% in Squalane ($6) is the same formula as the above just in a higher concentration. If you're already a religious retinol user, this could work well for you. 

According to Lortscher, "Prescription retinols can be both safe and effective. However, retinoids can cause skin irritation, especially at higher concentrations. This can result in redness, oversensitivity, and a stinging or burning sensation."

Retinol 1% in Squalane

The last of the bunch, Retinol 1% in Squalane ($7) has the highest amount of retinol suspended in squalane, making it super effective. However, those with reactive skin should proceed with caution. "The best OTC retinol for you may depend on your skin type. For dry skin, I suggest looking for hydrating and non-comedogenic products," says Lortscher. "For oily skin, I suggest looking for lightweight products."

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