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Retinol is the gold-standard ingredient that has been around for decades. It’s one of the few products out there that comes with genuine and guaranteed results thanks to its proven ability to increase the skin’s rate of cell turnover – fading pigmentation, fine lines, breakouts and enlarged pores in the process.
So far so good, right? While this lauded ingredient is indeed a catch-all cure for many skin bug-bears, reaping the benefits isn’t quite as easy as slapping on the first serum you see.
It’s true – even the best retinol serum can be troublesome, often causing redness and irritation when you first start using it. However, persevere (and employ a really good moisturiser to counteract the dryness), and you’ll be well on your way to the best skin of your life.
The best retinol deals to shop now
Best retinol serums and creams
The experts are here to lay out the best retinol rules, and to share some light on what to look out for in a top serum. Pay attention and you’ll be well on your way to the best skin of your life.
Everything you need to know about retinol, according to dermatologists
What is retinol?
‘Retinol is a topical derivative of vitamin A,’ explains Dr Justine Kluk, consultant dermatologist at 25 Harley Street.
There are many different forms of vitamin A available, which is where a lot of the confusion comes in. Retinoids is the umbrella term used to describe the pure retinoic acid and all of its derivatives, including retinol, retinal and retinyl palmitate.
‘Each of these derivatives must first be converted to retinaldehyde and then to retinoic acid within the skin in order to be effective,’ says Dr Kluk, explaining that each derivative takes a different amount of time to convert.
‘As this process requires a series of steps, these retinoid products are considered to be less potent than prescription retinoic acid treatments (such as Accutane), and higher concentrations must be used in order to achieve similar results.’
What is retinol used for?
Simply put, ‘retinol is used to boost collagen and promote cell renewal,’ says Dr Kluk.
‘When applied regularly to the skin over a period of months, the best retinol products can improve skin texture and tone, and minimise fine lines leading to smoother, firmer and brighter skin.’
Dr. Gary Goldfaden, founder of Goldfaden MD skincare, agrees that a retinol product – when used correctly – is a great addition to your skincare arsenal for several reasons.
‘Retinol is a powerful tool for maintaining healthy skin. It plays a major role in maintaining the youthful appearance of your skin surface by boosting the process of cell regeneration.
‘Vitamin A and its retinoid forms stimulate skin cell renewal by increasing the rate of cell division, thereby encouraging new cell growth. This helps keep your skin soft and smooth.’
15 best retinol creams and serums
Ready to get stuck in? The Women’s Health beauty team have rounded up the very best retinols they’ve tried, from budget heroes to luxe innovators worthy of the splurge.
1. Medik8 Crystal Retinal
Best retinol serum for beginners
- It contains o.01% retinaldehyde which is less likely to cause surface-level irritation
- It’s available in a series of strengths so newbies and experienced users can get involved
Medik8 is an industry leader when it comes to retinol – the brand offers a whole host of effective options. The stand-out Crystal Retinal line, however, manages to balance swift results with minimal irritation, which is no easy feat.
The idea is that you begin with Crystal Retinal 1, which contains 0.01% retinaldehyde, then graduate up through the strengths: 3, 6, 10, and now the super-strength 20, which is available only via a clinic.
2. Elizabeth Arden Ceramide Retinol Capsules
Best retinol for ease
- The formula contains ceramides to support your skin barrier
- The pods are biodegradable
These are the capsules on every beauty editor’s mind. The single portions provide the right amount of serum, making it a simple choice for beginners. And why capsules? There’s actually a lot of logic behind the packaging of these much-loved single-use pods. As retinol is sensitive to light and air, the encapsulation ensures you get maximum potency in every dose. You’ll never use too much or too little, and the pods are even biodegradable.
3. Olay Retinol 24 Night Serum
Best retinol serum for mature skin
- It’s created with sensitive complexions in mind
- The serum is formulated with niacinamide for brighter, smoother skin
- It’s a reliable and budget-friendly option
Imagine going to bed and waking up with glowing skin. We emphasise ‘imagine’ as no cream is a miracle in a jar, but working this into your nighttime routine will help you on your journey: it combines a retinoid complex with niacinamide for visibly smoother and brighter skin in the long run.
Also, it’s a great option to consider if you side-eye retinol due to a sensitive complexion: the formula is super hydrating, meaning it will also give a dose of moisture helping to keep redness and irritation at bay.
4. The Inkey List Retinol Serum
Best value retinol serum
- This is a reliable, budget-friendly option
- It contains slowly-release retinol so is less likely to cause surface-level irritation
- The squalane keeps your skin hydrated and nourished
Retinol is often one of the pricier products on the shelves, but you can find some great budget alternatives that perform just as well. The Inkey List’s formula is a reliable pick for any newbie.
The pared-back serum contains slow-release retinol, meaning it is delivered to your cells in small, gradual doses, so it won’t cause surface-level irritation. Plus, there’s squalene to aid hydration and a supple skin barrier — a perfect introduction to the world of retinol.
5. Elizabeth Arden Ceramide Rapid Skin Renewing Water Cream
Best retinol serum with ceramides
- The cream contains ceramides which work to soothe irritation
- It gently fades acne marks without drying the skin
- The formula is delicate enough to use morning and night
If you’re a fan of the original Elizabeth Arden Retinol Ceramide Capsules, you’ll want to give this new hydrating cream a go. The latest launch from Elizabeth Arden, the Ceramide Rapid Skin Renewing Water Cream contains a form of retinoid named HPR: this is an active retinoid that releases slowly, making it more effective but less irritating.
The airy, gel-like cream is bolstered with hyaluronic acid and ceramides to ensure that your skin stays plump and nourished, helping to reduce the appearance of fine lines in the process. With a formula so hydrating and comforting, you’re free to use it every day too. If you’re new to retinoids, this is one we’d highly suggest you try.
6. Laneige Retinol Firming Cream Treatment
Best retinol serum for acne scars
- This is a targeted treatment for fading acne marks
- The formula contains peptides and hyaluronic acid to hydrate
- The small tube makes it a great choice for travelling
We’re not naming and shaming (as we’ve all been there) but if you’re a serial spot picker you’ll know that that post-acne scarring is a thing – and not easy to fade away.
Your best bet is to get your hands on an effective treatment and apply it to the areas you need it most. Our latest obsession is this tube from Laneige. Over time, it reduces the appearance of scarring, helping to promote a unified complexion. Oh, and it contains peptides and hyaluronic acid for some skin loving too.
7. L’Oreal Paris Revitalift Laser Pure Retinol Deep Anti-Wrinkle Night Serum
Best retinol serum for smoothing the appearance of wrinkles
- It contains a high dose of retinol which is suitable for experienced users
- It’s effective at smoothing fine lines
- The formula contains hyaluronic acid for hydration
This milky serum combines remarkable efficacy with a pleasingly petite price point. It features 0.2% pure retinol alongside innovative stabilisers to ensure maximum potency, and hyaluronic acid to temper any drying effects. Not just a fine-line eliminator, clinical trials found it was able to reduce deeper-set wrinkles too.
8. Medik8 Ceramide Eye Cream
Best retinol eye cream
- The formula contains ceramides and hyaluronic acid to curb irritation
- It comes in progressive strengths so it’s a risk-free way to introduce retinol into your routine
- The cream helps to smooth fine lines and crow’s feet
Some retinol products can be too harsh to use around the delicate eye contour, but not this specially formulated cream. It is perfect if you’re noticing fine lines starting to sneak in (after all, our ever-growing screen time probably isn’t helping). The lightweight formula contains stabilised retinaldehyde to plump out wrinkles and diffuse pigmentation, while ceramides and hyaluronic acid ensure a hydrated and content barrier.
9. Paula’s Choice Resist Triple Active Total Repair Serum
Best retinol cream for dark spots and pigmentation
- It’s formulated with Retinyl propionate, which is known to be less irritating compared to retinol
- The serum also contains niacinamide and vitamin B3 to support a healthy skin barrier
Famous for its remarkable before-and-after photos, it’s fair to say that Paula’s Choice offers some of the most efficacious and hard-working skincare on our shelves. Many of its products are loved by the WH team, but the new retinoid serum is undoubtably showing off.
Formulated with Retinyl propionate, as opposed to retinol, this potent serum is carefully formulated to improve discolouration, making it a great choice if you suffer from post-acne pigmentation. Retinyl also is considered to be one of the less irritating retinoids, so turn to this serum if your skin sits on the sensitive side.
10. The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid Serum 2% in Squalane
Best retinol serum for hydration
- It’s lightweight and hydrating in consistency
- Hydrating squalane makes it a good choice for beginners
- A budget-friendly option
Great for newbies, this super-affordable option means you can dip your toe (or preferably, your face) into the world of retinols without breaking the bank. It harnesses 5% granactive retinoid which is proven to reverse signs of ageing (with zero-to-little irritation) – and thanks to added squalane, the high-performing formula keeps your skin hydrated, too.
11. Q+A Retinol 0.2% Serum
Best budget retinol serum
- It’s formulated with 0.2% retinol which is ideal for inexperienced users
- The serum is also bolstered with squalane to hydrate the skin barrier
As you may have figured, retinol isn’t the cheapest skincare to shop – mostly because it’s an expensive ingredient to stabilise. However, Q&A’s delicate retinol serum is not only kind to your skin, but to your bank balance too. It’s formulated with a lower dose of retinol, meaning it will help to improve texture and clarity without causing upset to the skin barrier. If you’re new to the world of retinol, this is a wise first choice.
12. Murad Retinal ReSculpt Overnight Treatment
Best luxury retinol serum
- This uses retinal to improve the appearance of sagging skin
- It’s formulated with oat lipids to support your skin barrier
- It helps to refine physical signs of ageing
Murad’s new retinal serum does the job of retinol – and more. A step up from the editor-approved Retinol Youth Renewal Serum, this savvy formula uses retinal – a savvier, faster working derivative of vitamin A – to lift the appearance of sagging skin and smooth wrinkles. A real wonder if you’re turning to retinoids to refine signs of ageing.
And if sensitivity has got you questioning retinoids, know that this formula contains oat lipids and alpha glucan to boost your barrier’s resilience, ensuring that dryness and irritation are avoided.
13. La Roche-Posay Retinol B3 Anti-Ageing Serum
Best retinol serum for sensitive skin
- The formula contains niacinamide, glycerin and vitamin B to soothe irritation
- It’s designed to fade the appearance of fine lines
- It’s an effective, high-street option
If you haven’t found a retinol serum that doesn’t cause your sensitive skin to flare up, this gentle (yet still effective) formula may be worth trying. It contains active ingredients that work to brighten an uneven, dull complexion, – like retinyl palmitate and retinol – but you also get the benefit of niacinamide, which is great for soothing irritation. So, glowy skin and a happy skin barrier? Yes please.
14. Beauty Pie Super Retinol High-dose Intensive Booster Treatment
Best retinol serum for anti-aging
- It contains encapsulated retinol so is less likely to cause irritation
- It is formulated with four retinol complexes, so is designed for those who are experienced in using retinol
Member price: £24.00
Beauty Pie’s superstar retinols are alone worth becoming a member for. This effective serum contains encapsulated retinol, which releases slowly into the skin, as well as lactic acid to gently slough away dead skin cells. It’s a powerful one, so we’d only recommend it if you’re an experienced retinol user. Sign yourself up, and it’ll set you back just £20.00
15. Skin Rocks Retinoid 1 – Vitamin A Face Serum
Best retinol serum for all skin types
- It’s available in two strengths for newbies and experienced users
- The gentle formula is designed to help even pigmentation and scarring
- The bottle comes with a measurement tool so you can apply the right amount of product
Caroline Hiron’s no-holds-barred approach to skincare means we’re inclined to trust her every recommendation – especially when it comes to her own line. The Skin Rocks Retinoid serum is specifically formulated for those dipping their toe into vitamin A.
Use it in the evenings on clean skin, and watch as acne scars, dullness and fine lines slowly fade away. If you’re a retinol regular, upgrade to the Retinoid 2 Vitamin A Face Serum for a stronger dose.
Eager to learn more? We carry on the expert Q&A to uncover all there is to know about this potent active. Let skin school commence…
What are the side effects of retinol?
There is one key downside to using this wonder vitamin. Retinol (yep, even the best retinol) can make your skin peel, and this is exactly what puts people off.
‘Retinol and related vitamin A derivatives have traditionally had a bad reputation for causing redness, dryness and flaking,’ says Dr Kluk.
It’s not all bad news, though. This irritation and peeling can absolutely be avoided: the key is to stay sensible, follow the rules, build up slowly, and don’t dive straight in with a max-strength product. Also, employ a really good moisturiser (like this one) to combat any dryness.
Can I use retinol every day?
As goes with all active skincare, you should start slow and work your way up. Going too hard and fast with retinol use can lead to negative side effects, like flakiness and irritation.
Newbies should start using retinol once a week on freshly-cleansed skin, then slowly work up to once every other day.
So the best practice is to remain patient – you won’t see results instantly, but stay loyal to it and a softer and brighter complexion will soon come.
Can I use a retinol cream or serum in the day?
While there are some photostable formulas out there, when it comes to using a retinol serum in the daytime, there’s not actually much point as it’s photosensitive and breaks down in the sunlight. It’s best used at night, after cleansing but before your evening moisturiser.
Dr Goldfaden also notes that as retinol stimulates the growth of new skin cells, it’s likely to make you more susceptible to sun damage. It’s therefore vital to exercise safe sun exposure and wear a broad-spectrum SPF.
What percentage of retinol is best?
Retinoids come in a range of strengths, from very low at 0.1%, to high, at 2%. When getting started, it’s best to lowball, in case you are sensitive to the active ingredient. Slow and steady is always the best approach, because the lower the percentage, the lower the risk of dryness and peeling.
‘For the retinol to actually do something to your skin, you need at least 0.1%,’ says Abi Cleeve, founder of skincare brand SkinSense and MD of Ultrasun UK. ‘And, in my experience, there is a zone between there and 0.5% where you see effects, but no irritation.
The reason for that is how retinol works. ‘Vitamin A is different to most active ingredients – it’s more energetic as it effectively pokes the skin into speed-up activity. Rather than depositing ingredients onto the skin, it’s getting the skin to do it itself.’
If you climb slowly up to a 0.5% and see zero adverse effects, then consider something containing 1%.
Will retinol thin my skin?
Dr Goldfaden is keen to dispel the myth that retinol will thin your skin.
‘Retinol actually thickens your epidermis, which becomes thinner with age, and also improves the elasticity of your skin. Incorporating a topical form of retinol into your routine at a younger age will help to prevent the onset of fine lines and wrinkles, as well as the depletion of collagen,’ he explains.
Can I use vitamin C with retinol?
We’re entering serious skincare territory now, but it seems that the one question retinol users really want to know is: can retinol be used with vitamin C?
The confusion comes from the fact that using the two together, especially in high strengths, may cause irritation if you’re new to such highly efficacious ingredients. However, studies have shown retinol and vitamin C do work well together.
‘Vitamin C is one of the most important antioxidants to incorporate into a healthy skincare regimen and using retinol in conjunction with it can help improve the effectiveness,’ Dr Goldfaden says. Try applying your vitamin C product in the morning, and your best retinol at night for a supercharged skin boost.
At what age should I try retinol?
Really, the answer to this question lies in the skin issues you’re hoping to fix. If you’re hoping to use retinol to tackle acne scars, smart move. Vitamin A products can be highly effective in fading those post-breakout marks, when used correctly. If you’re simply looking to hold onto your youth, however, shelve the retinol products until your 30’s. A good vitamin C serum will keep you glowy through your 20’s.
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