Confession time: As a beauty editor who chats with industry-leading derms and celebrity estheticians more often than I talk to my parents (sorry, Mom and Dad!), I'm still confused about retinol. How does retinol differ from Retin-A? How and when it should be applied? Who should or shouldn't use it? Is this how Nancy Wheeler felt when she she stepped into the Upside Down for the first time? (I mean, we've all heard retinoid-related horror stories involving irritation, peeling, and the like.)
That said, at 26, I'm the exact age experts say to start using retinol, and considering my complexion is often bogged down with annoying congestion and dullness, adding the ingredient into my nightly lineup has been on my to-do list for a while now. There are tons of amazing formulas out there, and some of the best come in the form of easy-to-use serums. And since I'm lucky enough to have some of the best skin experts in the industry on speed dial, it only made sense to reach out for guidance.
From the basics on retinol to the exact serums the pros use on themselves, we have you covered. Keep scrolling for everything you ever wanted to know about retinol serums, plus the most important shopping picks to get you started.
According to celebrity esthetician Vanessa Hernandez, who has her own skincare practice in Brentwood, California, retinol is a derivative of vitamin A, and is a softer, more gentle version of Retin-A. As for its *many* benefits, it naturally exfoliates the top layer of skin, which in turn exposes a clear, glowing, more youthful complexion.
Oh, and we're not done: She tells us the buzzy ingredient can also help minimize the appearance of pores, soften fine lines, kill acne-causing bacteria, and promote cell turnover, plus it has been clinically proven to be one of the most effective products in the role of anti-aging.
As for how retinol serums are different than other retinoid-containing formulas, they don't require a prescription and are typically more gentle since they're paired with other ingredients to soothe and nourish the skin. They're also approved for daily use since they're less intense.
"Retinol serums are a great option if you are prone to congestion and breakouts since they won't have oils and will likely feel lighter on the skin in comparison to a retinol-containing cream," says Vanessa Lee, RN, founder of L.A. beauty concept bar The Things We Do.
"If you're dry and want something that feels richer on the skin and contains some kind of moisturizing ingredient, a retinol cream (versus a serum) may be a better choice for you," Lee adds. "They both aim for the same result, but the two different carriers of the retinol are suitable for different skin types. It's great to have choices!"
"Retinol serums should be used at night after you cleanse and before you moisturize," confirms celebrity esthetician Shani Darden. Since our skin is in repair mode overnight, that's the most beneficial time to use a retinol serum. Plus, retinol can make your skin more sensitive to the sun, so it's best to leave it for nighttime only and make sure you're wearing sunscreen during the day. (Also, you can consider using a serum like the above from Biossance which features bakuchiol—a plant-based alternative to retinol that is less irritating.)
If you have extra-sensitive skin, however, heed Lee's advice and apply your retinol OVER your moisturer of choice. "I usually educate patients on putting on treatment serums directly after washing the face, but vitamin A is a strong ingredient, and it can actually penetrate through your moisturizer," she tells us. "If you're extra sensitive, you can also use your favorite facial oil a few minutes after you place your retinol on."
That said, Lee also points out that women who are pregnant or breastfeeding are advised to skip retinol, since what we put on our skin can enter our bloodstream and, in turn, baby's. But for the most part (and as long as you tread carefully with high-quality formulas!), anyone can use retinol serums.
"Even clients with sensitive skin can benefit from retinol if used less frequently and in lower doses," she explains. "You have the control, so it's all about getting started slowly, and graduating in frequency and/or strength as you continue. I recommend my patients to start using a gentle retinol serum once to twice a week for a few weeks, and using it up to three to four times a week as tolerated."
For best results, it's also imperative to keep an eye on your skin and how it's reacting to your retinol application. They're designed to be exfoliating (that's where the glowy magic comes from!), so if you get slightly dry or irritated while the dead skin cells are being shed from the retinol use, make sure to use a soothing serum or moisturizer, or even hydrocortisone 1% as a spot treatment.
Lee assures us that this is all par for the course when using retinol—with the right T.L.C., you'll still be able to reap all the amazing benefits. Oh, and make sure to wear a good sunscreen every single day! That's non-negotiable.
"I always look to see if retinol is within the first five to seven ingredients listed, which will ensure that retinol's a priority ingredient for the product," Lee advises. "However, because retinol can go by so many names (retinyl acetate, propionic acid, retinol, etc.), and percentage or retinol disclosure isn't required for OTC products by the FDA, it can be a bit confusing on what to look out for in the ingredients."
Lee recommends choosing a retinol serum from a company you already love and trust, and have experience with as far as products go. Since most trustworthy skincare brands have some kind of retinol formula, she recommends starting your research there, and also discussing your options with a dermatologist or esthetician.
Below, Lee, Hernandez, and Darden share the best retinol serums they use or recommend to their clients. Keep scrolling!
"This is a botanical retinol serum suitable for all skin tones, and it's 98% natural," Lee shares. "Women of color are more prone to PIH, and most efficacious retinol formulas cause a bit of dryness and irritation before the pretty results of regular use set in. This retinol is strong enough to guarantee results, but is strategically paired with nourishing ingredients like hyaluronic acid, organic jojoba, vitamin E, and gotu kola for gentle delivery and lowered risk of PIH."
"This is a great retinol that combines with fan-favorite, lactic acid, for major brightening and is stabilized at a low PH for even deeper exfoliation," Lee says. "Lactic acid is an alpha-hydroxy acid that helps with brightening the skin as well as preventing acne, so pairing this with retinol is a winning combo." "Retinol Reform was the first product I ever released," Darden notes. "I created Retinol Reform to provide all of the benefits of a prescription retinol without any of the drawbacks. It features lactic acid to provide immediate brightening benefits and retinol for more long-term results."
"This is retinol serum has a combination of CoQ10, which helps UV exposed skin, and Hawaiian white honey, which is rich in phytonutrients to help protect the skin while exfoliating," Lee tells us.
"This retinol serum is a luxe option that combines pure retinol with magnolia bark, vitamin C, and coffee for extra firming and brightening," says Lee. "Chantecaille is known for its pure, botanical-based ingredients in skincare and makeup, and this retinol is not to be skipped."
"This serum is an option for a gentle retinol that yields the power of argan plant stem cells to aid repair in the skin while retinol is hard at work at increasing cell turnover," Lee notes. "This retinol is encapsulated and is suitable for sensitive skintypes."
"I created Texture Reform for those with more sensitive skin," says Darden. "It features retinyl palmitate to boost cellular turnover, which will improve skin texture, and it works gradually, making it safe for sensitive skin. It also has lactic acid to gently exfoliate, aloe to soothe the skin, and niacinamide to improve skin tone."
"This eye gel has retinyl palmitate along with vitamins C and E to minimize the appearance of fine lines and boost hydration," Darden explains.
"MY FAV BY FAR," Hernandez raves. "This retinol is encapsulated in spheres of hyaluronic acid, making it gentle yet hydrating. It's formulated to time-release over eight hours, meaning it's penetrating more evenly into the skin, thus giving better results."
"This retinol is the next step up for someone who's been using a gentle retinol .25 or less and is ready to up their anti-aging game," says Hernandez.
"Dr. Jones developed this serum, and it's referred to as magic in a bottle," Hernandez shares. "It contains retinoic acid, vitamins, antioxidants—it's an essential all-in-one."
"This clean nourishing face oil has 18 highly concentrated performance botanicals, vitamins, and minerals," Hernandez tells us. "It's gentle and restorative."
"I love this retinol serum because it's extremely gentle and packed with antioxidants and vitamin C," Hernandez says. Next: Retinol Is Truly a Multipurpose Ingredient—Here's How to Use It