Best retinol serums: the tried and tested powerhouse formulas to reverse skin aging

The best retinol serums on the market that promise firmer, smoother, brighter and clearer skin—these are our favorites.

Included in this guide:

A selection of the best retinol serums is pictured from Sunday Riley / La Roche Posay / Medik8 / The Inkey List / Murad
(Image credit: Sunday Riley / La Roche Posay / Medik8 / The Inkey List / Murad)

Retinol serums promise a slew of skincare results that we all want. So if you're keen to soak up all the benefits of this powerhouse ingredient, then take note as we've tested our way through several and have found the best retinol serums, which you can read all about below. 

A gold standard active ingredient, retinol is loved by beauty buffs, facialists, and aesthetic doctors alike but the skincare powerhouse has always been shrouded in a little mystery. Found in Vitamin A, retinol is one of two derivatives available without a prescription. It's also the more potent out of the two. The holy grail of retinol benefits is firmer, clearer, and brighter skin. But, achieving this depends on which formula you choose and how you introduce this skin-perfecter into your routine.

We’ve rounded up and tested the best-selling retinol serums on the market to make your decision easier. For us, the Neostrata Retinol Repair Complex came out on top with impressive skin sloughing, acne quelling, and radiance imparting benefits—although it's worth noting that this is probably more suitable for the advanced user. We also loved the wrinkle-busting prowess of potent Sunday Riley A+ High Dose Retinoid Serum and found that the La Roche-Posay Retinol B3 Serum is a great option for those with sensitive skin. 

How to choose the best retinol serum for you

As we mentioned above, retinol is found in Vitamin A and is one of two derivatives available without a prescription. It's also the more potent out of the two and if you opt for an uber strong formula or use too much too soon, there is a high chance that retinol peeling aka retinol uglies—dryness, irritation, acne, and flaking—can occur. Word to the wise—you want to avoid this at all costs! From finding the best-in-show to explaining how to start using retinol—we’ve got you covered. 

What about retinol potency?

Make sure you do the research and follow dermatologist-approved tips before using retinol. While a potent formula might sound like you’re getting your money's worth, retinol products can come in 0.3%, 0.5%, 1%, 1.5%, and 2% doses. If you’re new to retinol, it’s best to start low and work your way up—how low depends on your skin type. Remember, no one wants to endure the unwanted retinol uglies!

With that said the potency of most retinols on shelves ranges between 0.3 and 1 percent and these can work wonders to youth-boost your complexion. 

It's always recommended to check what additional ingredients your retinol serum may contain. While a moisturizing formula will be incredibly beneficial for dry skin, it could send acne-prone skin into overdrive. 

The best retinol serums: tried and tested

Murad Retinol youth renewal serum is one the best retinol serums to buy now

(Image credit: Murad)

A high-tech serum that soaks into the skin and is suitable for everyday use

Strength: Not listed
Additional Ingredients: Hyaluronic acid, swertia flower (a medicinal flower from the Himalayas
Reasons to buy
+High-tech formula+Dermatologist-approved ingredients at significant concentrations+Pump prevents air from contaminating the retinol
Reasons to avoid
-Too potent for very reactive, sensitive skin-Can be on the pricey side

This results-driven high-tech formula targets fine lines, loss of firmness, hyperpigmentation (and also acne) soaks into the skin easily and feels refreshingly light. It is always formulated with the brands patent Tri-Active Technology is compromised of three different types of retinol (a fast acting retinoid, a slow-release retinol and top-up booster). This combination of ingredients is thought to have few side effects but still delver a visible improvement to the skin. We found it was a good all-rounder for retinol pros and virgins alike—just remember as with all retinol products, to ease yourself in to avoid any of the adverse retinol effects. We also loved the dispenser, which meant that the exact amount you needed was delivered—two pumps will do the entire face. 

Medik8 Retinol 3tr intense is one the best retinol serums to buy now

(Image credit: Medik8)

2. Medik8 Retinol 3TR Intense

Suitable for most people, this is the perfect way to get started on your retinol journey.

Strength: 0.3%
Additional ingredients: Vitamin E for added antioxidant protection and enhanced stability of the formula Anti-fungal Climbazole boosts retinols effectiveness, mimicking the results of a higher percentage without the irritation. Natural emollient squalane helps strengthen and restore the skin’s natural defence barrier while simultaneously hydrating the skin.
Reasons to buy
+This product has time-release technology for maximum results without irritating the skin+Vegan, paraben, alcohol and cruelty free
Reasons to avoid
-It might be too moisturising for oily and combination skin types 

This fragrance-free serum sinks in quickly, leaving skin feeling soft and uber hydrated. We found that this was best used at night. Just four drops massaged into the face, neck, and décolletage in the evening is all you need to reap the benefits. If you have very dry skin, then we recommend applying a moisturizer or oil without weakening the effects of the 0.3% retinol. 

The formula contains vitamin E for enhanced stability and time-release technology to slowly deliver the retinol into the skin and minimize irritation. The lightweight serum is also supercharged with retinol-booster climbazole to further enhance results. Phased-in gradually—twice a week for the first two weeks, every other night for the next two weeks, then every night thereafter—you’ll surely notice a reduction in lines, wrinkles, pigmentation and be left with brighter, smoother skin. 

Sunday Riley A+ High dose retinoid serum is one the best retinol serums to buy now

(Image credit: Sunday Riley)

3. Sunday Riley A+ Retinoid Serum

A premium retinol serum that is Ideal for those with pigmentation and deep wrinkles

Strength: 1%
Additional ingredients: blue-green algae retinoid-like botanical extracts CoQ10 to help improve to even skin-tone, repair and hydrate Hawaiian white honey, and chamomile derivative bisabolol, soothe and calm the skin
Reasons to buy
+reduces acne scarring+It’s an award-winning serum
Reasons to avoid
-Sensitive skins might find it too strong-It’s fragrance free and the smell can change over time

Sunday Riley is known for supercharged formulas that fuse high-tech science with ancient botanicals and this award-winning retinol serum is no different. The light serum glides over the skin with ease and offers serious results without any downtime. It helps to breaks down pigmentation, and scaring, and plumps fine lines and wrinkles, thanks to its powerful blend of retinoid-like botanicals and 1% of gold standard retinol. Side effects are minimal as it also contains hydrating CoQ10, and calming Hawaiian white honey, and chamomile derivative bisabolol. 

However, as this formula packs a mighty punch one to two pumps applied to dry skin before bed is all that’s needed. For those with dry or sensitive skin types, we would recommend layering with your favorite moisturizer.

The Inkey List is one the best retinol serums to buy now

(Image credit: The Inkey List)

4. The INKEY List Retinol Serum 30ml

This pocket friendly retinol is perfect for those looking to stick within budget.

Strength: 0.05 %
Additional ingredients: 0.5 per cent granactive retinoid, offers the same effect as retinol but with far less irritation Squalane for hydration and soothing
Reasons to buy
+It’s bank balance-friendly+The slow release formula and low percentage of retinol makes it sensitive skin-friendly
Reasons to avoid
-The packaging is a little fiddly-Might not be strong enough for veteran retinol users

The consistency of this serum is almost water-like, so it blends into the skin with ease. It’s a mix of retinol and vitamin A derivative, granactive retinoid—that helps amp up the strength of the formula. This retinoid works in much the same way as retinol but causes very little irritation—which is good news all round.  

The formula is also slow release and contains moisturizing squalene, which is great for sensitive skin meaning conditions like flaking and redness are unlikely to occur when using this serum. After using this serum, fine lines were reduced, skin texture saw major improvement and complexion was far brighter than before. 

La Roche-Posay Retinol 0.3% + vitamin b3 serum is one the best retinol serums to buy now

(Image credit: La Roche-Posay)

Specifically formulated for sensitive skin

Strength: 0.3%
Additional ingredients: Vitamin B3 helps tighten pores, improve uneven skin tone, soften, smooth and strengthen the skin’s barrier Hydrating glycerin
Reasons to buy
+ideal formula for sensitive skins+doubles down on pore size
Reasons to avoid
-It contains silicone-needs to be massaged in to avoid feeling tacky

Specifically formulated for those with sensitive skin who are also concerned with dehydration, pigmentation, enlarged pores, texture, and wrinkles. The 0.3% retinol sounds low but a lower concentration means less irritation, but not a reduction in benefits. All that is needed is a little patience and to give it more time to see results. Plus, skincare MVP vitamin B3 aka niacinamide elevates the formula to epic proportions thanks to its ability to further tighten pores and reduce pigmentation alongside restoring the skin’s barrier. You should find that over time the recommended nightly dose of three drops on clean skin will brighten, tighten, and firm skin while plumping lines and wrinkles.

Neostrata Retinol Repair complex is one the best retinol serums to buy now

(Image credit: Neostrata)

The best retinol option for those with acne prone skin

Strength: 0.5%
Additional ingredients: Neoglucosamine amplifies and intensifies the plumping and firming benefits and exfoliates to reduce acne and the appearance of pigmentation Gardenia cell culture preserves existing collagen structure and helps stimulate new collagen Amino acids and peptides help build new collagen
Reasons to buy
+It works over hours thanks to time release technology +It majorly exfoliates
Reasons to avoid
-More likely to cause irritation-Can be too strong on the neck and décolletage

When it comes to the best retinol serums, it doesn't get much better than this. The key to stopping pores clogging and spots erupting is efficient exfoliation. Thankfully, this retinol serum has skin sloughing powers in spades. While 0.5% of pure, stabilized Retinol might not sound much since it’s possible to get higher dosages without a prescription, this seems to go above and beyond, speeding up cell turnover, boosting collagen and elastin production like a dream. 

Neostrata says this is thanks to the clever combination of retinol, amino acids, peptides, plant stem cells, and neoglucosamine aka NAG. NAG, a precursor of much-loved hyaluronic acid, has many of the same benefits as retinol—blocking the formation of pigmentation, boosting cell turnover, collagen, and elastin, as well as tightening pores and stopping acne in its tracks. And that is exactly what it does as long as you ease into this serum. Housed in a UV-protected tube to stop the retinol from being broken down by UV rays and with a nifty pump to make it easy to dispense the pea-size amount needed - start slow to reap the long-term benefits. 

Read the full Neostrata Retinol Repair Complex review

Amerley Ollennu
Amerley Ollennu

Amerley is an award-winning beauty & lifestyle journalist who has been writing for the UK’s most well-known glossies, websites and newspapers for over a decade. Known for her ability to predict the next big trend, there is really very little she won’t try for a story. From microblading and injectables, to10 step skincare plans and breathing her way to better skin, Amerley loves to share her experiences and write relatable, informative and trend-led copy for beauty novices and junkies alike.