The best retinol serums to improve skin texture and clarity

Our experts have tried and tested the best retinol serums to help you to achieve firmer, smoother, brighter and clearer skin

best retinol serums from Medik8, Neostrata, La Roche-Posay, Sunday Riley and Shani Darden on a pink and orange ombré background
(Image credit: Future/brands pictured)

The best retinol serums promise a host of skin results that appeal to just about every beauty consumer—smoother wrinkles and fine lines, busted blemishes, and more even tone. So our experts have tested their way through a host of options on the market to find the very best over-the-counter formulas. 

A gold-standard active ingredient that many experts tout as a key pillar of an effective skincare routine, retinol is loved by dermatologists, facialists, and aesthetic doctors alike. But this skincare powerhouse has always been shrouded in a little mystery. "A vitamin A derivative, it is needed as part of healthy skin development," says dermatologist Dr Bernard Ho (opens in new tab). "In the context of skin care, retinol is often used to promote cell production, exfoliate skin and promote collagen production."

It's one of the forms of vitamin A that can be bought without a prescription to achieve firmer, clearer, and brighter skin. But achieving this will depend on the formula you choose, how you introduce it into your routine, and how often you use it from there on out. So some of our expert contributing beauty editors have tried and tested the bestselling retinol serums on the market to make your shopping trip easier, as well as putting together an in-depth guide on how to start using retinol to answer all your usage questions. Let's dive in...

How to choose the best retinol serums for your skin

When starting out with one of the best retinol serums it's important to bear in mind two key things: one, starting with a lower concentration product, and introducing it into your routine very gradually. As it's such a potent active, if you opt for an über-strong formula or use too much too soon, there is a high chance that your skin will react and result in retinol peeling—aka dryness, irritation, acne, and flaking. "With trying any new skincare products, it can take at least 4-6 weeks before you see any 'actual' benefits from the skin care actives," advises Dr Ho. "However, the side effects of retinol such as skin sensitivity, dryness and sun sensitivity can present after a few applications (sometimes even the next morning after its first use!)"

As with how to use vitamin C serum, adding retinol to your routine requires a bit of know-how. Make sure you do a bit of research and follow our retinol tips before getting started. While a potent formula might sound like you’re getting your money's worth, or that you'll achieve results more quickly, retinol products tend to come at concentrations of 0.1%, 0.3%, 0.5%, 1%, 1.5%, and 2% doses—mainstream formulas tend to fall somewhere between 0.3–1%. If you’re new to retinol, it’s best to start low and work your way up. Start by using it twice a week in the evenings and see how your skin fares before upping this.

It's also best to check the additional ingredients your retinol serum contains, too. While a moisturizing formula will be incredibly beneficial for dry skin, it could send acne-prone skin into overdrive. (We asked a dermatologist can dry skin cause acne tackle any further questions.)

How we tested the best retinol serums

Our testers, longtime beauty journalists and skincare enthusiasts Amerley Ollenu and Fiona Embleton, has tested these retinol serums over a period of at least several weeks to see how they really get to work on the skin. While putting these serum powerhouses through their paces, they assessed the following factors. 

  • Formulation
  • Viscosity—a thinner formula will soak into the skin more easily
  • How easy it was to use and apply
  • Ease of absorption—the better it absorbs, the more benefits your skin is getting
  • Any immediate irritation or harshness—some irritation is expected, but it should still be relatively comfortable to wear and not painful
  • Immediate results
  • Long-term results
  • Strengths available, if specified—as explained above, different strengths are needed for different circumstances
  • Packaging
  • Cost

The below choices are a mixture of top-tier products that have been part of their skincare routines for a long time, as well as newer formulas that really impressed them while testing. These are, in their opinion, the best retinol serums overall. 

The best retinol serums reviewed by a beauty editor

Medik8 Retinol 3tr intense


(Image credit: Medik8)

1. Medik8 Retinol 3TR Intense

Best retinol serum for most people—and a great choice for beginners

Specifications

RRP: $42£37
Strength: 0.3%
Additional ingredients : Vitamin E, anti-fungal climbazole, squalane

Reasons to buy

+
Excellent research-backed brand 
+
Time-release technology for maximum results without irritation
+
Vegan, paraben, alcohol and cruelty-free

Reasons to avoid

-
Couold be too moisturizing for oily/combination skin types 

Medik8 is an excellent science-backed brand that's trusted by industry experts around the world, so you're in good hands if you choose to start your retinol journey with one of their products (see retinol vs retinal for a guide to two different vitamin A products they offer). The creator of one of our best vitamin C serums too, this fragrance-free formula sinks in quickly and I found it left skin feeling soft and über-hydrated. Just four drops massaged into the face, neck, and décolletage in the evening is all we needed to reap the benefits. If you have very dry skin, then you can apply a moisturizer or oil over the top, just wait 20 minutes for your retinol to absorb fully so as not to weaken the formula's efficacy.

This retinol serum also packs antioxidant vitamin E for enhanced stability, while time-release technology delivers retinol to the serum slowly to help minimize the resulting irritation. The lightweight serum is also supercharged with retinol-booster climbazole to further enhance results, mimicking the results of a higher percentage without the irritation. Phased-in gradually—twice a week for the first two weeks, every other night for the next two weeks, then every night thereafter—once you've committed you’ll notice notice a reduction in lines, wrinkles, pigmentation and brighter, smoother skin. We're hailing it as one of the most trustworthy formulas out there. 

Murad Retinol youth renewal serum

(Image credit: Murad)
Best potent retinol serum

Specifications

RRP : $92/£43
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 keeps the container air-tight

Reasons to avoid

-
Too potent for very reactive, sensitive skin
-
Pricey

Murad offers one of the best sunscreens for face on the market, so it's no surprise they have a top-tier retinol available, too. This high-tech formula targets fine lines, loss of firmness, hyperpigmentation and acne, soaks into the skin easily, and feels refreshingly light. The brand's patented Tri-Active Technology is made up 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 fewer side effects while delivering a visible improvement to the skin. When testing, I found that it was a good all-rounder for retinol pros and newbies that didn't have sensitive skin alike—just remember that, as with all retinol products, to ease yourself in to avoid any of the adverse retinol side effects in the skin. Another factor I loved was the dispenser, which meant that the exact amount you needed was delivered. Two pumps will do the entire face. All in all we found it to be a potent formula that, while wouldn't be the most ideal buy for very sensitive skin, certainly gets results. 

Neostrata Retinol Repair complex

(Image credit: Neostrata)
Best retinol serum for acne prone skin

Specifications

RRP : $82/£55
Strength: 0.5%
Additional ingredients: Neoglucosamine, gardenia cell culture, amino acids, peptides

Reasons to buy

+
Time-release technology 
+
Very potent
+
Great for blemish-prone skin 

Reasons to avoid

-
Likely to cause irritation

When it comes to the best retinol serums, it doesn't get much better than this very buy. The key to preventing pores from clogging and skin from breaking out is efficient exfoliation and, thankfully, this retinol serum has skin sloughing powers in spades. While 0.5% of pure, stabilized retinol might not sound like that much—it is
possible to get higher dosages without a prescription—we found this formula goes above and beyond at speeding up cell turnover, boosting collagen and elastin production like a dream. 

Neostrata says that this is down to the clever combination of retinol, amino acids, peptides, plant stem cells, and neoglucosamine, also known as NAG. A precursor of much-loved hyaluronic acid, NAG actually has some similar benefits to retinol. It works to prevent the formation of pigmentation, boost cell turnover, collagen, and elastin, and prevent breakouts. (You can read about the differences between hyaluronic acid vs retinol in our in-depth explainer.) I found that this is exactly what it does, provided 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, its format is also excellent and helps to boost those efficacious results. Start slow to reap the long-term benefits. 

See our full Neostrata Retinol Repair Complex review for a more in-depth guide to this effective formula. 

Paula’s Choice 1% Retinol Booster

(Image credit: Paula's Choice)

4. Paula’s Choice 1% Retinol Booster

Best retinol serum for darker skin tones

Specifications

RRP : $55/£51
Strength : 1%
Additional Ingredients: Skin-soothing oat extract and licorice root

Reasons to buy

+
Excellent research-backed brand
+
Customizable—can be used alone or added ot a moisturizer/serum
+
Can be applied around the eyes, if strength is tolerated

Reasons to avoid

-
Less cost effective than a dedicated retinol product if mixed
-
Concentration will be diluted by any serums and creams

With decades of experience, Paula Begoun is one of the industry's most knowledgable skincare businesswomen with products that are trusted by beauty experts everywhere. If you’re a retinol newbie and unsure how your skin will react, this nifty formula—which can be added to an existing serum or cream—that could be the answer. While they can be applied alone, Paula's skincare boosters are designed to be added to your favourite serum or moisturizer, 2-3 drops at a time, at concentrations that are customisable to your skin’s needs. With this product 2-3 drops is recommended and you still need to apply an SPF of at least 30 during the day. It's this customizable approach that makes it a great buys for retinol newbies. 

Of course, there are other benefits that ticked our tester's boxes. The addition of antioxidant-rich licorice root extract and skin-soothing oat extract helps to quell inflammation as well as an uneven skin tone. This is particularly reassuring for those with darker skin tones who are wary of powerful ingredients that might trigger post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.

Sunday Riley A+ High dose retinoid serum

(Image credit: Sunday Riley)

5. Sunday Riley A+ Retinoid Serum

Best retinol serum for pigmentation and deep wrinkles

Specifications

RRP : $85/£70
Strength: 1%
Additional ingredients: Blue-green algae, CoQ10, Hawaiian white honey, chamomile derivative bisabolol

Reasons to buy

+
Potent retinoid blend
+
Reduces acne scarring
+
Award-winning 

Reasons to avoid

-
Too strong for sensitive skins
-
Fragrance-free but smell can change over time

Celebrity and expert-loved brand Sunday Riley is known for supercharged formulas that marry high-tech science with botanicals, and this award-winning retinol serum is a credit to that end. The light, bright yellow serum glides over the skin with ease and offers serious results without any downtime. I found that it helps to reduce visible pigmentation and scaring, as well as plumping up the complexion and smoothing 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, 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 over one of the best moisturizer for dry skin—just wait around 20 minutes so that your retinoid has sunk into the skin and can get to work.

The Inkey List Retinol

(Image credit: The Inkey List)

6. The INKEY List Retinol Serum

Best affordable retinol serum

Specifications

RRP : $10.99/£10.99
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 nice and fluid, so it sinks into the skin with ease. It’s a mix of retinol and another vitamin A derivative, granactive retinoid, which helps amp up the efficacy of the formula, as well as a plant-derived retinol alternative. This retinoid serum works in much the same way as retinol, but when used properly yields very little irritation—which is good news all round.

This particular retinol is another slow release formula and also features Hawaiian honey extract, a humectant that helps to draw moisture into the skin. After I used this serum regularly I noticed my fine lines were reduced, skin texture saw major improvement and complexion was far brighter than before. It's worth the hype!

La Roche-Posay Retinol 0.3% + vitamin b3 serum

(Image credit: La Roche-Posay)
Best retinol serum for sensitive skin

Specifications

RRP : $41.99/£40
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 for sensitive skin types
+
Reputable, expert-loved brand 
+
Noticeably improves the look of pores
+
Also contains niacinamide

Reasons to avoid

-
Contains silicone
-
Can feel a little tacky on the skin
-
A more expensive buy

Specifically formulated for those with sensitive skin who are also concerned with factors like dehydration, pigmentation, enlarged pores, texture, and wrinkles, this is an excellent buy for those who are more wary of starting to use retinol. And who better to turn to for your first purchase than research-backed, dermatologist-approved brand La Roche-Posay? The 0.3% concentration doesn't sound that punchy, but this means less irritation, not a reduction in benefits. All that is needed is a little patience and to give it more time to see results.

That's not all, though. Niacinamide, a form of vitamin B3, works to elevate the formula to epic proportions thanks to its ability to smooth skin texture, reduce pigmentation, and support the skin barrier. I found that over time the recommended nightly dose of three drops applied to clean skin will brighten, tighten, and firm skin while as well as plumping out fine lines and wrinkles. The formula does contain a small amount of silicones, so our tester did find that it could go a little sticky if not pressed into the skin well or if she was over-zealous in application. But all in all, it's what we deem the best starter retinol.

Shani Darden Retinol Reform Anti-Ageing Serum

(Image credit: Shani Darden)

8. Shani Darden Retinol Reform Anti-Ageing Serum

Best retinol serum for fast results

Specifications

RRP : $88/£80
Strength: 2.2%
Additional Ingredients: Lactic acid, apple extract

Reasons to buy

+
Gets results in weeks
+
Minimal irritation due to encapsulated retinol
+
100% recyclable packaging, including the pump
+
Little goes a long way

Reasons to avoid

-
Pricey because its premium
-
Heavy bottle

As you've probably caught on to by now, retinol can be a tricky beast. For real results, you often have to endure weeks of flaking before crossing over to the promised land of improved wrinkles and pigmentation. If you want to swerve these side-effects altogether, you often have to settle for a weaker formula or alternative like bakuchiol (which, although it can achieve similar anti-aging results, is by no means the same as vitamin A.)

Aesthetician Shani Darden has treated enough famous faces, like Chrissy Teigen and Jessica Alba, to know the pitfalls of both of these options and so developed this game-changing formula. The genius behind her retinol serum is the potent-yet-gentle, time-release formula. Rather than hit the skin hard with a whack-strength retinol that irritates, a steady stream of encapsulated retinol is deployed throughout the night. My Imperfect Life contributor Fiona Embleton noticed a significant reduction in the pigmentation on her cheekbones in just six weeks and experienced zero irritation—a first, given she is prone to sensitivity and angry red patches when using retinol. It's spenny, but worth it. 

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.