The 12 Best Retinol Serums of 2022

CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol is a dermatologist favorite that soothes skin as it works

We independently research, test, review, and recommend the best products. Healthcare professionals review articles for medical accuracy. Learn more about our process. If you buy something through our links, we may earn a commission.

Best Retinol Serums to Improve Skin Health

Amazon

Most of us have heard retinol touted as a holy grail anti-aging product, but what can it do for overall skin health? A lot, as it turns out. Retinol, derived from vitamin A, is a skincare powerhouse, capable of everything from digging deep into skin to stop acne at its source to helping with hyperpigmentation at a cellular level.

Reviewed & Approved

Our top choice, CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol, comes recommended by dermatologists thanks to its blend of powerful retinol and skin-soothing ingredients. We also liked Neutrogena’s Rapid Wrinkle Repair Retinol Pro+, a high-strength retinol with a smooth, fast-absorbing application.

To determine which retinol serums are best for skin—including touchier skin conditions like rosacea and dry skin—we researched the top products on the market and spoke to dermatologists to find out what you should look for when adding a retinol to your routine. The best vehicle—or application type, including lotions, gels, and serums—for retinol use is a serum as these are often the most concentrated forms of the substance. Serums apply easily and soak into skin to begin their work immediately. 

While retinol can be intimidating due to the number of products on the market and their various strengths, the doctors we spoke to had some advice: “0.25% is a good retinol strength for beginners,” says Michael Jacobs, MD, Medical Technology Director at Cortina and Clinical Associate Professor of Dermatology at Weill Cornell Medical College. “Starting with a low concentration and moving up as the skin positively reacts is the right way to go about incorporating retinol into your skincare routine.”

Here are our top picks for the best retinol serums to improve skin health.

Our Recommendations

Best Overall: CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum

CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum

Amazon

Why We Like It: Its blend of high-strength retinol and skin-soothing ingredients provides skin health benefits without drying skin out.

It’s Worth Noting: It may sting slightly during application.

CeraVe was a favorite of the dermatologists we spoke to, hitting a perfect blend of a good retinol strength for both new and experienced users and ingredients that keep skin soft and smooth during use. The CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol includes 0.3 percent retinol and three types of ceramides to work deeply on skin while smoothing it. The formulation also includes licorice root extract, which helps to ease signs of pigmentation.

Best of all, like all CeraVe products, it’s affordable. Coming in at under $20, this resurfacing retinol provides dermatologist-recommended care without being expensive.

While this formula includes plenty of skin-friendly ingredients, it can sting a little during application.

Price at time of publication: $17

Product Details:

  • Amount of retinol: 0.3%
  • Other notable ingredients: Ceramides (I, III, 6-II), licorice root extract, niacinamide
  • Scent: Fragrance-free

Best Overall, Runner Up: Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Regenerating Anti-Wrinkle Retinol Cream + Hyaluronic Acid

Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Regenerating Anti-Wrinkle Retinol Cream + Hyaluronic Acid

Ulta

Why We Like It: Neutrogena’s concentrated retinol is a budget-friendly drugstore product with high-end results.

It’s Worth Noting: It’s not fragrance-free, which may be irritating for sensitive skin.

Another dermatologist favorite, Neutrogena is a brand well known for its skin care results without the cost of higher-end products. Its Rapid Wrinkle Repair Retinol Pro+ combines 0.5 percent retinol with bisabolol, a skin-soothing ingredient that helps even sensitive skin to counteract the strength of the retinol.

The serum is also fast-absorbing and goes on without grease, slotting easily into any skin routine. Its formula does, however, contain a slight fragrance that might be irritating to very sensitive skin.

Price at time of publication: $30

Product Details:

  • Amount of retinol: 0.5%
  • Other notable ingredients: Bisabolol (chamomile)
  • Scent: Slight fragrance

Best for Dry Skin: La Roche-Posay Retinol Face Serum with Vitamin B3

4
La Roche-Posay Retinol B3 Serum

Ulta

Why We Like It: Its hydrating, gradual release formula makes it easy to use for both new and experienced retinol users.

It’s Worth Noting: It does have a slight fragrance, which could cause irritation.

Dry skin tends to be one of the biggest limiting factors to people considering retinol because retinol products often have a drying out period during initial use. La Roche-Posay’s Retinol B3 is a great option for dry skin thanks to its inclusion of vitamin B3—also known as niacinamide—which can help to keep moisture in the skin barrier.

This serum also uses a gradual release formulation—meaning that it continues to release retinol during use—which also makes it another option for those with sensitive skin or new retinol users.

Rachel Nazarian, MD, FAAD, of NYC’s Schweiger Dermatology notes that while it may seem like using a lot of retinol will only enhance its effectiveness, overusing the substance can cause more dryness and irritation. 

“Retinols will also decrease oil production and also decrease the thickness of the outermost layer of skin,” says Dr. Nazarian. “You might experience some temporary dryness of your skin, some redness, and some flaking even if you have normal or oily skin.”

Price at time of publication: $40

Product Details:

  • Amount of retinol: 0.1%
  • Other notable ingredients: Vitamin B3, hyaluronic acid
  • Scent: Slight perfume scent

Best for Oily Skin: SkinMedica Retinol Complex 1.0

SkinMedica Age Defense Retinol Complex 1.0

 Courtesy of Walmart

Why We Like It: Its high-strength, lightweight formula works without clogging pores

It’s Worth Noting: Using too much of this product too soon may cause skin flakiness or peeling.

If you have oily skin, one of the things you want to avoid is adding a heavy layer to your skin routine, which can overwhelm your pores and exacerbate skin issues. SkinMedica’s Retinol Complex provides a dose of high-strength retinol in a lightweight formula.

Retinol works by turning over cells on the skin’s surface, which can help to unclog pores—something people with oily skin often face. This formula, which is available in multiple strengths, can help to clear up skin without adding extra weight. It also includes SkinMedica’s PhytoShield Complex, which is made up of ingredients like niacinamide, squalane, ceramide III, and bisabolol that help to soothe skin.

Price at time of publication: $72

Product Details:

  • Amount of retinol: 0.5%; also available in 1.0%
  • Other notable ingredients: SkinMedica’s PhytoShield Complex (antioxidant complex) 
  • Scent: Fragrance-free

Best for Acne: Differin Acne Treatment Gel

Differin Acne Treatment Gel

Amazon

Why We Like It: The first prescription-grade retinoid approved by the FDA for OTC use, this retinoid can be used to treat acne and improve skin health.

It’s Worth Noting: If you’re looking specifically for a retinol, this product is similar but not quite under the same category.

Differin is well known for being the first over-the-counter prescription-grade retinoid on the market. While it is a retinoid and not a retinol, the two are both derived from vitamin A; thanks to its retinoid formulation, Differin actually tends to be less irritating for skin than retinol treatments.

Differin’s active retinoid is adapalene, which is used to treat acne by working deep under the skin to help clear blemishes. In addition to being an effective tool against acne and clogged pores, it also helps to improve skin health by working as an anti-inflammatory, according to studies of topical retinoids in Comprehensive Dermatologic Drug Therapy.

Price at time of publication: $33

Product Details:

  • Amount of retinol: 0.1%
  • Other notable ingredients: None
  • Scent: Fragrance-free

Best for Sensitive Skin: La Roche-Posay Redermic R Anti Aging Retinol Cream

La Roche-Posay Redermic R Anti Aging Retinol Cream

Amazon

Why We Like It: Designed for sensitive skin, it’s paraben-free and hypoallergenic.

It’s Worth Noting: Has a slight scent, but it goes away quickly after application.

La Roche-Posay came highly recommended from the dermatologists we spoke with, especially the brand’s Redermic R. Anna Chacon, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and writer at My Psoriasis Team, specifically recommends this product, noting that the product was designed for sensitive skin, with a gentle, 0.1 percent retinol formulation that’s effective without overwhelming new users.

In addition to its milder retinol dose, it’s also paraben-free and has a hypoallergenic fragrance to ensure that it’s easy on sensitive skin.

Price at time of publication: $51

Product Details:

  • Amount of retinol: 0.1%
  • Other notable ingredients: Glycerin, LHA
  • Scent: Fragrance-free

Best for Wrinkles: RoC Retinol Correxion Smoothing Night Serum Capsules

RoC Retinol Correxion Smoothing Night Serum Capsules

Amazon

Why We Like It: Delivered in small capsules, each dose of retinol will stay fresh and is just the right dose.

It’s Worth Noting: The dose may be too much for some users.

A longtime drugstore favorite, the RoC line of skincare is known for providing quick and effective results without the cost of high-end brands. RoC Retinol Correxion Capsules are another entry into the brand’s dermatologist-recommended line of retinol products. Designed specifically to target wrinkles, the retinol works to help skin cell turnover, reducing the appearance of wrinkles while also improving skin health.

The product uses individual capsules of serum as a delivery method to keep the serum fresh and also prevent using too much, which new users may be more prone to do; while using more retinol may seem to enhance effectiveness, it can actually have detrimental effects. “You don’t need a lot to be effective. In fact, using a lot doesn’t increase the benefits and will only risk triggering dryness and irritation,” says Dr. Nazarian.

Price at time of publication: $33

Product Details:

  • Amount of retinol: Not listed — highly concentrated
  • Other notable ingredients: Ceramide NP
  • Scent: Fragrance-free

Best for Beginners: SkinCeuticals Retinol 0.3

Skinceuticals Retinol 0.3
SkinCeuticals.

Why We Like It: It includes calming ingredients to help reduce skin irritation.

It’s Worth Noting: It’s pricier than many other brands, especially for new users.

SkinCeuticals came recommended from the dermatologists we spoke with thanks to its availability in three different strengths: 0.3 percent, 0.5 percent, and 1.0 percent, which makes it easy to begin with a lower dose and work your way up as your skin becomes acclimated to retinol usage.

This choice is a great for beginners thanks to its variety of strengths but also because of its inclusion of bisabolol and Boswellia serrata extract, both of which are skin-soothing ingredients that help to minimize irritating side effects that users often experience when first adding retinol to a skincare routine. It is a little pricier for people new to retinol and looking to add to their skincare routine, but its availability in different strengths allows for a build-up over time.

Price at time of publication: $70

Product Details:

  • Amount of retinol: 0.3%
  • Other notable ingredients: Bisabolol (chamomile), boswellia serrata extract (frankincense)
  • Scent: Fragrance-free

Best for Hyperpigmentation: Paula's Choice BOOST 1% Retinol Booster

Paula's Choice BOOST 1% Retinol Booster

Amazon

Why We Like It: Includes high-dose retinol and licorice root extract to help with dark spots. 

It’s Worth Noting: Expensive and only available in small amounts.

Diane Madfes, MD, NYC-based dermatologist and Assistant Professor of Dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, identified licorice root as a great tool for helping with hyperpigmentation. Paula’s Choice Boost 1% Retinol Booster contains licorice root and 1 percent retinol, one of the highest doses available without a prescription.

The combination of these two ingredients helps to aid in cell turnover more efficiently while also targeting dark spots and hyperpigmentation.

Price at time of publication: $53

Product Details:

  • Amount of retinol: 1%
  • Other notable ingredients: Licorice root extract, ceramide NP, willow bark extract
  • Scent: Fragrance-free

Best for Rosacea: Skin Better AlphaRet Overnight Cream

AlphaRet Overnight Cream

SkinBetter

Why We Like It: This retinol combines with AHA for more clinical-strength results.

It’s Worth Noting: It’s not as widely available as many other brands.

The dermatologists we spoke to were split on whether people with rosacea should avoid retinol or not, primarily due to people with rosacea reporting more sensitive skin that might be further irritated by retinol use. Some agreed that retinol can help with skin cell turnover and enhancing the skin barrier.

Dr. Chacon explains that while those with rosacea may worry about using retinol because of its reputation for drying and irritating skin, it can help to reduce more visible side effects of rosacea.  “Retinol boosts collagen production and cell turnover, which can help with breakouts and uneven texture from rosacea,” she says. 

Skinbetter’s Alpharet formulation also includes skin-soothing ingredients, which may help to reduce redness that comes with retinol use.

While Skinbetter Alpharet was a favorite of the dermatologists we spoke with, it may be a little more difficult to purchase than other brands because of its limited availability.

Price at time of publication: $130

Product Details:

  • Amount of retinol: Not specified
  • Other notable ingredients: AHA, peptide blend, ceramides, squalane, niacinamide, hyaluronic acid, allantoin glycyrrhetinic acid, bisabolol, and green tea extract, vitamins C and E, and CoEnzyme Q10.
  • Scent: Fragrance-free

Best for Stretch Marks: Paula's Choice Retinol Skin-Smoothing Body Treatment

4.9
Paula’s Choice Retinol Skin-Smoothing Treatment

Amazon

Why We Like It: Works as both a skin-smoothing treatment and a retinol.

It’s Worth Noting: Has a slight scent that some users may find unpleasant.

People looking to treat stretch marks at home may see home solutions like cocoa butter and vitamin E touted as cure-alls, but these methods largely do nothing to help, as the American Academy of Dermatology notes; the organization does note that retinol has been able to help with stretch marks.

The AAD also notes that stretch marks are largely caused by collagen and elastin rupturing as the skin expands or shrinks. While combating stretch marks with over-the-counter treatments can be difficult, the dermatologists we spoke with noted that the collagen turnover in retinol can help.

Dr. Nazarian says, “Because it can stimulate collagen production, it would be a good choice to improve the appearance of stretch marks as well.” Dr. Chacon also noted that collagen turnover can help to reduce the appearance of stretch marks. “Topical retinol helps to rebuild a protein in the skin called collagen, making the stretch marks look more like your normal skin,” she says. Both recommended speaking with your dermatologist if you have further concerns about stretch marks.

We chose Paula’s Choice Skin-Smoothing Retinol Body Treatment thanks to its skin-softening ingredients and ability to diminish the appearance of uneven skin tone. Recommended use is applying the treatment all over the body as often as needed, taking care to use SPF during the day after use.

Price at time of publication: $28

Product Details:

  • Amount of retinol: 0.1%
  • Other notable ingredients: Vitamin C, shea butter, carnosine, evening primrose oil
  • Scent: Slight scent

Best Budget: The Ordinary Retinol 0.5% in Squalane

the ordinary retinol 0.5 in squalane

Courtesy of Ulta

Why We Like It: This fan-favorite retinol is available in different strengths and applications

It’s Worth Noting: It may be greasy during after application

This fan-favorite skincare brand is known for its budget-friendly line of products that are often recommended alongside products that are much more expensive. The Ordinary comes dermatologist-recommended thanks to its various strengths and different methods of application, also called “vehicles.” The Ordinary Retinol 0.5% in Squalane was our pick from the lineup because of its squalane formulation. Squalane—a stabilized form of the more familiar squalene—moisturizes skin, which can help to curb negative side effects from retinol use.

The retinol in squalane is also available in 1% and 0.2% amounts, so that users can choose based on their retinol experience.

Price at time of publication: $16

Product Details:

  • Amount of retinol: 0.5%
  • Other notable ingredients: Squalane, jojoba oil
  • Scent: Fragrance-free

How We Selected the Retinol Serums

To select the best retinol serums, we researched the top options on the market. We also asked dermatologists which brands they recommended along with their insight on what shoppers should look for when choosing a retinol as well as what they should avoid. Our experts recommended products they like as well as ingredients that shoppers should look for.

The experts we spoke to include:

  • Rachel Nazarian, MD, FAAD
  • Anna Chacon, MD
  • Michael Jacobs, MD
  • Reid Maclellan, MD

We also got insight into picks for specific conditions, including stretch marks, rosacea, and dry skin. We compared picks based on their amount of retinol, specific conditions they work for, and additional ingredients in their formulations.

What to Know About Retinol Serums

How retinol serums work

“Retinol works to speed up cell turnover. As people age, the rate at which their skin cells turn over slows down,” Reid Mclellan, MD, Adjunct Professor of Surgery at Harvard Medical School, Founder and CEO of Cortina, and director of Proactive Dermatology Group explains. “Retinol can help turn over new cells and result in smoother skin texture, minimizes fine lines and wrinkles, and aids with acne. It is a product that can improve the overall health of your skin.”

When considering a retinol, you should also think about different “vehicles,” or forms, the retinol can take. Many of the retinols we’ve covered here are serums, which tend to be more concentrated than other forms. You might also consider a cream or lotion-based serum if you have dry skin, as they help to prevent moisture loss.

Who should use retinol serums?

Anyone considering using retinol is likely a good candidate to use it. Adding a retinol to your skincare regimen in your 20s or 30s can help to provide added skin health benefits that also lend themselves to helping with anti-aging and the overall appearance of your skin.

As noted by the dermatologists we spoke with, those with sensitive skin should avoid retinol or gradually introduce it into your skincare routine at a low dose.

Ingredients

While retinol serums typically provide the most concentrated form of the substance, they also typically contain additional ingredients. 

“Retinol should not be mixed with vitamin C and AHA/BHA acids. All of those ingredients listed are exfoliating and can dry out the skin,” cautions Dr. Jacobs. “Mixing these ingredients can cause irritation as well as a damaged skin barrier, or outermost layer of the skin.”

Your Questions, Answered

How often should I use a retinol serum?

You should gradually introduce a retinol into your skincare routine a few times per week, preferably at night. If you’re a more experienced retinol user and your skin tolerates it, you can use retinol every day, once daily, at night.

It’s most effective on clean skin, followed by any other serums you might use and a moisturizer to help keep skin from drying out.

How do retinol serums help with acne?

Retinol helps with acne by working to resurface skin.

“Retinol is good for acne,” says Dr. Maclellan. “Since retinol is a skin-restoring ingredient, incorporating it into your skincare routine impacts the way your new skin cells are turning over. It may positively impact the texture of your skin, unclog pores, and help even out your skin tone.”

Are there any side effects to using retinol serum?

Retinol serum can dry out the skin and present itchiness and flakiness while beginning use. It can also cause skin irritation. Users should wear sunscreen while using a retinol to protect skin as retinol promotes skin cell turnover that can make skin more sensitive to sunburn.

How much do retinol serums cost? 

Retinol serums can range in price depending on the size of the container and the percentage of retinol within the product. The retinol serums on this list range in price from $16 to $130. Our top pick CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol costs $17.

Who We Are

Jaylyn Pruitt has a Master of Library and Information Science with a focus on health information. Her goal is to provide easy-to-understand information with a patient perspective in mind.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles