We independently select and review the products we recommend. We may earn a small commission on purchases made through our affiliate links below. Learn more about how we review products and our sources of information.
When life gives you acne or wrinkles, which is always the case, you take 3 drops of a retinol serum and smear that all over your face and move on! Thanks to the best over-the-counter retinol serums, we don’t have to get a prescription to take advantage of the many benefits of retinol.
This powerful ingredient is the holy grail when it comes to fighting wrinkles, lines, acne, or hyperpigmentation. But as you all know, products are way more efficient when used in a serum form.
As serums are more effective in delivering potent ingredients, they give faster results compared to creams. Plus, serums are highly concentrated. You only need a few drops as opposed to a scoop of cream. This makes them cost-effective too.
But first things first, let’s make sure we’re on the same page. Retinol is one of the many vitamin A derivatives, which are collectively called retinoids (1). All derivatives differ in strength, efficiency, and potential for irritation.
And among the different types of retinoids, retinol stands right in the middle where it’s neither too weak nor too strong. Retinol speeds up skin turnover.
It constantly renews the upper layer of the skin by stimulating epidermal cell growth below the skin. New cells move upwards and replace those old dead cells on the surface of the skin.
As a result of this regulated cycle, retinol improves your skin texture and tone, reduces acne and wrinkles, and gives you overall healthier skin.
Making your skin get used to this ingredient can be problematic if you have very sensitive skin or if you’re a beginner. So it’s important to know what to expect from your retinol serum and how to manage potential side effects like dryness.
If you’re not sure how to make retinol work for you or what to expect from it, check out our guide on how to use retinol to get the most benefits. And if you’re not sure how to pick one, keep reading to find out how to find the best retinol serum for your skin.
How To Choose a Retinol Serum
Before diving in, here’s how to choose a retinol serum and what to look for in one.
Let’s get one thing out of the way, if you’re a beginner and not sure how you feel about retinol, there is no point in using expensive, high-end products. Definitely go for affordable and drugstore options. Some of the best retinol serums come with a hefty price tag.
And most of the time, they are richer ingredients-wise compared to affordable options. However, starting retinol and actually sticking with it is difficult. And if you’re not going to use it, don’t buy an expensive one. You’ll still see results from drugstore options and will be able to see how your skin feels about it.
Over-the-counter retinol serums differ in strength. And they usually come between 0.01% to 1%. If it’s a pure retinol serum and you’re a beginner, consider serums at the lower end of the spectrum and move up from there. Additionally, stronger retinol serums can come in encapsulated form too.
And encapsulation can compensate for higher-strength retinol by reducing potential irritation. If it’s encapsulated, it’s usually way gentler than it says. That being said, it’s safer to start small and start slow.
Retinol is a do-it-all ingredient. Whether you’re dealing with wrinkles or acne, a basic retinol serum will help with both. However, you’ll get more out of your product if you choose it with intention.
For example, retinol serums packed with anti-inflammatories can help with irritation as well as inflamed acne. Similarly, retinol serums that contain antioxidants and other anti-agers can work better when you’re dealing with aging skin and wrinkles.
Retinol serums can be super light like a water-based serum or a bit more emollient like lotion. If you have oily skin, try lighter options for better absorption and skin penetration.
If you have dry or sensitive skin, go for more lotion-like options that tend to contain more hydrating and moisturizing ingredients. You can always go for retinol creams if retinol serums seem too much.
The Best Retinol Serums
Whether you’re dealing with acne or wrinkles, find below the best retinol serums for your skin type and concerns.
Best Overall: Sunday Riley A+ High-Dose Retinoid Serum
The formulation of this one might be confusing if you’ve never used retinol before. But here’s why you’re going to love it either way despite the annoyingly vague and confusing terms like ‘retinoid blend’. The types of retinoids used and the delivery method makes this one usable even if you have sensitive skin.
It has encapsulated retinol as well as Granactive retinoid. Granactive retinoid, though stronger than retinol, is usually gentler than retinol. This is helpful when your skin has trouble tolerating the ingredient. Additionally, the serum has the antioxidant CoQ10 as well as vitamin E to protect the skin against photoaging and promote a youthful complexion.
Plus, it contains ginger extract for its superb antioxidant benefits, hyaluronic acid to hydrate, and a bunch of other plant extracts to soothe and nourish your skin! No room for redness or irritation, making it an overall potent retinol serum great for all skin types.
Best Drugstore: RoC Retinol Correxion Deep Wrinkle Serum
When drugstore retinol serums are concerned, this one earned a spot for being an effective retinol serum to retexturize and smooth the skin. The light lotion form makes retinol more tolerable for the skin, which is great if you’re a newbie too.
The serum contains vitamin C and vitamin E to fight hyperpigmentation and free radical damage. And it has magnesium and zinc to hydrate and allantoin to reduce inflammation. So if you’re looking for an affordable, drugstore retinol serum for fine lines and wrinkles, this one is an overall great option to fight all signs of aging.
Best For Beginners: First Aid Beauty FAB Skin Lab Retinol Serum
This one is a fragrance-free, alcohol-free, and oil-free retinol perfector for sensitive skin and beginners. The 0.25% retinol, paired with amazing anti-inflammatories, makes it easy to incorporate retinol into your routine. Other than visibly diminishing the look of wrinkles with retinol, the serum also contains neuropeptides.
Neuropeptides work like wrinkle relaxers that limit muscle movement to smooth out wrinkles. The retinol serum smooths the skin texture and reverses UV-induced skin damage. The gentle serum also hydrates with hyaluronic acid and soothes with aloe. The beginner-friendly formula is also ideal for mature skin types that are prone to redness and sensitivity.
Best For Night: Peter Thomas Roth Retinol Fusion PM Night Serum
Retinol thrives at night. Assuming you’re sticking with your 8-hour beauty sleep, this retinol serum has enough time to work on clogged pores and congested skin. It’s a simple yet powerful night serum to milk the benefits of retinol with your evening routine.
It utilizes encapsulated retinol. 1.5% retinol gradually penetrates the skin, which is incredibly helpful in preventing irritation (2). With antioxidants like vitamins C and E, the serum regulates skin turnover, promotes collagen growth, and defends your skin against free radical damage.
Best For Acne: The Ordinary Retinol 0.5% in Squalane
This is currently one of the best retinol serums in terms of simplicity and concentration. Containing 0.5% retinol, the serum is a targeted one that is perfect for anti-aging and even better for acne. It has a light base made with squalane. Squalane is a fast-absorbing emollient that also moisturizes the skin.
It doesn’t clog pores but helps a lot with preventing dryness. While resurfacing the skin, the serum pushes blackheads and debris stuck in pores toward the outer layer of the skin. This makes them super easy to just wash off and get rid of. Though the texture might not be pleasant if you have oily skin, it’s still great for targeting acne without breaking the bank.
Best Multi-Tasker: Shani Darden Retinol Reform
This one adds exfoliants into the mix, which makes the serum even more effective. It contains encapsulated retinol in addition to lactic acid. While retinol helps with collagen production and restores the skin’s elasticity, lactic acid eliminates flakiness.
This gentle alpha-hydroxy acid removes dead skin cells on the surface of the skin. And it also has additional hydrating properties for the skin, which is great if you have dry skin. The serum is perfect for utilizing retinol to get smoother and brighter skin. Plus, you don’t need another exfoliant in your routine with this dual-action skin renewal.
Best For Dark Spots: Dr. Dennis Gross Advanced Retinol + Ferulic Overnight Wrinkle Treatment
Antioxidants are the next best thing when it comes to anti-aging. They tend to be more skin-friendly than mainstream anti-agers. And this one contains both of these goodies to tackle wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, dullness, and all that’s associated with aging skin. The vegan formula offers retinol with ferulic acid on the side, which is a potent antioxidant that neutralizes free radicals and also brightens the skin.
It also packs niacinamide to better target discolorations and bakuchiol for retinol-like benefits without irritation. The anti-aging face serum protects the skin against free radicals while repairing daily damage. The added skin replenishers prevent dryness and irritation and keep the skin unbothered at night.
Best Retinol Alternative: Ole Henriksen Glow Cycle Retin-Alt Power Serum
This one contains plant-derived retinol aka bakuchiol. It does everything retinol does; reduces the look of wrinkles and lines, minimizes pores, clears out acne, and improves your skin texture. But it does it way gentler than retinol and does not cause redness or irritation (3).
It also contains glycolic acid for gently removing dead skin cells to give you a brighter and even skin tone. The purple-colored serum has a dewy finish that instantly lights up your complexion too. And it has squalane, glycerin, and lots of plant extracts to nourish and hydrate your skin too. So if you’re looking for an anti-aging retinol serum minus the retinol, you can try this vegan alternative.
Best Affordable: The Inkey List Retinol Anti-Aging Serum
This is another anti-aging retinol serum that’s super affordable and equally effective. Aside from 1% time-release retinol, it contains Granactive retinoid. And it also has signal peptides to stimulate collagen synthesis.
And to avoid dryness and dehydration, the serum contains squalane and hyaluronic acid to make sure your skin is hydrated and plump. The budget-friendly retinol serum goes with any skincare routine whether it’s for targetting acne or softening wrinkles.
Best For Deep Wrinkles: Murad Retinol Youth Renewal Serum
There’s no doubt about retinol’s power when it comes to fighting signs of aging. Wrinkles and lines are issues we all have to deal with at some point regardless of our skin type. This may be a challenge for people with dry skin. But this retinol serum is like a hydrating serum for dry skin that eliminates potential dryness with hyaluronic acid, ceramides, and squalane.
That way, your skin can improve in texture and tone without getting irritated or dried out. This unique formula contains both instant-release and time-release retinol and retinol esters to accelerate skin turnover. That way, your skin gets a night-long nudge into producing new collagen to get smoother and clearer skin. If you have deep-set, stubborn wrinkles, this is the upgrade you need.
So these are some of the best retinol serums you can get your hands on. Remember to refer to our guide to learn more about what retinol is and how to properly use it. And don’t forget to wear sunscreen!
Read Next: The Best Retinol Eye Creams
- Mukherjee, S., Date, A., Patravale, V., Korting, H. C., Roeder, A., & Weindl, G. (2006). Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clinical interventions in aging, 1(4), 327–348. https://doi.org/10.2147/ciia.2006.1.4.327
- Shields, C. W., 4th, White, J. P., Osta, E. G., Patel, J., Rajkumar, S., Kirby, N., Therrien, J. P., & Zauscher, S. (2018). Encapsulation and controlled release of retinol from silicone particles for topical delivery. Journal of controlled release : official journal of the Controlled Release Society, 278, 37–48. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jconrel.2018.03.023
- Chaudhuri, R. K., & Bojanowski, K. (2014). Bakuchiol: a retinol-like functional compound revealed by gene expression profiling and clinically proven to have anti-aging effects. International journal of cosmetic science, 36(3), 221–230. https://doi.org/10.1111/ics.12117