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I've Tried A Lot Of Retinols & These Are The 8 Best Retinol Serums Of 2022

Retinol
Graphic by mbg creative
November 16, 2022
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Finding a retinol that works for you is, well, one of the harder challenges in beauty. Your skin's unique needs, challenges, type, and sensitivities all play a role in whether a formulation is going to work for you—or whether it will trigger your skin to go haywire.

But there's a reason so many people commit to finding their retinol serum of choice: It has a host of aesthetic benefits such as decreased breakouts, improved collagen production, reduced fine lines, eased dark spots, more even tone, and faster skin cell turnover. That's a lot of claims: Read all about the benefits here, which include the science to back it up.

And if you find yourself on this retinol journey—determined to find your perfect match—we collected our all-time favorites that can treat a wide spectrum of goals.

How we picked:

Variety

Everyone has different needs from their skin care, so we are highlighting a wide variety of formula types so you can better find one to suit your skin, budget, and preferences.

Effective retinols

These retinols come in varying types and dosages (maxing out at 1%). There's no "correct" percentage to use retinol or "best" type, as it’s dependent on the user's need. Just find one that works for you.

Extra actives

The best thing about modern retinol formulas is that they come formulated with supporting players. We found formulas that work together synergistically to enhance the experience. 

Tried & tested

These have all been tested by the mbg beauty team or come highly recommended by experts. In addition, we used consumer feedback to inform our choices, as it's helpful to see how the product works for a wide range of people.

Our picks for the best retinol serums of 2022:

Best for beginners: Versed Press Restart Gentle Retinol Serum

Pros:

  • Affordable price point, which is ideal if you're just starting out & don't want to spend money on pricey formulas
  • The bakuchiol is CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) certified

Cons:

  • Ideal for younger users—more mature skin may benefit from stronger formulas
Ingredient considerations: vegancruelty-freeencapsulated retinolarophirachlorophyllglycerinshea butteraloebotanical extractsbotanical oils
Size: 1 fl oz

Are you a skin care novice looking to jump-start your routine? You'll likely want something that won't be too aggressive. There is no need to dive headfirst into retinol; your best course of action is to ease into the category with a soothing formula. And we have just the option for you. This gel-cream blend has very little adjustment time or irritation. The formula uses bakuchiol and an encapsulated retinol—and then tosses in some antioxidants and anti-inflammatory ingredients to make sure your skin stays happy.

What users say:

As this first-time retinol user notes, this serum is her gateway to brighter skin: "I love this retinol. It's my first time truly using a retinol consistently. It's very gentle, and I wake up totally glowing. It's not irritating, but I do suggest going heavier on the moisturizer after. Seriously, this product is great and I love it!"

Best for acne & oil-prone skin: Youth To The People Retinal + Niacinamide Youth Serum

Pros:

  • In a consumer perception trial, 91% of users agreed that skin looked clear after 1 week

Cons:

  • Overuse of niacinamide can cause flushing in some people, so be sure to limit your niacinamide elsewhere in your routine
Ingredient considerations: vegancruelty-freeretinal (retinaldehyde)glycerinshea butterbotanical extractsbotanical oilsadaptogensniacinamidehyaluronic acid
Size: 1 fl oz

Retinol is a star ingredient for those with acne. The ingredient works by interacting with the skin's receptors, where it beneficially alters the genes involved with inflammation and cell growth. This reduces the formation of microcomedones (a fancy word for skin pores clogged with sebum, bacteria, and dead skin cells). In addition, this uses niacinamide at 5%, which has some evidence to suggest it can help reduce breakouts and balance sebum, along with strengthening the barrier. Finally, the formula is further buffered with adaptogens and ceramides for their hydration and soothing properties. 

What users say:

Not only can retinol help reduce breakouts, but it may help ease the appearance of scarring thanks to its ability to encourage skin cell turnover. As one user notes, "My holy grail! Before this product my skin was pretty damaged from the past, with scarring and redness. After using this product for 3 months my acne, scaring, and redness have drastically decreased. I also never got purging in the beginning, which is a freaking miracle because my skin is very sensitive and reactive." However, acne scarring is a very complicated thing to treat depending on the severity, so it may not work for all folks. 

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Best for sensitive skin: First Aid Beauty FAB Skin Retinol Serum 0.25% Pure Concentrate

Pros:

  • According to a consumer perception study, 91% agreed once their skin acclimated to the product as it was gentle and non-irritating

Cons:

  • Contains silicones, in case you avoid those in skin care
Ingredient considerations: vegancruelty-freeretinolglycerinbotanical extractsbotanical oilsceramidesallantoincolloidal oatpeptides
Size: 1 fl oz

Most people with sensitive skin have had to avoid retinol in the past, as it was just far too irritating. But modern, sophisticated formulas have aimed to change that—including this absolute standout. The lower dosage of pure retinol is blanketed with sensitive-skin-approved ingredients. For example, ceramides and peptides hydrate and support the skin barrier. In addition, allantoin is famous for its wound-healing abilities. Finally, colloidal oat is a derm-favorite ingredient to treat reactive skin and even those with skin conditions like eczema. 

What users say:

Even though this formula is extremely gentle, still proceed with caution as you fold it into your routine. With time, you may even be able to work your way up to nightly use, like this user: "I have super sensitive skin and my last foray into retinol was a disaster. My dermatologist encouraged me to try again and go slower. This product has not irritated my skin at all! I started out as recommended—just a few days a week and now I use it every day. Highly recommend this product if you are curious about retinol and have irritable skin like me."

Best for wrinkles: Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Advanced Retinol + Ferulic Texture Renewal Serum

Pros:

  • Highly effective formula with several supporting active ingredients
  • Retinol, bakuchiol, rambutan work synergistically to build collagen in the skin

Cons:

  • Very potent with several ingredients that may be irritating to some folks
  • Some complaints of the smell
Ingredient considerations: vegancruelty-freeretinolbakuchiolbotanical extractshyaluronic acidrambutanferulic acidsqualanesalicylic acidmandelic acidlactic acidpanthenolCoQ10
Size: 1 fl oz

If you want serious results for fine lines and textural concerns, this serum pulls no punches. The serum not only contains a retinol and bakuchiol blend to enhance collagen production and encourage skin cell turnover, but there's a host of other healthy aging actives that can also improve the complexion and reduce wrinkles: Squalane for barrier support, hyaluronic acid for plumping hydration, rambutan for inflammation reduction, antioxidants to fight free radicals, and salicylic acid, lactic acid, and mandelic acid for exfoliation. 

What users say:

Lots of users note that this serum has helped their skin appear smooth: "My skin looks good for my age. I have no tiny wrinkles at 68." Not only does it help with fine lines, but this reviewer says it's helped address crepey skin. "I have mature skin. This serum has been gentle, and has provided a really nice moisturizing and smoothing effect. My concealer goes on so much better because of that. If you deal with dry skin and crepiness, you'll like this stuff."

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Best for hyperpigmentation: January Labs Triple Active Reclaiming Serum

Pros:

  • Three actives for the price of one
  • An easy way to use all three healthy aging ingredients without the risk of deactivating each other

Cons:

  • Pricey
Ingredient considerations: vegancruelty-freeretinolbotanical extractsniacinamidelactic acidvitamin C
Size: 1 fl oz

One of my all-time favorite serums, this uses three star ingredients to give you an all allover glow. Its unparalleled performance comes from their unique innovative retinol derivative, a gentler 0.5% option that plays well with other ingredients. And in this case, those other ingredients are niacinamide and vitamin C. The niacinamide helps reduce redness and inflammation (which is very important for hyperpigmentation). And the stable vitamin C improves brightness and tone. As if that wasn't enough, there's also aloe, lactic acid, and a marine extract to help soothe any irritation. 

What users say:

This helped with tone and brightness so well that one user even decided to forgo makeup: "At 65 years young I've tried many anti-aging serums. January Labs is the absolute best. I love being able to go without makeup if I want. My skin tone is a lot more even since I've been using it for the past two years. I highly recommend using the triple active reclaiming serum. It's great for all skin types."

Most recommended by dermatologists: Cerave Resurfacing Retinol Serum

Pros:

  • Not only is it recommended by dermatologists, it's formulated alongside them
  • Fragrance-free

Cons:

  • Might not be as powerful as the others on this list but a solid choice for its price point
Ingredient considerations: encapsulated retinolniacinamideceramideslicorice root extract
Size: 1 fl oz

This derm-approved brand makes solid formulas with tried-and-true ingredients and available at the drugstore. What's not to love? This blend uses an encapsulated retinol, alongside niacinamide for barrier strength, licorice root extract for its brightening properties, and a ceramide complex for hydration. 

What users say:

Even the M.D.s behind the hit channel Doctorly endorse this product, to which one user took their advice: "I saw an episode of Doctorly on YouTube and the doctors recommended this retinol product for controlling acne and to stave off fine lines. I immediately purchased, and it's excellent. I have been using it now for 2 months and definitely notice an improvement in my skin texture. It doesn't cause me to break out, and it's really affordable."

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Best for dry skin: Marie Veronique Gentle Retinol Night Serum

Pros:

  • Award-winning serum
  • This formula is for age-related concerns, but they also have an acne-specific formula

Cons:

  • Pricey
  • Contains essential oils, if you're sensitive to those
Ingredient considerations: vegancruelty-freeencapsulated retinolbotanical extractsbotanical oilsceramidesvitamin Cvitamin Egreen tea extractalgae extractjojoba oil
Size: 1 fl oz

Marie Veronique is a cosmetic chemist known for her smart, sophisticated formulas that deliver results. In the case of her retinol-highlighted formula, she blends together the vitamin A derivative with vitamin C and E to enhance the collagen-boosting potential (the latter two are essential in the collagen synthesis and cross-linking process). But why is it so well suited for dry skin types? The blend also comes with hydrating and softening ingredients, like green tea extract, ceramides, algae extract, jojoba oil, and more.    

What users say:

Users definitely note how soothing this is for dry, reactive skin—just be patient: "I have sensitive skin and other retinols have been too intense for me. But this product feels so gentle yet effective. Took a bit to start seeing results but after a few weeks of consistently using it each night I saw my skin become more hydrated, balanced, smoother and generally healthier looking."

Best for mature skin: Drunk Elephant A-Passioni Retinol Cream

Pros:

  • At 1% this is a very potent retinol
  • In a clinical study, 100% showed improvement in firmness and elasticity

Cons:

  • It may be too potent for some users—work your way up with this one, and use a soothing face cream with it
Ingredient considerations: vegancruelty-freeretinolbotanical extractsbotanical oilspeptidesfatty acids
Size: 1 fl oz0.33 fl oz

While this is dubbed a "cream" thanks to the pillowy texture, it really functions as a serum. Meaning it should be applied in a thin layer under a hydrating face cream. The retinol clocks in at 1%, which is the highest percentage on this list. That means it's strong. In addition to the powerful retinol, it also contains peptides, which are also known for their fine-line-reducing powers, and fatty acids for hydration. 

What users say:

Due to the high dosage of retinol, it's hard to avoid a reaction stage, but once you're through it you'll see major results: "I started slow as instructed and definitely had some noticeable peeling after the first few uses, but now my skin looks 10 years younger. Totally changed the texture, which is now dewy and smooth. My wrinkles have significantly decreased, tone has evened, old discoloration from tanning gone, and totally clear from breakouts. It’s also even made my rosacea less red/noticeable. I love this product and couldn’t recommend it more highly!"

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How to choose the best retinol for you.

There's a lot to keep in mind when shopping for a retinol, but this will help guide you through your choices:

1.

Identify your goals.

Before you make a purchase, really think about what is most important to you in your skin care journey. You won't be pleased with a product if it's not formulated for your specific needs, so don't waste your money on a purchase if you're not clear on what you're looking for.   

2.

Evaluate your skin type and situation.

Most folks can handle an encapsulated retinol, so look for these if you are new to the ingredient, have dry skin or mild breakouts, or are simply looking for maintenance. Retinol at a low dose is also suitable for sensitive skin types (opt for under 0.5%). For those with mature skin or acne (read: looking for treatment strength), opt for more potent dosages of retinol (like above 0.5%) or retinaldehyde. And as always, you can ask your dermatologist for prescription-strength.

3.

Consider the other ingredients.

The best thing about modern retinol formulas is that they come paired with other active ingredients to bolster efficacy. We recommend finding formulas with barrier-supporting ingredients (ceramides, fatty acids, hyaluronic acid, and soothing botanicals) and antioxidants. You can also tailor the "other" ingredients to your needs: For example, niacinamide can help acne, peptides can treat fine lines, vitamin C can aid in brightness, and colloidal oat can soothe sensitive skin.

4.

Test it out—slowly.

No matter the formula you go with, don't rush into it. Start low (a pea-size amount) and slow (once every few days and work your way up). After you've given the formula a few weeks of adjustment time, then make the call if it's your fit. Remember: Not every product is for everyone, and it's OK if you ultimately decide to go a different route and try another product.

Safety & side effects.

Though retinol is an impressive skin ingredient, it's not for everyone and not without its downfalls:

  • Do not use it if you are pregnant. To start, you should not use retinol if you are pregnant. While the primary concern is ingesting oral retinoids, doctors and derms recommend ceasing topical use as well1—as a precaution.
  • Be aware that it likely will come with an adjustment period. Retinol can potentially cause unpleasant side effects, known as the retinoid reaction, otherwise known as retinoid-induced dermatitis, or even the "retinol purge." This varies in how long it lasts but usually around two weeks.
  • Retinol can cause photosensitivity. This means that the skin is more sensitive to the sun and more susceptible to sun damage and burns. This is why you should only use it at night and always wear SPF during the day. 
  • Not everyone can tolerate retinol. Even if you use the smallest amount of retinol, some people simply can't tolerate the ingredient in general. (Not every ingredient is for everyone.) So if you simply can't use it, do not stress. There are many incredible ingredients that improve your complexion, such as peptides, vitamin C, and plant stem cells.

How to use your retinol.

No product is going to be effective if you don't use it correctly. Let's go over some usage basics:

  1. Know your limit. OTC retinol cannot exceed 1%, so that's your upper threshold. However, you personally may have a lower concentration limit that your skin can tolerate, be it 0.5% or 0.3%. If you want anything higher than that, visit your dermatologist. 
  2. Apply it on freshly cleaned, dry skin at night. During your evening routine, wash your face as normal, gently dry your skin, and then apply the recommended amount (which is usually about a pea-sized). After, follow up with a hydrating face cream. 
  3. Start with once every 3 to 5 days, working your way up as tolerated. Some people can stand to use it nightly, but don't feel pressured to do so if it causes a reaction. If you want further guidance on how you should fold retinol into your routine, skin cycling can be a useful tool. 
  4. Unless the product is formulated with antioxidants, vitamin C, AHAs, or BHAs, don't mix on your own. A good rule of thumb is to avoid being an armchair chemist with your retinols. Some products are made with multiple ingredients, but they are done so in a way that preserves the overall formula's integrity. However, layering multiple serums at home may not have the same outcome: Often mixing retinol with other serums can render the products useless.
  5. Be smart about your day/night serums. If you still want to use vitamin C, AHAs, or BHAs, you absolutely can! Just stick to your retinol at night, and use these during the day. Or alternative the nights you use them. 
  6. However, you can buffer your retinol with hydrating ingredients. For every rule, there's an exception. If you'd like to soften your retinol's effects (because you have dry or sensitive skin), you can sandwich it with hydrating products. To be safe, we recommend only doing this with simple formulas so as not to mess with either formula. 

FAQ

Which is better for wrinkles, retinol or retinoid?

Retinoids is the umbrella term for prescription and OTC retinoids; retinols are only found in OTC options. If you want serious results for deep wrinkles, ask your dermatologist for a prescription retinoid, such as Retin-A. If you're not ready for that step, there are many OTC retinols that work great for mature skin.

What percentage of retinol serum is best?

OTC retinols max out at 1%. The best percentage of retinol is entirely dependent on your skin type and needs. If you have acne-prone skin, want more visible results, or just generally tolerate active ingredients well, you may want to find a retinol with a higher percentage (0.5% to 1%). For beginners, dry skin, and combination skin, look for options in the 0.3% to 0.5% range. For those with highly sensitive skin, you may even want below that, at around 0.1% to 0.2%. If you have any concerns about your skin tolerating retinol, look for encapsulated options as they tend to be easier on the skin.

Which one is better, a retinol or a cream?

In general, serums are more potent and have better penetration as they are water-based and applied on freshly cleaned skin. However, retinol creams are often more hydrating and easier to tolerate. If you'd like to try a retinol cream, check out our favorites.

The takeaway.

There are many reasons to utilize retinol serums in your skin care routine, from acne to wrinkles. If you're not ready to take the retinol plunge, don't worry: There are many other ways to care for your skin. Check out our guide to reversing skin aging.

Heal Your Skin.

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Meet The Experts

Alexandra Engler is the beauty director at mindbodygreen and host of the beauty podcast Clean Beauty School. Previously, she's held beauty roles at Harper's Bazaar, Marie Claire, SELF, and Cosmopolitan; her byline has appeared in Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and Allure.com.