Everything You Need to Know About Retinol and the 12 Best Serums to Try Now

Despite being a beauty editor, I’ve been afraid of retinol for the longest time. In fact, I’ve written previously about how I totally avoided it for years after a particularly adverse reaction to a dermatologist-prescribed retinol and only came around when I discovered a certain £20 retinol product that transformed my skin. I’ll be honest, though: When it comes to trending ingredients, retinol has to be up there with one of the most confusing in the industry. Advice varies greatly on when you should start using it, how often you should be using it and where it should sit within your current skincare routine.

But that’s about to change. Ahead, I’ve got the lowdown on exactly what retinol is, why it’s the ingredient that I’m recommended most by experts, and most importantly, the best retinol serums to try now.

Keep scrolling for everything you need to know about retinol and to find a serum that will work for you.

A derivative of vitamin A, retinol is a gentler version of tretinoin—the kind of retinol that you might be prescribed by a dermatologist (and that my skin hated). It’s a bit of a does-it-all ingredient, but one of its main benefits is that it acts as a natural exfoliator for your skin, which means it removes dead skin cells from the top layer to reveal the fresh, glowy skin beneath. But there’s more. Retinol does pretty much everything from minimise fine lines and pores to encourage cell renewal and diminish breakout-causing bacteria. It’s no surprise then that retinol is one of the most-recommended skincare ingredients and alongside SPF has proven to be one of the most effective ways to prevent signs of ageing.

Most facialists and skin experts that I have spoken to recommend that everyone aged 30 and over start using retinol immediately. But if you have specific skincare concerns like congestion, scarring or regular breakouts, then it won’t do you any harm to start using a retinol serum earlier. If you do have oily/combination skin, then a retinol serum is ideal, as it’s lightweight in texture and won’t weigh your skin down. Of course, though, if you do prefer richer formulations, then you can look for a retinol cream or moisturiser instead. (You’ll get the same results—it’s just down to personal preference.) Oh, and it’s important to note here that if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, then you should totally avoid retinol.

Retinol serums should always be used at night and applied to clean skin. Our skin works to rejuvenate itself overnight, so adding in a skin-repairing ingredient like retinol here makes sense. 

While a lot of retinol serums are coined for daily use, most skin experts recommend that you start introducing the ingredient slowly. Start with once or twice a week for a couple of weeks, and then build it up slowly as your skin adjusts. Keep an eye on your skin—a little dryness or irritation is normal, but decrease the frequency of your application if you notice anything more than this.

You can go straight to bed after you’ve applied your retinol serum, but if your skin does feel a little tight, then apply a gentle moisturiser afterwards. In fact, if you have sensitive skin, then it’s often recommended that you apply a moisturiser first and your retinol serum on top. 

The next morning, be sure to apply an SPF, as your skin will be more sensitive to the sun. 

Keep scrolling to shop the 12 best retinol serums around.

The brainchild of celebrity facialist Shani Darden, this gentle retinol serum is ideal for those who want to inject a dull complexion with some radiance. Containing lactic acid as well as retinol, it reveals a visibly more luminous glow. Plus, celebrities like Rosie Huntington-Whiteley and Kim Kardashian West swear by the stuff.

Another celebrity-favourite skincare brand, this retinol-infused serum works by promoting the production of collagen within the skin to boost elasticity, firm the skin and target fine lines and wrinkles. A great option if you specifically want to focus on signs of ageing.

I’d describe this as the perfect retinol starter serum. It contains just 0.2% pure retinol, so if you’re in your 20s and only just thinking about retinol, then this will begin to target fine lines and even skin tone without causing any sensitivity or irritation.

Emily Ratajkowski swears by this serum for her supermodel glow. Joanna Vargas is renowned for her red carpet skin prep for the A-list, so it’s no surprise that this serum is all about helping to impart radiance on even the most lacklustre of complexions.

I’m a huge fan of Paula’s Choice as a brand for its effective, hardworking formulations. This treatment is particularly good if you’ve been partial to a little sun worship in the past. It fades dark spots and repairs wrinkles caused by sun damage while building collagen within the skin for a plumper, more radiant complexion long-term.

To minimise irritation and redness, opt for a slow-release retinol like this one from The Inkey List. It tackles blemishes and evens skin tone over time to leave you with brighter, smoother skin.

Specially formulated with Oskia’s own Super-Nutrient Retinoid Complex (a mix of retinol, vitamin C and provitamin D3), this is a gentle nighttime serum that will help you wake to plumper, healthier-looking skin come morning.

Containing Swertia flower extract and hyaluronic acid, this line-reducing, skin-strengthening retinol serum also delivers a hearty dose of hydration. It uses three different ingredients—fast-acting retinoid, time-released retinol and a retinol booster—so you can trust that it’s going to get to work quickly.

The name says it all with this retinol serum. It’s created for beginners with a 0.25% concentration of pure retinol alongside the brand’s skin saver complex. I like that it’s able to deliver all of those retinol benefits without causing sensitivity.

This silky serum sinks quickly into the skin and has the added benefit of skin-plumping collagen so your skin will look healthier, glowier and improve elasticity. 

This retinol serum means business and probably isn’t one for beginners. After the first use, be prepared to wake up to visibly brighter, smoother and more youthful-looking skin. There are very few retinols out there that can compete with this one in terms of results.

If all of this retinol talk is leaving you confused but you still want in on the benefits, Medik8’s Crystal Retinal range is for you. It’s available in lots of different strengths. Start at 1 and work your way up through the different numbers. Trust me—you’ll have minimal irritation and will reap some very impressive plumping, smoothing results.

Next up, the cult moisturisers Meghan Markle, Rosie HW, and J.Lo actually use.

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