Best Retinol Serum

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Michael Fassbender

When it comes to our skin care routines, aren’t we all looking for that one special magic potion that will leave our complexions glowing and youthful-looking? Sadly, miracle ingredients don’t actually exist. But you can still achieve stellar results with one skin care wonder: retinol.

Much like other retinol products, retinol serums are sought after for their anti-aging benefits and they’re available over the counter, no prescription required. It is a weaker version of the prescription strength retinoid, tretinoin (Retin-A). Prescription strength topical retinoids can be difficult to tolerate for some patients with sensitive skin, and retinols can be a gentler alternative for these patients.

When applied to the skin, retinol works to increase cell turnover, in turn helping to refine the skin and signs of aging that are often caused by environmental factors. When used properly and consistently, retinol can reduce redness, inflammation and pore size, while simultaneously reducing the appearance of blemishes, hyperpigmentation and stubborn dark spots associated with problematic skin.

Are retinol serums safe for everyone to use?

If you have sensitive skin, plan on proceeding with caution so you give your complexion some time to warm up to the retinol. Those with dry or sensitive skin need to be more cautious with retinols. Start low and slow, using a small amount on the face twice a week at night and increasing every two weeks to every other night and then nightly as tolerated. Retinols should be avoided while you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, and those with certain skin conditions like eczema or rosacea should also steer clear of the ingredient.

Best retinol serums, according to dermatologists

Best overall retinol serum: Size: 1.0 oz. | Other key ingredients: Hyaluronic acid, ceramides, niacinamide, licorice root extract. A Shop TODAY Beauty Award winner for best budget anti-aging serum, three of the derms we polled cited this affordable CeraVe retinol serum as one of their go-tos.

Best dual-action retinol serum: Size: 1.0 oz. | Other key ingredients: Hyaluronic acid. Over 7,200 verified Amazon shoppers have given this bestseller a five-star rating; just like them, Lamb is also a huge fan of the dual-action wrinkle filler.

FAQs about retinol, answered by experts

What is the best concentration of retinol to use?

“There is no right answer here because the percentage of retinol is a very individual matter. I like to start my patients on the lowest strength, usually 0.025% and then move them up 0.05% and then 0.1% as tolerated.”

What are the do’s and don’ts of applying retinol serum?

“Incorporating retinol into your regimen is a marathon, not a sprint. When you use too much at once, you risk the chance of irritation and dry skin. Your skin needs to adjust to the rapid cell turnover,” they advise.

How can I tell if retinol is working?

“Three to six months is the standard timeline where consumers can expect to notice changes in the skin. It’s essential to stick to the product before giving up for the skin to get used to the retinol.”

How we chose the best retinol serums

The Shop TODAY team rounded up the best retinol serums for this story using a few methods: enlisting the recommendations of top dermatologists, reading through user reviews, filtering our searches for highly rated, bestselling, and favorably reviewed products, and testing some retinol serums ourselves to share our own tried-and-true favorites.

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