10 Best

Retinol Serums

of September 2023

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A Guide to Buying a Retinol Serum

Yehudah Posnick

You’ll see the chemical retinol employed in a number of skincare products. If you’re wondering if there’s a connection between retinol and the retina of the eye, there most certainly is. Retinol is a member of the Vitamin A family of chemicals, and it’s stored in the cells in the retina. Upon exposure to light, retinol converts into retinal and retinoic acid. This process allows you to see in low-light conditions (which is why we were always told as children that foods with Vitamin A are good for the eyes).

But, retinol is also important in the health of your skin. This is because retinol increases the body’s production of skin cells and the protein collagen, which is a major building block in your skin. Thus, retinol serums will help improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, reduce the effects of aging, treat acne and acne scars, and remove dark spots due to sun damage.

We’ll look at several retinol serums on the market. These serums usually contain high concentrations of important skincare ingredients, and we’ll note how retinol works for treating particular conditions. There are retinol serums for acne scars or treating acne. Other serums treat wrinkles and other signs of aging. And yet others are for improving your skin tone, by neutralizing the effects of sun damage. You’ll be able to identify which product is best for your skin!


What exactly qualifies as a serum skin care product?

A serum is a lightweight, fast-absorbing skincare product that is typically formulated with a high concentration of active ingredients. It is designed to deliver targeted benefits to the skin, addressing specific concerns and providing added nourishment. Serums will have a thin, watery, or gel-like consistency. They are typically less viscous compared to creams or lotions, allowing them to be easily absorbed into the skin.

How do I apply a serum?

Serums are designed to be used in conjunction with other skincare products. They can be applied after cleansing and toning the skin and before moisturizers or creams.

What effect does retinol have on your skin?

Retinol increases the production of skin cells, stimulates the production of collagen, and opens your pores. This makes it useful in many skin care products:

  • Anti-aging products: By increasing collagen production, retinol will improve skin elasticity and reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. Retinol can also promote cell turnover, which can lead to smoother and more youthful-looking skin.

  • Exfoliating products: Retinol can help improve skin texture by promoting the shedding of dead skin cells and encouraging the growth of new cells. This can result in a smoother, more even skin tone and a reduction in the appearance of roughness or unevenness.

  • Acne treatment products: Retinol is effective in treating acne due to its ability to unclog pores and reduce the formation of comedones (blackheads and whiteheads). It can also help regulate sebum production, leading to a reduction in oiliness.

  • Whitening skin and achieving even skin tone: Retinol can help fade hyperpigmentation, such as dark spots or age spots, by inhibiting the production of melanin in the skin. Over time, regular use of retinol can lead to a more even skin tone and a reduction in the appearance of pigmentation irregularities.

  • Moisturizing products: Retinol increases collagen production, which can strengthen the skin's natural barrier function, which helps protect it from external stressors and reduces moisture loss. This can result in better hydration and improved overall skin health.


Is there any risk in applying retinol on the skin?

Retinol is generally considered safe to apply to the skin when used properly. It has been extensively studied and has a long history of use in skincare products. However, it's important to use retinol products as directed and take certain precautions to minimize potential side effects.

Here are some key points to keep in mind:

  • Use sunscreen: Retinol can make the skin more sensitive to the sun and increase the risk of sunburn. It’s best to apply retinol serum at night, and let it get absorbed into the skin. Then, every morning, even on cloudy days, apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF 30 to protect your skin.

  • Start with a low concentration: If you're new to retinol, it's advisable to start with a lower concentration (such as 0.3% or 0.5%) and gradually work your way up to higher strengths as your skin adjusts. This can help minimize the risk of irritation. If you experience mild redness, flaking, or dryness when starting retinol, it's generally normal as your skin adjusts. Also, apply it only to a small area of skin at first, to check for adverse reactions such as redness, itching, or burning. If you experience severe irritation or an allergic reaction, discontinue use and consult a dermatologist.

  • Follow product instructions: Read and follow the instructions provided by the manufacturer or skincare professional. Some retinol products may recommend specific application frequencies (e.g., every other day) to allow the skin to acclimate to the ingredient.

Types of Retinol Serums

Retinol is a derivative of Vitamin A known for its potential benefits for the skin. Retinol serums come in various formulations and strengths to suit different skin types and needs. Here are some common types of retinol serums:

  • Pure Retinol Serum: These serums contain a high concentration of pure retinol, usually ranging from 0.3% to 1%. They are potent and provide maximum benefits but can also be more likely to cause skin irritation, especially for those with sensitive skin. It's recommended to start with a lower concentration and gradually increase over time. An example is the Neutrogena Wrinkle Repair Retinol Regenerating Cream. It has a 0.5% concentration of retinol, which can reduce wrinkles, fine lines, and dark spots.

Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Retinol Pro+ Regenerating Cream

Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Retinol Face Serum with Hyaluronic Acid

Peter Thomas Roth Retinol Fusion PM Night Serum

  • Retinol Serum with Peptides: Some serums combine retinol with peptides, which are short chains of amino acids that can help improve skin firmness and elasticity. This combination can provide both anti-aging and skin-repairing benefits. An example is the Ebanel Liposomal Retinol Peptide Serum.

Ebanel Liposomal Retinol Peptide Serum

  • Retinol Serums with Antioxidants: These serums combine retinol with antioxidant-rich ingredients such as Vitamin C, Vitamin E, or green tea extract. Antioxidants help protect the skin from free radical damage and enhance the overall anti-aging effects of retinol. One example is the iS Clinical Pro-Heal Seurm Advance+. Besides retinol, it has Vitamins C and E.

iS Clinical Pro-Heal Seurm Advance+

  • Retinol Serums for Sensitive Skin: These serums are specifically formulated with lower concentrations of retinol and often include soothing ingredients like aloe vera or chamomile extract. They aim to minimize skin irritation while still providing the benefits of retinol. An example is the InstaSkincare Store Retinol Anti-Aging Facial Serum, with aloe vera, chamomile, green tea extracts, and other soothing natural ingredients.

InstaSkincare Store Retinol Anti-Aging Facial Serum

What reviewers say

We went over some customers’ impressions of the retinol serums that they bought:

  • Removing acne scars and blemishes: A customer who used the CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum said that she wanted it for making acne scars and blemishes less noticeable. She said that the formula succeeded in getting the dark spots to fade almost immediately, and they disappeared entirely after a week of use.

  • Frequency of use: One customer said how she started getting used to a retinol product. She warned against using a retinol product during the day because it makes your skin more sensitive to ultraviolet light, which causes sunburn and other types of skin damage. If you do apply it, be sure to apply sunscreen as well. Preferably, you should apply the product first once a week, then twice a week, until you can apply it every night.

Important Features

Here are some tips about features to look for when choosing a retinol serum:

  • Method of application: Since different products have different percentages of retinol and other ingredients, it’s important to follow the directions for use. But the iS Clinical Pro-Heal Serum recommends putting 3-4 drops in the palm of your hand and dabbing it over your face, after first cleaning your skin. You should apply moisturizer or oil on top of the serum.

  • Use in tandem with other products: Since you should clean your skin first, and apply moisturizer after the serum, it’s not uncommon for companies to make an entire line of products. For example, Yeouth makes a Vitamin C-based facial cleanser and facial toner, which they recommend applying before their Retinol Serum. You then follow it up with their Day/Night cream.

Final Verdict

Whether you want to combat the effects of sun exposure and aged skin, fight acne and remove acne scars, or achieve a brighter and more even skin tone, we see that retinol serums are just the thing you need. Evaluate your skin’s condition, consult a dermatologist, and decide on a retinol serum product that suits you and your skin!

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