The 9 Best retinol creams and serums for each and every skin type

We've tried and tested all the best retinol creams and serums - and quizzed the experts on how to use the skin-loving powerhouse correctly...

A selection of three of the best Retinol creams and serums from brands including L'Oreal, Medik8 and La Roche-Posay/ in a purple and peach watercolour template
(Image credit: (L to R) LOreal, Medik8 and La Roche-Posay)

Do you wish your skin could be smoother? How about clearer, more even-toned and brighter? If so, one of the best retinol creams or serums could be just the thing to add to your routine.

Retinol is a hugely popular skincare ingredient, though it can be rather intimidating especially when learning how to use retinol is shrouded in myth and miscommunication. So, what is it exactly? "Retinol is a derivative of vitamin A, and one of the most widely researched and proven skincare ingredients available today," explains facial aesthetics expert and oculoplastic surgeon Dr. Maryam Zamani. "It is a powerhouse vitamin that promotes cell turnover, diminishing the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, uneven skin tone, and blemishes. It is also an important topical used in treating acne and decreasing sebum production."

Thanks to its wrinkle-busting powers, it's touted as one of the best skincare products you can add to your arsenal. But that being said, even the more luxe and popular retinol creams can cause irritation without careful use. So, to help you find the right retinol and routine, we've tried and tested all the best formulas - and quizzed the experts on how to use them safely...

The 9 best retinol products, according to our beauty team

From night creams to serums, these 9 formulas range from beginner-friendly to more potent treatments - for those who's skin is already adjusted to the ingredient - vetted by our beauty team...

How to choose the best retinol creams and serums

"Retinol is a good ingredient to incorporate into your routine because it is probably the most studied skincare ingredient, which we know delivers results backed by science," explains GP and holistic aesthetics doctor Dr. Rabia Malik. "It is the first vitamin approved by the USA’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as an ‘anti-wrinkle’ agent."

So, if you're looking to add this ingredient to your beauty arsenal, picking the best retinol cream, or the best night serum including retinol if you prefer lighter textures, begins with understanding the distinctions between types of retinol. This in turn determines the answer to how often should you use retinol and whether you experience side effects or see dramatic results.

Feeling confused about retinoid vs retinol? Dr. Malik's classifications will help: 

  • Tretinoin: Weighing up retinol vs tretinoin? Tretinoin (all trans-retinoic acid) is the most bioactive form of topical vitamin A. It requires a prescription and is usually used to help manage acne and also some forms of pigmentation (if you are interested in this ingredient, give our Skin + Me review a read)
  • Pre retinol: is the most frequently used form of vitamin A in cosmeceuticals because it is stable and usually well tolerated. However, it comes in different percentages and formulations, so I would recommend starting with a lower percentage and slowly building up. 
  • Retinal: is the oxidized form of retinol. It is stable and well tolerated but may not be as effective. Again, this depends on the concentration used and the formulation of the product. 
  • Retinyl esters: such as retinyl palmitate and retinyl acetate, are commonly used in cosmeceuticals as they are very stable, but they need to be converted to retinol, and then into retinoic acid to be effective. So there is decreased effectiveness of anti-wrinkle properties compared with retinol and retinoic acid. 

How does retinol work in the skin?

As you might have already gathered, the best retinol creams are impressive and efficient multi-taskers. Retinol works in a number of different ways to improve the quality of your complexion.

“With age, skin’s natural cell turnover decreases resulting in dull, uneven skin tone and rough skin texture,” says Dr. Zamani. “Topical retinol creams help promote turnover of surface cells, which means dead skin cells are sloughed away faster, revealing visibly healthier and brighter skin. Similarly, this mechanism helps improve the appearance of blemishes by preventing dead skin cells from clogging pores.”

To help plump and smooth sagging, crepey skin, “retinol reactivates our organic collagen production and simultaneously targets the enzymes that break it down,” explains expert dermatologist Dr. Dennis Gross. “Thus, when delivered properly, retinol increases cellular turnover and treats premature signs of aging.”

Due to the potency of vitamin A, it’s not uncommon to experience some small-scale side effects. “Dryness, irritation, redness and sun sensitivity can occur when using a high concentration of retinol,” advises Dr. Gross. “A tip to avoid sensitivity and irritation is to pair retinol with an all-physical SPF of 30-50. This is just another reason why regular SPF application is so important, as well as defending our skin from irritation, premature signs of aging, hyperpigmentation and skin cancer.”

woman&home thanks Dr. Maryam Zamani of MZ Skin, Dr. Dennis Gross of Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare, and Dr. Rabia Malik of Skin W1 for their time and expertise.

Jess Beech

Jess Beech is an experienced fashion and beauty editor, with more than eight years experience in the publishing industry. She has written for woman&home, GoodtoKnow, Now, Woman, Woman’s Weekly, Woman’s Own and Chat, and is a former Deputy Fashion & Beauty Editor at Future PLC. A beauty obsessive, Jess has tried everything from cryotherapy to chemical peels (minus the Samantha in Sex and The City-worthy redness) and interviewed experts including Jo Malone and Trinny Woodall.

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