Best retinol creams and serums for each and every skin type

We've tried and tested all the best retinol creams and serums—plus,expert advice on using this potent ingredient

Three of the best retinol cream and serum formulas by L'Oreal Paris, Medik-8, skinceuticals
(Image credit: Future/Getty images)

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.

Don't be scared. Retinol is a hugely popular skincare ingredient, but learning how to use retinol is shrouded in myth and miscommunication. So, what exactly is it? “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.”

While even the best retinol cream can cause irritation without careful use, many of the best skincare products for results on aging skin include retinol, so it's absolutely worth trying. “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,” agrees 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." That's us sold. 

How to choose the best retinol creams and serums

Picking the best retinol cream, or the best retinol serum if you prefer lighter textures, begins with understanding the distinctions between types of retinol, which in turn determines whether you experience side effects or see dramatic results.

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

  • 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. 
  • 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. 

The best retinol products, by our beauty team

L'Oreal Paris Retinol & Niacinamide Night Cream

(Image credit: L'Oreal Paris)

1. L'Oreal Paris Retinol & Niacinamide Night Cream

The best retinol cream overall

Specifications

RRP: $29.97/£27.99
Key ingredients: Pure retinol, retinyl palmitate, niacinamide, glycerin

Reasons to buy

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Excellent formulation 
+
Two forms of retinol
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Airtight pump packaging 
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Moisturizes and treats the skin 

Reasons to avoid

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Lightly fragranced

There is so much to love about this retinol cream, but let's start with the most important thing in any skincare product—the ingredients. This expertly blends powerful skin improving stuff, namely pure retinol plus an ester (retinyl palmitate) with gentler skin brightening and oil-regulating niacinamide, plus moisturizing and soothing things like hyaluronic acid and glycerin. It manages, unusually to pack all of this goodness into what feels like a pleasant, normal night cream texture with no chemical smells (although it is lightly fragranced, which may not suit everyone.) 

Another pleasing element of this retinol cream is the packaging, a handy airtight pump-lid similar to what you'd find on professional makeup or nail polish removers. It's entirely spill-free, fun to use, and crucially protects active ingredient retinol from being destabilized by light and air. It also dispenses the perfect amount every time, and squeezes every last drop out of the jar, making this already keenly-priced cream enormously good value.  As with any retinol you're advised to build usage up from every few days to nightly use, although with such a well-balanced formula we'd be surprised to hear of anyone having much of a reaction with this. Top marks. 

Medik8 Crystal Retinal 1

(Image credit: Medik8)
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2. Medik8 Crystal Retinal 1

Best luxury retinol cream

Specifications

RRP: $55/£39
Key ingredients : Retinol, hyaluronic acid, vitamin E

Reasons to buy

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Easy to use system
+
Gentle enough for beginners 
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Pleasant texture 

Reasons to avoid

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Gets pricier at higher strengths

Nervous about incorporating retinol into your routine? Medik8 is a trusted, reputable brand whose fool-proof system could very well be the best retinol cream option for beginners. Start off with their Crystal Retinal 1, a stable, gentle retinol cream that should be suitable for even sensitive skin. If you and your skin are happy with this and want to progress, then move up to the next strength for your next tube. Percentages span from 0.01%, through to 0.2%, the latter of which is only available in clinics. 

As well as taking the worry out of building up a tolerance to this powerful ingredient, the products are lovely too—they have a creamy, spreadable texture that only gets a little on the thicker, yellower side as you work up to 0.2% strength. Plus, the inclusion of humectant hyaluronic acid and soothing vitamin E ensure the skin is calm and plumped as the active vitamin A gets to work. 

Skin + Me Personalized Skincare

(Image credit: Skin + Me)
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3. Skin + Me Personalized Skincare

Best bespoke retinol cream

Specifications

RRP: $28/£19.99 per month
Key ingredients: Usually tretinoin, although this is bespoke

Reasons to buy

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Prescription-grade retinol
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Customized to your needs
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Handy 'doser' packaging
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Takes the guesswork out of retinol

Reasons to avoid

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Subscription service only

Let us caveat this by first saying that if you have severe, persistent acne or another skin concern that's having an impact on your confidence, a visit to the GP is needed. They will be able to advise on the best course of action, prescribe medication and refer you to a dermatologist if needed. However, if you have mild to moderate skin concerns and a derm appointment is not possible, Skin + Me is the next best thing.

Upload your photo via this virtual dermatologist service's website, and fill in a questionnaire. One of Skin + Me’s dermatology team will then assess your skin and design a personalized solution that is delivered to your door each month. Naturally, the ingredients depend on your skin, but as long as you're a suitable candidate you can bet tretinoin, aka prescription-strength retinol, will be in there, starting with a very low dose so you can build tolerance. The formula is delivered in an airtight aluminum 'daily doser' that contains exactly one month's supply. You then provide regular updates and images so the prescribers can be sure the product is working, and as you progress they up the tretinoin levels. Genius. 

MZ Skin Retinol Skin Booster

(Image credit: MZ Skin)
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4. MZ Skin Retinol Skin Booster

Best retinol serum and acid exfoliator

Specifications

RRP: $156/£110
Key ingredients : Pure retinol, malic acid

Reasons to buy

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Leaves skin soft and plump
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Encapsulated retinol 
+
Lightens dark spots 
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Exfoliates for a smooth texture

Reasons to avoid

-
High price tag 

Eye-wateringly expensive? Yes. But does it work? Absolutely. The main USP of this high-end retinol serum is that it, within a very concise ingredients list, pure retinol in encapsulated form mingles with exfoliating alpha hydroxy acid, malic acid. This means that while retinol does its thing at speeding up cell turnover, a surface-level exfoliation also takes place, helping shift dull, dead cells and hyperpigmentation. Malic acid is known as one of the gentler skincare acids, so is a smart choice for combining with retinol, especially if you have reactive skin.  Plus, we found the silky serum texture of this product particularly appealing compared with heavier creams. 

Don't just take our word for it though. Dr Zamani’s Retinol Skin Booster has been clinically proven to reduce fine lines by 43% after eight weeks. An impressive stat, and one that suddenly makes this serum seem like a much more reasonable investment, especially if you were previously considering going down the tweakment route. If that wasn’t enough, it was also found to boost collagen production by 17%, and hydration by 18% within an eight week period. Fresh, fabulous-looking skin, here we come. 

La Roche-Posay Retinol B3 Serum

(Image credit: La Roche Posay)
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5. La Roche-Posay Retinol B3 Serum

Best retinol serum for sensitive skin

Specifications

RRP: $54/£38
Key ingredients : Retinol, vitamin B3, glycerin

Reasons to buy

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Suitable for sensitive skin 
+
Silky texture
+
A little goes a long way
+
Clever packaging 

Reasons to avoid

-
Results take a little longer 

If your skin finds heavy-duty ingredients difficult to tolerate, try this slow-release retinol serum. It contains pure retinol, but in a gentle 0.3% strength and works just as the name suggests. So instead of bombarding your skin in one go, it gently drip-feeds it over a longer period of time. The results are not as immediate as they might be with punchier retinol products, but we all know that patience is a virtue when it comes to complexion improvements. 

We loved the lighter texture of this, and it would certainly make one of the best retinol serums for anyone who dislikes the thick, vaguely medical feel of some retinol creams. This looks and feels like a nice hydrating serum, with a bit of youth-boosting action on the side. Plus, Vitamin B3 and glycerin help counteract potential dryness by restoring the skin barrier and topping up hydration levels. 

Paula's Choice 1% Retinol Treatment

(Image credit: Paula's Choice)
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6. Paula's Choice 1% Retinol Treatment

Best retinol cream for hyperpigmentation

Specifications

RRP: $75/£53
Key ingredients : Retinol, peptides, liquorice root extract

Reasons to buy

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Impressive results 
+
Keeps breakouts and pigmentation at bay
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Trustworthy brand

Reasons to avoid

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Very powerful, requires a slow build-up

Paula Begoun, founder of Paula's Choice is outspoken, honest and an absolute expert in skincare ingredients—so we knew at first glance this product would be a strong contender. It works on multiple levels thanks to a heavyweight formulation combining a high dosage of pure retinol (1%) plus gentler but still effective brightening extracts. 

If your skin bugbear is hyperpigmentation, retinol is an effective solution. By speeding up cell turnover to reveal fresh cells, dark spots on the skin's surface can be reduced. This particular retinol serum is lightweight and a joy to use, absorbing quickly with no tingling. Retinol is supported by peptides for extra smoothing benefits, and licorice root extract to not only soothe skin but also brighten uneven tone too. 

L’Oréal Revitalift Laser Pure Retinol Night Serum

(Image credit: L'Oreal)
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7. L’Oréal Revitalift Laser Pure Retinol Night Serum

Best retinol serum on a budget

Specifications

RRP: $35/£24.99
Key ingredients : Retinol, hyaluronic acid

Reasons to buy

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Very affordable
+
Nice texture 
+
Hydrates as well as retexturizing 

Reasons to avoid

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Can take skin a little while to adjust

Want to dip your toe into retinol without a hefty price commitment? We get it, not everyone's skin gets on with this ingredient, which is why this purse-friendly retinol serum is a great shout. Yes, this is another inclusion from L'Oreal Paris—but that's hardly surprising considering that these guys have the research and development budgets to make some of the best retinol cream and serum formulations with affordable price tags. 

It's made with patent-pending, ultra-stable pure retinol as well as plumping hyaluronic acid in a clever UV-proof pipette. So if you were debating whether to use hyaluronic acid vs retinol, there's really no need to choose. Both air and light can alter the effectiveness of retinol (which is why it’s best applied at night) and L’Oréal has spent 22 years creating a stable formula that doesn’t lose its efficacy as you use it. It feels light and pleasant to apply, and we experienced no reactiveness whatsoever on testing. 

Beauty Pie Super Retinol Anti-Aging Hand Cream

(Image credit: Beauty Pie)
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8. Beauty Pie Super Retinol Anti-Aging Hand Cream

Best retinol hand cream

Specifications

RRP: $11/£7.84 for members, $57/£40 for non-members
Key ingredients : Retinol, psuedo-collagen, shea butter

Reasons to buy

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Targeted treatment for hands
+
Really nourishing
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Great value

Reasons to avoid

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Need to be a member to get the best prices

Why should your face get all the good stuff? Hands can quickly develop age spots and wrinkles, owing to the fact that they’re always on show, and sun cream tends to get washed off them pretty quickly. Enter this overnight treatment. It uses gentle, micro-encapsulated retinol to help shed pigmentation and reduce the appearance of fine lines. It’s deeply moisturizing too, which will help to soften any rough patches and soothe redness caused by the weather or drying hand soaps. 

As an aside, we love the Beautypie ethos—it's a beauty club where subscribed members get access to very high-quality makeup, fragrance, and skincare at cost-price. Non-members can buy at the retail price too, so nobody is excluded from trying the best retinol cream for hands (although paying full whack kind of misses the point in our opinion.)

SkinCeuticals Tripeptide-R Neck Repair

(Image credit: Skinceuticals)
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9. SkinCeuticals Tripeptide-R Neck Repair

Best retinol cream for the neck

Specifications

RRP: $155/£110
Key ingredients : Retinol, peptides

Reasons to buy

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Formulated especially for the neck
+
Gently works on the thin skin in this area
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High-tech ingredients 

Reasons to avoid

-
High price tag 

The neck is often left out of our skincare routine, and yet it is often just as exposed as our faces are to elements such as UV and pollution so can take the brunt of visible aging. If you fancy trying retinol on your neck, the crucial thing is to make sure the formulation is gentle, as the skin here is thinner than that on our faces—enter, the mighty SkinCeuticals. 

This brand has created some of the best retinol cream and serum formulas across the board, and this is no exception. Skinceuticals have designed this with a slightly lower dosage than they would for the face, using 0.2% pure encapsulated retinol that is released steadily into the skin. They've also included peptides, which work to re-energize aging skin without irritation, in a lotion-like cream that doesn't feel heavy or too potent for this delicate area. It is gentle enough for everyday use, but if you are sensitive we’d still recommend starting slow and building your tolerance week by week. 

Liz Earle Superskin Alt-Retinol Skin Paste

(Image credit: Liz Earle)

10. Liz Earle Superskin Alt-Retinol Skin Paste

Best retinol cream alternative

Specifications

RRP: £38
Key ingredients: Bidens pilosa, kigelia fruit extract, shea butter

Reasons to buy

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Great for skin that can't tolerate retinol
+
Suitable for sensitive skin
+
Leaves skin really soft

Reasons to avoid

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Results not as dramatic as retinol

Much as we'd love to say retinol is for everyone, there are some skin types that just do not want to tolerate it. If you've tried your best, and even the best retinol cream leads to excessive flaking, redness, or discomfort, cease and desist. There are other skincare ingredients that offer results without setting your face on fire. 

Liz Earle has formulated this alternative, for example, with impressive results and zero irritation. It relies on two ingredients. A skin-plumping plant extract called kigelia sourced in Zimbabwe, and bidens pilosa, another plant extract that works to smooth fine lines and wrinkles. This isn’t retinol, so you have to manage expectations slightly when it comes to the results. However, from a user trial of 63 women who have tried retinol before, 90% agreed this gave them all the benefits they’d expect from retinol without the irritation.  


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 (opens in new tab) of MZ Skin (opens in new tab), Dr. Dennis Gross (opens in new tab) of Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare (opens in new tab), and Dr. Rabia Malik (opens in new tab) of Skin W1 (opens in new tab) 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.

With contributions from