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Best retinol creams and serums 2022: Discover softer, younger-looking and clearer skin

Lise Smith
6 Jan 2022

Revolutionise your skincare regime with the best retinol creams and serums for tackling skin problems from fine lines and dryness to acne

Retinol is one of the hardest-working ingredients known to skincare. A derivative of vitamin A, retinol penetrates deeply into the skin to boost collagen production and plump up skin, improving skin tone and texture while smoothing out wrinkles. At the same time, retinol is very healing and excellent both for clearing acne and healing acne scars, as well as treating other kinds of skin damage such as dark spots from sun exposure. The skin benefits of retinol are well known and documented, which is why you’ll find the ingredient featuring prominently in so many creams and serums.

With so much choice available, where should you start? We’ve put together a buyer’s guide with some helpful tips on how to use this wonder ingredient, and below you’ll find our recommendations for the best products to use with your particular skin type, skin needs and budget in mind.

Best retinol cream: At a glance

How to choose the best retinol creams and serums for you

What is retinol and what does it do?

Originally used in prescription medication for acne, retinol was found by dermatologists working with acne patients to have a smoothing effect on wrinkles and a plumping effect on the skin overall.

Retinol is a form of vitamin A that’s associated with cell renewal. While most acne treatments (and anti-ageing treatments) focus on sloughing off dead skin cells and promoting new skin growth, retinol penetrates deeper into the skin’s dermis to boost the production of firming collagen and elastin. The result is plumper and more youthful skin. Retinol also has a mild exfoliating effect, taking away top layers of rough and dry skin and visibly improving the texture. Stronger concentrations of retinol will have more pronounced effects, but as we’ll explain later, it’s crucial to begin your regime with lower concentrations and build up tolerance steadily.

Retinol is still very effective for its original purpose of acne treatment and, as it boosts skin renewal, it’s also good for healing acne-related scars. The Mayo Clinic also notes that retinol is effective for the treatment of other kinds of skin damage, including sun damage.

Does retinol have any side effects?

Yes. Retinol can cause mild to moderate skin irritation when first used, so it’s best to start off with a lower concentration and use retinol-based products every other day at first to build up tolerance. If the retinol causes redness or peeling, take a break until skin is healed. If you have sensitive skin or a condition such as eczema or rosacea, do a patch test first or speak to a dermatologist before adding retinol to your skincare routine.

Retinol can make skin more sensitive to the sun, so it’s best used at night, and make sure you’re wearing an SPF during the daytime. Retinol can be used alongside exfoliating acids (AHAs and BHAs) as well as vitamin C; to avoid irritation, you may wish to use the products on alternate days, or use retinol in the evening and your other products in the morning.

Retinol products are not recommended for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.

READ NEXT: Best anti-ageing cream

How do I apply my retinol products?

Apply a retinol cream or serum in the evening after cleansing and toning. Massage the retinol treatment lightly over the face and neck, and then continue with your usual oil or moisturiser. Begin applying the retinol every other evening; then, over a period of weeks (three to four weeks is typical) move toward nightly use.

When moving from a lower to a higher retinol concentration, again introduce the higher concentration every other night to allow skin to build up tolerance slowly and over time, and stop and take a break if skin becomes irritated.

How much do I need to spend?

As usual, there are a number of factors that impact price when it comes to skincare. Retinol creams and serums containing higher concentrations of the active ingredient tend to be priced higher than lower-strength products, and some products will boast a more luxurious combination of ingredients alongside the retinol. Some of the luxury brands are very effective indeed; however, there are some excellent no-frills retinol products that will clear skin and smooth fine lines every bit as well as their pricier counterparts. Read on for our recommendations.

READ NEXT: Best face serums

The best retinol creams and serums you can buy in 2022

1. Skinceuticals Retinol 0.3%: The best for first-time users

Price: £84 | Buy now from Amazon

If you’re new to retinol, it’s best to start with a low-concentration product to allow your skin to build up tolerance to the exfoliating effects of the vitamin. This luxury product from skincare specialists Skinceuticals is an excellent introduction to retinol. The retinol is suspended in a moisturising formula with soothing frankincense to counteract dryness and irritation, and is clinically proven to improve rough skin, fine lines and dark spots in eight weeks of regular use. Apply a pea-sized amount to clean skin at night, starting twice per week and building up over time to nightly use.

Once you’ve established a retinol routine, Skinceuticals also offers products in 0.5% (£75) and 1% (£90) concentrations – note that in the UK these require a skincare consultation before purchase.

Key specs – Pack size: 30ml; Retinol concentration: 0.3% (0.5% and 1% also available)

Image of SkinCeuticals Retinol 0.3 30ml

SkinCeuticals Retinol 0.3 30ml

£83.88 (£27.96 / 100 ml) Buy now

2. The Ordinary 0.2% Retinol in Squalane: The best no-frills retinol product

Price: £4.20 | Buy now from Cult Beauty

We love Canadian brand The Ordinary for its down-to-earth approach to skincare, not to mention the equally unflashy packaging it comes in.

This simple formulation contains a gentle concentration of retinol suitable for new users in moisturising plant-derived squalane, a hydrating oil found naturally in skin. The unfragranced oil glides on easily and is quickly absorbed, making this an uncomplicated addition to night-time skincare. As with the Skinceuticals range, once you’ve become used to this lower concentration, The Ordinary offers stronger formulas at 0.5% and 1%, which are good for tackling deep lines or significant scarring and skin damage.

Sensitive skins may prefer the Granactive Retinoid products in the same range, which promises similar effects with much lower levels of irritation.

Key specs – Pack size: 30ml; Retinol concentration: 0.2% (0.5% and 1% also available)

Buy now from Cult Beauty

3. Origins Plantscription Retinol Night Moisturizer with Alpine Flower: The best for uneven skin tone

Price: £45 | Buy now from Amazon

This powerful overnight moisturiser brings together the clinical power of retinol with the natural power of Swiss Alpine Flower and Anogeissus bark to boost production of collagen and fibrillin, helping skin appear firmer and more youthful. The rich, pleasant-smelling formula helps smooth away fine lines and wrinkles and is particularly effective at erasing dark spots and skin damage. It’s formulated with natural botanicals, and without parabens or animal products, too.

As with other retinol products, use a small amount every other night to begin with and build up usage over time. Follow with a moisturiser to help counter dryness, and be sure to wear sunscreen in the daytime.

Key specs – Pack size: 30ml; Retinol concentration: Not stated

4. No7 Advanced Retinol 1.5% Night Complex: The best high street option

Price: £35 | Buy now from Boots

Boots No7 recently added this retinol product to a popular and effective range of anti-ageing skincare, which also includes the iconic Protect and Perfect serum. This formula for night-time use combines a 0.3% concentration of retinol with trademarked Matrixyl 3000+ peptides to boost cell regeneration, plumping up skin cells for visible firming effects. The lightweight cream smells pleasant, goes on smoothly and sinks in well. Follow with a good night cream to hydrate and replenish skin while the retinol formula gets to work; skin will feel softer and appear smoother and more radiant within three to four weeks.

Key specs – Pack size: 30ml; Retinol concentration: 0.3%

Buy now from Boots

5. Clinique Fresh Pressed Daily + Overnight Boosters with Pure Vitamins C 10% + A (Retinol): The best for a rapid skincare boost

Price: £30 | Buy now from Boots

Vitamin C is a fantastic antioxidant ingredient in many skincare products for daytime use – it’s known for its brightening and healing effects, which complement and work together with the softening and cell regenerating properties of vitamin A (retinol). So it makes absolute sense that Clinique would package these two hero products together as a seven-day vitamin booster pack, designed to be added to your favourite moisturiser to brighten skin and firm up lines and wrinkles.

To use, remove the silver seal and press the bulb to release the concentrated vitamin booster into the emulsion, shake, and then mix this into your moisturiser. Use two pumps of the vitamin C booster in the morning with your day cream, and two pumps of the vitamin A at night. The pack size is small, supplying seven days’ worth of each vitamin, but you should notice improved smoothness, softness and radiance in just one week of daily use.

Key specs – Pack size: 2 x 6ml; Retinol concentration: 0.3%

Buy now from Boots

6. Medik8 Retinol 3TR: The best for mature skin

Price: £24 | Buy now from Amazon

British brand Medik8 has been supplying professional skincare products over the counter since 2009, and this no-nonsense anti-ageing serum is one of the company’s most successful products. The TR in 3TR stands for time release – the retinol in this potent yet gentle serum is released over time, allowing the active ingredient to penetrate deeply as you sleep. The result is refreshed, rejuvenated, youthful skin.

3TR, the lightest concentration, is good for the first signs of ageing; if you need to tackle dark spots or deeper lines and wrinkles, then Medik8 also offers a 6TR serum with 0.6% retinol (£37), and an even stronger 10TR 1% concentrate (£45).

Key specs – Pack size: 15ml; Retinol concentration: 0.3% (0.6% and 1% also available)

Image of Medik8 Retinol 3 TR (15ml)

Medik8 Retinol 3 TR (15ml)

£32.99 (£219.93 / 100 ml) Buy now

7. Drunk Elephant A-Passioni Retinol Cream: The best for acne

Price: £62 | Buy now from Boots

This sulfate- and paraben-free, vegan formula combines a strong 1% concentration of retinol with a host of soothing and healing natural goodies including jojoba, avocado, and olive oils. This makes it a particularly good choice if you’re looking for a retinol product that will help exfoliate and clear acne-prone skin, and heal acne scars. The combination of potent retinol with skin-nourishing peptides and natural oils will leave all skin types firm, soft and glowing.

As this is one of the stronger treatments on our list, we recommend building up tolerance gently, especially if you have sensitive skin – either by starting with one of the lighter formulations reviewed here, or by incorporating the A-Passioni cream in very slowly over time and combining with another moisturiser or oil if you feel it’s causing dryness.

Key specs – Pack size: 15ml; Retinol concentration: 1%

Buy now from Boots

8. Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Regenerating Cream: The best for tackling deep wrinkles

Price: £33 | Buy now from Amazon

If you’ve moved beyond what skincare companies like to call the “first signs of ageing” and find yourself sitting firmly in the “noticeable lines and wrinkles” camp, it’s time to reach for a specialist product that combines a powerful retinol concentrate with deep hydration. Neutrogena’s Rapid Wrinkle Repair range promises to do just that, with an accelerated retinol and hyaluronic acid formula that delivers visible results in just one week. The fragrance-free cream feels soft and goes on smoothly, absorbing easily into skin.

The Rapid Wrinkle Repair range also includes a serum, facial oil, eye cream, post-treatment moisturiser and retinol cleanser. For best results, Neutrogena recommends building up over time to using twice per day, following morning use with a good sunscreen.

Key specs – Pack size: 48g; Retinol concentration: 0.3%

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