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 in skincare. A derivative of vitamin A originally developed as an acne treatment, retinol penetrates deeply into the skin to boost collagen production and plump the skin, improving its tone and texture while also smoothing out fine lines and wrinkles.
As well as its original purpose of clearing acne, retinol boosts the skin’s own healing processes and is great for repairing scars that may have been caused by previous acne breakouts, as well as other kinds of skin damage such as dark spots from sun exposure. The benefits of retinol are well documented, which is the reason you will find the ingredient featuring prominently in so many creams and serums.
But with so much choice available, which is the right retinol product for you? We’ve put together a buyer’s guide that includes helpful tips on how to use this hero ingredient; and we’ve tested a range of products to find the best to use with your skin type, skin needs and budget in mind.
Best retinol cream: At a glance
- Best for firming skin tome: Kiehl’s Retinol Fast Release Wrinkle-Reducing Night Serum | £68
- Best sensitive skin: Medik8 Crystal Retinal 1 Serum | £45
- Best for tackling deep wrinkles: Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Regenerating Cream | £33
How to choose the best retinol creams and serums for you
What is retinol and what does it do?
Retinol is a form of vitamin A that’s associated with cell renewal. It was originally used in prescription medication for acne, as retinol was found, by dermatologists working with acne patients, to deliver plumping effects on the skin, smoothing out fine lines and wrinkles. Retinol penetrates the skin’s epidermis (the outer layer) and is absorbed into the dermis (the middle layer), where it boosts the production of firming collagen and elastin, resulting in plumper and more youthful-looking skin.
Retinol also has a mild exfoliating effect, taking away the top layers of rough and dry skin to visibly improve its texture. Obviously, stronger concentrations of retinol will see more pronounced effects, but, since retinol can irritate the skin, it’s best to begin your regime with lower concentrations and build up a tolerance steadily. We’ve noted the retinol concentration in our product reviews below.
Retinol remains very effective for its original purpose of acne treatment and, since it boosts skin renewal, it’s also good for healing acne-related scars. The Mayo Clinic also notes that retinol can be effective for the treatment of other kinds of skin damage, including sun damage.
In what forms is retinol available?
Over-the-counter retinol can be found as an ingredient in a moisturising day or night cream, or in a more concentrated serum. A serum can be a great choice for targeting specific skin concerns such as fine lines or dark spots, since it penetrates more deeply into the upper layers of the skin. A moisturising cream containing retinol will also have the added hydrating and emollient benefits of the cream base; but this base means the retinol will penetrate only the topmost layers of skin, so you will see less pronounced firming effects. Retinol can also be suspended in a simple oil base, which can be effective for those with dry skin.
To use, apply your 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 to start; then, over a period of weeks (three to four weeks is typical) move toward nightly use.
Retinol creams and serums containing higher concentrations of the active ingredient tend to be more expensive than lower-strength products, with some products boasting a more luxurious combination of ingredients alongside. Nevertheless, there are some excellent no-frills retinol products on the market that work every bit as well as their pricier counterparts for clearing skin and smoothing fine lines – and we’ve included recommendations below at a range of price points.Over-the-counter retinol can be found as an ingredient in a moisturising day or night cream, or in a more concentrated serum. A serum can be a great choice for targeting specific skin concerns, such as fine lines or dark spots, since it penetrates more deeply into the skin. A moisturising cream containing retinol will also have the added hydrating and emollient benefits of the cream base, but this base means the retinol will only penetrate the topmost layers of skin, so you will see less pronounced firming effects. Retinol can also be suspended in a simple oil base, which can be effective for those with dry skin.
Retinol creams and serums containing higher concentrations of the active ingredient tend to be more expensive than lower-strength products, with some products boasting a more luxurious combination of ingredients alongside. Nevertheless, there are some excellent no-frills retinol products on the market that work every bit as well as their pricier counterparts for clearing skin and smoothing fine lines – and we’ve included recommendations below at a range of price points.
How should I use retinol skincare?
Apply your 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 by applying the retinol every other evening to start with, then, over a period of weeks – three to four weeks is typical – move toward nightly use.
As retinol has an exfoliating effect you may want to avoid combining it with other exfoliators – such as facial scrubs, exfoliating acids or Vitamin C products – until your skin has built up tolerance. See below for further advice on combining products.
Does retinol have any side effects?
Yes. When you first start to use retinol, it can cause mild to moderate skin irritation, so it’s best to begin with a lower concentration and use it every other day to build up tolerance. When moving to a higher retinol concentration, it’s advisable to do the same. And, if skin becomes irritated – with redness or peeling – take a break until it has healed.
Those who have sensitive skin, or conditions such as eczema or rosacea, would be wise to do a patch test first, or speak to a dermatologist before adding retinol to your skincare routine.
Retinol can also make skin more sensitive to the sun, so it’s best used at night, but if you’re using it in the daytime, wear an SPF, no matter the season. Retinol can be used alongside exfoliating acids (AHAs and BHAs), as well as vitamin C, but you may wish to use the products on alternate days to avoid irritation, or just use retinol in the evening and your other products in the morning.
Retinol products are not recommended for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.
How we test retinol products
At Expert Reviews, we know that hands-on testing delivers the best and most reliable information about a product. We’ve personally tested all of the retinol creams and serums in the roundup below, following the directions on the packaging.
We use the creams as directed for one week and note the results on skin texture, clarity and firmness, and the effect on fine lines and wrinkles. We also note how easy the product is to use, how the product feels on the skin, and whether there are any issues, such as heaviness, greasiness, or residue. We note if the retinol product causes redness or irritation, as well as how the skin feels, both immediately after using and the next morning, and the effects of repeated use. We also note how pleasant the product smells. Finally, we confirm the pack size and recommended usage.
READ NEXT: The best anti-ageing creams to buy
The best retinol creams and serums you can buy in 2023
1. Skinceuticals Retinol 0.3%: The best for first-time users
Price when reviewed: £80 | Check price at SkinCeuticals
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, but 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)
2. Facetheory Regina-C Moisturiser: The best anti-ageing moisturiser with retinol
Price when reviewed: £19 | Check price at Facetheory
This powerful overnight serum incorporates an innovative powder chamber within the bottle to release a fresh dose of retinol at a 0.3% concentration, ensuring a potent delivery of the active ingredient with every pump.
It’s lightweight, absorbs quickly into the skin without any stickiness, and promises to penetrate 15 layers deep. Effective at smoothing away fine lines and wrinkles, the serum also firms and evens the overall texture of the skin. Like other Kiehl’s products, the Retinol Night Serum is formulated with natural botanicals, and is free of parabens and silicone. It might be advisable to follow the serum with a good moisturiser to help counter dryness.
As with other strong retinol products, use a small amount of this serum every other night to begin, building up usage over time. Then, once your skin has built up a tolerance, you can consider adding the Skin-Renewing Daily Micro-Dose Serum, from the same range, to your daytime regime for added retinol benefits.
Key specs – Pack size: 28ml; Retinol concentration: 0.3%
3. Kiehl’s Retinol Fast Release Wrinkle-Reducing Night Serum: Best for firming skin tone
Price when reviewed: £65 | Check price at Lookfantastic
This powerful overnight moisturiser incorporates an innovative powder chamber within the bottle to release a fresh dose of retinol at a 0.3% concentration, ensuring a potent delivery of the active ingredient with every pump.
The lightweight serum absorbs quickly into the skin without any stickiness, and promises to penetrate 15 layers deep. Effective at smoothing away fine lines and wrinkles, the serum also firms and evens the overall texture of the skin. Like other Kiehl’s products, the Retinol Night Serum is formulated with natural botanicals, but free of parabens and silicone. Follow the serum with a good moisturiser to help counter dryness.
As with other strong retinol products, use a small amount of this serum every other night to begin, building up usage over time. Once your skin has built up a tolerance, you can consider adding the Skin-Renewing Daily Micro-Dose Serum from the same range to your daytime regime for added retinol benefits.
Key specs – Pack size: 28ml; Retinol concentration: 0.3%
4. No7 Pure Retinol 0.3% Night Concentrate: The best budget retinol product for firming skin tone
Price when reviewed: £35 | Check price at No7
Boots’ No7 re-labelled its excellent No7 Advanced Retinol 1.5% Night Complex last year – the 1.5% it referenced is not the retinol concentration, but the total combination of retinol and peptides – so this newly rechristened No7 Retinol 0.3% Night Concentrate has exactly the same formulation as its predecessor: a 0.3% concentration of retinol with trademarked Matrixyl 3000+ peptides to boost cell regeneration, plumping skin cells for visible firming effects.
It’s a lightweight cream, designed for night-time use. It smells pleasant, goes on smoothly and sinks in well, though dryer skins, in particular, will want to follow with a good night cream to hydrate and replenish skin as the retinol formula gets to work. Skin will feel softer and appear smoother and more radiant within three to four weeks. It’s a great part of No7’s range of anti-ageing products.
Key specs – Pack size: 30ml; Retinol concentration: 0.3%
5. Drunk Elephant A-Passioni Retinol Cream: The best retinol product for acne
Price when reviewed: £65 | Check price at Boots
Drunk Elephant’s sulphate- 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, as well as heal acne scars. The combination of potent retinol with skin-nourishing peptides and natural oils will leave all skin types firm, soft and glowing.
Since this is one of the stronger treatments on our list, we definitely recommend building up tolerance gradually, especially if you have sensitive skin. Start with one of the other lighter formulations reviewed here, or incorporate the A-Passioni cream into your skincare routine very slowly over time, combining it with another moisturiser or oil if it’s causing dryness.
Key specs – Pack size: 15ml; Retinol concentration: 1%
6. CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum: The best budget retinol product for acne
Price when reviewed: £21 | Check price at LOOKFANTASTIC
No-frills hero brand CeraVe has developed this resurfacing serum with encapsulated retinol – a type of retinol that is formulated with a carrier to penetrate gently but deeply into the skin – with brightening vitamin B3, anti-inflammatory licorice root, and lightweight moisturising peptides. The result is a serum that gently exfoliates blemish-prone skin and moisturises without adding oiliness. The serum also helps heal and improve the appearance of acne-related scars and leaves skin feeling soft, firm and smooth.
The product comes in a handy pump dispenser, with one or two pumps enough for most faces. While we found the serum non-irritating, CeraVe recommends building up usage over time, starting once a week and working up to every second night. Simple and effective, CeraVe’s serum is a good alternative to pricier formulations.
Key specs – Pack size: 30ml; Retinol concentration: Not stated
7. Medik8 Crystal Retinal 1 Serum: Best for sensitive skin
Price when reviewed: £45 | Check price at Lookfantastic
British brand Medik8 has been supplying professional skincare products over the counter since 2009, and this new addition to their range of anti-ageing products is particularly suitable for sensitive skins that don’t get on well with stronger concentrations of retinol.
Crystal Retinal 1 is a vitamin A derivative similar to retinol, formulated to be gentle yet effective on mature skins. The overnight treatment is excellent for reducing fine lines and wrinkles, firming and plumping the skin, and erasing dark spots and areas of hyperpigmentation for a fresher, younger look without any irritation. Retinal also has antibacterial properties, making this a good option for blemish-prone skin.
If your skin is less sensitive and you need to tackle dark spots or deeper lines and wrinkles, higher concentrations of Crystal Retinal are also available as part of the same range.
Key specs – Pack size: 30ml; Retinol concentration: 0.01% retinal – similar in effect to 0.1% retinol (0.03%, 0.06%, 0.1% and 0.2% concentrations also available)
8. The Ordinary Granactive 2% Retinol Emulsion: The best budget retinol product for sensitive skin
Price reviewed: £10.70 | Check price at Cult Beauty
We love Canadian brand The Ordinary for its down-to-earth approach to skincare and its equally unflashy packaging. Suitable for new users, this product contains a gentle concentration of retinol that’s suspended in a gentle silicone-free emulsion.
This 0.2% retinoic acid is a gentler granactive formulation, made with a solvent that reduces the irritation that can occur with retinol, so it’s especially suitable for sensitive skins. The fragrance-free emulsion glides on smoothly and is absorbed quickly, making it an uncomplicated addition to a night-time skincare routine and an excellent value product.
Key specs – Pack size: 30ml; Retinol concentration: 0.2%
9. Olay Regenerist Retinol 24: The best retinol night cream
Price when reviewed: £38 | Check price at Boots
If you’re looking for a moisturising cream with the added plumping and firming benefits of retinol, Olay’s Regenerist 24 could be just the pot of magic you’re looking for. A nourishing night cream with glycerin, vitamin B3, and retinol, Regenerist 24 is clinically proven to soften and firm the skin, while reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, especially around the eyes.
Vitamin B3 and retinol work well together to reduce dark spots and hyperpigmentation, and the gentle formula is suitable for more sensitive skins or those new to retinol. Skin feels fresh and hydrated immediately after using and well into the next day, and the wrinkle-reducing effects are visible within 4-5 weeks.
Regenerist 24 is an effective night cream that leaves the face soft and comfortable, and at a good price for the results. For a more intensive night-time dose of retinol, try the non-greasy Night Serum in the same range (recommended for alternating use with the night cream).
Key specs – Pack size: 50ml; Retinol concentration: Not stated
10. Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Regenerating Cream: The best for tackling deep wrinkles
Price when reviewed: £33 | Check price at Amazon
If you’ve already moved beyond what skincare companies like to call the “first signs of ageing”, and you 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.
This fragrance-free cream feels soft and goes on smoothly, absorbed easily into skin. The Rapid Wrinkle Repair range also includes a serum, facial oil, eye cream, post-treatment moisturiser, and a retinol cleanser. For best results, Neutrogena recommends building up use of the cream over time until you’re using it twice per day, following up your morning use with a good sunscreen.
Key specs – Pack size: 48g; Retinol concentration: 0.3%