Editor’s Picks: The 22 Best Retinol Serums (and How to Choose the Right One for Your Skin)

Lightweight treatments for every skin type.
Author:
Updated:
Original:
Best retinol serum

If you're seeking a lightweight but powerful treatment for fine lines and wrinkles, dark spots or acne, consider a retinol serum.

Unlike retinol creams, they have a fast-absorbing, fluid texture, and can be worn alone (if you tend to be oilier) or layered under your favourite night cream or face oil (if you're on the dry side).

What's more, the smaller molecular structure of a serum allows for a higher concentration of active ingredients. Over-the-counter, you'll find not only retinol, but also other vitamin A derivatives, including retinaldehyde, retinyl retinoate and hydroxypinacolone retinoate.

But with dozens of formulas on the market, how do you pick the right one for your skin?

This guide can help. I've narrowed down the best retinol serums available, in a range of strengths, with options for every skin type. (If you prefer a more moisturizing texture, see my guide to the best retinol creams instead!)

Before we get into each retinol product, here's what to look for before you buy.


What to Look for in a Retinol Serum


First, make sure your serum comes in an opaque or dark glass bottle or tube, to protect the retinol from light and air—which will make it oxidize quickly and lose potency.

Then, scan the ingredients for retinol and/or the other retinoids below. (I discuss each type in more detail in my retinoid vs retinol tutorial.)

  • Retinol: The most proven, "gold standard" over-the-counter retinoid. For beginners and sensitive types, 0.1-0.25% is a good starting point. As your skin becomes more tolerant, you can move up to 0.5% or 1%. 
  • Retinaldehyde (retinal): As the direct precursor of retinoic acid, the active form of vitamin A, it is both more potent and faster-acting than retinol. In serums, it can range from 0.01% (mild) to 0.1% (strong).
  • Retinyl retinoate: This is a newer type of retinoid, a retinoic acid ester, which is less irritating than retinol but eight times more active.
  • Hydroxypinacolone retinoate: It's known as HPR for short, and you're probably familiar with it as part of "granactive retinoid"—a complex containing the solvent dimethyl isosorbide and HPR in a 10:1 ratio. Like retinyl retinoate, HPR is a retinoic acid ester that shows similar activity to pure retinoic acid, but with virtually no irritation. (Note: In Canada, HPR is no longer allowed over the counter, as it is now classified as a tretinoin derivative.)

You may also want to think about...

  • Fragrance: Whether synthetic or natural, it is commonly associated with skin irritation.
  • PUFAs: Oils high in polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) are quick to oxidize (go rancid) and generate the damaging free radicals that we are trying to avoid. My rule of thumb is to avoid products with PUFA oils in the first five ingredients, which typically represent about 80% of the formula. 
  • Silicones: While they're not dangerous, these film-forming ingredients may hinder your progress by trapping acne-causing debris and interfering with cellular renewal. They can also block the penetration of retinoids and other actives. I avoid products with silicones in the first five ingredients.

The Best Retinol Serums of 2021


CosMedix Refine Plus High-Potency Refinishing Treatment

CosMedix Refine Plus High-Potency Refinishing Treatment

CosMedix Refine Plus High-Potency Refinishing Treatment

  • Details: CosMedix Refine Plus High-Potency Refinishing Treatment is an intensive anti-aging serum boasting the highest concentration of retinol I've seen. It's ideal for sun damage, wrinkles and hyperpigmentation, and contains a blend of lightweight hydrators to help counteract moisture loss. It's also low in silicone and free of synthetic fragrance.
  • Active ingredient: 1.5% retinol.
  • Other ingredients: Glycerin, squalane, hyaluronic acid.
  • Best for: Experienced retinol users with oily or acne-prone skin. (The brand recommends starting out with Refine for 60 to 90 days first.)

Osmosis MD Renew Advanced Retinal Serum

Osmosis MD Renew Advanced Retinal Serum

Osmosis MD Renew Advanced Retinal Serum

  • Details: Osmosis MD Renew Advanced Retinal Serum is a powerful retinoid serum, made with the highest possible concentration of retinaldehyde rather than retinol. That means it'll give you faster results, since it's only one step away from active vitamin A, and with less irritation. It's also high in brightening niacinamide (vitamin B3), and is silicone-free.
  • Active ingredient: 0.15% retinaldehyde. 
  • Other ingredients: Niacinamide, peptides, lactic acid.
  • Best for: Experienced retinol users with normal, acne-prone or mature skin.

Mad Hippie Vitamin A Serum

Mad Hippie Vitamin A Serum

Mad Hippie Vitamin A Serum

  • Details: Mad Hippie Vitamin A Serum is powered by the highest concentration of hydroxypinacolone retinoate (HPR) I've seen, to target wrinkles and discolourations. It's silicone-free, with the texture of a lightweight, milky serum, and is infused with plant-derived ceramides to help retain moisture. 
  • Active ingredient: 1-2% hydroxypinacolone retinoate (equivalent to 10-20% granactive retinoid). 
  • Other ingredients: Aloe, glycerin, ceramides, hyaluronic acid.
  • Best for: All skin.

CyberDerm Retin+Erase

CyberDerm RetinErase

CyberDerm Retin+Erase

  • Details: CyberDerm Retin+Erase is a light, lotion-textured night serum boasting a high concentration of HPR. It promises little to no irritation or dryness, with results that are comparable to a prescription-strength product. Best of all, it's made with only four ingredients in total—and no fragrance or silicones.
  • Active ingredient: 1% hydroxypinacolone retinoate (equivalent to 10% granactive retinoid).
  • Other ingredients: Fractionated coconut oil.
  • Best for: All skin.

Pacifica Clean Shot Granactive Retinoid 5% in Seawater

Pacifica Clean Shot Granactive Retinoid 5 in Seawater

Pacifica Clean Shot Granactive Retinoid 5% in Seawater

  • Details: Pacifica Clean Shot Granactive Retinoid 5% in Seawater is another, milder HPR option, for treating multiple signs of aging without any irritating side effects. What makes this formula unique is that it is water-based—so it's free of any barrier ingredients (like silicones) that can get in the way of performance.
  • Active ingredient: 0.5% hydroxypinacolone retinoate (equivalent to 5% granactive retinoid).
  • Other ingredients: Sea water, propanediol, fractionated coconut oil, glycerin.
  • Best for: All skin.

Verso Super Facial Serum

Verso Super Facial Serum

Verso Super Facial Serum

  • Details: Verso Super Facial Serum is a rich, creamy serum that contains retinyl retinoate, a next-generation retinoid. Studies show that it is eight times more active than retinol, but less irritating. It also has fatty acids and ceramides to support a healthy skin barrier, and is silicone-free.
  • Active ingredient: 0.1% Retinol 8 (a patented complex containing retinyl retinoate and polyphenol extracts), which is said to be equivalent to 0.8% retinol.
  • Other ingredients: Shea butter, squalane, ceramides.
  • Best for: Normal, dry and mature skin.

Osmosis MD Correct Preventative Retinal Serum

Osmosis MD Correct Preventative Retinal Serum

Osmosis MD Correct Preventative Retinal Serum

  • Details: Osmosis MD Correct Preventative Retinal Serum is a strong retinaldehyde-based treatment that helps to correct and prevent the signs of aging while giving skin a luminous glow. This silicone-free serum also gives you a gentle exfoliation and lightweight moisture.
  • Active ingredient: 0.075% retinaldehyde.
  • Other ingredients: Niacinamide, peptides, hyaluronic acid.
  • Best for: All skin except sensitive.

GlyMed Plus Retinol Restart Rejuvenation Serum

GlyMed Plus Retinol Restart Rejuvenation Serum

GlyMed Plus Retinol Restart Rejuvenation Serum

  • Details: GlyMed Plus Retinol Restart Rejuvenation Serum is a lightweight, fast-absorbing serum—and although it contains an encapsulated retinol, it boasts the highest concentration I've seen. It's also packed with collagen-stimulating peptides, and is free of silicone and synthetic fragrance.
  • Active ingredient: 5% encapsulated retinol. (So the pure retinol concentration could be as high as 0.7%.)
  • Other ingredients: Fractionated coconut oil, hyaluronic acid, peptides, olive oil.
  • Best for: Normal to oily skin.

Osmosis MD Clarify Blemish Retinal Serum

Osmosis MD Clarify Blemish Retinal Serum

Osmosis MD Clarify Blemish Retinal Serum

  • Details: Osmosis MD Clarify Blemish Retinal Serum is a silicone-free serum that helps to clear breakouts (and fade the acne scars they leave behind) with retinaldehyde. It also features alpha-hydroxy acids to dissolve dead skin cells, and niacinamide to regulate oil production and calm inflammation.
  • Active ingredient: 0.05% retinaldehyde.
  • Other ingredients: Niacinamide, mandelic acid, lactic acid.
  • Best for: Acne-prone skin.

Alpha-H Vitamin A

Alpha-H Vitamin A

Alpha-H Vitamin A

  • Details: Alpha-H Vitamin A is a medium-strength retinol serum that is both silicone-free and fragrance-free. Thanks to the oils in the formula, it has a silky texture and helps to lock in moisture. 
  • Active ingredient: 0.5% retinol. 
  • Other ingredients: Glycerin, squalane, jojoba oil.
  • Best for: All skin.

CosMedix Refine Refinishing Treatment

CosMedix Refine Refinishing Treatment

CosMedix Refine Refinishing Treatment

  • Details: CosMedix Refine Refinishing Treatment is a medium-strength retinol serum designed to reduce blemishes and enlarged pores while also providing anti-aging benefits. It's low in silicone, with a mix of humectants and emollients to deliver light hydration.
  • Active ingredient: 0.5% retinol.
  • Other ingredients: Glycerin, sunflower seed oil, squalane, hyaluronic acid.
  • Best for: Oily and acne-prone skin.

Osmosis MD Calm Gentle Retinal Serum

Osmosis MD Calm Gentle Retinal Serum

Osmosis MD Calm Gentle Retinal Serum

  • Details: Osmosis MD Calm Gentle Retinal Serum is the brand's gentlest retinoid serum, made with non-inflammatory retinaldehyde (and no silicones). As it encourages cellular renewal, the botanical extracts and humectants work to soothe the skin and bind moisture.
  • Active ingredient: 0.0375% retinaldehyde.
  • Other ingredients: Glycerin, sea buckthorn extract, niacinamide.
  • Best for: Normal, dry, mature and sensitive skin.

Glowbiotics MD Ultimate Youth Restoring Serum

Glowbiotics MD Ultimate Youth Restoring Serum

Glowbiotics MD Ultimate Youth Restoring Serum

  • Details: Glowbiotics MD Ultimate Youth Restoring Serum is a silicone-free serum made with both retinol and glyceryl diretinoate (GDR). As a patented retinoic acid ester, the latter is exclusive to the brand, but we don't have studies on it yet (unlike other retinoic acid esters, such as HPR). Here, it's combined with a vitamin C derivative and other brightening ingredients, skin-firming peptides and anti-inflammatory probiotics for a multi-faceted approach to anti-aging.
  • Active ingredients: 0.3% retinol and 0.1% glyceryl diretinoate.
  • Other ingredients: Magnesium ascorbyl phosphate, peptides, probiotics, aloe vera, Chromabright, Actiwhite, Chesalyn, Renovage.
  • Best for: All skin.

Clinique Smart Night Clinical MD Multi-Dimensional Repair Treatment Retinol

Clinique Smart Night Clinical MD Multi-Dimensional Repair Treatment Retinol

Clinique Smart Night Clinical MD Multi-Dimensional Repair Treatment Retinol

  • Details: Clinique Smart Night Clinical MD Multi-Dimensional Repair Treatment Retinol is an overnight anti-aging serum with enough retinol to produce visible results with minimal irritation. It has a creamy texture, is low in silicone, and like all the brand's products, is fragrance-free.
  • Active ingredient: 0.3% retinol.
  • Other ingredients: Glycerin, niacinamide, hyaluronic acid.
  • Best for: All skin.

Shani Darden Retinol Reform

Shani Darden Retinol Reform

Shani Darden Retinol Reform

  • Details: Shani Darden Retinol Reform is a lightweight retinol and lactic acid serum that is oil-free, silicone-free and fragrance-free. Although it was recently reformulated, I can attest that the new version is just as effective as (and indistinguishable from) the original. See my in-depth review here.
  • Active ingredient: 2.2% encapsulated retinol. (So the pure retinol concentration could be as high as 0.3%.)
  • Other ingredients: Lactic acid, niacinamide, aloe vera. 
  • Best for: All skin except sensitive.

First Aid Beauty FAB Skin Lab Retinol Serum

First Aid Beauty FAB Skin Lab Retinol Serum

First Aid Beauty FAB Skin Lab Retinol Serum

  • Details: First Aid Beauty FAB Skin Lab Retinol Serum is a gentle retinol serum that is ideal for sensitive skin. Besides being fragrance-free and low in silicone, it also contains an array of soothing, hydrating ingredients to reduce dryness and irritation.
  • Active ingredient: 0.25% retinol.
  • Other ingredients: Avocado oil, colloidal oatmeal, ceramides, allantoin.
  • Best for: Retinol beginners and sensitive skin.

Lancer Advanced Retinol Treatment

Lancer Advanced Retinol Treatment

Lancer Advanced Retinol Treatment

  • Details: Lancer Advanced Retinol Treatment combines retinol with bakuchiol (a retinol-mimicking botanical compound) and a soy complex all in a slow-release delivery system. That means it's slightly more potent than other encapsulated retinol formulas, targeting fine lines and loss of firmness. This serum also has a lightweight texture and is low in silicone.
  • Active ingredient: 1.25% encapsulated retinol. (So the pure retinol concentration could be as high as 0.18%.)
  • Other ingredients: Bakuchiol, shea butter, squalane, hydrolyzed collagen.
  • Best for: Experienced retinol users and all skin except sensitive.

Lixirskin Night Switch Retinol 1%

Lixirskin Night Switch Retinol 1 Percent

Lixirskin Night Switch Retinol 1%

  • Details: Lixirskin Night Switch Retinol 1% is a silicone-free and fragrance-free retinol serum with only five ingredients in total (which accounts for its thin, watery texture). According to the brand, you're meant to mix a pump or two into the Universal Emulsion, and use it for only one month at a time, switching to a different active ingredient during the "off" months. However, since it is encapsulated and I am an experienced retinol user, I found it gentle enough to ignore that advice and apply it straight to my skin for a longer time period, with no problems.
  • Active ingredient: 1% encapsulated retinol. (So the pure retinol concentration could be as high as 0.14%.)
  • Other ingredients: Water, phospholipids.
  • Best for: All skin (just dilute as necessary depending on your tolerance).

Biopelle Retriderm Serum Max 1% Retinol

Biopelle Retriderm Serum Max 1% Retinol

Biopelle Retriderm Serum Max 1% Retinol

  • Details: Biopelle Retriderm Serum Max 1% Retinol is a fragrance-free and silicone-free serum that offers the brand's highest retinol concentration. As such, it is recommended for experienced retinol users—however, since the retinol is encapsulated, it should be gentle enough for most skin. The formula also contains humectants that bind moisture without the need for any oils.
  • Active ingredient: 1% encapsulated retinol. (So the pure retinol concentration could be as high as 0.14%.)
  • Other ingredients: Glycerin, soluble collagen, hyaluronic acid.
  • Best for: All skin.

Paula’s Choice 1% Retinol Booster

Paula's Choice 1 Retinol Booster

Paula's Choice 1% Retinol Booster

  • Details: Paula's Choice 1% Retinol Booster is a gentle retinol treatment with a thin, fluid texture. Although it has the brand's highest concentration of retinol, it is in an encapsulated form, making it much less potent. With the help of eight skin-soothing ingredients (and no silicones or fragrance), it should be tolerated by everyone. You can also dilute it further by mixing it into your favourite night cream.
  • Active ingredient: 1% encapsulated retinol. (So the pure retinol concentration could be as high as 0.14%.)
  • Other ingredients: Ceramides, peptides, oat kernel extract, allantoin.
  • Best for: All skin.

Revision Skincare Retinol Complete 1.0

Revision Skincare Retinol Complete 1.0

Revision Skincare Retinol Complete 1.0

  • Details: Revision Skincare Retinol Complete 1.0 is an anti-wrinkle serum featuring both gentle encapsulated retinol as well as bakuchiol, a natural retinol alternative. It also has a vitamin C derivative for added brightening, and botanical extracts for antioxidant protection. Plus, it is low in silicone.
  • Active ingredient: 1% encapsulated retinol. (So the pure retinol concentration could be as high as 0.14%.)
  • Other ingredients: Bakuchiol, tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate.
  • Best for: All skin.

Arcona Advanced “A” Serum

Arcona Advanced A Serum

Arcona Advanced "A" Serum

  • Details: Arcona Advanced "A" Serum is a silicone-free serum that treats not only the signs of aging but also acne, using retinaldehyde and Matrixyl peptides. Alpha-hydroxy acids enhance their penetration, so they can get to work on repairing sun damage, reducing wrinkles, normalizing oil production and clearing breakouts.
  • Active ingredient: Retinaldehyde (the brand doesn't disclose the concentration, but being the fifth ingredient on the list suggests that it is on the higher side).
  • Other ingredients: Lactic acid, peptides, glycerin.
  • Best for: All skin, especially acne-prone skin.

If you buy something through our links, we may earn a commission. See our Disclosure for more information.

Read Next

Your Complete Guide to The Ordinary’s New Retinoids

How to decide which active ingredient (and what strength) is right for you.