Editor’s Picks: The 20 Best Retinol Serums (and How to Choose the Right One for Your Skin)

Lightweight treatments for every skin type.
Author:
Publish date:
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.

Now, on to the best retinol serums for your skin.

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.
  • 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.)

Lancer Advanced Retinol Treatment

Lancer Advanced Retinol Treatment

Lancer Advanced Retinol Treatment

  • Details: Lancer Advanced Retinol Treatment is one of the strongest retinol night serums that you can buy over the counter. It has a lightweight texture, and along with retinol it also contains bakuchiol, a botanical retinol alternative. 
  • Active ingredient: 1.25% retinol. 
  • Other ingredients: Bakuchiol, shea butter, squalane, hydrolyzed collagen.
  • Best for: Experienced retinol users and all skin except sensitive.

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).
  • Active ingredient: 0.15% retinaldehyde.
  • Other ingredients: Niacinamide, peptides, lactic acid.
  • Best for: Experienced retinol users with normal, acne-prone or mature skin.

CyberDerm Retin+Erase

CyberDerm RetinErase

CyberDerm Retin+Erase

  • Details: CyberDerm Retin+Erase is powered by the highest possible concentration of hydroxypinacolone retinoate (HPR). Even still, it produces little to no irritation or dryness, while giving results that are comparable to a prescription-strength product. And it's made with only four ingredients in total!
  • Active ingredient: 1% hydroxypinacolone retinoate (equivalent to 10% granactive retinoid).
  • Other ingredients: Coconut fatty acids.
  • 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 that can get in the way of performance.
  • Active ingredient: 0.5% hydroxypinacolone retinoate (equivalent to 5% granactive retinoid).
  • Other ingredients: Sea water, propanediol, coconut fatty acids, glycerin.
  • 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 a strong retinol serum that is boosted by bakuchiol, a natural retinol alternative. It also has a vitamin C derivative for added brightening.
  • Active ingredient: 1% retinol.
  • Other ingredients: Bakuchiol, tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate.
  • Best for: Experienced retinol users and oily or mature skin.

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. It also contains humectants that bind moisture without the need for any oils.
  • Active ingredient: 1% retinol.
  • Other ingredients: Glycerin, soluble collagen, hyaluronic acid.
  • Best for: Experienced retinol users and sun-damaged skin. (Otherwise, the brand recommends starting out with Mild 0.5% or Plus 0.75% first.)

Lixirskin Night Switch Retinol 1%

Lixirskin Night Switch Retinol 1 Percent

Lixirskin Night Switch Retinol 1%

  • Details: Lixirskin Night Switch Retinol 1% is a minimalistic, oil-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 I'm an experienced retinol user, I've ignored that advice and applied it straight to my skin for a longer time period, with no problems. 
  • Active ingredient: 1% retinol.
  • Other ingredients: Water, phospholipids. 
  • Best for: All skin (just dilute as necessary depending on your tolerance).

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. 
  • 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.

Biopelle Retriderm Serum Plus 0.75% Retinol

Biopelle Retriderm Serum Plus 0.75 Retinol

Biopelle Retriderm Serum Plus 0.75% Retinol

  • Details: Biopelle Retriderm Serum Plus 0.75% Retinol is the brand's medium-strength retinol serum—which is actually one of the stronger options on the market. It's made without any oils, fragrance or silicone, and promises superior absorption with decreased irritation.
  • Active ingredient: 0.75% retinol.
  • Other ingredients: Glycerin, soluble collagen, hyaluronic acid.
  • Best for: All skin except sensitive. (The brand recommends moving up to this strength once the Mild 0.5% is well-tolerated.)

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. A mix of humectants and emollients also deliver light hydration.
  • Active ingredient: 0.5% retinol.
  • Other ingredients: Glycerin, sunflower seed oil, squalane, hyaluronic acid.
  • Best for: Oily and acne-prone skin.

Biopelle Retriderm Serum Mild 0.5% Retinol

Biopelle Retriderm Serum Mild 0.5 Retinol

Biopelle Retriderm Serum Mild 0.5% Retinol

  • Details: Biopelle Retriderm Serum Mild 0.5% Retinol is the brand's starter retinol serum—although it is still stronger than most retinol formulas on the market! Like the other retinoids in the line, it is oil-free, fragrance-free and silicone-free, and formulated with ingredients that help reduce irritation.
  • Active ingredient: 0.5% retinol.
  • Other ingredients: Glycerin, soluble collagen, hyaluronic acid.
  • Best for: Retinol beginners and sensitive 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. 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 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.

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. Of this, I'm inclined to believe it has 0.25% pure retinol, since the original version contained the equivalent (5% retinyl propionate).
  • 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, it also contains an array of soothing ingredients to reduce irritation.
  • Active ingredient: 0.25% retinol.
  • Other ingredients: Avocado oil, colloidal oatmeal, ceramides, allantoin.
  • Best for: Retinol beginners and sensitive skin.

Arcona Advanced “A” Serum

Arcona Advanced A Serum

Arcona Advanced "A" Serum

  • Details: Arcona Advanced "A" Serum treats not only the signs of aging but also acne, with a combination of 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.

Shop Editor’s Picks

Do you have a favourite retinol serum?
Have you tried any of these?

Related Articles