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Reviewed: Shani Darden Retinol Reform, the Retinol Serum That Celebrities Swear By

The product behind Hollywood's most flawless complexions.
Shani Darden Retinol Reform

Let me get straight to the point: Shani Darden Retinol Reform is the best retinol serum I've tried to date.

I've been using it off and on for several years now—and as a beauty editor, that's saying a lot, because I never feel the need to repurchase a skincare product unless I really, REALLY love it.

It just so happens that Jessica Alba, January Jones, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley and dozens of other celebrities feel the same way about this gentle but effective retinol.

In this review, find out what makes Retinol Reform so unique, how the newly reformulated version compares to the original, my own personal results, and the closest dupes I've found.

Shani Darden Background

I first heard the name Shani Darden four years ago, when I stumbled upon a magazine article about the beauty products that "changed our lives in 2016."

Obviously, that got my attention. When I read about Retinol Reform, I HAD to know… who was Shani Darden? And what made her retinol "life-changing"?!

I soon learned that Shani is the most sought-after facialist in Hollywood right now, helping a long list of A-list clients to maintain their flawless complexions. Think: Chrissy Teigen, Suki Waterhouse and Emily Ratajkowski, to name a few. 

She is best known for a simple approach that gets results. I mean, just listen to some of these testimonials. 

"She is honestly a skin goddess," Shay Mitchell raved to Harper's Bazaar. "My skin went through a phase; it was really, really bad.... Shani knew my concerns and honestly transformed my skin from what it was before."

"After I had my baby, my skin just turned weird with the hormonal changes," Kelly Rowland told Allure. "[Shani] literally fixed my face in a day."

"I was very lucky to meet an amazing lady called Shani Darden, who really changed my skin," Phoebe Tonkin revealed to Byrdie. "My skin is just night and day."

What's her secret weapon? Retinol, of course!

"I personally think everyone should be on retinol if they can handle it," Shani told The Cut. "It can totally turn your skin around."

Shani Darden Retinol Reform

Shani Darden Retinol Reform

Shani Darden Retinol Reform.

When Shani couldn't find a retinol on the market that would give her clients prescription-strength results without dryness and peeling, she decided to create her own. And so her signature retinol serum, Shani Darden Retinol Reform, was born.

Although it launched way back in 2013, it stayed under-the-radar until 2016, when Kim Kardashian called it her favourite retinol on Snapchat. ("I cried, I thought my life changed. I couldn't believe it. It was the biggest thing ever," Shani told W.)

It's safe to say that most of her clients, not just Kim, have been using Retinol Reform for years. 

"It's been a game changer in my skincare routine," January Jones told InStyle. "Her retinol is my favourite product of all time," Rosie Huntington-Whiteley proclaimed to Violet Grey. And in an interview with InStyle, Chrissy Teigen revealed that "Every time I use it, I get compliments on my skin the next morning."

Retinol Reform Benefits

Shani Darden Retinol Reform

Shani Darden Retinol Reform is non-drying and non-irritating.

So what, exactly, makes Retinol Reform so beloved? Here's a look at all the benefits:

  • Non-drying: "I created [it] to have a strong retinol with a moisturizing base so you don't get the dry, flaky skin that sometimes happens with others," Shani explained to The Cut
  • Non-irritating: It's also formulated to be gentler than other retinol treatments, thanks to anti-inflammatory ingredients like aloe vera and niacinamide, as well as the encapsulation technology coating the retinol. (That said, if you have sensitive skin, Texture Reform is even milder.)
  • Anti-aging: Retinol Reform contains the most proven anti-aging ingredient of all—retinol—which helps with fine lines and wrinkles, sun damage, loss of elasticity, rough texture and hyperpigmentation. It also works preventatively.
  • Acne-clearing: "Retinol is very effective for improving blemishes and helping to keep skin clear," Shani explains on her website
  • Brightening: Retinol is also "great for reducing acne scars as it speeds up the rate at which new skin cells come to the surface," says Shani. "Lactic acid lightly exfoliates for immediate brightening and niacinamide helps to even out skin tone," she adds, in an interview with E! News.
  • Oil-free: Shani left oils out of the formula completely, which means Retinol Reform is ideal for oily and acne-prone types. (This also gives it a longer shelf life than most oil-based products, which oxidize quickly.)
  • Silicone-free: There are no silicones in here, either, making it one of the few silicone-free retinoids on the market.
  • Fragrance-free: If you hate scented skincare products, rejoice, because this one is free of fragrance ingredients (which can cause irritation).

Retinol Reform Ingredients

Shani Darden Retinol Reform

Shani Darden Retinol Reform ingredients.

Now, let's talk about what's actually in here, and how the new formula compares to the old one.

Retinol Reform was reformulated in 2020, and this is the ingredients list currently:

Aqua (Water, Eau), Caprylic/Capric Triglyceride, Glycerin, Pyrus Malus (Apple) Fruit Extract, Lactic Acid, Hydroxyethyl Acrylate/Sodium Acryloyldimethyl Taurate Copolymer, Lactobacillus Ferment, Isohexadecane, Retinol, Copernicia Cerifera Cera (Copernicia Cerifera (Carnauba) Wax, Cire de Carnauba), Glucosamine HCl, Plankton Extract, Camellia Sinensis Leaf Extract, Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Juice, Tocopheryl Acetate, Niacinamide, Hydrogenated Lecithin, Linoleic Acid, Glycine Soja (Soybean) Sterols, Phospholipids, Propanediol, Sodium Cocoamphoacetate, Sorbitan Isostearate, Polysorbate 60, Oryza Sativa (Rice) Bran Extract, Rosmarinus Officinalis (Rosemary) Leaf Extract, Helianthus Annuus (Sunflower) Extract, Tocopherol, Cyamopsis Tetragonoloba, (Guar) Gum, Maltodextrin, Xanthan Gum, Lecithin, Hydrolyzed Algin, Xylitylglucoside, Anhydroxylitol, Xylitol, Tetrasodium Glutamate Diacetate, BHT, BHA, Sodium Hydroxide, Phenoxyethanol, Caprylyl Glycol, Ethylhexylglycerin, Hexylene Glycol.

Here's what the ingredients list used to look like:

Deionized Water, Retinol (Vitamin A Propionate), Aloe Vera, Glycereth-26, Octyl Dimethyl, Polysorbate-80, Propylene Glycol, Sodium Lactate, Sodium PCA, Niacinamide, Sodium Benzoate, Inositol, Lactic Acid, Quaternium-15.

For me, one of the main selling points was that the formula had so few ingredients, and clearly that's no longer the case. 

But hear me out—there are some good reasons why: 

  • A stronger retinoid: Retinol Reform now contains retinol instead of retinyl propionate. If you've read my retinoid vs retinol tutorial, then you know that retinol is the most proven type of over-the-counter retinoid, whereas retinyl propionate is only a retinol ester, the weakest type. In fact, retinol is about 20 times stronger than retinyl propionate. 
  • Similar concentration: The new formula contains 2.2% encapsulated retinol, but unfortunately, we're not told how much of that is pure retinol versus the encapsulation ingredients. Worst case scenario, it could be like The Inkey List Retinol, which only has 0.05% actual retinol in the 1% "RetiStar Stabilized Retinol." But since we know Shani's old formula had 5% retinyl propionate, which is equivalent to 0.25% retinol, I'm inclined to believe that she matched the concentration in the new version. Retinol is not far down on the ingredients list, which is a good sign.
  • Gentler and more stable: Although it's unclear which specific ingredients are encapsulating the retinol, I can tell you that this coating protects the active from degrading and makes it slow-release, which is gentler on the skin.
  • Lower in lactic acid: Another point of difference is that the new formula has 2.2% lactic acid, compared to 5% previously. For me, this is not a dealbreaker, as I always use a separate acid exfoliant regardless.
  • Updated preservatives: Gone are the potentially irritating preservatives sodium benzoate and quaternium-15 (which I believe triggered some eye-area irritation for me when they were in the original formula). 
  • Antioxidant, moisturizing and exfoliating benefits: Apple fruit extract has been added to the formula, and a lot of it (it's the fourth ingredient). It helps to fight free radicals while hydrating the skin and acting as a mild exfoliant alongside the lactic acid.

Although I haven't seen any explanation from Shani, the fact that Retinol Reform is now being carried at Sephora was probably the catalyst for reformulating. The retailer may have pushed for certain ingredients to be added or changed, or for it to be sold at a certain price point. To make it work, Shani would have gotten her lab to replicate the original version as closely as possible using cheaper (and better) ingredients.

Retinol Reform Texture

Shani Darden Retinol Reform

The lightweight texture of Shani Darden Retinol Reform.

As you can see, Retinol Reform has a yellowish tint, which is from the retinol itself. (That's another indication that we're getting a decent amount of it in here.)

The Skincare Edit Recommends

It has a lightweight serum texture, like a runny gel-cream, so it's not at all heavy or greasy. 

I find it takes about 30 seconds to sink in, with no stickiness, and it's actually quite hydrating as well. Once it has fully absorbed, it really doesn't feel like you're wearing anything on your skin.

How to Use Retinol Reform

Shani Darden Retinol Reform

Apply Shani Darden Retinol Reform on clean, dry skin at nighttime.

Here's the best way to add Retinol Reform to your skincare routine.

1. Use it at Nighttime

Most skin experts, including Shani, recommend that retinoids be applied in the evenings only. (For daytime, she recommends using a vitamin C serum like iS Clinical Super Serum Advance+ instead.)

2. Wash Your Face

As with any active skincare product, you want to apply your retinoid to clean, dry skin.

3. Exfoliate (Optional)

Since Retinol Reform contains lactic acid, Shani recommends that you avoid using other AHA exfoliants on the same night. So you could apply your AHA in the mornings, although you may want to hit pause for the first few weeks while your skin adjusts.

The same goes for BHAs. However, since they're less irritating than AHAs and have anti-inflammatory properties, you may be able to tolerate a mild BHA on the same night as Retinol Reform. You just need to watch your skin closely to see what it can handle. Personally, I was able to reintroduce my go-to BHA, COSRX BHA Blackhead Power Liquid, 30 minutes before Retinol Reform, with no problems whatsoever. 

Since acids work best at a low pH, it's always a good idea to wait about half an hour in between acids and retinol. This gives the acid enough time to do its job at the correct pH level.

4. Apply Retinol Reform

On dry skin, apply one to two pumps of Retinol Reform—ideally, you want enough to cover your face, neck and chest. 

You can also apply a small amount underneath your eyes (not on the eyelids and keeping it away from your lashes). Since this area is so delicate, it can take longer to build up a tolerance, and you may experience more dryness initially.

5. Moisturize (Optional)

If you have oily skin, you can probably skip moisturizing. Otherwise, wait until the product has absorbed before layering on your hydrator of choice.

6. Slowly Build Up a Tolerance

If you're new to retinoids, use Retinol Reform only once or twice week to start. Every week, you can add another day until you are eventually using it every single night or every other night—as often as your skin can tolerate. 

Oily skin will be able to build up to nightly use fastest. But with dry and sensitive skin, it can take eight weeks or more, so hang in there!

7. Don’t Forget Sunscreen

It goes without saying that daily sunscreen is essential. Check out my guide to the best mineral sunscreens for suggestions.

My Results From Retinol Reform

Shani Darden Retinol Reform

My skin after a few months of using Shani Darden Retinol Reform.

With my first bottle of Retinol Reform, I definitely got results. One month after I started using it, I was told by a group of strangers that they'd been staring at my skin from across the room and that I was "glowing."

Coincidence? I don't think so! It made a visible difference in the evenness of my skin tone, preventing breakouts and overall radiance. And since it's so gentle, I never got any dryness, redness, flaking or irritation. 

For the past few months, I've been testing out the reformulated version, and I can tell you that everything about it matches the original. It looks, feels and smells identical.

Most importantly, my skin has responded to it in the exact same way. Of course, since I'm no stranger to retinoids at this point, there wasn't a dramatic transformation this time around. 

However, Retinol Reform lets me pretty much get away without foundation (as you can see in the photo above).

One more thing—I never could tolerate the original version around my eyes, as it would inevitably make the skin go crepey and irritated. That hasn't happened with the new formula, and I suspect it's because of the change in preservatives.

Retinol Reform vs Texture Reform

Shani Darden Retinol Reform

Shani Darden Retinol Reform and Texture Reform.

I'm often asked about how Retinol Reform compares with its sister product, Texture Reform, and which one people should start with.

Unless you have sensitive skin, go for Retinol Reform. Yes, it is stronger, but if my math above is correct, 0.25% retinol really isn't THAT strong. (It's 1% that would be considered strong!) So even retinol beginners should be just fine, especially if you follow the recommended schedule for introducing it slowly into your routine.

Texture Reform was specifically made for sensitive skin. It has 5% retinyl palmitate, a weak retinol ester, plus 7% lactic acid. Truth be told, it's a better exfoliant than it is a retinoid, so any results are probably due to the lactic acid, not the retinyl palmitate. 

For more on Texture Reform, see my review here.

Retinol Reform Dupes

Shani Darden Retinol Reform (

The closest dupes for Shani Darden Retinol Reform are by Osmosis MD, Arcona, CosMedix and Glo Skin Beauty.

Are there any other products that could be a "dupe" for Retinol Reform? Here are some formulas I've found that combine retinoids with gentle acids: 

Conclusion + Where to Buy

If you're like me and looking for a gentle, effective retinol serum that's free of oil, silicone and fragrance, Shani Darden Retinol Reform is the one to get. 

(If you want something stronger and don't mind a Vaseline-like texture, then I recommend A313 Vitamin A Pommade, reviewed here.)

With Retinol Reform, you should start seeing brighter-looking skin right away, and fewer breakouts soon after that (although I believe BHAs are always the best treatment for acne).

But if you're using it for anti-aging purposes, be patient, because ALL retinoids take time to produce results. For fine lines, wrinkles and dark spots, it may be three to four months before you'll get a noticeable improvement. And to experience the full benefits of retinol on the deeper layers of skin, it can take at least six months. So don't give up too soon!

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