Nighttime Hero: What Retinol Night Serum Can Do for You

Hyaluronic acid, botulin, face serum in vial. Flat lay image with copy space.

Key Points

  • A retinol night serum is a powerful tool to add to your skincare arsenal that treats a variety of skincare concerns from aging to acne.

  • While prescription retinol does exist, over-the-counter options work wonders for most people.

  • Use retinol night serum every night or a few times a week depending on how your skin reacts.

If you're interested in skincare, chances are you've heard the word "retinol" quite a bit. Retinol night serum is not just a skincare fad. Retinol is highly recommended by dermatologists to aid in the reduction of many skincare concerns. When used correctly, retinol serums might quickly become your favorite product. Just don't kick yourself if you end up wondering why it took you so long to pick one up!

Before you run to the store there are a few things to know about this powerful product. Although it is safe to use, irritation is possible, as well as sun damage if not paired with an SPF. Keep reading to learn more about how to pick the right retinol night serum for you.

What Is Retinol?

Simply put, retinol is a form of vitamin A that is found in many skincare products like creams, gels, and serums. Retinol has seen a rise in popularity thanks to its ability to fight acne and signs of aging. You can buy this skincare superhero in over-the-counter products, but it may also be prescribed by a dermatologist. For most, an over-the-counter retinol serum works just fine to fight mild acne or treat unwanted fine lines and wrinkles.

Retinol night serum extracted from bottle with dropper

Who is Retinol Night Serum Right For?

Retinol benefits anyone with the following skin concerns: fine lines, uneven texture, wrinkles, sun damage, and hyperpigmentation. Retinol is not recommended for use in children under 12 years old, but beyond that, there are no restrictions on who can and can't use this skin-transforming ingredient.

Tip: Even if you spend most of your day inside, you should still wear sunscreen. The sun's rays penetrate windows and expose you to its harmful effects. If the sun is shining, it is better to be safe than sorry — SPF never hurts!

What is the History of Retinol?

Retinol was first used in skincare in the 1930s to treat fine lines and wrinkles. Although it yielded great results, it also came with high irritation making it a not-so-popular product for most.

In the 1960s dermatologists discovered that retinol was an effective acne treatment due to its exfoliating properties and thus expanded its use. In the 1990s formulas improved and retinol exploded as the poster child for anti-aging products. Over time dermatologists refined retinol to be as non-irritating as possible, leading to exponential growth in its popularity up to today.

Where Does Retinol Come From? Is It Vegan?

Retinol, a form of vitamin A, is derived from animal parts such as livers. If you live a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle, you might have to look a little harder to find the right product for you. Don't worry: There are plenty of ingredients such as niacinamide and Bakuchiol that have very similar effects to retinol. Check out the recommended products below to find a featured vegan alternative.

Retinol Versus Tretinoin

If you're a frequent flier on beauty social media, you likely have "tretinoin" ringing in your ears. Tretinoin has many of the same benefits as regular retinol but requires a prescription from a dermatologist. If you have more severe skin concerns, consider speaking with your dermatologist to get your hands on this powerful chemical.

However, a regular retinol night serum can still yield similar results to a tretinoin product. It may work just as well for most people. An over-the-counter retinol treatment also has the added benefit of being a bit easier on your wallet and allowing you to skip a visit to a dermatologist.

Woman applies retinol night serum to hand with dropper

How Does Retinol Work?

Retinol drastically improves the appearance of unwanted features like wrinkles and fine lines by penetrating deep into your skin and stimulating collagen and elastin production. This makes your skin look plumper, fresher, and younger. Retinol is a super chemical exfoliator, unclogging pores and reducing discoloration from sunspots and acne scars. These effects are what make retinol so versatile in the skincare world and a must-have for almost anyone.

Does Retinol Make a Big Difference?

Studies show that after 12 weeks of use, retinol users saw a noticeable difference in their skin's smoothness and elasticity. In fact, retinol has been shown to improve the look of wrinkles by up to 63%. Esthetician Renee Rouleau says, "Using a well-formulated and stable product with retinol will visibly reduce the appearance of sun damage, brown spots, lines, wrinkles, and large pores." That's nothing to scoff at!

Within the skincare world, it's common knowledge that retinol is a game changer in helping you achieve brighter, smoother, and more radiant-looking skin. If you feel like your skincare routine needs a shake-up, there is a good chance that a retinol night serum is exactly what you're looking for.

Due to its ability to unclog pores and increase cellular turnover, retinol is effective at fighting hormonal and environmental acne which both result from dirt or oil-clogged pores. Essentially there are very few skin concerns that retinol would not improve.

Is Retinol Safe for Every Skin Type?

Now that you know how powerful a retinol night serum can be, you may be wondering if it is safe for everyone to use. Rejoice, because the answer is yes! Retinol in some form is safe for and can benefit every skin type under the sun (as long as you're using SPF, of course).

However, finding the right retinol for you is important as well as giving your skin time to adjust. If you experience irritation after using a retinol night serum, either lower your usage frequency or switch to a less concentrated product. Once you find the right product for you, plumper, brighter skin is just around the corner!

When and How Do You Use Retinol Night Serum?

Most products that you buy will come with handy-dandy instructions right there on the packaging. Be sure to always read these thoroughly before use.

Everyone has a different skincare routine. If you're wondering where serum fits into yours, a good general rule to go by is to use your serum after cleansing but before moisturizing. This will allow your clean skin to soak up the serum without having to penetrate a layer of moisturizer. Serums are generally more concentrated than other skincare products, so to avoid overwhelming your skin, only use one serum at a time.

A dropper of retinol night serum

Why It's Best to Use Retinol at Night

Although retinol can be used to treat damage from the sun, it can exacerbate the damage when not used correctly. Because retinol increases your skin's photosensitivity, you burn more easily and worsen your skin's sun damage. Therefore it's best to use your retinol serum at night when you won't be exposed to harmful UV radiation from the sun.

However, be sure that you use sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 during the day while you are using retinol, even if it is only part of your nighttime routine. Just like with any other chemical exfoliator, the new cellular turnover that retinol provides leaves you more sensitive to the sun for days after use.

How Do You Apply Retinol Night Serum?

Applying retinol night serum to your skin is easy! No need for cotton pads or product applicators that might soak up your precious product. Most serums come with a dropper that makes it easy to dispense a conservative amount of product onto your fingertips. You don't have to rub the serum into your skin like you would with moisturizer.

Instead, gently tap the product around your face and wait for it to sink in. After about five minutes, move on to the next phase of your skincare routine. If you're going right to bed be sure to keep your face off of your pillow until your serum fully sinks in.

Can You Use Retinol Night Serum Every Night?

The short answer is yes, but you don't have to. If you're trying retinol for the first time, start by only using it two nights a week to give your skin time to adjust. If you see no signs of irritation after two weeks, then gradually increase your frequency. Remember that retinol should only be used at night, meaning your maximum weekly use is no more than seven.

Retinol can certainly be effective when used only a few nights a week. If you feel like "less is more," then do you! You know when your skin is looking and feeling its best. Using retinol a few times a week not only yields great results, but it also makes the product last longer, thus saving you money.

Woman applies retinol night serum to face

What Should You Do If You Experience Irritation?

While some irritation is expected when you first start using a retinol night serum, it should not be excessive. Retinol-related skin irritation usually comes from overuse. If you experience skin redness or flaking, stop using until your skin returns to normal, then use retinol infrequently. If your skin becomes irritated again, then you may be using a concentration too high for you.

Be sure to also check ingredient lists closely! If you know you are allergic to a certain ingredient or have sensitive skin, then choose a hypoallergenic formula that has fewer irritants.

Quality Retinol Night Serum Products

Now that you know when, how, and why you should be using a retinol night serum, it's time to explore the different products that will leave you glowing. Take into account your specific needs and always start your retinol regimen slowly, building up to more frequent use.

Good Overall Retinol Night Serum

Paula's Choice Resist Intensive-Wrinkle Repair Retinol Serum is great for keeping your skin looking and feeling fresh! Paula's Choice is a long-standing hero in over-the-counter skincare. Not only does this product contain retinol, but it also has vitamin C which gives your complexion a brightening boost that you're sure to notice. It's considered mid-strength at 0.1% retinol, so expect it to pack a powerful punch without being too irritating.

Good High-Strength Retinol Night Serum

A+ High-Dose Retinol Serum

If your retinol serum just isn't cutting it, try A+ High-Dose Retinol Serum. This heavyweight contender with a whopping 6.5% retinol content is not considered a beginner product and shouldn't be what you reach for on your first go around. However, if you have been using retinol for a while and need a boost, this may be just what you're looking for. Users rave that this serum yields dramatic results that are worth bragging about!

Remember, with such a high concentration, it’s unlikely you will ever need to use this product more than a few times a week.

Good Retinol Night Serum On a Budget

While retinol can be on the pricier side, you won't have to break the bank to wield glowing skin with INKEY List Retinol Anti-Aging Serum. It has a 1% retinol content and is formulated without parabens. It comes in a squeeze bottle rather than with the typical dropper due to its thick cream-like consistency. This thickness is a total plus since it will be easier to spread around your face than its pure-liquid cousins.

Woman holds retinol night serum bottle

Good Retinol Night Serum for Acne

Dermalogica is known for its acne-fighting prowess, so it's no surprise that their Retinol Acne Clearing Oil is a stellar serum to fight stubborn acne beneath the skin. In addition to retinol, it contains one of acne's greatest foes — salicylic acid. This formula treats and prevents breakouts while resurfacing your skin and reducing the look of those pesky acne scars and any hyperpigmentation.

Don't be alarmed by the word "oil" in the title. This product clears your pores rather than clogs them.

Good Vegan Retinol Night Serum Alternative

Vegans, rejoice! Andalou Naturals Age Defying Rejuvenating Plant-Based Retinol Alternative Serum is here to address both your skincare and animal welfare concerns with this Bakuchiol-based product. Your skin will look as plump and fresh as the fruit this formula derives its stem cells from (yes, you read that right — fruit stem cells).

You'll have an easy time getting this product to your doorstep via direct order or in your local Whole Foods. You'll see all the same benefits of a retinol product without animal products. Bakuchiol also has the added benefit of not making your skin photosensitive, but that doesn't mean you should go without SPF every day!

Good Retinol Night Serum for Sensitive Skin

If you have sensitive skin, you're probably happily familiar with CeraVe. This company focuses on formulating non-irritating products suitable for sensitive skin and has developed its Anti-Aging Retinol Serum with that in mind.

Don't forget that any retinol may still cause irritation, so ease into its use. This formula hopes to minimize that by eliminating fragrances or other non-essential ingredients. All CeraVe products are formulated with ceramides that protect your skin barrier while you treat your concerns.

Good Drugstore Retinol Night Serum

Everyone is familiar with L'Oreal on their local drugstore shelves, so now it's time to get to know its Derm Intensives Night Serum, 0.3% Pure Retinol. L'Oreal creates a range of fabulous anti-aging products and its retinol serum is one of them.

The formula also features L'Oreal's signature Retinol Guard which prevents the natural degradation of retinol when exposed to air over time. This keeps your product fresh and ensures that you get the most bang for your buck. It is L'Oreal's most potent retinol available, so rest assured you'll see visible results that will wow you.

Retinol night serum bottle lies on flowers


A retinol night serum yields incredible results you will both see and feel on your skin. With regular use, expect to see firmer, more radiant skin that turns heads. If you aren't already using a daily sunscreen with at least SPF 30, pick some up with your retinol night serum since adequate sun protection is required to use retinol safely and effectively.

As with any skin care product, consistency is key. Don't expect your skin to be transformed after one use. By using a retinol night serum regularly, or as frequently as your skin can handle, you'll see dramatic results after a few weeks. That will be motivation enough to never skip your retinol night serum again. Enjoy your skincare journey — you're on your way to your best skin yet!

Was this article helpful?