Youthful Skin Elixir: Retinol Serums for Anti-Aging

Portrait of attractive woman dripping serum on her finger with pipette dropper on blue background. Daily female beauty routine, cosmetic procedure, facial, body treatment. Front view. Close up.

Key Points

  • Retinol serum is proven to be an effective anti-aging product that comes in many forms with different levels of potency.

  • Retinol is a milder version of retinoid that can be purchased over the counter (OTC).

  • The skin might become sensitive to sunlight when using retinol, so sunscreen is essential.

  • These serums are powerful and can cause skin irritation even when used properly.

Do you believe in magic? Some impassioned users have described retinol serum as magic in a bottle. While everyone’s skin is different, it’s hard to ignore the overwhelming results people have been experiencing.

Retinol isn’t the new kid on the block, either. It’s a tried-and-true ingredient that has stood the test of time. If you’re a retinol newbie and want to know how retinol serum helps you get the skin of your dreams, keep reading.

What Is Retinol Serum and What Does It Do?

Retinol serum is one of the most popular types of face anti-aging serums. It delivers a high concentration of the ingredient retinol – a form of vitamin A, which the Mayo Clinic describes as “a nutrient important to vision, growth, cell division, reproduction, and immunity.” When used topically, vitamin A has antioxidant benefits such as reducing UV damage and inflammation while also improving hydration.

Retinol serums decrease signs of aging and promote younger, healthier-looking skin. They also reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles by stimulating collagen production, increasing elasticity, and promoting smoother skin.

These results are backed by science. A 2006 study conducted on the effectiveness of retinoids including retinol was published in the Clinical Interventions in Aging Journal. The researchers found a significant reduction of fine lines in their participants after four months of use. The study also proved retinol’s effectiveness in decreasing the appearance of sunspots.

Is Retinol the Same as Retinoid?

The terms retinol and retinoid are used together, but they are not 100% interchangeable. Retinol is a retinoid, but not all retinoids are retinol.

Retinol is one of the six main retinoids. It’s milder than five of the others and is the most commonly used. Retinol is widely accessible because you don't need a prescription to purchase it. Other forms of retinoids have higher potencies and require a prescription. 

Over-the-counter (OTC) retinol skin care products come in a variety of forms: serums, creams, lotions, and gels. Though this article focuses on retinol serum’s age-defying benefits, another popular use for retinol and retinoids is to treat acne.

Woman applies retinol serum to cheek

How Retinoid Became an Anti-Aging Staple

The first retinoid used in an FDA-approved skin care formulation was created by dermatologist Dr. Albert M. Kligman. This formulation, named Retin-A, was licensed to Johnson & Johnson and sold by prescription. It contained the retinoid tretinoin. Soon after this, Dr. Kligman’s older acne patients using Retin-A reported having smoother skin and fewer wrinkles.

All these reports inspired Dr. Kligman to conduct a study on these anti-aging benefits. His experiment confirmed his patients' claims. This additional discovery led to the first anti-wrinkle cream, Renova, which was available by prescription only.

These breakthroughs by Dr. Kligman set the stage for retinol to become a standard ingredient in many anti-aging products today.

Benefits of Face Serums

If you haven’t used a face serum, you might be wondering why you need one. Dr. Abigail Waldman, instructor of dermatology at Harvard University, “definitely recommend[s] serums for anyone concerned about aging. It’s a really good way to get extra anti-aging effects, more than your typical moisturizer and sunscreen.”

Serums are thinner, lightweight formulas. This allows an ingredient like retinol to penetrate the skin more easily in a serum form than in a thicker cream. Therefore, serums have a reputation for being highly effective and worth their premium price.

When and How To Use a Retinol Serum

Retinol serum is an exciting product, but it’s also quite powerful. Knowing the facts about when and how to use it will increase your chances of having a great experience and getting the results you desire.

When Should You Start Using Retinol?

If you’re starting to notice signs of aging on your face or have been interested in adding an anti-aging product to your skincare routine, you’re probably ready for a retinol serum.

The recommended age to start using retinol serum is in your late 20s to 30s. Around your 30s, skin typically starts to lose elasticity. Often aging starts beneath the skin before outward signs occur, so you shouldn’t wait until you see visible signs of aging to begin using anti-aging products like retinol serum.

Dermatologist Recommend a Simple Daily Routine

You don’t need a 10-step skincare routine to have healthy smooth skin. According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), “less is more when it comes to skincare.”

Dermatologists warn against using too many different products because you may irritate your skin – especially if you’re using multiple anti-aging products. Instead, they recommend focusing on the basics: a gentle cleanser, moisturizer, and sunscreen.

Adding a retinol serum to your routine will help you achieve younger-looking skin while still keeping it fairly simple. The AAD also encourages people to find a morning and nighttime routine that works best for them and stick with it once they do.

A clear retinol gel smeared on surface

How To Use a Retinol Serum

Retinol serums must be used correctly for you to get the full benefits. Always review the directions and take note of any label warnings. 

Here are the best practices to follow when adding retinol serum to your skincare routine:

  • Start by cleansing your face with a gentle cleanser. Use one without exfoliation, so you don’t aggravate your skin. Washing your face is an important step as it removes excess oil, dirt, and dead skin cells that prevent retinol from penetrating the skin.

  • Apply your retinol serum as directed on the product. Pay specific attention to the amount you’re instructed to use and the time of day in which to use it. If your product directions have a range for amount and frequency, err on the side of caution and start with the lower number. For example, if your directions say to use three to four drops four to five times a week, start with three drops four times a week.

  • Put on your moisturizer. Don't skip this step! Your skin is likely to be dry when using retinol, so applying your moisturizer will add a dose of hydration.

  • Apply sunscreen during the day. If you’re not already using sunscreen as part of your skincare routine, make sure to start using it daily. Retinol increases skin’s sun sensitivity making you more likely to get a sunburn while also increasing your chances of getting skin cancer.

Make sure to use each product one after the other. Don’t treat retinol serum like a face oil and mix it in with your moisturizer. That method works well with ingredients in face oils, but not with retinol. Mixing your retinol serum with your moisturizer before adding it to your face dilutes the retinol potency which decreases its level of effectiveness.

Try Before You Buy: The Patch Test

Doctors recommend doing a patch test for potentially irritating products like retinol before adding them to your skincare routine. Some advise consumers to test the product on their hand first and others believe it to be beneficial to test on a small area of the face such as your jawline.

Testing over a few days is better than just a one-time test. Find a sample of the product or purchase a mini-size of the product if available.

Retailers such as Sephora and Ulta are known to accept returns if you’re not satisfied with a product. Check with your retailer of choice before purchasing your serum so you know whether they allow returns if irritation occurs.

If you chose not to do a patch test before buying, look for retinol serums with retinol percentages under 0.5 or choose serums that say they are gentle or beginner-friendly.

Woman draws retinol into dropper from bottle

What Is the Best Retinol Serum?

It's common for one company to offer multiple retinol serums; this is because they understand that retinol serum is not a one size fits all product. These offerings typically include different retinol serum percentages such as an entry-level option catering to beginner retinol users and a high-dose option for veterans.

Because of the multitude of options, there are a few things to consider that will help with picking the best one for you.

For starters, what’s your budget? The price of retinol serum ranges from around $8 to $100. Once you decide how much you want to pay, limit your search to this amount. You will be able to find something perfect for you in your budget.

Are you new to retinol? Pick one formulated for beginners. After you build your tolerance, you can check out more advanced options.

Are you looking for a serum that's used both day and night? Some retinol serums are only for nighttime, so check the application directions before buying.

Got those questions figured out, but still not sure where to start? Below are retinol serum options worthy of being called “the best” in their category including drugstore, luxury, clean beauty, and affordability.

The Best Drugstore Retinol Serum

Retinol Correxion Deep Wrinkle Retinol Face Serum

by RoC 

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09/20/2023 07:22 pm GMT

RoC Retinol Correxion Deep Wrinkle Serum has a proprietary retinol formula that’s been consistently winning awards for the past several years.

RoC spent 25 years perfecting this retinol formula through countless clinical and safety tests and has acquired 35 patents. All their products are scientifically crafted to ensure the best quality and results for their consumers.

According to their website, this retinol serum is dermatologist tested and non-comedogenic. This product is an Allure’s Best of Beauty Award recipient. It’s clinically proven to reduce wrinkles in as little as four weeks and helps smooth skin in as little as eight weeks.

Key Ingredient: 

  • Pure ROC Retinol: Accelerates cell turnover resulting in vibrant healthy skin  – exact retinol percentage not provided

When to use: Morning and night

Price: $29.99

One Amazon five-star reviewer wrote: “Praise Jesus, IT Works! – The entire ROC line IT WORKS! …This serum is hands-down amazing! The HIGHLY noticeable results ALONE make this product worth every penny.”

Mature woman applies anti-aging retinol to wrinkles

The Best Luxury Retinol Serum

Retinol Reform
$132.95 ($132.95 / Count)

by Shani Darden 

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09/20/2023 12:04 pm GMT

The luxury retinol award goes to Shani Darden Retinol Reform. According to their website, this serum is gentle, vegan, and non-comedogenic.

This product won three awards in the past few years: Allure’s Best in Beauty, Harper’s Bazaar Best Skincare, and Town and Country’s Luxury Beauty. It’s clinically proven to add radiance, smooth skin, even skin tone, and reduce fine lines and wrinkles in 14 days.

Shani Darden Skin Care was founded by celebrity esthetician Shani Darden. The company aims to create results-oriented products using simple and effective formulations.

Key Ingredients: 

  • Encapsulated retinol: Gentle and time-release retinol – exact retinol percentage not provided

  • Lactic Acid: Exfoliates and allows the skin to look smoother and brighter

  • Pyrus Malus (Apple) Fruit Extract: An antioxidant that protects again environmental pollutants and sun damage

When to use: Night

Price: $88 (There is a mini version available for $30.)

One Sephora five-star reviewer wrote: “This product is amazing! It only takes a little bit. It smells like black licorice which I love. After a solid month of use, my skin is bright and happy. I have less breakouts and my fine lines are less.”

The Best Clean Beauty Retinol Serum

Argan Beta Retinol Pink Algae Serum
$60.68 ($71.39 / Fl Oz)

by Josie Maran 

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09/20/2023 12:09 pm GMT

Josie Maran Argan Beta Retinol Pink Algae Serum is the best clean retinol beauty serum. Founded by former model and actress Josie Maran, this company paved the way for clean beauty products. Their mission is to deliver “luxury with a conscience” and “nature inspired-innovations.” All of their products have an argan oil base.

According to their website, this serum is gentle, vegan, naturally derived with zero synthetics, and won’t cause photosensitivity. It’s also clinically proven to reduce the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines in one week.

Key Ingredients:

  • Pro-retinol derived from pink algae – contains 2%

  • Quercetin: An antioxidant that defends against environmental pollutants

  • Organic argan oil: Contains vitamin E, antioxidants, and firming omega-essential fatty acids

When to use: Morning and night

Price: $69

One Sephora five-star reviewer wrote: “Amazing, yet gentle. Best retinol. Only retinol that doesn't irritate my skin. Well worth the money. Absorbs quickly and lightweight.”

Bottles of retinol serums lay on a table

The Best Affordable Retinol Serum

Retinol 0.2% in Squalane

by The Ordinary 

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09/20/2023 12:09 pm GMT

The Ordinary Retinol 0.2% in Squalane is a brand under the umbrella of DECIEM. DECIEM was founded by Brandon Truaxe. They aim to create a better world for beauty.

According to their website, this serum is mild and vegan. It improves the appearance of fine lines and uneven skin tone. This serum is formulated to moisturize and offset the drying effects of retinol.

Key Ingredients:

  • Retinol – contains 0.2%

  • Squalane: A moisturizing agent that improves hydration 

When to use: Night

Price: $7.80

One Ulta five-star reviewer wrote: “Love this product! I bought this product three months ago and had never used any retinol on my skin before. I was hoping it would help with my hyperpigmentation and my clogged pores. For the first two months, I purged a lot, but it was absolutely worth it. My skin has never been smoother and clearer.”

Does Retinol Serum Have Side Effects?

Yes, some people will experience side effects when using retinol. Retinol serums are tricky because they take time for your skin to build tolerance.

Some common side effects to look out for when using products with retinol, especially a serum, are dry or flaky skin, burning, dermatitis (skin inflammation), and any other skin irritations.

If any of these occur, don’t ignore them! Consult your dermatologist – especially if you are new to retinol serums.

Also, if you are pregnant or nursing, beware that some products warn against using retinol as the effects are currently unknown.

A mature woman and young woman's face

Retinol Serums Are Worth a Try

Retinol serum has exciting benefits such as being effective in reducing wrinkles and other signs of aging, but it’s not the simplest product to add to your skincare routine.

You might have to adjust how often you use your serum based on your skin’s reaction. You must be diligent about wearing sunscreen when using retinol serum because it causes sun sensitivity and makes your skin vulnerable to sunburn.

Yes, some products require less of your attention, but will you get the same proven results that retinol serums offer? In the end, it all comes down to your personal preference and individual skin care needs. Whatever you decide will be the right choice.

There is no rush to make a decision right now, retinol serum will always be there to combat any signs of aging if and when you decide you are ready.

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