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13 Best Retinol Picks for Beginners for Younger-Looking Skin

With that, scroll ahead for the formulas worth considering.


Best Overall: Revision Retinol Complete 0.5

  • Why We Love It: Dallas board-certified dermatologist Elizabeth Houshmand, MD, points to this formula as a great option, as it “has a time-release retinol” to make it effective without being overly irritating, she says. She also likes that it helps support skin hydration with isosorbide dicaprylate and Ophiopogon japonicus root extract. The brand also offers a version with 1% retinol for once you’ve acclimated.
  • Key Ingredients: Bakuchiol, isosorbide dicaprylate, Ophiopogon japonicus root extract
  • Retinol Concentration: 0.5%

Best Drugstore: CeraVe Skin Renewing Retinol Serum

CeraVe

Skin Renewing Retinol Serum

  • Why We Love It: While this weightless serum does contain retinol, the rest of its ingredient lineup makes it sound more like a moisturizer. It’s infused with hyaluronic acid, ceramides, and niacinamide—an ingredient that, notably, has been found in studies to blunt the harsh side effects of retinol. The retinol itself is also encapsulated, so it’s gradually released for minimal irritation.
  • Key Ingredients: Hyaluronic acid, ceramides, niacinamide
  • Retinol Concentration: Not listed

Best Retinol System: SkinCeuticals Retinol 0.3

  • Why We Love It: The genius of this particular retinol cream is that it’s the first in a series intended to introduce retinol into your routine. To that end, it uses a relatively low concentration of retinol alongside bisabolol, a soothing agent, and Boswellia serrata resin extract, which helps tamp down inflammation. Once your skin has adjusted, you can graduate to the 0.5% and 1% versions in the collection.
  • Key Ingredients: Bisabilil, Boswellia serrata resin extract
  • Retinol Concentration: 0.3%

Best Fragrance-Free: Vichy LiftActiv Pure Retinol Serum

Vichy

LiftActiv Pure Retinol Serum

  • Why We Love It: What sets this formulation—a favorite of Dr. Houshmand—apart is its lineup of ingredients, including peptides and a prebiotic ferment (which helps maintain the skin’s microbiome). “It’s very lightweight, fragrance-free, and a multitasker,” she says. Its concentration is also among the lowest on the market, but the formula is still powerful enough to tackle fine lines and wrinkles alike.
  • Key Ingredients: Peptides, rice protein, Vitreoscilla ferment
  • Retinol Concentration: 0.2%

Best for Brightening: La Roche-Posay Retinol B3 Pure Retinol Serum

La Roche-Posay

Retinol B3 Pure Retinol Serum

  • Why We Love It: Birmingham, Alabama–based dermatologist Corey L. Hartman, MD, recommends this formula for sensitive skin and notes that it leaves skin feeling smoother and more hydrated almost immediately. (This may be the work of the hyaluronic acid and niacinamide in the formula.) But its gentle profile doesn’t mean it’s any less effective: “It can also help reduce the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and hyperpigmentation from sun damage,” he says.
  • Key Ingredients: Niacinamide, hyaluronic acid, glycerin
  • Retinol Concentration: Not listed

Best for Smoothing Lines: Mother Science Retinol Synergist

  • Why We Love It: Rather than pair retinol with the usual nourishing actives, this innovative formula combines it with Malassezin, a byproduct of a yeast found among the skin’s microbiome. “Research has shown that Malassezin helps calm skin and strengthen the skin barrier, thereby decreasing the retinization period,” says Dr. Hartman, who notes that together they’re able to reduce discoloration, target fine lines and wrinkles, and maintain hydration.
  • Key Ingredients: Malassezin, ceramides, vitamin E
  • Retinol Concentration: Not listed

Best for Sensitive Skin: L’Oréal Revitalift Derm Intensives Night Serum With 0.3% Pure Retinol

L’Oréal

Revitalift Derm Intensives Night Serum with 0.3% Pure Retinol

  • Why We Love It: With a concentration of retinol that’s relatively low (0.3%), this face serum gets an added bonus from hyaluronic acid and glycerin, two humectants that draw water into skin to plump and hydrate. It’s also free of fragrances and parabens and has been allergy tested, making it a good option for those with reactive skin.
  • Key Ingredients: Hyaluronic acid, glycerin, vitamin E
  • Retinol Concentration: 0.3%

Best for Mature Skin: Kiehl’s Micro-Dose Anti-Aging Retinol Serum

Micro-Dose Anti-Aging Retinol Serum

  • Why We Love It: This serum from Kiehl’s takes a gentle approach to retinol by applying the concept of microdosing—that is, delivering ingredients to the skin in small amounts that are effective yet still tolerable. This formula succeeds with ease, buffering retinol’s effect with ceramides. It also contains peptides to further support collagen production, leaving skin calm and firm.
  • Key Ingredients: Peptides, ceramides, sunflower-seed oil
  • Retinol Concentration: Not listed

Best for Oily Skin: Versed Press Restart Gentle Retinol Serum

Versed

Press Restart Gentle Retinol Serum

  • Why We Love It: While bakuchiol has been billed as a retinol alternative (for its ability to mimic retinol’s effects without irritation), it can also be used in tandem with the ingredient—offering twice the skin-smoothing, pore-clearing benefits. That’s what it does in this lightweight gel cream, which gets a calming boost from rosehip-seed oil, aloe, and shea butter. Better yet, the retinol is encapsulated to allow for gradual release.
  • Key Ingredients: Bakuchiol, rosehip-seed oil, shea butter
  • Retinol Concentration: Not listed

Best Dry Skin: Senté Bio Complete Retinol

  • Why We Love It: A go-to brand among dermatologists (it only just became available to the wider public a few years ago), this serum is ideal for a first-time retinol user for a few reasons, according to Dr. Houshmand. “It is a slow-release formulation and has a unique patented ingredient, heparan sulfate analog, which helps if you have more sensitive skin,” she says. Heparan sulfate analog calls off skin’s inflammatory response, therefore minimizing redness and discomfort from the retinoids.
  • Key Ingredients: Heparan sulfate analog, peptides, allantoin
  • Retinol Concentration: Not listed

Best for Compromised Skin: Byoma Sensitive Retinol Oil

  • Why We Love It: Retinol is rarely synonymous with skin-barrier support, which may be why this oil-based formula uses hydroxypinacolone retinoate—an even gentler derivative—instead. That—along with lipid-rich soybean, carrot, and camellia oils—is suspended in a base of 40% squalane. And despite being an oil, it sinks in quickly and sans residue, offering the best of all worlds.
  • Key Ingredients: Squalane, carrot oil, camellia oil
  • Retinol Concentration: Not listed

Best for Acne-Prone Skin: Youth to The People Retinal + Niacinamide Youth Serum

Youth To The People

Retinal + Niacinamide Youth Serum

  • Why We Love It: For those who see retinol’s side effects as a challenge, not a drawback, consider this formula that swaps retinol for retinal—an even more potent derivative of vitamin A that’s as close as you can get to a prescription-level retinoid. That makes it especially effective for addressing concerns like clogged pores and uneven skin texture. However, niacinamide helps in two ways. It’s able to help control excess sebum in its own right and also acts as a soothing agent, reducing any potential for inflammation from retinal.
  • Key Ingredients: Niacinamide, ceramides, ashwagandha
  • Retinol Concentration: 0.15%

Best for Redness-Prone Skin: First Aid Beauty 0.3% Retinol Complex Serum With Peptides

0.3% Retinol Complex Serum with Peptides

  • Why We Love It: First Aid Beauty is beloved for its line of skin-soothing formulations, and this serum is no different. It pairs retinol and retinyl propionate (a gentler derivative) at 0.3% to ease the potency and supplements that with peptides to target fine lines and wrinkles. Humectants like glycerin help maintain hydration so skin stays soft, not flaky.
  • Key Ingredients: Retinyl propionate, peptides, glycerin
  • Retinol Concentration: 0.3%

Frequently Asked Questions

What does retinol do?

Retinol has two main functions: It speeds up cell turnover and triggers the production of collagen and elastin. For that reason, Dr. Hartman considers it one of the most important things you can do for your skin, in addition to protecting it with sunscreen and using antioxidants. “Retinol is one of the most studied ingredients in skin care, and the benefits are unparalleled,” he says. “In helping to regulate cellular turnover, it effectively exfoliates, evens out discoloration in the skin, helps control oil production, and smooths fine lines and wrinkles.”

How to use retinol

If you’re a beginner, go low and slow. First, “pick the lowest concentration available,” says Dr. Houshmand. Concentrations tend to range from 0.3 to 1.0%, although you can find lower; if the range isn’t listed, you can assume that the potency is low. Then keep your frequency low. “Start off with two to three nights a week spaced out—for example, Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday,” she says. “This helps reduce the risk of redness and irritation.”

Worth keeping in mind is that these side effects—redness, dryness, peeling, and flaking—tend to happen more often “when someone uses a retinol strength that may be too high for their skin, or perhaps they use the product too often or too much of the product each time,” says Dr. Hartman.

When to apply retinol

Retinol should only be applied in the evenings. Within your nighttime routine, Dr. Houshmand advises against layering it with other actives like vitamin C or glycolic acid, as that could leave your skin more sensitive.

Rather, consider pairing it with moisturizer. Since it’s a treatment, it works best when applied to clean skin before moisturizer. However, Dr. Houshmand notes that applying moisturizer first won’t decrease its efficacy—in fact, it may help cushion the retinol in some sense, reducing dryness. (You can also follow this with an additional layer of moisturizer over the retinol, a technique dubbed a retinol sandwich.)

Then, in the morning, cleanse your face and finish your routine with sunscreen. While this should be a given whatever you use, it’s especially critical with vitamin-A products since “skin is more susceptible to UV rays when using retinol,” says Dr. Hartman.

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