This article was last updated on April 16, 2022
Remember the great kale takeover that dominated the zeitgeist a few years back? As production of the leafy green grew by more than 60% between 2007 and 2012, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data, consuming the fiber-, protein-, and vitamin-packed super veggie with every meal (or at least showing your support sartorially, like Beyoncé) became the ultimate health flex.
But no matter how nutritionally choice the bitter roughage was proven to be, and how many recipes we added to our Bookmarks, we were keeping a secret: Very few of us were actually living that eat-kale-every-day lifestyle. The same applies to the mountains of research supporting retinol's status as one of the most super-powered ingredients in your skin-care routine for achieving smooth, evenly-toned, acne- and line-free skin — and the fact that most of us could benefit from using it way more than we do now.
"Patients with sun-related aging changes, fine lines, textural changes to the skin, sun freckles, and melasma all benefit from use of a retinol or [prescription-based] retinoid," confirms dermatologist and cosmetic surgeon Melanie Palm, MD. "Patients that are acne-prone may also note an improvement in their breakouts [after using a retinol or retinoid]."
But for all the good they can do, many retinol creams leave a greasy residue, feel too rich for oily or acne-prone skin, or can't rival the luxe experience of our favorite night creams — which means no matter how good they are for our complexions, many of us just aren't using retinol as much as we should. That's where retinol serums come in: The lighter formulas tend to absorb more quickly into skin, and still leave room for us to apply our feel-good moisturizers before sliding into bed every night.
Since finding a smart retinol formulation that can actually deliver the goods properly is key, we polled top dermatologists to find out which serums they reach for in their own skin-care routines. Ahead, 12 serums that are the equivalent of getting your daily dose of greens in a blended smoothie — all of the benefits with none of the drawbacks.
Versed Press Restart Gentle Retinol Serum
Retinol on its own is an incredible ingredient, but when paired with chlorophyll and bakuchiol? Nothing but brighter, balanced skin that's visibly smoother and renewed.
Versed Press Restart Gentle Retinol Serum, $, available at Versed
Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Serum
This drugstore serum has long been the personal go-to for dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, MD. "Retinol is a highly unstable molecule and commonly causes irritation to the skin, so it's important to choose the right formula to make sure you're getting an effective treatment that is well-tolerated," he says. "The delivery system of this particular retinol has been well-studied and has proven effectiveness, which is why I have been using it."
Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Serum, $, available at Ulta Beauty
The Ordinary Retinol 1% In Squalane
Fine lines, wrinkles, and uneven skin texture are no match for this affordable retinol serum, which is formulated with a base of plant-derived squalane to hydrate skin.
The Ordinary The Ordinary Retinol 0.5% in Squalane, $, available at Ulta Beauty
January Labs Triple Active Reclaiming Serum
The question of whether retinol can ever truly be clean is hotly debated, but if you're in the market for an effective serum that eschews parabens, fragrance, and a whole host of other irritants, look no further. Featuring a patented stabilized retinol preparation paired with 2% niacinamide and vitamin C for brightening and antioxidant benefits, plus a hefty dose of aloe to soothe and ward off irritation, this is a formula even the most sensitive skin types can love.
January Labs January Labs Triple Active Reclaiming Serum, $, available at Credo
Sunday Riley A+ High-Dose Retinoid Serum
Even if you were more of a B student in high school, you can still reap the benefits of Sunday Riley's powerful retinoid serum, which counters the potency of retinol with botanical ingredients like algae, white honey, bisabolol, cactus extract, and ginger.
Sunday Riley A+ High-Dose Retinoid Serum, $, available at Ulta Beauty
Replenix RetinolForte Treatment Serum 3X
Dr. Palm generally opts for a prescription-grade retinoid, but as far as over-the-counter retinol, she suggests this one or Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Serum for patients. "Both contain an effective concentration of a stable, active retinol to help build collagen, fight fine lines, reverse pigmentary changes, and help other active topical skin-care product ingredients penetrate more effectively," she says.
Replenix RetinolForte Treatment Serum 3X, $, available at DermStore
RoC Deep Wrinkle Serum
Who said a great retinol serum can't come from the drugstore? This perennial favorite is packed with retinol, magnesium, and zinc for maximum skin-clearing and smoothing benefits.
RoC Deep Wrinkle Serum, $, available at Ulta Beauty
Elizabeth Arden Retinol Ceramide Capsules Line Erasing Night Serum
New York City-based dermatologist Dendy Engelman, MD, swears by these retinol- and ceramide-infused serum capsules for their line-reducing and retexturizing properties.
Elizabeth Arden Retinol Ceramide Capsules Line Erasing Night Serum, $, available at Ulta Beauty
Glowbiotics Advanced Retinol Renewal Treatment
Retinol and sensitive skin have never been the best of bedfellows, but cosmetic dermatologist Shereene Idriss, MD, swears by this one for her own sensitive skin. "It’s gentle, great for sensitive skin in the winter, and makes it easy for skin to adapt without getting irritated," she says. "I recommend for people with sensitive skin or people that want to dabble in retinol for the first time."
Glowbiotics Advanced Retinol Renewal Treatment, $, available at DermStore
CeraVe Skin Renewing Retinol Cream Serum
Three types of ceramides (1, 3, and 6-II) meet encapsulated retinol for a serum that's not only hydrating and fortifying for the skin barrier, but is totally fragrance-free and ideal for sensitive skin types.
CeraVe CeraVe Skin Renewing Retinol Serum, $, available at Ulta Beauty
First Aid Beauty FAB Skin Lab Retinol Serum 0.25% Pure Concentrate
This sensitive skin-friendly brand makes a great starter retinol with a 0.25% concentration of the vitamin A derivative along with hyaluronic acid, colloidal oatmeal, allantoin, aloe, ceramides, and vitamins C and E for soothing and calming effects.
First Aid Beauty FAB Skin Lab Retinol Serum 0.25% Pure Concentrate, $, available at DermStore
Olay Regenerist Retinol24 Max Night Serum
They say miracles don't happen overnight, but this Olay formula comes pretty close. Inside of the purple bottle lives a blend of the brand's retinoid complex, which works while you rest to help reduce the appearance of fine lines and dark spots over time. It also has niacinamide, which helps keep your skin hydrated, a plus considering retinol is notoriously drying.
Olay Olay Regenerist Retinol24 Max Night Serum, $, available at Olay
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