5 Retinol Serums Dermatologists Actually Use On Themselves

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, M.D. “Patients that are acne-prone may also note 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, 5 serums that are like the equivalent of getting your daily dose of greens in a blended smoothie — all of the benefits with none of the drawbacks.


“This serum has retinol to stimulate a quicker renewal of skin cells, caffeine to constrict blood vessels and decrease puffiness, and hyaluronic acid to moisturize,” says dermatologist Debra Jaliman, M.D. There’s also a nice dose of antioxidants from green tea.

Replenix All-trans-Retinol Smoothing Serum 3X , $74, available at DermStore

Miami-based dermatologist S. Manjula Jegasothy, M.D., loves this serum for both its multitasking power and smooth, satiny formulation. “It’s gentle enough that I can also use it on my eye — something that allows me to pack fewer liquids when on vacation,” she says. “I also love that it’s not tacky or sticky.”

Glowbiotics Advanced Retinol Renewal Treatment, $105, available at Glowbiotics

This drugstore serum has long been the personal go-to for dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, M.D. “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, $23.99, available at Ulta Beauty

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 All-trans-Retinol Plus Smoothing Serum 5X , $81, available at DermStore

Retinol and sensitive skin have never been the best of bedfellows, but cosmetic dermatologist Shereene Idriss, M.D., 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.”

SkinMedica Age Defense Retinol Complex 0.5, $78, available at DermStore

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