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The best retinol serums of 2024 for every kind of skin

These tested and reviewed retinoid lotions reduce wrinkles, increase collagen and help turn back the clock on a wizened face.

serums on a bright yellow backgrouns
The best retinol serums of 2024 come from brands like Peter Thomas Roth, Shani Dardin and RoC. (Amazon, Sephora)

Even if you know next to nothing about skincare, you've probably heard of (and, if you're like me, been confused by) retinoids. Retinoid is the umbrella term for topical vitamin A compounds such as retinol and Retin-A. In the past decade, these mega-popular skin-resurfacing ingredients have become so omnipresent in anti-aging circles that prescription Retin A (or the best retinol serum) is now a skin-care must-have for anyone looking to slow the march of time.

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This is largely a good thing: Unlike many of-the-moment beauty fads, retinoids are one of the few ingredients clinically established to prevent skin damage, heal acne, fight the signs of aging and turn back the clock on a wizened visage. "The only scientifically proven skin-care ingredient to improve [the appearance of] fine lines and wrinkles is Retin A," explains Los Angeles facial plastic surgeon Dr. Kay Durairaj, "It's the most potent and strongest version of vitamin A that's topically applied, that was studied more than 40 years ago and was the original, the number-one and only researched skin-care ingredient that has proven efficacy and benefit."

While prescription Retin-A (Tretinoin) is the most effective of the retinoids, it can also be extra harsh on sensitive skin. In fact, some users may never tolerate it at all, which is where the more gentle, over-the-counter retinol comes in. "Retinol can improve skin tone, reduce wrinkles and fine lines and increase collagen with consistent use," says Kimberly Austin, aesthetician at the Los Angeles 7QSpa (where, FYI, Kim Kardashian is a client). For those ready to dip their toes in the retinoid waters, high-quality retinol serums are a great starting place. "There are many over-the-counter [retinols] that are effective," says Beverly Hills dermatologist Dr. Ava Shamban. "Even in a low to moderate strength, retinol will increase collagen production and reduce the breakdown of existing collagen in our skin."

Key ingredients: Microencapsulated retinol, vitamins C and E | Concentration: 1.5% | Size: 1 oz. | Cruelty-Free: No

This product hits the retinol serum sweet spot: At 1.5% concentration, it's just potent enough to really work, while not so strong that your face will start molting within the first week of use. Plus it's made with 8-hour slow-release microencapsulated retinol, which tends to be less irritating, and brimming with skin brighteners like vitamin C along with healing emollients vitamin E and squalane, which help keep your face hydrated while soothing redness. 

The texture of this serum is particularly standout: it's silky and smooth, as opposed to tacky and viscus. When I used this product last year for three months, I saw an almost immediate skin-tightening effect. Over the weeks there was more clarity in my skin tone and the lines in my forehead appeared less deep. 

It's difficult to choose a retinol serum that will work "best" for all skin types, but with its high-quality ingredients and thoughtful formulation, this one comes closest to being a one-size-fits-most skin-care star. 

  • Microencapsulated retinol slow-releases over 8 hours
  • Less harsh and irritating than many formulas
  • Contains skin-brightening vitamin C and skin-soothing vitamin E
  • A good value for the quality of formulation
  • Silky texture
  • Some find the formula too oily
  • More experienced retinol users may prefer a higher concentration
$56 at Amazon
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$65 at Ulta Beauty$65 at Nordstrom

Key ingredients: Encapsulated retinol, hyaluronic acid, niacinamide | Concentration: .3% | Size: 1 oz. | Cruelty-Free: No

If you're completely new to the retinol game or if you have dry skin, CeraVe's formula is a good place to start. It contains just a .3% concentration, which means it will be more gentle and less drying than higher-potency products. It's also filled with skin-calming agents like niacinamide and moisturizing hyaluronic acid. Best of all, it rings in at less than $20, a price that allows you to try the product without the guilt of a major skin-care investment. 

  • Hydrating
  • Good for first-time retinol users
  • Quality retinol for more sensitive skin
  • Affordable
  • Some complain the texture is too watery
  • Some complain product could absorb better
$11 at Amazon
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$23 at Ulta Beauty$20 at Rite Aid

Key ingredients: Encapsulated retinol, alpha-hydroxy acid | Concentration: 2.2% | Size: 1 oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes

This is the first retinol serum I ever tried, starting six years ago, when I was 45. It's the ideal entry point, utilizing both over-the-counter retinol and alpha-hydroxy acid to promote skin-cell turnover, brighten skin and smooth your complexion overall. The serum itself is fragrance-free and — even with the higher retinol concentration — gentle, appropriate for most skin types. I love it so much that I've kept it in my skin-care rotation for years. These days I use it a few nights a week as an eye cream — it's made my upper lids dewy and, with consistent use, a lot less crepey.

  • Non-irritating
  • Good for sensitive skin
  • Lightweight
  • Fast-absorbing
  • Skin-brightening
  • Expensive
  • So gentle you may not see dramatic results
$89 at Sephora

Key ingredients: Retinol, ceramides | Concentration: 0.2% | Size: 30 capsules | Cruelty-Free: No

This Sarah Jessica Parker favorite brand is a drugstore skin-care legend for a reason: It's proven to work. In a clinical study, 97% of those who tried the Retinal Correxion reported smoother skin after just a single night. Users said their skin was 63% more hydrated after 1 week & visibly firmer after a month. RoC's retinol serum is recommended and tested by dermatologists. It’s also among Amazon’s most highly rated skin care products with more than 13,000 5-star reviews. 

  • Effectively reduces the appearance of fine lines
  • Clinically proven
  • Trusted brand
  • Some may find the capsules a bit tricky to manage
  • Those with sensitive skin may find the formula a bit harsh
$25 at Walmart
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$30 at Amazon$33 at Ulta Beauty

Key ingredients: Retinol 8, turmeric hyaluronic acid | Concentration: Undisclosed | Size: .5 oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes

This Swedish brand's Dark Spot Fix is a spot treatment containing retinol 8, a stabilized vitamin A complex, meant to be 8 times more effective than conventional retinol but half as harsh. There's no data to support the company's claim here, but I can tell you this from experience: The formula itself is creamy, non-irritating and — concentrated or not — worked to lighten a stubborn brown spot on my cheek I'd been annoyed by for years in just three weeks. 

While not an all-over collagen-building, wrinkle-reducing remedy, this is a stellar product made with anti-inflammatory turmeric and hydrating hyaluronic acid, a treat for your skin. Though no results will be as effective as a visit to the dermatologist, if you're dealing with mild hyperpigmentation, this is an at-home skin-care win. 

  • High-quality ingredients
  • Visibly lightens and brightens dark spots
  • Fast-absorbing
  • Creamy texture
  • Non-irritating
  • Pricey for the tiny size
  • Some complain the product stings
$48 at Amazon
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$95 at Nordstrom$95 at REVOLVE

Ingredients: Encapsulated retinol, hyaluronic acid | Retinol Concentration: 2.5% | Size: 1 oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes

This highly affordable serum offers 2.5% encapsulated retinol, which is one of the higher concentrations you'll find in any over-the-counter product. Encapsulation makes for a slower release of the key ingredient, making it less harsh and leading to fewer negative side effects overall. It's also packed with hydrating hyaluronic acid and soothing aloe. The texture is thin but not watery and it absorbs quickly. If your skin can tolerate this level of potency, this is the best over-the-counter retinol serum I've tried at this price, rivaling the efficacy of prescription Retin-A with less irritation and ramp-up time. Nearly 10,000 5-star Amazon reviewers also approve, claiming the product is a "gentle retinol serum that works."   

  • Affordable
  • High concentration of retinol
  • Encapsulated formula makes for slow release and fewer side effects
  • Added hyaluronic acid hydration skin and aloe juice provides a calming effect
  • Retinol concentration may be too high for some
  • Some users complain the product pills on their skin
  • Many don't like the pump applicator, which can be a bit wonky
$13 at Amazon

I've tested multiple retinol serums in my decades as a beauty and women's lifestyle editor, with varying results. For this story I revisited some of my all-time favorite products, consulted dermatologists and aestheticians on new standouts and pored over hundreds of online reviews. I tested each serum on efficacy (did I see a difference in my skin within six weeks?), ingredient quality, potency, texture, feel and value.

SkinBetter's AlphaRet Overnight Cream is a good retinoid product that tops many best lists, but ultimately not good enough for me to justify the $140-per-ounce cost. Likewise, while I loved Revision Skincare Retinol, I'm not paying $130 for it and don't think you should have to, either.

  • Concentration: A good rule of thumb here: The higher the concentration of retinol, the faster and more impactful the results. Retinol serums you find over the counter typically clock in at 1% concentration, though some — like Yeouth's — go up to 2.5%. Remember, a higher concentration of retinol will not always mean a better product for your particular skin. Always patch-test a new retinol product for a few days to see how your face reacts.

  • Type: Understanding retinol is confusing in part because there are not only multiple retinoids but several types of retinol within the category itself. That said, encapsulated retinol tends to be both more gentle and effective than other over-the-counter retinoid complexes.

  • Ancillary ingredients: Since retinol can be harsh on your skin, the ideal serum will counterbalance side effects like dryness and inflammation with moisturizing ingredients like hyaluronic acid and soothing ingredients like squalane, niacinamide and aloe.

Retinol is a one of several topical vitamin A compounds, which are known as retinoids. Though retinoids may seem new-ish to the world of skincare, dermatologists have actually prescribed them for decades, with prescription acne medications such as Retin-A (Tretinoin) and Accutane used since the 70s. Prescription-grade retinoids — like the popular Tretinoin — are often drying and irritating to the skin, while over-the-counter retinol is milder.

Prescription Retin-A or Tretinoin is both stronger and works faster than retinol — but at a comfort cost. Particularly in early use, Retin-A is likely to cause irritation, itchiness and even peeling, burning and significant skin dryness and may never be mild enough for certain skin types. Retinol is more gentle to the skin, though its effects may not be as fast. Talk to your dermatologist about which retinoid is right for you.

Clinical studies on the efficacy of retinol show that retinoids act a natural exfoliant for skin, causing cell turnover and reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles along the way. Retinol additionally stimulates the production of collagen, a protein that helps keep our skin firm and bouncy. "Collagen is the most abundant and important protein in the skin," explains Dr. Durairaj. "After age 40, you're losing 1% of your collagen production per year. And by menopause, you could be losing 25% of the collagen you make, the factory just starts shutting down production."

Moisturizers or creams are generally better at hydrating skin than serums and, since retinoids are themselves drying, a cream can be an appealing delivery system. However! Retinol serums often contain a higher concentration of the active ingredient, tend to penetrate skin more deeply and are absorbed more quickly. Retinol creams may be more advantageous for dry skin, but not by a lot. No matter which you choose, it's important to note that while over-the-counter retinol serums work, they'll never work as well as prescription retinoids.

Most experts recommend starting retinol slow and low and building up a tolerance as you go. More specifically: Try using a retinol product once a week and see how your skin reacts. Depending on your skin type, you should be able to build up to every other day or even daily use. Important to note: Retinoids make your skin more sensitive to the sun so, if they're a part of your skin-care routine, it's crucial to wear SPF every day.

Most dermatologists I spoke with for this story suggested those who are new to using retinol start with a concentration of .25% to .5%, depending on the sensitivity of your skin. This number may rise slightly with encapsulated versions of retinol (i.e., most of the products on this list), which tend to be less irritating.

Dr. Ava Shamban, board-certified dermatologist

Dr. Kay Durairaj, board-certified facial plastic surgeon

Kimberly Austin, aesthetician at the Los Angeles 7QSpa