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10 best retinol serums for skin rejuvenating results

These are the age-defying vitamin A actives to add to your beauty routine

Sabine Wiesel
Tuesday 10 August 2021 11:55
<p>Retinol has the ability to banish blemishes, fade pigmentation, reduce pore size and boost collagen production</p>

Retinol has the ability to banish blemishes, fade pigmentation, reduce pore size and boost collagen production

Hailed as the gold standard of skin actives, nothing is as powerful and effective in skincare as retinol (a derivative of vitamin A) at reducing visible signs of ageing and should be in your serum if you’re looking for skin rejuvenating results.

Originally prescribed by doctors (and still is) as a topical acne treatment, it was quickly discovered how skin-transforming retinol can be when it comes to signs of ageing. “Retinol helps to renew and turnover skin cells to improve skin quality and texture which makes it an important anti-ageing ingredient,” says Dr Saleena Zimri, cosmetic dermatologist. Not only this, but it also has the ability to banish blemishes, fade pigmentation, reduce pore size and boost collagen production.

Sadly, early formulations fell out of favour with consumers who reported strong side effects, such as irritation, peeling and redness. However, next-generation formulas work much better thanks to slow-release encapsulated technology, or pairing it with other skin-soothing ingredients.

When we talk about retinol today, we are in fact talking about a wider group of retinoids. “Retinol is a form of vitamin A and part of a bigger family of retinoids,” explains Abigail James, skincare expert.

“Some are gentler such as retinyl palmitate and others much stronger and on prescription.” She adds. So, retinol itself sits somewhere in between. That is why stronger doesn’t always mean better when it comes to retinoids, as you have to consider how effective the retinoid being used is in the formula.

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How we tested

We know it can be a little confusing, so we’ve tested our way through the latest and best-selling retinol serums to pick out the best formulation for your wants and needs.

The key with using retinoids is not to expect your skin to transform overnight, on average you’ll start to see results after a month or maybe longer depending on how well your skin tolerates it. Do start introducing it into your PM routine slowly or irritation may occur. And always use alongside a high SPF as it does make skin sensitive to the sun.

The best retinol serums for 2021 are:

  • Best overall – Oskia retinoid sleep serum level 1: £70,
  • Best for working up to a higher strength – SkinCeuticals retinol: £65,
  • Best for quick results – Shani Darden retinol reform: £80,
  • Best for sensitive skin – La Roche-Posay retinol B3 serum: £28.50,
  • Best budget buy – The Ordinary granactive retinoid 2% in squalane: £7.75,
  • Best for dry skin – Clinique smart night clinical multi-dimensional repair treatment: £52.90,
  • Best for softening lines and wrinkles – Zelens power A vitamin A concentrate: £95,
  • Best for fading pigmentation – Alpha-H liquid gold midnight reboot serum: £70,
  • Best for stressed out skin – Disciple dreamy skin night oil: £35,
  • Best for acne or breakouts – Selfless by Hyram retinol and algae repair serum: £28,

Oskia retinoid sleep serum level 1

Best: Overall

Rating: 10/10

This bottle uses a next-generation retinoid that is more effective than most, bar those available on prescription, but still gentle on the skin. And if that’s not enough it also boasts a cocktail of antioxidants including skin brightening and firming vitamin C, vitamin D3 for skin health and moisture-boosting vitamin E.

There are two strengths to choose from, start with 0.2 (level 1)  and work up to  0.5 (level 2) which is the maximum allowed without a prescription. And don’t compare with other retinol percentages as this is a stronger retinoid than retinol.

We found the combination of actives worked so well on our skin that after just two weeks of use there was a luminosity to the skin that was commented on by friends. For rejuvenating results, we started to see a slight fading of some stubborn dark spots after a month and with continued use, softening of lines.

SkinCeuticals retinol

Best: For working up to a higher strength

Rating: 9.5/10

This well-trusted skincare brand has been selling retinol products ahead of the herd for some time. With three strengths of pure retinol in their line-up, your skin can build up more tolerance to the ingredients for better and better results.

Start with 0.3 per cent perfect for skin that has never been exposed to retinol before. Skip to 0.5 per cent if you’ve used retinol in the past or as a step up in strength from the prior. And a 1 per cent advanced treatment for skin that has been further preconditioned from the 0.5 per cent. Use sparingly, all you need is 4-5 drops, and consistently and expect to see results after one month’s use.

Shani Darden retinol reform

Best: For quick results

Rating: 9/10

Like many Hollywood A-listers have done before, including Jessica Alba and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, put your complexion in the hands of expert aesthetician Shani Darden. While we can’t jet off to her Beverly Hills clinic, you can introduce her best-selling retinol serum into your night-time routine and experience glowing results.

With 2.2 per cent encapsulated retinol for a slow-release that minimises irritation, it also contains 2 per cent exfoliating lactic acid known for fading discolouration and post break-out scarring. We built up our tolerance slowly with this one by starting 2-3 times a week and by doing so found no side effects. After two weeks use, we were impressed by how much brighter and clearer our complexion looked, and results carried on improving with continued use.

La Roche-Posay retinol B3 serum

Best: For sensitive skin

Rating: 8/10

The brand with a line-up of brilliant sensitive skincare have come-up trump with this gentle formulation. This will be ideal for those that have struggled with retinol in the past or are first time users. A combination of pure and gradual release retinol combine to offer its skin correcting benefits, but it’s compensated with skin-restoring niacinamide (or vitamin B3) to reduce irritation. A hefty dose of hydrating glycerine also insures skin stays comfortable, unlike other drying retinol formulations. Play the long game with this one, and see skin revitalising results.

The Ordinary granactive retinoid 2% in squalane

Best: Budget buy

Rating: 9/10

This cult brand needs no introduction with its ingredient-led affordable and effective skincare. For purse-friendly options, its collection of retinoid formulas are hard to beat. Choose from three retinol options differing in strengths, or three with an advanced-retinoid complex called granactive retinoid that’s shown better skin rejuvenating results without the irritation.

Start with this one, as we did, paired with moisture-boosting squalane and you’ll find no skin irritation if you start slowly introducing it into your night time routine. You’ll notice how quickly your skin starts to feel baby soft, but as with all retinoids, give it a month to see a real difference.

Clinique smart night clinical multi-dimensional repair treatment

Best: For dry skin

Rating: 8/10

While the star ingredient in this is a pure form of retinol, it also boasts a cocktail of skin rejuvenating ingredients such as vitamin C and niacinamide, and skin-strengthening and firming peptides. When combined with a combination of skincare superstar hydrating actives –hyaluronic acid, squalane, glycerine and vitamin E – it creates a richer treatment that packs a moisturising punch that keeps skin feeling comfortable, supple and soft. We used as directed every other night for two weeks, then switching to nightly and found lines, pores and pigmentation all looking reduced after a month.

Zelens power A vitamin A concentrate

Best: For softening lines and wrinkles

Rating: 9/10

Dr Marko Lens, the London-based plastic surgeon and all-round skincare expert, has a results-driven line of products including this vitamin A concentrate. The formula is enriched with several retinoids, including encapsulated retinol. Most notably there’s an effective retinoid, called hydroxypinacolone retinoate, which causes less irritation that works similarly to prescription formulas.

We introduced this twice a week and built up tolerance slowly and found no side effects. The lightweight oil-like texture is such a pleasure to use, but we were most impressed with how fast this got to work leaving skin beautifully smooth after just two weeks. Expect a month of continued use before you see results on pigmentation, lines and wrinkles.

Alpha-H liquid gold midnight reboot serum

Best: For fading pigmentation

Rating: 8.5/10

From the brand that pioneered the use of glycolic acid in skincare, comes another glow in a bottle formula. While it’s widely acknowledged you shouldn’t use retinol and the chemical exfoliant together, the brand has managed to successfully combine them in one stable game-changing bottle.

The 14 per cent glycolic acid clears the way to let granactive retinoid work its vitamin A magic. Although we didn’t get any side effects, just luminous skin after the very first use, we recommend you start off slowly to begin with then reap the skin revitalising rewards with long-term use.

Disciple dreamy skin night oil

Best: For stressed out skin

Rating: 7/10

This uses one of the milder retinoids, so it won’t irritate skin on the unhappy side further. That’s partly because it was created by a psychotherapist who recognises the role stress, anxiety and low mood can have on our skin – issues like acne, eczema and premature ageing, for example.

Made-up of a cocktail of oils include radiance-boosting rosehip oil, well-reported to be a favourite of the Duchess of Cambridge, and essential oils of frankincense, camomile and jasmine. They all combine to make a restorative and rejuvenating oil that’s a pleasure to use every night without any signs of irritation. We found this one especially effective at clearing hormonal breakouts.

Selfless by Hyram retinol and algae repair serum

Best: For acne or breakouts

Rating: 8/10

With 6.7 million followers on TikTok, it was only a matter of time before skinfluencer Hyram Yarbro launched his own skincare line. Teaming up with skincare brand The Inkey List, there are 5 products to choose from including this standout retinol serum.

It’s very much aimed at the under 30s market who might not be needing retinol for signs of ageing, but acne scarring and discolouration. It’s a low strength at 0.2 per cent retinol, so perfect for beginners too. Paired with tranexamic acid for fading discolouration and redness, and squalane for hydration, this feels very lightweight and instantly smoothing on contact with the skin. Another find that’s great on hormonal breakouts.

Retinol FAQs

What does a retinol serum do for the skin?

Retinol and other retinoids are the hardest working skincare ingredient you’ll find when it comes to age-defying results. From around the age of 25 our collagen levels (the protein that supports the skin’s strength) start to drop and visible signs of ageing appear, but retinoids are able to stimulate the production of collagen, in turn boosting firmness and smoothing lines and wrinkles. It also has the ability to stimulate cell turnover, in turn reducing pigmentation or pesky dark spots, acne and breakouts.

Can you use retinol serum every day?

In short, you can once your skin has built up a tolerance to it. Retinol serums have come a long way but redness, peeling and irritation can occur if your skin isn’t introduced to it gradually. “Often you don’t realise how powerful they are until three days later, as they take three days to process within the skin,” says Abigail James. “If you’re new to retinoids, start in the evening once every three nights then after a week increase to every other night, then by four weeks you should be good to use them every night.” Remember, each skin is unique so let your skin guide you too, as tolerance varies from person to person.

The verdict: Retinol serums

The Oskia retinoid sleep serum gave us the most noticeable skin-rejuvenating results, without any signs of irritation leaving skin comfortable and hydrated too. For value, The Ordinary granactive retinoid 2% in squalane and its retinoid collection are hard to beat and great for  vitamin A beginners.

Voucher codes

For the latest discounts on beauty and make-up buys, try the links below:

Tackle pigmentation and boost collagen levels with the best vitamin C skincare products

IndyBest product reviews are unbiased, independent advice you can trust. On some occasions, we earn revenue if you click the links and buy the products, but we never allow this to bias our coverage. The reviews are compiled through a mix of expert opinion and real-world testing.

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