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The best retinol creams, serums and oils and why we rate them

June 10th 2020 / Melanie Macleod / 0 comment


Not sure which retinol is best for you? Here are the ones with our seal of approval

Last month saw the launch of Boots No7’s first ever retinol and what a stir it caused with fans of the brand champing at the bit to get their hands on it. Despite the ingredient having been on the skincare block for quite some years now, whenever a brand launches a retinol product it becomes big news - no surprise given its ability to improve fine lines, texture and tone.

Not sure what exactly retinol does or how it works? Our expert explainer will answer all of your questions.

What strength retinol to look for

If you’re new to retinol, or you have sensitive or dry skin, go for lower-strength retinol - you'll be surprised how much they can benefit the skin even with a low percentage. “Percentages of 0.01 per cent retinol or greater are proven to be effective at improving multiple signs of ageing, reducing pore size and overall improving the health of your skin,” says Paula’s Choice.

For improving uneven skin tone, texture or a loss of firmness, opt for stronger retinol such as 0.04 per cent to 0.1 per cent. This will deliver fast results than lower percentages.

Higher percentage retinol (0.5 per cent to 1 per cent) can tackle deeper wrinkles and pronounced uneven skin tone. They give fast results and can work for people whose skin hasn’t responded to lower percentages of retinol.

Read on to find our pick of the best retinol creams and serums

No7 Advanced Retinol 1.5% Complex Night Concentrate, £34


No7's first-ever retinol combines 0.3 per cent retinol and the skin-firming peptide Matrixyl 3000+, best known for being in Estee Lauder's cult anti-ager Advanced Night Repair. To improve tolerance they’ve added a calming chamomile extract called bisabolol. The formula is also encapsulated in a 'retinol optimiser' to keep it as stable as possible and allow it to be time-released. Don't be confused by the 1.5% numbering on the packaging. It refers to the combined active ingredients. The retinol strength is 0.3 per cent which No7 found in clinical trials to be the amount that most people would tolerate without sensitivity, and therefore stick with. Retinol's benefits increase with time.

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Sunday Riley Luna Sleeping Night Oil, £85 for 35ml


The bold blue hue of this elixir might be slightly off-putting, but go with the smurf vibe, it’ll pay off. It combines blue tansy for its skin-soothing properties (no redness here) with hydroxypinacolone retinoate, a retinol derivative that’s less sensitising than retinol due to its slower conversion into retinoic acid (all retinoids go through conversion processes to become effective. The more conversion processes it goes through the weaker the retinoid is - and thus, the more tolerable it is - all of this is explained in our detailed breakdown of retinol.) This form of retinol delivers the great results we expect but it's far more gentle than other forms, reducing the risk of undesirable side effects often associated with retinol use.

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111 Skin Celestial Black Diamond Retinol Oil, £150


The formula is unique in three ways; the first is that it is pure retinol at 1 per cent meaning it visibly reduces signs of ageing, pore size and pigmentation. The second is that it utilises 111 Skin’s signature diamond delivery system, which enables active ingredients (such as retinol) to penetrate deeper within the skin. Lastly, t the retinol is suspended in a blend of botanical oils, which works to reduce any initial effects the retinol may have upon the skin (such as dryness).

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Paula’s Choice Clinical 0.3% Retinol + 2% Bakuchiol Treatment, £53 for 30ml


Peptides, retinol and bakuchiol all team up in this lightweight lotion to help stimulate collagen depleted skin. Bakuchiol is often touted as a natural alternative to retinol but in this cream it stimulates the effects of retinol. The opaque bottle and pump applicator are designed to keep sunlight and oxygen from affecting the ingredients, keeping it powerful.

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Dermalogica Retinol Clearing Oil, £69 for 30ml


This night oil combines the pore-unclogging powers of salicylic acid with the anti-ageing benefits of retinol to treat two concerns in one, promising clearer more vibrant skin and reduced appearance of fine lines, wrinkles and hyperpigmentation. It contains 0.3 per cent time-released retinol which is gradually released over a few hours to avoid overloading the skin making it more appropriate for sensitive types. The ingredients list also features argan oil, rosehip seed oil and golden jojoba oil to soothe and nourish the skin. It has a slightly CBD smell (but has no hemp of CBD in the lineup) and is surprisingly non-oily – it feels more like a serum on the skin.

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Olay Regenerist Retinol24 Night Serum, £34.99


This gentle serum is a great introduction to the world of retinol; it’s fragrance-free and feels almost undetectable on the skin. Don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s doing nothing though. With 0.3 per cent retinyl propionate, it’s been designed to be ultra-hydrating thanks to a combination of retinol paired with skin-soothing vitamin B3 and hydrating glycerin.

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Pixi Retinol Overnight Oil, £26 for 30ml


Pixi’s little mint green pipette bottles are a staple in our skincare regime (the Jasmine Oil Blend is a particular favourite for radiance-boosting). This overnight oil includes retinyl palmitate, a weaker retinoid that combines retinol with fatty acid palmitic acid. It’s less likely to irritate redness-prone skin - which is also soothed in this formula by sweet almond oil, jasmine and jojoba seed oil

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Murad Retinol Youth Renewal Night Cream, £70 for 50ml


This hard-working cream provides not just one, but three types of retinoid, designed to maximise results with minimal irritation. The secret to its efficacy lies in its delivery rather than its strength (which isn’t disclosed) - using ‘time-release’ tech by way of retinoids of differing shapes to create a consistent flow of retinoid action in doses so it’s gentler on skin. With hydrating boosters to take the edge off of any potential retinol "flaking", this gentle yet powerful retinol cream has been known to work within the week to diminish the appearance of fine lines.

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MZ Skin Retinol Skin Booster, £110 for 20ml


This luxury buy includes 2 per cent retinol - the highest we’ve seen. It uses encapsulation to target skin cells where the ingredients will provide the most benefit; the encapsulation technology also ensures a slow-release of retinol. "The encapsulation allows us to have a higher percentage while minimising irritation or common side effects (like redness or flakiness). It’s also a very stripped-back formula which focuses only on the retinol as to not overload the skin with actives," explains founder Maryam Zamani.

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Dr Sam's Flawless Nightly Serum, £39 for 30ml


Dr Sam’s retinol combines four key actives – a retinoid, azelaic acid, bakuchiol and niacinamide - in potent percentages that don’t clash and remain gentle enough for problem skin as well as being fragrance-free and non-comedogenic. The retinoid is 2 per cent granactive retinoid to clear out pores, soften crinkles and improve clarity.

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The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid 2% in Squalane, £7.75 for 30ml


Ideal for the particularly redness-prone, this retinol serum contains a less irritative retinoid as an alternative to retinol. It’s consultant dermatologist Dr Anjali Mahto’s top pick for sensitive skin and it’s budget-friendly too.

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La Roche Posay Redermic R UV SPF30, £30 for 40ml


Addressing wrinkles and uneven skin tone, this pick contains a 0.3 per cent concentration of retinol (recommended by Dr Bunting for a low potency approach), exfoliating lipo hydroxy acid and broad-spectrum UVA and UVB protection for a reparative and effective cocktail. Retinol isn't normally worn in the day as UV tends to break it down and negates the benefits. In this formulation, La Roche-Posay have created a product that is photostable and combined with the SPF it is safe and effective to use in the day time.

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Medik8 Retinol 3TR, £29 for 15ml


A favourite of both Dr Bunting and fellow GTG Expert Abigail James, this fast-absorbing serum helps to refine both skin tone and texture. “It’s a great entry point retinol in a safflower oil base,” comments Abigail. “It suits most skin types, it’s not too drying and has a really lovely texture.” It contains 0.3 per cent retinol.

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Peter Thomas Roth Retinol Fusion PM Treatment Serum, £55 for 30ml


If you’re looking for a more potent retinol pick once you’ve built up your tolerance, try this. Providing plumper and brighter skin (with a bit of dryness at first), it contains 1.5 per cent concentration with vitamins C and E, to offer both radiance and antioxidant benefits.

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Avene TriAcneal Expert, £23


Containing 0.1 per cent retinaldehyde, anti-inflammatory diolenyl and exfoliating X-pressin, this evening moisturiser is a favourite of Dr Bunting’s for helping unblock pores, prevent blemishes and reduce the marks left by them.

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Drunk Elephant A-Passioni Retinol Cream, £62 for 30ml

This Drunk Elephant retinol isn’t for the retinoid newcomers as it’s relatively strong at 1%. It contains skin-strengthening peptides, fatty acid-rich vitamin F along with marula (as with all DE offerings) and jojoba oil to soothe any dryness or flaking triggered by retinol.

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Skin Proud Recharge Overnight Retinol 0.5% Serum, £13.99 for 25ml

Skin Proud launched exclusively on ASOS earlier this year with much excitement from the Glossier-loving crowd. Aimed mainly at younger skin we were surprised to see a retinol among the product lineup but were suitably impressed with this overnight retinol serum. It contains hyaluronic acid for moisture, rosehip oil for calming and bakuchiol too to support collagen production.

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MORE GLOSS: Don’t believe this retinol skin myth

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