February 15th 2020
How to find the best retinol cream or serum for your skin type
May 5th 2022 / 0 comment
Not sure which is the best retinol cream is best for you? Here are the ones with our seal of approval
When it comes to the best retinol cream or serum, there are is a mind-boggling number to choose from, with pretty much every well-known skincare brand having its own unique formula: Clinique, Olay, No7, Lancome and Estee Lauder are just a few big names that have embraced the mightly vitamin A derivative. L'Oreal Paris has recently added a retinol cream to its line-up to sit alongside its retinol serum, while smaller brands such as Trinny London consider a retinoid an essential part of their skincare offering. It's no surprise given the superstar ingredient's ability to improve fine lines, spots, texture and tone, and we are glad to see so many clever formulas that maximise its skin-normalising powers while minimising its irritant potential.
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 the ingredient can benefit the skin even at a low percentage. “Percentages of as little as 0.01 per cent retinol are proven to be effective at improving multiple signs of ageing, reducing pore size and overall improving the health of your skin, when used consistently” says Paula Begoun of Paula’s Choice.
For improving uneven skin tone, texture or a loss of firmness, retinol percentages between 0.1 and 0.4 per cent can start to deliver results in as little as two weeks.
Higher percentage of retinol (0.5 per cent to 1 per cent) can tackle deeper wrinkles and pronounced uneven skin tone, but you want to try to work your way up to these by starting on lower strengths first and allowing your skin to get used to the potentially irritating active.
To make matters more confusing, 'cosmetic retinoids', which are siblings of retinol, tweaked so as to have less irritant potential, are effective at different percentages. Plus, often in the latest formulations, different retinoids are combined in unique complexes, all with their own claims and impressive-sounding, but sometimes confusing, percentage levels.
But not to worry. In our pick of the best retinol cream for every skin issue below, as well as our expert retinol and retinoid explainer, we guide you through the maze. Read on to find your perfect match.
Best retinol cream for all ages: Beauty Pie Ceramide Boost Anti-Aging Face Serum, typical price £70 for 50ml, members pay £16.33
A clever Swiss-engineered blend of 0.09% encapsulated retinol (a modest yet effective level) boosted by smoothing lactic acid, hydrating hyaluronic acid and healing ceramides, this is safe to wear day and night as long as you top it with an SPF50 moisturiser by day. Great for retinol newbies and aficionados alike, it will keep your pores unclogged and your lines plumped out effortlessly. If you're not sure at what age to use retinol, this one makes it easy: it's balanced and gentle enough to use from your twenties into your hundreds! Not a member of Beauty Pie yet? Use code GTGSENTME to get £10 off Beauty Pie annual membership when you sign up.
The reliable line-plumper: No7 Advanced Retinol 1.5% Complex Night Concentrate, £34 for 30ml
No7's first-ever retinol combines a potent 0.3 per cent retinol with the skin-firming peptide Matrixyl 3000+. To improve tolerance, the brand has added soothing bisabolol, an extract from chamomile. The retinol is encapsulated, which is always good news: it means it is kept stable and will be time-released into your skin, lowering any chances of irritation. The 1.5% complex mentioned on the packaging refers to the combined active ingredients, which is a little cheeky: the actual retinol strength is 0.3 per cent which No7 found in clinical trials to be the amount that most people would tolerate without sensitivity. We agree: 0.3% doesn't sound like much but trust us, it's plenty strong and this level will ensure you stick with the product, which is important for seeing the cumulative benefits.
The mutli ingredinet retinol cream : Paula’s Choice Clinical 0.3% Retinol + 2% Bakuchiol Treatment, £55 for 30ml
Peptides, retinol, vitamin C and bakuchiol all team up in this lightweight lotion that's guaranteed to help stimulate and plump out collagen-depleted skin. Bakuchiol is often touted as a plant alternative to retinol as it can deliver some of the same results. But in this cream, it's employed to boost the effects of retinol itself: that's what we call a 'synergistic' blend. The peptides and vitamin C are there for a 360-degree approach to fighting brown spots, lines and loss of elasticity - contrary to what many people think retinol and vitamin C work very well together in the right formula. The opaque bottle and pump applicator are designed to keep sunlight and oxygen from affecting the ingredients - very important if a product has that many powerful actives that need to remain stable to perform small miracles.
The retinol oil for breakouts: Dermalogica Retinol Clearing Oil, £69 for 30ml
This overnight oil combines the pore-unclogging powers of salicylic acid with retinyl propionate, which is a 'pro-retinol' that works like retinol, but in a much slower and gentler manner. The formula promises clearer skin alongside reduced fine lines, wrinkles and hyperpigmentation with the help of a formula that is gradually released over a few hours to avoid overloading the skin. The ingredients feature argan, rosehip seed and jojoba oils to soothe and nourish skin and form another layer of protection against itching and redness. But don't worry if you're oily-skinned - these oils have been selected for their non-pore clogging credentials and you'll find the product is surprisingly non-greasy and feels more like a serum. An oil base also makes sense because retinoids are oil-soluble, meaning they can only be carried inside the skin if some form of oil is present. The effect on spots will be seen within days; the anti-ageing benefits should start appearing after a month or so.
The best retinol for beginners: Olay Regenerist Retinol24 Night Serum, £17.49 for 40ml
This serum by slow-and-steady skincare specialists Olay is a great introduction to the world of retinol proper. Feeling almost undetectable on the skin, it'll work steadily behind the scenes to tackle signs of ageing. The blend of pure retinol (the brand won't disclose how much, but we're guessing about 0.1 to 0.2 per cent) plus retinyl propionate, the gentle 'pro-retinol' or retinol precursor, is boosted by vitamin B3 (niacinamide) for its calming, brightening benefits and glycerin for its moisture-retaining powers. It's fragrance-free too, which is great as you don't want any irritants in your retinol formula, which even at these low-sounding percentages has the potential to bite reactive skins.
The slow-release skin repair hero: Murad Retinol Youth Renewal Night Cream, £72.90 for 50ml
This hard-working cream has an intricate formula designed to give you all the retinol benefits without the retinol side effects. A gentle pro-retinol (retinyl propionate) is combined with pure retinol that is encapsulated so as to get released slowly and steadily into the skin. Add a bunch of skin barrier boosters, nourishing hydrators and firming plant actives and you have a product that will do a lot of overnight damage (read: wrinkle-) repair but cause very little flaking or redness in the process: that's a win-win to us.
The budget gentle giant: The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid 2% in Squalane, £7.75 for 30ml
The Ordinary has a choice of retinol, but this retinol serum is a favourite; it contains Granactive retinoid, also known as hydroxypinacolone retinoate, which is thought to be a relatively powerful vitamin A compound in the retinoid family. Unlike other cosmetic retinoids, it doesn't have to go through a process of 'conversion' inside the skin to become retinoic acid (the molecule that does all the skin-improving work - see also our detailed breakdown of retinol). Hydroxypinacolone retinoate attaches directly to the retinol receptors in your skin cells to get them to start functioning better but does it without much chance of irritation. In this serum, the active is suspended in the super-light lipid squalane to offset any irritant potential even further. It’s consultant dermatologist Dr Anjali Mahto’s top pick for sensitive skin and it’s budget-friendly too.
The best retinol serum for wrinkles and spots: Dr. Sam's Flawless Nightly Serum, £39 for 30ml
Dr Sam’s fragrance-free retinoid serum for night time combines four lauded key actives: azelaic acid, bakuchiol, niacinamide and the relatively low-irritant Granactive retinoid - in potent percentages that work well together and remain gentle enough for sensitive skin while powerfully tackling spots and oiliness. Signs of ageing such as lines and discolouration (including post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation caused by acne) will also visibly diminish if you use this consistently every night.
The retinoid you can wear by day: Medik8 R-Retinoate Day & Night Youth Activating Cream £140 for 50ml
Retinoids shouldn't normally be worn in the day as UV light tends to break down these powerful but unstable actives and reduce their potency. But retinyl retinoate, a next-gen retinoid backed in its efficiency by multiple clinical studies, is encapsulated in this breakthrough formula (the star of the retinol Medik8 lineup) so as to remain stable, making it suitable for daytime use. What's more, the ingredient won't irritate the vast majority of skins so won't make it more sun-sensitive as retinol can. Here, it is combined with brightening, UV damage-combating vitamin C, soothing and protective vitamin E and hydrating hyaluronic acid to make up one of the most effective age-busting products on the market. Top with an always-essential daytime SPF30 or 50 for an unbeatable team worth the (considerable) investment.
Best retinol cream for hormonal breakouts: Trinny London Overnight Clarity Retinal/Niacinamide Serum, £62 for 30ml
Retinaldehyde, or retinal, is fast becoming the retinoid of choice for tackling spot-prone and oily skin while working a treat on signs of ageing as well. Said to work 11 times faster than retinol but in a far less irritating manner, it is also antibacterial so can fight off acne bacteria, and is effective at pushing back hyperpigmentation. Combined here with a high dose of brightening, oil-balancing, antioxidant and barrier-boosting (phew) niacinamide, you have a winning, Trinny-approved formula for keeping those pesky (peri)menopausal breakouts (or breakouts and congestion of any kind, for that matter) at bay while minimising lines and wrinkles.
The fast-acting age-defying retinol oil: Drunk Elephant A-Gloei Maretinol Oil, £63 for 30ml
Unlike the first Drunk Elephant retinol cream, A-Passioni Retinol Cream, £65 this one isn't just for advanced or sturdy-skinned vitamin A devotees. One per cent retinol, as featured in A-Passioni, is a lot, and even in a good, hydrating formula can cause major flaking and redness. A-Gloei (which means 'aglow') Maretinol Oil isn't for wimps either - its 0.5% retinol is still on the 'advanced user' spectrum (despite the brand calling it a 'low dose' - in the scheme of retinols, it isn't). But the rich, nourishing base of marula oil, vitamin E and ceramides will go a long way in off-setting irritation and dryness. Start wth a few nightly drops twice a week and build towards nightly use - you should see brightening, plumping results within weeks. In case you were wondering, the retinol is labelled 'vegan', says the brand - but that's no surprise because all cosmetic retinols are, as they are artificially created in a lab.
The speedy high street retinol cream: L'Oréal Paris Revitalift Laser Retinol + Niacinamide Pressed Night Cream, £27.99 for 50ml
Featuring retinol, retinyl palmitate (a pro-retinol), a big dose of niacinamide and plenty of hydrators and skin-calming agents, this is a fast-acting all-round formula at a good price that should give you noticeably more even skin tone and fewer fine lines before you finish your first pot. We also like the detailed instructions on how often to use retinol, outlining how to build up a tolerance to this rich but non-greasy cream: that's how you get retinol right.