The 12 Best Retinol Creams and Serums, Ranked by Reviewers

Retinol: It can strike fear into those with marginally sensitive skin, while it can draw blank looks from others. It’s understandable, given there’s an ever-expanding list of skin care ingredients to keep track of. Charcoal, vitamin C, hyaluronic acid and peptides, anyone? But retinol is essential to know because it offers clearer, more even skin for virtually every skin type.

Retinol is part of the retinoid group, which also includes retinoic acid and retin-A. It is pure vitamin A, explains Elizabeth Jones, advanced instructor at Dermalogica, and less potent than retin-A, or retinoic acid, which often requires a prescription. In terms of chemistry, our bodies have enzymes that convert retinol into a biochemically active form of retinoic acid that benefits skin by increasing cell turnover and renewal. This means that continued use of a retinol cream or serum can help fade acne scars, minimize hyperpigmentation and provide smoother, firmer skin.

Dermatologist Dr. Jeanine Downie adds that retinol helps with anti-aging because it improves the texture and tone of skin as well as radiance. Using retinol creams can also help with acne, decreasing the amount of whiteheads and blackheads as well as papules (small bumps).

Of course, there are some downsides to retinol. The aforementioned sensitivity is one issue. This is why Downie recommends that anyone using a retinol product should wear a proper sunscreen with SPF 30 or above every day of the year, regardless of their ethnicity. No exceptions.

Those with sensitive skin are still able to use retinols, however. Many new products have soothing, time-released formulas that minimize the negative effects of retinol without compromising efficacy. Dermatologist Dr. Dendy Engelman recommends that those with sensitive or compromised skin start with a lower dose or apply retinol less frequently to build up a tolerance. And remember, sunscreen, sunscreen and more sunscreen.

Not sure which product to use? Scroll through the gallery above for the top-rated retinol creams and serums that help tackle a myriad of skin care issues without irritating skin.