Everything You Need to Know About Retinol—and the 10 Best Serums to Try Now

Despite being a beauty editor, retinol was a skincare ingredient that scared me for the longest time. In fact, I've written previously about how I totally avoided it for years after a particularly adverse reaction to a dermatologist-prescribed retinol and only came around when I discovered a certain £20 retinol product that transformed my skin. I'll be honest, though: When it comes to trending ingredients, retinol has to be up there with one of the most confusing in the industry. Advice varies greatly on when you should start using it, how often you should be using it and where it should sit within your current skincare routine.

But that's about to change. Ahead, I've got the lowdown on exactly what retinol is, why it's the ingredient that I'm recommended most by experts, and most importantly, the best retinol serums to try now.

Keep scrolling for everything you need to know about retinol and to find a serum that will work for you.

What even is retinol?

A derivative of vitamin A, retinol is a more gentle version of tretinoin—the kind of retinol that you might be prescribed by a dermatologist (and that my skin hated). It's a bit of a does-it-all ingredient, but one of its main benefits is that it acts as a natural exfoliator for your skin, which means it removes dead skin cells from the top layer to reveal the fresh, glowy skin beneath.

But there's more. Retinol does pretty much everything from minimise fine lines and pores to encourage cell renewal and diminish breakout-causing bacteria. It's no surprise then that retinol is one of the most-recommended skincare ingredients, and alongside SPF has proven to be one of the most effective ways to prevent signs of ageing.

When should you start using retinol?

Most facialists and skin experts that I have spoken to recommend that everyone aged 30 and over start using retinol immediately. But if you have specific skincare concerns like congestion, scarring or regular breakouts, then it won't do you any harm to start using a retinol serum earlier.

If you do have oily-combination skin, then a retinol serum is ideal, as it's lightweight in texture and won't weigh your skin down. Of course, though, if you do prefer richer formulations, then you can look for a retinol cream or moisturiser instead (you'll get the same results—it's just down to personal preference).

Oh, and it's important to note here that if you're pregnant or breastfeeding, then you should totally avoid retinol.

Where does retinol fit in your routine?

Retinol serums should always be used at night and applied to clean skin. Our skin works to rejuvenate itself overnight, so adding in a skin-repairing ingredient like retinol here makes sense. 

While a lot of retinol serums are coined as daily use, most skin experts recommend that you start introducing the ingredient slowly. Start with once or twice a week for a couple of weeks, and then build it up slowly as your skin adjusts. Keep an eye on your skin—a little dryness or irritation is normal, but decrease the frequency of your application if you notice anything more than this.

You can go straight to bed after you've applied your retinol serum, but if your skin does feel a little tight, then apply a gentle moisturiser afterwards. In fact, if you have sensitive skin, then it's often recommended that you apply a moisturiser first and your retinol serum on top. 

The next morning, be sure to apply an SPF, as your skin will be more sensitive to the sun. 

Shop the best retinol serums

The brainchild of celebrity facialist Shani Darden, this gentle retinol serum is ideal for sensitive skin types thanks to the mild retinol that it harnesses. Plus, celebrities like Rosie Huntington-Whiteley and Kim Kardashian-West swear by the stuff.

Another celebrity-favourite skincare brand, this retinol-infused serum works by promoting the production of collagen within the skin to boost elasticity, firm the skin and target fine lines and wrinkles. A great option if you specifically want to focus on signs of ageing.

I'd describe this as the perfect retinol starter serum. It contains just 0.2% pure retinol, so if you're in your 20s and only just thinking about retinol, then this will begin to target fine lines and even skin tone without causing any sensitivity or irritation.

Emily Ratajkowski swears by this serum for her supermodel glow. Joanne Vargas is renowned for her red carpet skin prep for the A-list, so it's no surprise that this serum is all about helping to impart radiance on even the most lacklustre of complexions.

I'm a huge fan of Paula's Choice as a brand for its effective, hardworking formulations. This treatment is particularly good if you're been partial to a little sun worship in the past. It fades dark spots and repairs wrinkles caused by sun damage while building collagen within the skin for a plumper, more radiant complexion long-term.

To minimise irritation and redness, opt for a slow-release retinol like this one from The Inkey List. It tackles blemishes and evens skin tone over time to leave you with brighter, smoother skin.

Specially formulated with Oskia's own Super-Nutrient Retinoid Complex (a mix of retinol, vitamin C and provitamin D3), this is a gentle nighttime serum that will help you wake to plumper, healthier-looking skin come morning.

Murad claims that an impressive 93% of people who used this new serum saw a reduction in lines and wrinkles in two weeks. It uses three different ingredients—fast-acting retinoid, time-released retinol and a retinol booster—so you can trust that it's going to get to work quickly.

The name says it all with this retinol serum. It's created for beginners with a 0.25% concentration of pure retinol alongside the brand's skin saver complex. I like that it's able to deliver all of those retinol benefits without causing sensitivity.

This silky serum sinks quickly into the skin and has the added benefit of skin-plumping collagen so your skin will look healthier, glowier and improve elasticity.