Best retinol serums and creams to give your skin a boost

13 May 2021

Woman applying face cream in bathroom

Retinol can give your skincare routine a boost, but which product should you choose? Here are the best retinol products for 2021.

If you’re concerned about the signs of ageing or acne or just fancy giving tired skin a lift, you may feel that your usual tried and tested skin routine is no longer making the grade.

You’ve probably heard about retinol – a veritable skincare hero beloved by beauty experts and reviewers as well as skincare addicts on our Style and Beauty forum.

This clever ingredient is credited with being able to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, as well as smooth acne-prone skin and even out irregular pigmentation.

But while you may know its name, you may not be entirely sure what retinol is.

What is retinol?

Retinol is derived from vitamin A – part of the retinoid family. When applied to your skin, retinol cleverly converts into retinoic acid within the skin.

Since the 1970s, retinol has been prescribed for treating acne. That’s because it helps to promote skin renewal by increasing the rate of cell division, making it ideal for fighting certain skin issues.

But it’s also capable of smoothing fine lines and blemishes, refining large pores and giving your skin a radiant, healthy glow. Many over-the-counter skincare products, including creams and serums, contain retinol and are available in a variety of strengths from 0.2% to 1%.

As retinoids build collagen and help repair the skin, they should be used at night as part of your evening skincare routine rather than during the day. Your skin rejuvenates while you sleep so the retinol will have the most impact overnight.

Be aware though that retinol can cause some nasty side effects including skin peeling, redness and irritations, and increased sensitivity to UV rays.

It must be used carefully so you should gradually build up the strength of the retinol you use in order for your skin to adjust. When you’re using retinol, be sure to use sunscreen during the day so that your skin is fully protected.

It’s also important for vegetarians and vegans to know that, historically, most retinol products were animal-based. But there are now plenty of plant-based retinols available called carotenoids. As ever, always read the label before using to ensure the product aligns with your values.

Here are the best retinol serums and creams to buy in 2021.

1 Best overall retinol serum: Medik8 Crystal Retinal 3

Price: £45 for 30ml | Buy now from Cult Beauty

“Medik8 Crystal Retinal is incredible. You can start low, but I found 3 is very gentle.”

“A great brand is Medik8. Their Crystal Retinal is brilliant. Start at strength three and work your way up. No irritation.”

1 Best overall retinol serum: Medik8 Crystal Retinal 3

Medik8 is a brand beloved by beauty obsessives on our Style and Beauty forums and by independent reviewers and skincare experts alike. Their Medik8 Crystal Retinal 3 is next level retinol. But how so?

The crystal-encapsulated retinaldehyde formula – containing vitamin A retinal – works 11 times faster than normal retinol as it’s more easily converted into retinoic acid by your skin. Hyaluronic acid and vitamin E hydrate your skin and minimise irritation too.

If you’re a retinol beginner and have sensitive skin, you might want to start with Medik8 Crystal Retinal 1 before moving up in strength levels as your skin adjusts.

Price-wise, Medik8 Crystal Retinal 3 is less scary than some of the other retinol serums on our list, making it great value for money and the best overall retinol serum in our roundup.

Buy now from Cult Beauty

2. Best overall retinol cream: No7 Advanced Retinol 1.5% Complex Night Concentrate

Price: £22.66 for 30ml (was £34) | Buy now from Boots

“I like the Boots No7 one. It's my first foray into retinol and, while it's maybe not as strong as others mentioned, I figured it's probably best to start with something relatively mild and slowly work up.”

2. Best overall retinol cream: No7 Advanced Retinol 1.5% Complex Night Concentrate

You’ve probably heard of this retinol night cream – it sparked Boots’ biggest ever waiting list last summer, with 100,000 people signing up before its release. It’s No7’s first clinically-proven advanced retinol concentration but, for the avoidance of doubt, it contains 0.3% retinol, not 1.5.%.

Not only does No7 Advanced Retinol 1.5% Complex Night Concentrate promise smooth skin, it claims to reduce ageing, increase elasticity, refine pores and improve collagen levels.

It’s also ideal for sensitive skin – No7 scientists added bisabolol, extracted from chamomile, to ease potential irritations – and is purse-friendly to boot. Just think of all the Boots Advantage points you’ll collect.

Buy now from Boots

3. Best budget retinol serum: The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid

Price: £9.90 for 30ml | Buy now from Amazon

“I’ve been using this every night for the past week and have had no irritation at all. It seems to be a decent product for the money, and now hoping that it’ll work and iron out a few wrinkles!”

3. Best budget retinol serum: The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid

The Ordinary is a cult no-fuss beauty brand and you can breathe a sigh of relief because you won’t need a bank loan to afford their Granactive Retinoid.

Recently, The Ordinary upgraded all their retinols to 'Granactive Retinoid' which is more effective against wrinkles and fine lines than their previous retinol solution. There’s also less risk of causing skin aggravations.

That said, some reviewers and Mumsnetters say that, as the retinol is in squalene, it may be too oily for some skin types.

Buy now from Amazon

4. Best budget retinol cream: Nip+Fab Retinol Fix Overnight Cream

Price: £17.99 for 50ml | Buy now from Amazon

“I've got the Nip+Fab overnight one. It smells lovely and must be pretty gentle. I have sensitive skin and no issues whatsoever. I've only been using it for two weeks, but my skin looks a lot better!”

4. Best budget retinol cream: Nip+Fab Retinol Fix Overnight Cream

Combining retinoid to reduce uneven pigmentation, peptides to boost collagen and hyaluronic acid to pump your skin with moisture, the Nip+Fab Retinol Fix Overnight Cream can be applied three times a week once your skin has fully adjusted to using retinol.

Reviewers are on the fence when it comes to the strong scent of this retinol night cream – it seems fair to say you’ll either love the smell or not take to it at all.

But it’s pretty good value for money, given the tube contains 50m of cream, and the packaging will look striking in your bathroom too.

But it’s pretty good value for money, given the tube contains 50m of cream, and the packaging will look striking in your bathroom too.

Buy now from Amazon

5. Best retinol serum for beginners: Olay Retinol24 Night Serum With Retinol & Vitamin B3

Price: £14.99 for 40ml | Buy now from Amazon

“I’ve started recently using Olay Retinol24 Serum, which I love. A good place to start to build up the strength slowly.”

5. Best retinol serum for beginners: Olay Retinol24 Night Serum With Retinol & Vitamin B3

A household name beloved by beauty addicts and their daughters (and their daughters etc) since 1952, Olay has scored another hit with their affordable Retinol24 Night Serum.

You’ll find a powerful retinoid complex and vitamin B3 (niacinamide) in this serum, meaning it’s very effective at smoothing fine lines and wrinkles, as well as fading uneven pigmentation and boosting brightness.

It will do some serious work at hydrating your skin while you sleep too – always a winner in our books. Some reviewers advise that you’re likely to need a stronger product once you’ve been using it a while, but it’s the ideal solution for retinol newbies.

Buy now from Amazon

6. Best retinol oil: Dermalogica Retinol Oil

Price: £65.80 for 30ml | Buy now from Amazon

“I love Dermalogica.”

6. Best retinol oil: Dermalogica Retinol Oil

Top skincare brand Dermalogica combines chemical exfoliant salicylic acid with retinol in this smoothing oil. It promises minimal risk of skin flare-ups thanks to a clever time-release delivery system and the addition of calming golden jojoba and rosehip seed oil.

Dermalogica Retinol Oil is by no means cheap so you’ll have to be prepared to see this as an investment beauty purchase. However, you and your pores can rest easy knowing that you’re in safe hands with this expert brand.

Buy now from Amazon

7. Best anti-ageing retinol serum: Beauty Pie Super Retinol Ceramide-Boost Anti-Ageing Face Serum

Price: £14.09 for 50ml (if you join Beauty Pie – typical price is £80) | Buy now from Beauty Pie

“Some Beauty Pie products I'm hooked on, like the retinol and retinol eye cream.”

7. Best anti-ageing retinol serum: Beauty Pie Super Retinol Ceramide-Boost Anti-Ageing Face Serum

It’s official – Mumsnetters love Beauty Pie skincare treats. This retinol serum uses a 3% encapsulated Retinol complex, which works on the skin at 0.09% pure Retinol. This means that the serum is absorbed by your skin before being released, leading to noticeable results on fine lines and wrinkles without irritation.

Be aware that you’ll need to join Beauty Pie for a minimum of three months in order to take advantage of the cheaper price offer for Beauty Pie Super Retinol Ceramide-Boost Anti-ageing Face Serum.

Buy now from Beauty Pie

8. Best retinol for dry skin: Murad Resurgence Retinol Youth Renewal Serum

Price: £61.20 for 15ml | Buy now from Amazon

“Murad is amazing. It’s not cheap but I can really tell the difference.”

8. Best retinol for dry skin: Murad Resurgence Retinol Youth Renewal Serum

This retinol serum is ideal if you suffer with dryness and sensitivity as it contains hyaluronic acid to help your skin retain moisture and Swertia flower extract to boost strength.

Formulated with Retinol Tri-Active Technology comprising a fast-acting retinoid, a time-release retinol and a retinol booster to smooth skin, Murad Resurgence Retinol Youth Renewal Serum will even out deep wrinkles and increase your skin’s natural radiance.

You may balk at the cost – it’s spendy, there’s no doubt about it. But Murad is a favourite brand on Mumsnet with beauty fans saying that the quality of its products more than justify the price tag.

Buy now from Amazon

9. Best vegan retinol serum: Facetheory Regenacalm Serum S1 Pro

Price: £22.99 for 30ml | Buy now from Facetheory

“I use the Facetheory Regenacalm Serum S1 Pro 3% and I really rate it. My skin has been amazing since I started.”

9. Best vegan retinol serum: Facetheory Regenacalm Serum S1 Pro

It can be tricky to find vegan-friendly beauty products, but new independent British beauty brand Facetheory has come up with the goods.

Their excellent Regenacalm Serum S1 Pro is made with 3% encapsulated retinoid to smooth acne scars, fine lines, hyperpigmentation and wrinkles.

It's free of nasties including parabens, silicones, PEGs, SLS, SLES and mineral oils, plus it’s vegan and cruelty-free so your conscience can remain as clear as your skin.

Buy now from Facetheory

10. Best retinol for sensitive skin: Drunk Elephant A-Passioni Retinol Cream

Price: £62 for 30ml | Buy now from Cult Beauty

“Have just started using Drunk Elephant A Passioni and noticed a difference straight away. “

10. Best retinol for sensitive skin: Drunk Elephant A-Passioni Retinol Cream

If you’re prone to flare-ups, you have to be careful what you apply to your skin to avoid painful irritations.

Drunk Elephant's cult new A-Passioni Retinol Cream is by no means cheap, but it’s reassuringly gentle on sensitive skin with no trace of nasties such as drying alcohols, chemical screens, fragrance or dyes.

Instead, you’ll only find lovely botanical extracts of cherry, kale and apricot which have been blended with 1% retinol.

What’s more, fatty acids and peptides will help boost collagen and skin surface renewal, meaning your skin should look smoother in no time.

Buy now from Cult Beauty

11. Best retinol serum for mature skin: OSKIA Retinoid Sleep Serum Level 2

Price: £75 for 30ml | Buy now from Amazon

“Oskia. Love it – and all natural ingredients apparently.”

11. Best retinol serum for mature skin: OSKIA Retinoid Sleep Serum Level 2

Blending Retinoid, vitamins C and E and pro-vitamin D3, OSKIA Retinoid Sleep Serum Level 2 is a great addition to your bedtime routine. OSKIA is a well-regarded high-end skincare brand, popular with both Mumsnetters and beauty reviewers.

The super-nutrient Retinoid complex included in the serum should give noticeable results pretty fast, plumping and smoothing your skin and boosting radiance.

If you’re new to retinol, you might want to start with OSKIA Retinoid Sleep Serum Level 1, which contains a lower concentration (0.2%) of retinol, before moving up to this one which contains 0.5%.

Buy now from Amazon

12. Best retinol serum for most skin types: L’Oreal Paris Pure Retinol Serum

Price: £19.28 for 30ml and three sachets of Hydra Genius Moisturiser | Buy now from Amazon

“DP recently bought some L'Oreal retinol serum which had good reviews.”

12. Best retinol serum for most skin types: L’Oreal Paris Pure Retinol Serum

Another pleasingly affordable option is L’Oreal Paris Pure Retinol Serum – an exciting new product launched by the beauty giant this year. This milky serum is ideal if you’re curious about retinol but aren’t sure whether it will be for you.

It contains 0.2% pure retinol and hyaluronic acid to minimise any drying effects on your skin so it should be a fairly safe bet for most skin types.

Clinical trials found that it not only zaps fine lines, it also reduces deeper-set wrinkles. Very impressive considering the low price tag. Also, with this Amazon bundle, you’ll receive three 3ml sachets of L’Oreal Hydra Genius Moisturiser too.

Buy now from Amazon

13. Best retinol eye cream: Olay Retinol24 Night Eye Cream

Price: £16.69 for 15ml | Buy now from Amazon

“I bought the Olay serum, eye cream and night cream. My skin looks nicer. It hasn't irritated it at all and it is quite sensitive.”

13. Best retinol eye cream: Olay Retinol24 Night Eye Cream

The second Olay product on our list, this clever eye cream, which can be applied daily once your skin has adjusted to it, works over 24 hours, slowly releasing two types of retinol into the delicate area around your eyes. As such, it’s the best retinol for eye wrinkles that we’ve found.

Olay has added niacinamide (vitamin B3) to strengthen your skin, boost moisture, and to prevent dryness under and around your eyes, making the Olay Retinol24 Night Eye Cream a great-value product to incorporate into your evening skincare routine.

Buy now from Amazon

14. Best plant-based retinol night cream: Origins Plantscription Retinol Night Moisturiser with Alpine Flower

Price: £47.98 for 30ml | Buy now from Amazon

“I use Origins Plantscription range and love it.”

14. Best plant-based retinol night cream: Origins Plantscription Retinol Night Moisturiser with Alpine Flower

This silky serum contains plant-based extracts to hydrate your skin and boost new cell growth. Be careful though because, despite the gentle, flowery name, it’s actually quite potent and could cause irritation at first.

Origins advise that, if you’re a retinol novice or have very dry skin, you could start by applying Origins Plantscription Retinol Night Moisturiser with Alpine Flower every other night for a few weeks first to help your skin adjust to using retinol in very small doses.

Free from nasties including parabens, phthalates, sodium lauryl sulphate, propylene glycol, mineral oil, DEA, petrolatum, paraffin, polyethylene beads and formaldehyde, this is an ethical, environmentally-friendly beauty choice.

Buy now from Amazon

15. Best retinol serum capsules: Elizabeth Arden Ceramide Capsules

Price: £19.49 for 30 capsules | Buy now from Amazon

“Elizabeth Arden retinol capsules – feels like silk and skin looks amazing.”

15. Best retinol serum capsules: Elizabeth Arden Ceramide Capsules

These eye-catching, pearly pink ceramide capsules look much prettier than they sound – and they do the job too. Mumsnetters say that these nifty little single-use capsules, each filled with a dose of retinol, are one of those rare beauty products that truly live up to the hype.

The Elizabeth Arden Ceramide Capsules are a great mild retinol starter product and the retinol stays fresher than it would in a pot or tube. Simply twist the top off the capsule and apply the pea-sized dose of fragrance-free, silicone-based retinol to your skin.

They’re ideal for travel (when we’re allowed to do that sort of thing again, of course) as you can pop a few in your washbag. After use, the capsules are biodegradable, so that’s a win for your skin and for Mother Earth too.

Buy now from Amazon

Can I use retinol everyday?

Tread carefully with retinol at first to avoid uncomfortable side effects. It may take time to build up your skin’s tolerance to retinol so use it twice a week initially as part of your bedtime routine, gradually working up to more frequent use. Always check the product instructions before use.

What age should you start using retinol?

Mid-twenties may sound far too young to be concerned about the signs of ageing, but experts say that 25 is a good age to start using retinol. That’s because this is the age when your skin’s elastin production starts declining and you may start noticing frown lines and wrinkles.

It’s never too late to start though so it’s still worth trying a retinol product even if your 25th birthday is a hazy, distant memory.

What percentage retinol should I use?

Retinol is available in a range of strengths, from very low at 0.1% to high at 2%. If you’re new to retinol, play it safe in case you’re sensitive to it and start low with 0.3%. If your skin responds well, increase to 0.5% and then to 1%.

Bear in mind that the lower the percentage, the lower the risk of skin peeling and dryness.

Can I use retinol while pregnant?

The NHS advises against the use of retinol skincare products during pregnancy as vitamin A supplements have been linked to foetal birth defects.

Although topical use (applying to the skin) of retinol products is thought to be much lower risk than vitamin A supplements, you should avoid retinol beauty products if you’re a mum-to-be.

How to apply retinol

Introduce your new retinol product into your bedtime routine with these simple steps:

1. Step 1: Wash your face and apply eye cream to protect the delicate skin around your eyes.

2. Step 2: Wait a few minutes until your skin is dry. Avoid applying retinol to damp skin as this will cause it to be absorbed more deeply and may cause painful irritation.

3. Step 3: Using a pea-size amount of retinol cream or serum, apply with your fingertips in up and out motions starting at your chin.

4. Step 4: Finish by moisturising.

5. Step 5: As retinol makes your skin more sensitive to UV rays, remember to apply a sunscreen the next morning.

What is the most effective retinol product?

The best and most effective retinol serum is Medik8 Crystal Retinal 3 for its turbo-charged skin rejuvenating and hydrating properties.

The best budget retinol serum is The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid as it’s very effective and affordable too.

The best overall retinol cream is No7’s Advanced Retinol 1.5% Complex Night Concentrate because it lives up to all the hype.

The best budget retinol cream is Nip+Fab Retinol Fix Overnight Cream as it provides results for a purse-friendly price.

The best retinol serum for beginners is Olay Retinol24 Night Serum With Retinol & Vitamin B3 as it’s mild and gentle on the skin, and relatively affordable too.

How we chose our recommendations

Our retinol creams and serums suggestions came from recommendations on the Mumsnet forums and from consumer reviews on the web. We consulted independent review sites and health sites including the NHS opinions about products to ensure we were bringing you an honest summary of retinol creams and serums in 2021.

Why you should trust us

Mumsnet has been helping make parents’ lives easier since 2000 and, in those years, we’ve seen, tried and reviewed thousands of products.

We work hard to provide honest and independent advice you can trust and we spend hours scouring the Mumsnet forums and online bestseller lists to find products that real parents rate.

Transparency is really important to us and that's why we're always upfront about where we find our recommendations. We write about products that we feel offer the best value to most parents – the ones that our users would recommend to their own friends and family.

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