Everything you need to know about the popular active & how to weave it into your skincare routine, as well as our round-up of retinols

Dermatologists often regard retinol as the gold standard in skincare ingredients, but what is retinol and why is it so highly rated?

A derivative of vitamin A, retinol is a versatile ingredient that has a range of benefits, Dr Derrick Phillips, a consultant dermatologist, tells us. "It works by exfoliating the skin and stimulating new collagen formation, which in turn help unclog pores, refine texture and reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles," he says. What’s more, it’s been shown to help in improving the appearance of skin tone and pigmentation.

In a nutshell, it’s an all-rounder.

Found in many serums and creams, it’s easy to incorporate retinol into your skincare routine. The hard part is finding a product that’s right for you, particularly if you’re a beginner.

Retinol is available in various strengths and formulations, so it can be a tricky task trying to pick the perfect product for you. Get it wrong and you can end up with dry skin and irritation. To help, we’ve rounded up our edit of grade A retinol skincare serums and creams that deliver the goods – whatever your skin type or budget. But first, let’s look at retinol in a little more detail…

What is retinol?

Retinol is a type of retinoid and retinoids are a group of related compounds that derive from vitamin A. 

"Not all retinoids are created equal," says Dr Phillips. "Some retinoids, such as retinoic acid (tretinoin), act directly on the skin cells while others, such as retinol and retinaldehyde, have to be converted into an active form in order to be used on the skin." The more conversion steps the body needs to perform, the less potent the product is.

"Of the retinoids currently available, retinaldehyde is the most potent as there’s only one conversion step, while retinyl palmitate has several steps and is thus weaker," continues Dr Phillips. If you’re new to retinoids or have sensitive skin, it can be a good idea to start with a low percentage of a weak retinoid.

Retinol sits between retinaldehyde and retinyl palmitate and so can offer the benefits of a retinoid, with fewer irritating side effects (as long as you build up its use gradually).

What is a retinol serum?

Retinol serums, like other serums, provide a concentrated form of the ingredient. They can come in various strengths and can be formulated with other actives and ingredients, such as niacinamide and ceramides.

When should you start using retinol?

As an ingredient for softening the signs of ageing, "I’d recommend incorporating retinol into your skincare regime in your mid-to-late 20s", says Dr Phillips. "This is typically the time when collagen production starts to fall and fine lines and pigmentary changes start to occur."

What strength retinol do you need? 

"Retinol serums typically come in the following strengths: 0.005%, 0.025%, 0.05% and 0.1%," says Dr Phillips. Strength 0.3% is also common and it can be found in 1%  strength for more experienced users. 

High percentage products are more potent, but they tend to cause more irritation. "In general, it’s best to start with a low-strength product and gradually move to a higher percentage product over time," says Dr Phillips.

Dr Ophelia Veraitch, a Harley Street consultant dermatologist seconds this. "If you’re new to retinol, start at the lowest strength and get used to the ingredient first by applying it once weekly," she says.

"Over time, you can increase this to every other night and eventually move up in strength. If you’re still encountering skin irritation, you can dilute the retinol with a moisturiser until your skin becomes more familiar with it."

It’s helpful to point out that not all serums have the percentage of retinol they contain stated on their packaging, so it’s a good idea to have a scan of its label to see how high up retinol is in its ingredients list (the higher up it is, the greater the potency). Keep an eye open for calming ingredients, such as ceramides and niacinamide and hydrators like hyaluronic acid and glycerin, as they may help reduce irritation.

How do you apply a retinol serum?

"Retinol serums should always be applied at night after cleansing and before a moisturiser," says Dr Phillips, who adds that "only a pea-sized amount of retinol serum is required for the entire face".

When you first apply retinol, use it once to twice a week only. Once your skin gets used to it, try increasing the frequency to alternate nights. Some of us may be able to tolerate daily use eventually.

Retinol can be applied to all areas of the skin, except for the lips and the delicate skin around our eyes. "Applying an eye cream before a retinol serum can provide additional protection to the skin around the eyes," suggests Dr Phillips.

As retinol serums increase the sensitivity of the skin to sunlight, it’s important to use a high factor facial SPF during the day. "And note that retinol should not be used if pregnant or breastfeeding," adds Dr Veraitch.

Can you combine retinol with other actives?

Sometimes. Overall, retinol works well with ingredients that hydrate and support the skin barrier, such as niacinamide, ceramides and hyaluronic acid, but you may want to avoid combining it with other exfoliating ingredients like salicylic acid in the same night-time routine as this can increase chances of irritation.

11 of the best retinol serums & products at Boots

From retinol serums for beginners and sensitive skin to ones formulated for more experienced users, here are 11 of our team’s favourites to provide some add-to-cart inspo.

Shop more top retinol products in our full range.

The bestseller

 No7 Pure Retinol 0.3% Retinol Night Concentrate

• Size: 30ml

• 0.3% pure retinol

• Award winning

• Fragrance-free

For a beauty sleep booster, add this 0.3% Retinol Night Concentrate from No7 into your evening skincare regime. Ideal for more experienced retinol users, this clever concentrate uses slow-release tech to deliver the perfect dose of retinol through the night, so that skin looks softer and feels firmer with continued use.

The Boots Beauty Award Winner

 The Ordinary Retinol 0.5% in Squalane Ester

• Size: 30ml

• 0.5% retino

• Alcohol-free

• Silicone-free

• Suitable for vegans

• Cruelty-free

Winner of the Revolutionary Retinol category at this year’s Boots Beauty Awards, this skin rejuvenating serum from The Ordinary combines 0.5% retinol with hydrating squalane to help improve the appearance of uneven skin tone, and fine lines and wrinkles, while soothing and moisturising skin. Plus, it’s pretty affordable so great bang for your buck.

Best for retinol first-timers

 Kiehl’s Retinol Skin-Renewing Daily Micro-Dose Serum

• Size: 50ml

This retinol serum from Kiehl’s has been specifically formulated for retinol beginners and those with sensitive skin. Alongside a daily strength micro-dose of pure retinol, it contains barrier-supporting ceramides and peptides to achieve smoother-looking results in days, while minimising the risk of redness, peeling and dryness.

Best for fading dark spots

 CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum

• Size: 30ml

• Suitable for sensitive skin

Help reduce the appearance of pigmentation and post-acne marks with this exfoliating and brightening serum from CeraVe. The lightweight, non-greasy formula is laced with encapsulated retinol and liquorice root extract to help even skin tone, as well as niacinamide and essential ceramides to support the skin’s barrier.

Best for fine lines and wrinkles

 L’Oréal Paris Revitalift Laser Pure Retinol Deep Anti-Wrinkle Night Serum

• Size: 30ml

• Softens the appearance of fine lines

This potent serum from L’Oréal Paris contains the brand’s highest concentration of pure retinol to target fine lines and deeper set wrinkles, as well as hyaluronic acid to hydrate. Start slowly (once a week), before building up your skin’s tolerance.

Best for dehydrated and sensitive skin

La Roche-Posay Retinol B3 Serum

• Size: 30ml

Suitable for sensitive skin, La Roche-Posay’s Retinol B3 Serum combines retinol with soothing vitamin B3 and glycerin to firm and smooth skin and help reduce chances of dryness or irritation. It’s a great pick for retinol first-timers, too.

Best for more experienced retinol users

 Kiehl’s Retinol Fast Release Wrinkle-Reducing Night Serum

• Size: 28ml

• 0.3% retinol

Containing Kiehl’s highest concentration of retinol, this powerful pick has been formulated to make fine lines and wrinkles its primary targets. Containing a retinol-infused powder that you shake to activate, it makes application a satisfying ritual.

Best for travel

Elizabeth Arden Retinol Ceramide Capsules Line Erasing Night Serum

• Size: 30 capsules

• Fragrance-free

Cutting the guesswork out of dosage, these single-use capsules make application super simple. The sealed capsules (which are biodegradable) also keep the ingredients – retinol and ceramides – fresher for longer. A great choice for travel.

Best for value

 Boots Ingredients Retinol Serum

• Size: 30ml

• Vegan friendly

You don’t have to splash the cash to get your hands on a top-quality retinol serum. Case in point: this one helps improve the appearance of skin tone and boosts skin’s elasticity with its fast-absorbing formula that costs less than £10. A no-brainer.

Best for glowing results

Olay Retinol 24 Night Serum

• Size: 40ml

• Fragrance-free

Olay’s Retinol 24 Night Serum combines a unique retinoid complex with niacinamide to help smooth skin, fade dark spots and bolster radiance. Standing up to luxury serums twice its price point, it delivers active ingredients deep into the skin’s surface for visible results.

Best for city dwellers

 Drunk Elephant A-Passioni Retinol

• Size: 30ml

• 1% retinol

• Suitable for vegans

• Cruelty-free

If potency is a priority and you’re used to strong retinols, turn your face to this pick. While it’s not called a serum, it serves a similar function thanks to its punchy 1% serving of retinol that works in tandem with peptides and vitamins to help improve the appearance of skin tone, skin texture and dullness.

Want to see a wider selection? Find more top retinol serums and products in our full range.

All prices are correct at date of publication.

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