The Best Retinol Serums and Creams For Nixing Acne, Pigmentation and Fine Lines

By Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

Retinol. It's an absolute game-changer of a beauty ingredient thanks to its proven abilities to resurface the skin, fading pigmentation, fine lines, breakouts and enlarged pores in the process. So far so good, right? While retinol is indeed a catch-all cure for many skin bug-bears, reaping the benefits isn't quite as easy as slapping on the first serum you see and waiting for your glow revival.

It's true retinol can be troublesome, often causing redness and irritation when you first start using it. However, persevere (and employ a really good moisturiser to counteract the dryness), and you'll be well on your way to the best skin of your life. Plus, if there's one teensy tiny silver lining to self- isolation, it's that you can give retinol a proper go, safe in the knowledge that you have nowhere to go.

As you probably know, there are a lot of retinol-based skincare products on the shelves these days: everyone from Elizabeth Arden to Asda has a formula.

So, let WH guide you through our edit of the bottles worth your cash. But first: an explainer on what exactly retinol is, how you use it and what it's best for.

What is retinol?

'Retinol is a topical derivative of vitamin A, ' explains Dr Justine Kluk, consultant dermatologist at 25 Harley Street. Historically, most retinol products were animal-based, but there is now a selection of plant-based retinols available, known as carotenoids.

There are many different derivatives of vitamin A available, which is where a lot of the confusion comes in. Retinoids is the umbrella term used to describe retinoic acid, retinol, retinaldehyde, retinal and retinyl palmitate.

'These derivatives must first be converted to retinaldehyde and then to retinoic acid within the skin in order to be effective, ' says Dr Kluk. 'As this process requires a series of steps, retinol is considered to be less potent than prescription retinoic acid treatments (such as Accutane), and higher concentrations must be used in order to achieve similar results. '

What is retinol used for?

Simply put, 'retinol is used to boost collagen and promote cell renewal, ' says Dr Kluk.

'When applied regularly to the skin over a period of months or years, the best retinol products can improve skin texture and tone, and minimise fine lines leading to smoother, firmer and brighter skin. ' Dr. Gary Goldfaden, founder of Goldfaden MD skincare, agrees that a retinol product when used correctly is a great addition to your skincare arsenal for several reasons.

'Retinol is a powerful tool for maintaining healthy skin. Whether it is derived from a plant or animal source, it plays a major role in maintaining the youth of your skin by boosting the process of cell regeneration.

'Vitamin A and its retinoid forms stimulate skin cell renewal by increasing the rate of cell division, thereby encouraging new cell growth. This helps keep your skin soft and smooth. '

What percentage retinol is best?

Retinoids come in a range of strengths, from very low at 0. 1%, to high, at 2%. When you're first trying it out, it's best to lowball, in case you are sensitive to the active ingredient. The lower the percentage, the lower the risk of dryness and peeling.

'For the retinol to actually do something to your skin, you need at least 0. 1%, ' says Abi Cleeve, founder of skincare brand SkinSense and MD of Ultrasun UK. 'And, in my experience, there is a zone between there and 0. 5% where you see effects, but no irritation.

'The reason for that is how it works. Vitamin A is different to most products, which tend to be calming and hydrating it's more energetic as it effectively pokes the skin into speed-up activity. Rather than depositing ingredients onto the skin, it's getting the skin to do it itself. '

If you go up to a 0. 5% and see zero adverse effects, then consider something containing 1%.

Why is best to try retinol during lockdown?

Because retinol (even the best retinol) can make your face peel. This is what puts some women off. Entering a meeting a work, or having several shindigs lined up means there is never really a good time to get stuck in until now, that is.

'Retinol and related vitamin A derivatives have traditionally had a bad reputation for causing redness, dryness and flaking, ' says Dr Kluk. 'However, this peeling is not a true exfoliation, but rather a sign of irritation brought on by the cell turnover, and one of the primary reasons why people stop using their retinol product. ' So, if you shelved your retinol as the first sign of a flaky nose, it may be time to reconsider. a) because no one bar your housemates or family will be seeing you over the next few weeks and b), a small amount of peeling shouldn't be a reason to panic or discontinue use, as long as the irritation is mild: simply combat any dryness with a great moisturiser.

Speaking of great moisturisers, the new Medik8 H. E. O is a true dry-skin saviour. The clever two-step overnight mask combines all three elements of moisturisation: humectants, emollients, and occlusives in a two-step treatment.

It's also worth baring in mind that if you encounter uncomfortable flakiness or dryness that doesn't clear up after a couple of weeks, it's likely you're using a retinol too strong for your skin.

Can I use retinol in the day?

When it comes to using a retinol serum in the daytime, there's not actually much point, as retinol is photosensitive and breaks down in the sunlight.

Dr Goldfaden also notes that as retinol stimulates the growth of new skin cells, it's likely to make you more susceptible to sun damage. So, if you're managing to do your daily walk it's therefore vital to exercise safe sun exposure and wear a broad-spectrum SPF. If you've set up your home office by a window, the same rules apply. Get that SPF on.

Not sure which one to opt for? Get yourself one of the best SPFs for face immediately.

Will retinol thin my skin?

Dr Goldfaden is keen to dispel the myth that retinol will thin your skin. 'Retinol actually thickens your epidermis, which becomes thinner with age, and also improves the elasticity of your skin. Incorporating a topical form of retinol into your routine at a younger age will help to prevent the onset of fine lines and wrinkles, as well as the depletion of collagen, ' he explains.

Can I use retinol while pregnant?

It's a good idea to approach a retinol serum with caution during pregnancy. 'As retinoids can be absorbed into the skin, it is safer to avoid them throughout a pregnancy, ' Dr Goldfaden says. Read up on pregnancy-safe skincare, if you're concerned.

Can I use vitamin C with retinol?

We're entering serious skincare territory now, but it seems that the one question retinol users really want to know is: can retinol be used with vitamin C?

The confusion comes from the fact that using the two together, especially in high strengths, may cause irritation if you're new to such highly efficacious ingredients. However, studies have shown retinol and vitamin C to work especially well together. 'Vitamin C is one of the most important antioxidants to incorporate into a healthy skincare regimen and using retinol in conjunction with it can help improve the effectiveness, ' Dr Goldfaden says. Try applying your vitamin C product in the morning, and your best retinol at night for a supercharged skin boost.

At what age should I try retinol?

Really, the answer to this question lies in the skin issues you're hoping to fix. If you're hoping to use retinol to tackle acne scars, smart move. Vitamin A products can be highly effective in fading those post-breakout marks, when used correctly.

If you're simply looking to hold onto your youth, however, shelve the retinol products until your 30's. A good vitamin C serum will keep you glowy through your 20's.

The best retinol creams and serums to try during lockdown

Ready to get stuck in? The ishonest beauty team have rounded up the very best retinols they've tried, from affordable heroes to luxe innovators. Find your perfect match below. . .

1. Olay Retinol24 Night Eye Cream

This works over a period of 24 hours, during which the two types of retinol are drip-fed into skin slowly, meaning they won't irritate delicate skin under or around the eyes. Olay has also added a dose of niacinamide (vitamin B3), which studies have shown can help skin retain moisture and strengthen the skin barrier.

2. L'Oreal Paris Revitalift Laser Pure Retinol Deep Anti-Wrinkle Night Serum

L'Oreal's most exciting launch of 2021, this milky serum combines remarkable efficacy with a pleasingly petite price point. It contains 0. 2% pure retinol alongside innovative stabilisers to ensure maximum potency, and hyaluronic acid to temper any drying effects. Not just a fine-line eliminator, clinical trials found it was able to reduce deeper-set wrinkles too. A hero.

3. Sunday Riley A+ High-Dose Retinoid Serum

Melded with botanical extracts, this guy also smells like a dream, as well as delivering powerful cell turnover-provoking actives. It contains a mid-to-high level of retinol, so call on it once you've graduated from something softer.

4. Paula's Choice Resist 1% Retinol Booster

Use this clever booster under moisturiser once or twice per week, slowly building up to nightly use for intensive skin renewal. With an ultra-light consistency, it's especially great for those with oily skin that easily feels overloaded.

5. L'Oreal Revitalist Anti-Wrinkle Firming Eye Cream

Some retinol products can be too harsh to use around the delicate eye contour, but not this specially formulated cream. Retinol and elastin work together to gently tackle pigmentation and fine lines, leaving skin feeling firmer.

6. Facetheory Regenacalm Serum Pro

Delivering advanced skincare from its Sheffield-based lab, Facetheory is the name to watch this year. One of the buzziest bottles is the Regenacalm Serum Pro, which combines calming aloe vera with 3% encapsulated retinol and even a drop of stabilised vitamin C. The ingredients list stands up to scrutiny, the packaging is completely sustainable, and the results really speak for themselves. Oh, and don't forget the ridiculously reasonable price tag.

7. Origins Plantscription Retinol Night Moisturiser

This potent retinol is combined with natural plant power, to not only speed up cell renewal, but hydrate your skin at the same time. Introduce it slowly into your routine and skip the flakiness lesser retinols can cause.

8. Drunk Elephant A-Passioni Retinol Cream

Vegan-friendly and free from the suspicious six' (essential oils, drying alcohols, silicones, chemical screens, fragrance/dyes and SLS). A must for anyone who wants to fuse ethics with efficacy.

9. The Ordinary Retinol Serum 0. 5%

Great for newbies, this super-affordable option means you can dip your toe (or preferably, your face) into the world of retinols without breaking the bank.

10. Skinceuticals Retinol 1. 0

On the other hand, if you're an experienced retinol user, this is the serum for you. The super high-concentration retinol can be used as an advanced treatment to improve skin texture over time.

11. Elizabeth Arden Ceramide Retinol Night Serum 60 Capsules

Why capsules? There's actually a good reason behind these single-use pods. As retinol is sensitive to light and air, the encapsulation ensures you get maximum potency in every dose.

12. Murad Retinol Youth Renewal Night Cream

Despite being an action-packed night cream, this number does not feel heavy on your skin. A solid contender.

13. Medik8 Crystal Retinal

Medik8 is an industry leader when it comes to retinol the brand offers a whole host of effective options. The stand-out Crystal Retinal line, however, manages to balance swift results with minimal irritation, which is no easy feat. The idea is that you begin with Crystal Retinal 1, which contains 0. 01% retinaldehyde, then graduate up through the strengths: 3, 6, 10, and now the super-strength 20, which is available only via a clinic.

14. Typology Fine Lines & Wrinkles Serum 0. 3% Retinol

Composed of 0. 3% retinol to treat all different levels of skin ageing, each application works to stimulate the production of collagen and elastin fibres to reduce the signs of ageing.

15. Allies of Skin 1A Retinal & Peptides Overnight Mask

Although pricey, this overnight retinol serum combines super-strength peptides together with a blend of antioxidants, niacinamide and retinol to minimise the signs of ageing, acne and stress without the irritation. There's little wonder almost every beauty editor raves about it.

16. Beauty Pie Super Retinol Ceramide-Boost Anti-Aging Face Serum

This ultra-gentle encapsulated retinol serum is infused with lactic and hyaluronic acids, plus a barrier-repairing ceramide blend to help protect, brighten and hydrate. Plus, if you're a Beauty Pie member it makes the formula cheap-as-chips too. Win.

17. The INKEY List Retinol Serum

The INKEY List knows how to make award-winning formulas at super affordable prices and their retinol serum is no different. Uniting 1% stable Retistar retinol (the equivalent of 0. 05% retinol) and 0. 5% granactive retinoid (slightly stronger than retinol) together with squalane, the slow-release formula minimises irritation while providing effective active results.

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