We Have Celeb Facialists on Speed Dial—These Are the Retinol Serums They Love


(Image credit: @piashah_)

Confession time: As a beauty editor who chats with industry-leading derms and celebrity estheticians more often than I talk to my parents (sorry, mom and sad!), I'm still confused about retinol. How does retinol differ from Retin-A? How and when should it be applied? Who should or shouldn't use it? Is this how Nancy Wheeler felt when she stepped into the Upside Down for the first time? (I mean, we've all heard retinoid-related horror stories involving irritation, peeling, and the like.)

That said, I've reached the exact age experts say to start using retinol, and considering my complexion is often bogged down with annoying congestion and dullness, adding the ingredient into my nightly lineup has been on my to-do list for a while now. There are tons of amazing formulas out there, and some of the best come in the form of easy-to-use serums. Since I'm lucky enough to have some of the best skin experts in the industry on speed dial, it only made sense to reach out for guidance.

From the basics of retinol to the exact serums the pros use on themselves, we have you covered. Keep scrolling for everything you ever wanted to know about retinol serums, plus the most important shopping picks to get you started.

What is retinol, and how does it affect the skin?


(Image credit: @emmahoareau)

According to celebrity esthetician Vanessa Hernandez, who has her own skincare practice in Brentwood, California, retinol is a derivative of vitamin A and is a softer, gentler version of Retin-A. As for its *many* benefits, it naturally exfoliates the top layer of skin, which in turn exposes a clear, glowing, more youthful complexion.

Oh, we're not done. She tells us the buzzy ingredient can also help minimize the appearance of pores, soften fine lines, kill acne-causing bacteria, and promote cell turnover. Plus, it has been clinically proven to be one of the most effective products in the role of anti-aging.

As for how retinol serums are different than other retinoid-containing formulas, they don't require a prescription and are typically gentler since they're paired with other ingredients to soothe and nourish the skin. They're also approved for daily use since they're less intense.

"Retinol serums are a great option if you are prone to congestion and breakouts since they won't have oils and will likely feel lighter on the skin in comparison to a retinol-containing cream," says Vanessa Lee, RN, founder of L.A. beauty concept bar The Things We Do.

"If you're dry and want something that feels richer on the skin and contains some kind of moisturizing ingredient, a retinol cream (versus a serum) may be a better choice for you," Lee adds. "They both aim for the same result, but the two different carriers of the retinol are suitable for different skin types. It's great to have choices!"

How and when to apply retinol:

"Retinol serums should be used at night after you cleanse and before you moisturize," confirms celebrity esthetician Shani Darden. Since our skin is in repair mode overnight, that's the most beneficial time to use a retinol serum. Retinol can make your skin more sensitive to the sun, so it's best to leave it for nighttime only and make sure you're wearing sunscreen during the day.

If you have extra-sensitive skin, however, heed Lee's advice and apply your retinol over your moisturizer of choice. "I usually educate patients on putting on treatment serums directly after washing the face, but vitamin A is a strong ingredient, and it can actually penetrate through your moisturizer," she tells us. "If you're extra sensitive, you can also use your favorite facial oil a few minutes after you place your retinol on."

That said, Lee points out that women who are pregnant or breastfeeding are advised to skip retinol since what we put on our skin can enter our bloodstream and, in turn, baby's. For the most part (as long as you tread carefully with high-quality formulas), anyone can use retinol serums.

"Even clients with sensitive skin can benefit from retinol if used less frequently and in lower doses," she explains. "You have the control, so it's all about getting started slowly and graduating in frequency and/or strength as you continue. I recommend my patients to start using a gentle retinol serum once to twice a week for a few weeks and using it up to three to four times a week as tolerated."

For best results, it's also imperative to keep an eye on your skin and how it's reacting to your retinol application. They're designed to be exfoliating, so if you get slightly dry or irritated while the dead skin cells are being shed from the retinol use, make sure to use a soothing serum or moisturizer or even hydrocortisone 1% as a spot treatment.

Lee assures us that this is all par for the course when using retinol. With the right TLC, you'll still be able to reap all the amazing benefits. Oh, and make sure to wear a good sunscreen every single day! That's nonnegotiable.

Tips on shopping for the best retinol serums:


(Image credit: @emmanuellek_)

"I always look to see if retinol is within the first five to seven ingredients listed, which will ensure that retinol's a priority ingredient for the product," Lee advises. "However, because retinol can go by so many names (retinyl acetate, propionic acid, retinol, etc.) and percentage [and because] retinol disclosure isn't required for OTC products by the FDA, it can be a bit confusing on what to look out for in the ingredients."

Lee recommends choosing a retinol serum from a company you already love and trust and have experience with as far as products go. Since most trustworthy skincare brands have some kind of retinol formula, she recommends starting your research there and discussing your options with a dermatologist or esthetician.

Below, Lee, Hernandez, and Darden share the best retinol serums they use or recommend to their clients. I've also included a few beauty-editor favorites. Keep scrolling!

Best Overall: Paula's Choice Resist Intensive Wrinkle-Repair Retinol Serum

Best for Beginners: Shani Darden Retinol Reform

Best Drugstore: CeraVe Retinol Serum

Best for Sensitive Skin: SkinMedica Retinol Complex 0.25

More Expert-Loved Retinol Serums

Beauty Director

Erin has been writing a mix of beauty and wellness content for Who What Wear for over four years. Prior to that, she spent two and half years writing for Byrdie. She now calls Santa Monica home but grew up in Minnetonka, Minnesota, and studied writing, rhetoric, and communication at University of Wisconsin, La Crosse. She studied abroad in Galway, Ireland, and spent a summer in L.A. interning with the Byrdie and Who What Wear family. After graduating from UW, she spent one year in San Francisco, where she worked as a writer for Pottery Barn Kids and PBteen before moving down to L.A. to begin her career as a beauty editor. She considers her day-to-day beauty aesthetic very low-maintenance and relies on staples like clear brow serum (from Kimiko!), Lawless's Lip Plumping Mask in Cherry Vanilla, and an eyelash curler. For special occasions or days when she's taking more meetings or has an event, she'll wear anything and everything from Charlotte Tilbury (the foundations are game-changing), some shimmer on her lids (Stila and Róen do it best), and a few coats of the best mascara-type product on earth, Surratt's Noir Lash Tint.