Retinol Serums Vs. Creams: Which One Is Right For You?

Dermatologists explain how to choose the best formula for your skin.

Originally Published: 
retinol serum vs retinol cream
Amazon / Bustle
We may receive a portion of sales if you purchase a product through a link in this article.

Retinol: As close to a magic potion as a regular human can get. But alas! It’s actually science. Retinol is the “scientific name for vitamin A,” Dr. Craig A. Kraffert, a board-certified dermatologist and president of Amarte Skin Care, tells Bustle. The magic happens when it’s absorbed into skin and converts into retinoic acid. But there are so many retinols, in so many vehicles, available in over-the-counter formulations — including (but not limited to) creams and serums. So if you're wondering what's the difference between retinol serums vs. creams, you've come to the right place.

Retinol Cream Or Serum?

For the most part, deciding to go with a retinol serum vs. cream is a matter of personal preference — the most important thing is that the retinol is getting onto and into your skin, which both can do. But for some more guidance here, I also spoke with board-certified dermatologists Dr. Susan Van Dyke and Dr. Orit Markowitz.

Serums contain higher concentrations of active ingredients, and since they’re so thin and light, Dr. Van Dyke says, they penetrate skin more efficiently than creams. And since they’re grease-free, serums work especially well for people with oily skin. Regardless, if you’re going for a retinol serum, all three dermatologists recommend checking up on any other active ingredients present in the formula. “Retinol need not live in a formulation vacuum,” Dr. Kraffert says. “Look for retinol formulations that contain other actives, like arbutin and antioxidants, and make sure they provide the hydration you need.” But even if your retinol serum does contain hydrating ingredients (such as hyaluronic acid), you’ll still need to apply a moisturizer on top.

Dr. Markowitz recommends “creams over serums any day” for that exact reason — unlike serums, she says, creams “actually create a skin barrier that prevents moisture loss.” So if you have dry skin, a retinol cream is probably the better choice for you.

How To Use Retinol

Moisturizing is especially important when using retinol, since this potent active can cause peeling, drying, and flaking when you first start using it. That’s also why every dermatologist I, and probably you, have ever spoken to recommends starting slowly with your retinol of choice — like, once or twice a week slowly — then building up to basically however often your skin can tolerate it.

Whether you’re committing to a cream or a serum, I’ve got you covered. Scroll on to shop three of the best retinol serums, and three of the best retinol creams (for your face and your body) you can get on Amazon.

Shop The Best Retinol Serums & Creams

In a hurry? Here are the top picks for both retinol creams and serums.

  1. A Top-Rated Retinol Serum On Amazon: Eva Naturals Skin Clearing Serum
  2. The Best Drugstore Retinol Serum: RoC Retinol Correxion Deep Wrinkle Serum
  3. The Best Retinol Serum For Beginners: First Aid Beauty FAB Skin Lab Retinol Serum
  4. The Best Drugstore Retinol Cream: Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Retinol Regenerating Cream
  5. The Best Prestige Retinol Cream: Murad Youth Renewal Night Cream
  6. The Best Eye Cream With Retinol: La Roche-Posay Redermic R Retinol Eye Cream
  7. The Best Body Lotion With Retinol: NatureWell Retinol Advanced Moisturizing Cream for Face and Body


A Top-Rated Retinol Serum On Amazon

This Eva Naturals Skin Clearing Serum boasts an impressive 4.3-star rating out of well over 50,000 (!) ratings on Amazon. Equally impressive: The formula’s list of powerhouse actives. After retinol, there’s 20% vitamin C to brighten your skin while protecting it from environmental aggressors, 5% hyaluronic acid to hydrate your skin and encourage collagen production, and 2% salicylic acid to help clear up breakouts. There’s no arbutin in here, like Dr. Kraffert recommends looking for, but 3.5% niacinamide can do similar things for evening out hyperpigmentation and reducing the appearance of scarring.

Rave review: “I was not expecting to love it THIS much. Typically I don’t notice much of a difference when trying different skin care products but I have seen and felt the difference with this one. I use it in unison with the Hyaluronic Acid Serum and my skin has never been so consistently soft and clear. I am a fan of this product and I will continue to purchase.”


The Best Drugstore Retinol Serum

RoC makes some of the best budget-friendly retinol products on the market, and their $22 serum appears to be just as beloved as their cult-favorite eye cream. This mineral-rich serum contains the brand’s patented retinol formulation, plus magnesium, zinc, and copper to help calm inflammation, absorb acne-causing bacteria, and stimulate collagen production, respectively. It’s specially packaged in an aluminum, airtight tube that prevents the retinol from degrading, too. Reviewers confirm that their skin looked smoother, glowier, and more even within the first couple weeks of regular use.

Rave review: “After a few weeks of using this creme, I'm getting lots of folks telling me that I look refreshed and well-rested. I haven't done anything differently except use this lotion.”


The Best Retinol Serum For Beginners

Pretty much every retinol product on the market, whether a cream or serum, contains some calming ingredients that ease the dryness and irritation that may occur when you start using the active. But if you have very sensitive skin, or if you’re brand-new to the retinol game, try this super-gentle First Aid Beauty retinol serum. It has both a lower concentration of retinol (0.25%) and more skin-soothers than usual: Hyaluronic acid, aloe, colloidal oatmeal, allantoin, ceramides, and strengthening peptides all show up in this formula. And like all FAB products, it’s free of synthetic additives and preservatives that can cause even more irritation in reactive skin.

Quick tip: Wait a few minutes for the serum to thoroughly sink into your skin before applying your moisturizer to prevent pilling.

Rave review: “YouTube videos got me a little scared of trying a product that was too strong. I chose this one bc I trust this brand & I liked that it was aimed for beginner users or sensitive skin. I followed the instructions & used it every 3 days for a week or two then upped it to every two days for a week. I didn’t experience any breakouts (which I guess can be common in starting Retinol) or discomfort. I use it every night now on my neck & face. I definitely think it is a valuable asset to my skincare routine.”


The Best Drugstore Retinol Cream

At about $20 on Amazon, this Neutrogena retinol cream is a fraction of the price of most OTC retinol creams. This contains an accelerated form of retinol in the highest concentration available from the brand, while hyaluronic acid contributes its own smoothing and plumping benefits (plus some welcome hydration). Despite its low price point, reviewers confirm this stuff is seriously effective. Some have reported some peeling and flaking within the first few uses, but that’s nothing to be overly alarmed about — if you experience the same, just be sure to follow our derms’ advice and cut back on frequency until your skin habituates.

Rave review: “Great product for someone who wants to start on a retinol cream. I have normal to dry skin and somewhat sensitive. This has the perfect amount of moisturizer and pleasant scent for being fragrance-free. Also it’s not irritating to my skin.”


The Best Prestige Retinol Cream

  • Also available on Murad, $86

Reviewers all over the internet have called this Murad Youth Renewal Night Cream everything from a miracle worker to a magic potion. The cream itself is pretty lightweight and doesn’t leave behind any greasy residue, but for most skin types, it’s rich enough to act as a buffer for the retinol’s irritating effects. And crucially, it provides ample moisture in addition to all of retinol’s own benefits. In this formula, you get a time-released retinol, a fast-acting retinol, and a retinol booster. Other key ingredients include niacinamide and picolinamide for stronger, more even-looking skin.

Rave review: “Major difference. This truly has made the biggest difference in my skinks appearance in all of the products I have tried. And it happens QUICKLY. The only trouble is that now I can’t live without it.”


The Best Eye Cream With Retinol

Your eye area can benefit from retinol’s smoothing and brightening effects, too — arguably even more so than the rest of your face. But since the skin around your eyes is so delicate, it needs its own, special retinol cream, like this one from La Roche-Posay. Tested by both dermatologists and ophthalmologists, it's fragrance-free, paraben-free, and safe for even the most sensitive and reaction-prone skin types (as are all La Roche-Posay products). The formula is also infused with the brand’s soothing thermal spring water, plus caffeine for an added brightening boost.

Rave review: “The real deal! Only eye cream I have ever used that I believe I see an improvement, and I have tried them all! Is [expensive], but will last six months anyway, and truly works.”


The Best Body Lotion With Retinol

Retinol is just as effective for retexturizing the skin below the neck as it is the skin on your face. Reviewers in search of a firming and brightening solution have found success with this highly-rated retinol cream, which comes in a big, 16-ounce pump-top bottle. It’s made with coconut oil and macadamia seed oil for moisture and nourishment, but reviewers confirm that it doesn’t feel greasy. Those nourishing ingredients, plus two types of retinol, leave your skin looking “soft and luminous,” as one shopper wrote. Don’t forget to smooth it on your hands, too. (Looking for more options? You’ll find a few more, luxurious retinol body lotions here.)

Rave review: “The best cream I’ve ever used! I’ve had dry skin issues my entire life. I’m in my late fifties now and I’ll tell you this cream is wonderful! I use it all over my body after showering and it is super refreshing. I despise greasy moisturizers and this one is not. It’s fantastic!”


Dr. Craig A. Kraffert, a board-certified dermatologist and president of Amarte Skin Care.

Dr. Susan Van Dyke, a board-certified dermatologist.

Dr. Orit Markowitz, a board-certified dermatologist.

This article was originally published on