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

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retinol serum vs retinol cream
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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.

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 dermatologist Dr. Susan Van Dyke and Dr. Orit Markowitz, Director of Pigmented Lesions and Skin Cancer at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.

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. 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.

1

The Best-Rated Retinol Serum On Amazon

This Eva Naturals Skin Clearing Serum boasts an impressive 4.3-star rating out of well over 35,000 (!) 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 am a licensed esthetician who suffers from hormonal cystic acne that leaves horrible scarring on my sensitive skin, my skin has improved so much since i started using this product!!! :) :) for the first couple of weeks my skin purged out any underlying blemishes but afterwards was clearer + smoother than I’ve seen it in YEARS! I LOVE THIS PRODUCT!!”

2

The Best Drugstore Retinol Serum

RoC makes some of the best budget-friendly retinol products on the market, and their $18 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: “I've been using this for bad breakouts and it is effective! I love the strength of this formula. It makes my skin feel amazing and closes my pores. I can tell the effect it has after I wake up in the morning and wash it off. It leaves my skin feeling soft and clean. I don't have overly sensitive skin, but still for the strength of this formula it doesn't have any negative effects.”

3

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: “Love this product! Noticed a [big] difference with my skin tone becoming more even within a few days. I’ve been using it for almost a year, and plan to to continue using it. Highly recommend it.”

4

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: “Huge change in the appearance and feel of my skin! [...] It goes on creamy and is almost instantly absorbed. After years of applying retinol based acids and moisturizers, this is the one that is finally doing the trick. [...] Friends even notice the difference in my skin and asked what I was using! I'm incredibly happy with this product and would recommend it to everyone. There is a slight tingling sensation when I put it on, but I have experienced no breakouts or redness or blotchiness.”

5

The Best Prestige Retinol Cream

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: “I love this line. I have been using for almost a year now and I love the way my skin looks and feels. Worth every penny and then some! The scent is not very strong, barely noticeable.”

6

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: “Really like this eye cream. [...] When I was looking for eye creams, I wanted something that had retinol in it but also something that would hydrate. This glides on smoothly, non irritating and a little goes a long way. I only use it in the morning but you can use twice a day if desired. Helps with puffiness and does a little brightening.”

7

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: “Absolutely the best retinol cream I have ever used. I have dry skin, but I apply this on most skin after my shower, and this treats my skin perfectly and lasts until I shower again.”

Experts:

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 and Director of Pigmented Lesions and Skin Cancer at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.