7 of the best retinol serums that won’t make your skin freak out

January Jones

Don’t know where to start? Read this

Beauty Crew Beauty Writer / May 15 2023

Fact: Retinol is the bee’s knees of anti-ageing ingredients. Also fact: Retinol can irritate your skin to high hell, especially if you’re just starting out and are slapping it on like nobody’s business. There’s a fine line between getting it right and getting it so wrong. But don’t worry, it’s not as scary as it sounds once you’re armed with all the correct information.

To clear up the confusion, we spoke to a top Sydney skin care expert for her advice for people who don’t know where to start. And it turns out, it’s pretty simple. All you need to know is how much to use, when to use it and what kind of retinol suits your skin.

It's pretty common knowledge in the beauty world, but if you don't know what retinol is, basically it's a form of vitamin A that’s used in skin care products for its anti-ageing and acne-fighting benefits. “I recommend vitamin A to my clients who are concerned with sun damage, ageing, pigmentation, fine lines and wrinkles. It is an amazing skin booster that makes all skin types dewy, glowing and radiant,” says Australian skin care expert and facialist, Jocelyn Petroni.

 “Vitamin A evens the desquamation [exfoliating] process of the skin, so cells are growing and shedding evenly, flushing out fine lines, pigment and congestion. It deeply penetrates the skin to stimulate collagen production, unclog pores and help with evening skin tone and appearance.”

It’s known to work fast and effectively, which is why you see it in a heap of different products. Petroni says vitamin A is found in the form of retinoic acid, retinol and retinyl palmitate. She notes that retinoic acid is usually available by prescription only from a trained clinician or doctor, depending on its strength; whereas retinol is a step back from this and actually transforms into retinoic acid once applied to the skin. Retinyl palmitate is weaker than retinol, so it can be less irritating for sensitive skin.

If you want the full debrief of this powerhouse ingredient, take a look at our detailed guide on everything you need to know about retinol.

How to start using retinol

For beginners, there is a way to start using retinol without fearing your whole entire face is going to flake off. And it all starts with finding a gentle formula that won’t irritate your skin.

“It is so important to seek professional skin care advice before introducing retinol into your skin regimen,” says Petroni. “Ultraceauticals has three strengths of retinol serums and we consult with clients to determine which product and strength to start with. If you are not sure, I would always recommend starting on the weakest strength and as you finish the product, move to the next strength.”

Skin still freaking out? Petroni says you can reduce usage until it settles. “For prescription retinol (retinoic acid) and retinol, we recommend that you introduce it two to three times a week, as your skin will need time to adjust to the active ingredients. If you do this for one month and your skin is not irritated or dry, increase use to once every second night for another month.”

Keep in mind that everyone’s skin is different and some people can fast track the anti-ageing benefits, while others may need to spread that time frame out. “By the third month you should be able to use vitamin A every night.”

“It is important to always apply vitamin A at night on clean skin and underneath a moisturiser,” advises Petroni - and double down on SPF every morning, because retinol can leave skin extra sun-sensitive.

Why you should try a retinol serum

There are a *bazillion* different types of retinol products on the market, so it can be hard to figure out whether a topical retinol cream or a topical retinol serum is best for your skin.

Both are pretty similar, however while retinol creams may work better for dry skin, retinol serums tend to contain higher concentrations of the active ingredient and as a result can deliver better results. They also tend to be more lightweight. “A serum is a light consistency and texture that can penetrate deeper into the skin, whereas creams tend to retain on the surface layers of the skin,” says Petroni. “Most brands will put their active ingredients into the serum for this reason. Moisturisers have a more protective function whereas serums are more results-driven and can penetrate to their targeted skin cells.”

But stronger concentrations mean more irritation, right? Well, not necessarily. The good news is that there is a whole new wave of next-level retinol serums that work to boost the activity of retinoids, while containing hydrating and conditioning ingredients to prevent redness and flaking of the skin. 

If you don’t know where to start, check out some of these game-changing gentle retinol serums that’ll transform your skin, minus the irritation.

#1 / Medik8 Retinol 3TR Intense

Medik8’s Retinol 3TR Intense works to improve the skin’s texture, tone and radiance, while reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. Containing 0.3 per cent retinol, this little guy is a great intro-into-retinol-serums product. It features climbazole – an ingredient that works to boost the activity of retinoids in the skin to give the power of higher percentages without the irritation. It’s also infused with squalene – a deeply hydrating ingredient that helps to restore the skin’s natural defence barrier.

$82 at My Haircare & Beauty

Medik8 Retinol 3TR Intense

#2 / Ultraceuticals Ultra A Skin Perfecting Serum Mild

A firm favourite of Petroni’s, this mild formula is perfect for first-time users of retinol. It lets you experience a range of anti-ageing benefits while increasing your skin’s tolerance to pure retinol. It features a unique delivery technology called Ultra-Reti Retinol, which enables pure vitamin A to be delivered to the target areas. Petroni says, “The Ultraceuticals Ultra A Skin Perfecting Serum Mild is a great beginner serum that visibly plumps and refines skin texture whilst conditioning the skin to tolerate vitamin A.”

$118 at Ultraceuticals

Ultraceuticals Ultra A Skin Perfecting Serum Mild

#3 / The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid 2% in Squalane 

This medium-strength serum contains a two per cent concentration of granactive retinoid (granactive retinoid is basically a delivery system for the active retinoate ingredient) and is also a good option for beginners. It delivers all the same anti-ageing benefits (reducing fine lines, wrinkles, hyperpigmentation and acne), but it’s formulated with squalene, which offers lightweight hydration to prevent the skin from dryness and irritation.

$18.90 at Myer

The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid 2% in Squalane

#4 / Paula’s Choice Skin Balancing Super Antioxidant Concentrate Serum with Retinol

Featuring a skin-renewing formula that combines antioxidants with a gentle amount of retinol, this serum is an effective way to start incorporating retinol into your regimen. It helps to promote a healthy-looking complexion while defending the skin against environmental damage. Paula’s Choice Skin Balancing Super Antioxidant Concentrate Serum with Retinol is a good choice for younger skin or those sensitive to stronger topical retinoids.

$53 at Paula's Choice

Paula’s Choice Skin Balancing Super Antioxidant Concentrate Serum

#5 / Mukti Organics Vitamin Booster Vital A Elixir

Easily boost the natural nutrients in your skin with this serum. Its mild, but fast acting formula contains hydroxypinacolone retinoate, which is a natural form of vitamin A that is less likely to irritate the skin. This skin-loving serum also contains aloe vera, rosehip oil and vitamin E to protect and nourish the skin.

$114.95 at Adore Beauty

Mukti Organics Vitamin Booster Vital A Elixir

#6 / Murad Resurgence Retinol Youth Renewal Serum

This powerful yet gentle serum contains three types of retinol to encourage cell turnover, prevent dryness and boost efficacy. Its gel-cream formula sinks into the skin easily and works for a range of skin types, including sensitive skin. It’s gentle enough to be used everyday, revealing a glowing complexion with every use.

$150 at Adore Beauty

Murad Resurgence Retinol Youth Renewal Serum

#7 / asap super a+ serum

asap super a+ serum is a lightweight treatment that's super gentle, while offering incredible results. This vegan formula contains retinol to stimulate collagen production, along with vitamin E to protect the skin and biomimetic peptide to improve tone and texture. Suitable for all skin types, this formula is truly versatile.

$77.22 at Adore Beauty

asap super a+ serum

Main image credit: @januaryjones

If you’re still on the fence about trying retinol, we’ve debunked these top retinol myths.

Erin Docherty is a Beauty Writer for BEAUTYcrew, Beauty Editor for Women's Health magazine and a Grooming Writer for Men's Health magazine. She has a keen interest in cosmeceutical skin care and is currently working on minimising her 9-step skin care routine – because ain’t nobody got time for that. When she’s not writing about the latest beauty news, or applying copious amounts of serum, you can find her spending all her money in Sephora.