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Retinol Cream vs. Retinol Serum
Expert Q/A

Ask Charlotte: What’s The Difference Between Retinol Cream And Retinol Serum?


August 15, 2018

The world of retinol is full of benefits, but with all of the options (retinol cream, retinol serum, pro-retinol, retinoic acid, etc.) it can get confusing. To parse out the differences, we turned to Dr. Debra Wattenberg, who specializes in cosmetic dermatology at her boutique Upper East Side clinic, NY Skin RX.


What’s the difference between a retinol cream and a retinol serum? Do they have the same benefits? How do I know which is better for my skin?


Retinol is one of the most effective anti-aging ingredients available over the counter. But buying the right product can be confusing because it is available in a variety of strengths and consistencies. Choosing between a retinol cream and a retinol serum depends on your skin type, and you also need to consider the other products in your skincare regime.

Retinol cream for dry skin; serum for oily skin

Most creams will contain some moisturizing ingredients like petrolatum or mineral oil. These may clog pores, but if your skin is dry or sensitive, a retinol cream might be the perfect choice.

In contrast, most serums are water-based and tend to contain higher concentrations of the “active” ingredients. Plus, most serums tend to be light to the touch and rarely leave a residue or sticky feeling. The retinol serum is great for oily or acne-prone skin, or for those who prefer to apply a separate moisturizer in addition to their serum.

The workhorse that increases cell production

Retinol, regardless of the formulation, is the workhorse of any anti-aging regimen. By increasing cell turnover, it prevents collagen loss, treats fine lines, and evens skin tone. In addition, it’s a potent antioxidant that helps to destroy free radicals, which develop in the skin as a result of sun, smoke, and pollution.

If you’re trying retinol for the first time…

Getting used to using retinol can be challenging. I recommend applying it sparingly (approximately the size of a pea for the entire face) at bedtime to clean skin. Then apply your moisturizer directly over the retinol. Start out every other night to help acclimate to the product, as most people get a little dry and irritated when they first begin a retinol cream or serum.

It takes approximately 12 weeks to see results, so stick with it. Finally, don’t forget to apply a sunscreen in the morning! All retinols increase your sensitivity to the sun.


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