My Favorite Retinoid Serums

I’ve used retinoids for years – prescription, over-the-counter, retinoic acid, retinol, retinal…you name it, I’ve tried it. (Please check out my Tips for Using Retinoids post for an in-depth look at why you should use a retinoid and how all of the above terms differ.) I’ve come to realize, through all my retinoid trials and tribulations, that I really do prefer OTC retinoids for my skincare routine.

Why? Well, I like my skincare to be a lovely sensorial experience, and while a prescription like Tretinoin works (oh lawd does it work), the efficacy usually is accompanied by skin irritation and peeling and redness, and honestly, who needs that? No thanks!

Plus, knowing that retinoid usage on a consistent basis gets us all to the same endpoint whether or not we choose the strongest form allows me to feel confident using over-the-counter formulations while knowing I’m still going to see the same benefits without a lot of annoying side effects that come with using prescription-strength retinoids. It just takes a little more time.

So! Let’s talk about the best OTC retinol serums!

My Favorite Non-Prescription Retinoids

African Botanics Cell Resurrection Serum, $160

If you’ve been around these parts for a while, my love for the African Botanics Cell Resurrection Serum comes as no surprise. I’ve used this 0.5% retinol formulation for years and years. It’s fantastic for beginner-to-intermediate retinoid users, has a cooling gel texture, and a mildly herbaceous scent.

I wrote a fully in-depth review of the product here.

Maelove Stargaze Enhanced Retinol Serum, $28

Maelove has been on my radar for a while and I started playing around with it this year. To be honest, the incredibly affordable price point kept me at a distance. I mean, can a serum under $30 do all the things my $150 serum does? Um, the answer is yeah, pretty dang close.

The Maelove Stargaze Enhanced Retinol Serum is formulated with 0.25% retinol and is great for retinoid beginners and/or sensitive skin. Stargaze features a proprietary time-released retinol system that allows the retinol to be gently dispersed and fully utilized by the skin while minimizing the typical irritation associated with retinol. (Yay!)

There are tons of hydrating and calming boosters in this formulation, including hyaluronic acid, niacinamide, aloe, myrtle leaf, ginseng, grape, and white tea extracts. Like all Maelove products, Stargaze is made in the USA, vegan, cruelty-free, gluten-free, and free of parabens, phthalates, synthetic dyes, and fragrances. 

Do I like it as much as my beloved Cell Resurrection Serum? It comes close, but nothing beats the cushiony, gel-like texture of the Cell Resurrection Serum for me. The Stargaze has a thinner, more slippery texture on the skin, but like Cell Resurrection, it has a mild, fresh scent which I appreciate.

For under 30 bucks, it is absolutely worth a try for retinol newbies!

Maelove Moonlight Retinal Super Serum, $35

Where my advanced retinol users at? *waving from over here* The Maelove Moonlight Retinal Super Serum is an expertly stabilized retinaldehyde at 0.11% concentration which delivers prescription level benefits by helping to improve uneven skin tone and appearances of photoaged skin. This is meant for intermediate-to-advanced retinoid users so novices should definitely try one of the above serums first.

If you read my retinoid tips post, you know that retinal is stronger than retinol (up to 20 times more effective!) so when we sashay into retinal territory, it means we’ve been around the retinol block a few times. This particular formulation balances its potency with a unique blend of nourishing ingredients (niacinamide, bisabolol, ceramide, tea extracts, hyaluronic acid, and squalane) to prevent irritation.

This serum is a bright yellow liquid that smells like citrus (more sour than fresh) and I’ve experienced no irritation when using this product.

African Botanics Retinal Night Cream, $200

Formulated with anti-wrinkle marine glycobiology, collagen stimulators, oligo-elements, peptides, antioxidants, zinc gluconate, hyaluronic acid, and moisture-replenishing extracts, the African Botanics Retinal Night Cream is the creme de la creme of OTC retinoids. It’s pretty much next-level.

Another formulation powered by retinaldehyde, I consider this ultra-strength (0.1%) and should be used by advanced retinoid users. I love love love this lightweight cream that absorbs rapidly into my skin – it has a pistachio green color and is unscented and EO free.

For the ultimate combo and my little secret, I follow the Retinal Night Cream with African Botanics Fleurs Intensive Recovery Oil for a 1-2 retinal/retinol punch. Oh, it’s damn good and reserved for retinol maestros.

Most important thing! Please remember, no matter what retinoid you use, always always always wear sunscreen during the day or it totally defeats the purpose of using a retinoid at all.

If you’d like to see these four retinoid products up close, check out my IG Reel! I hope this was helpful and as always leave any questions in the comments!

Other posts you might like:

My Favorite Sunscreens

Showdown: Ilia Super Serum vs Kosas Tinted Face Oil

  1. Kara

    June 2, 2021 at 10:02 am

    Hi! How do you know if you are ready to move up in retinol strengths? I currently use a 0.25 complex daily, with no irritation. How long should I stick with that before I try, for instance, the Maelove Moonlight Retinal Serum?

    Thank you!

    • whoorl

      June 2, 2021 at 10:38 am

      Oh, you are more than ready! If you are using daily with no irritation, definitely move up. :)

  2. duda

    June 7, 2021 at 12:38 pm

    The full ingredient list for the retinol night cream shows that it contains phenoxyethanol. While back in another post I think you mentioned you would avoid such ingredient. African Botanics resurrection serum does not contain phenoxyethanol. Would you recommend the serum over the night cream for that reason? Thanks very much

    • whoorl

      June 7, 2021 at 1:31 pm

      After learning more about phenoxyethanol over the past few years, I have no issue with using it in my skincare. However, it’s up to you.