Topical Retinoid Cream vs. Topical Retinoid Serum

If you’re trying to decide between using a topical retinoid cream and a topical retinoid serum, you aren’t alone.

In a world where each category of products has seemingly endless options, it can feel impossible to figure out which type of product is best for you.

And if you read our blog post about all the different types of retinoids, which you can check out here, then you know we aren’t kidding when we say there are a ton of options.

Don’t fret.  We’ve done the hard work for you and looked into the major differences between using a topical retinoid cream and a topical retinoid serum.

Keep reading to find out which one you should be including in your skincare routine.

Choose a Topical Retinoid Cream If You Have Dry Skin

topical retinoid cream best for dry skin
Image via Charlotte’s Book

Though the name itself somewhat gives it away, a topical retinoid cream, like any other cream product, will contain some moisturizing ingredient, such as petrolatum or mineral oil.

If you have oily skin to begin with, you could run the risk of clogging your pores and causing acne to pop up.

Which, let’s be real, is the exact opposite effect you’re hoping to achieve with a topical retinoid cream.

Most dermatologists will recommend sticking to a cream if you have dry or sensitive skin instead.

Retinoids can be made in an oil-soluble form and delivered in an oil-based product, which are useful for those with dry skin that need more occlusive elements.

So a topical retinoid cream is your best bet if you struggle with dry skin, especially since the product is prone to add some additional dryness to your already dry skin.

Choose a Topical Retinoid Serum If You Have Oily Skin

topical retinoid serum for oily skin
Image via New Beauty

When it comes to topical retinoid serums, most of these products are water-based.

And if you have oily, or even combination skin, then you already know these are the types of products you want to look for.

Serums are also a great choice for acne-prone skin, as using products with oil in them tends to worsen any existing acne issues.

You may also want to consider a topical retinoid serum if you’re someone who enjoys using a separate moisturizer in addition to a serum.

With a topical retinoid cream, many individuals opt to use that as their moisturizer instead of using another cream on top of it.

Too much product on your face often leaves you feeling uncomfortable, and unable to wear makeup throughout the day.

The good news is that there is no difference in the performance of the retinoid if the product is oil-soluble or water-soluble.

What is important, however, is the concentration of retinoic acid in the product and how well the supporting ingredients provide delivery of the active ingredient.

Why Topical Retinoid Serums May Have The Upper Hand

topical retinoid serum has upper hand
Image via Agein

The fact is, most topical retinoid serums tend to contain higher concentrations of the active ingredient.

They also tend to be light to the touch and rarely leave behind a sticky residue.

So in that case, it does appear that a serum is the “better” choice over a topical retinoid cream.

However, when it comes to finding a topical retinoid that’s right for your skin, the most important aspect is how your skin reacts to it.

If you find your skin beginning to break out with a topical retinoid cream, you probably want to switch to a serum.

However, if you find that your skin is becoming extremely irritated, dry, and red, you may need a topical retinoid serum.

The most important part is that you have retinoic acid, the active ingredient in these products, working for your skin.

So don’t immediately jump to using a topical retinoid serum just because you want more of the active ingredient.

These products are only effective if you can use them consistently and your skin can slowly work up to handling more, so giving your face more than it can handle or picking the wrong product for it is a disaster waiting to happen.

The Choice Is Yours As Long As You’re Using A Topical Retinoid

topical cream vs topical serum is your choice
Image via Self

Whether you choose to use a serum or a topical retinoid cream is completely up to you and your skin type.

And the good news is, your dermatologist can help you decipher which type of retinoid, and how its formulated, will react best with your skin.

If you aren’t getting the results you want, it’s super easy to switch to a different product, too!

The truly important part is that you’re using a retinoid, because it is the workhorse of any anti-aging regimen.

Talk to any skincare expert and they’ll tell you that after sunscreen, retinoids is the second most important anti-aging product available.

By increasing cell turnover, it prevents collagen loss and fine lines/wrinkles, evens out your skin tone, and rids your skin off gross free radicals, which occur from exposure to sun, smoke, and pollution.

Topical retinoid cream isn’t referred to as a skincare superhero for just any reason!

A Quick Word of Caution

word of caution about retinoids
Image via Dermstore

Just because you’re initially experiencing some redness, dryness, peeling, or even light breakouts doesn’t mean you should switch to a topical retinoid cream or serum, depending on which product you use initially.

These side effects are completely normal, and are referred to as retinization.

This just means that your skin has an adjustment period when learning how to use a topical retinoid cream.

Give yourself a good 4-5 weeks before deciding whether the topical retinoid cream or serum you selected is a good fit for your skin!

girl looking at product in bathroom

Some dermatologists say that once you hit the big 4-0, it’s absolutely time to start using a topical retinoid cream or serum.

However, most will tell you that it’s really never too early to start using a retinoid to help prevent aging and protect your skin from free radicals.

So figuring out whether a topical retinoid cream or a topical retinoid serum is right for you is a time sensitive issue, no matter who you are.

Take a look at your skin type, chat with your dermatologist, and start reaping the incredible benefits of retinoic acid today.

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About the Author ()

Jessica Jones is the Executive Editor of At age 23, Jessica began seeing a few fine wrinkles and decided to make it her life's mission to stop them in their tracks! When she's not trying out the newest retinol creams, Jessica can usually be found at the gym, or at happy hour!