the inkey list retinol serum

The Inkey List Retinol is one of the gentlest retinol serums I’ve ever tried. Weird, when you think it contains 2 forms of retinoids (the only thing proven to reduce wrinkles, not just their appearance). And that some sources report retinol is here in a staggering 1% concentration (that’s super high – and irritating – for retinol, FYI).

If the rumours are true, this serum should be harsh and drying on the skin… but it ain’t. Something doesn’t add up here. Is it technological magic or marketing hype? Did they find a way to deliver the anti-aging powers of retinoids in a way that doesn’t upset skin or are they making the serum sound a lot better than it actually is (something most brands do, anyway).

What’s the truth? If you’re curious to find out, read on. I’ve put it to the test on my skin and these are the results:

About The Brand: The Inkey List

Colette Laxton and Mark Curry founded The Inkey List in 2018. Their mission is to make skincare affordable and less confusing. They nailed the first part, but if you ask me, the line is confusing AF. They have so many products, it can be tricky to find out the ones that are best suitable for YOUR skin type – especially as half of them are still more hype than science.

Everything about the brand, from the inclusion of one active ingredient per product, to the affordable price tag, to the black and white packaging, reminds me of The Ordinary. But while The Ordinary focuses more on science, The Inkey List is more likely to follow the latest skincare trends. Still, if you’re on a budget, this is a brand to take a closer look at.

Key Ingredients In The Inkey List Retinol: What Makes It Work?


You’ve probably heard that The Inkey List Retinol contains 1% stable retinol. Wrong. It contains 1% RetiStar, a stabilised retinol compound. There’s a huge difference.

According to BASF (the maker of RetiStar), 1% RetiStar contains 0.05% retinol mixed with tocopherol, sodium ascorbate, and PEG-40 hydrogenated castor oil in caprylic/capric triglycerides.

1% retinol is a huge dose that has some serious wrinkle-fighting properties. 0.05% retinol is a tiny dose that’s suitable for beginners. It’ll help your skin a little, but it pales in comparison to what 1% can do. See how easy it is to make you think a serum contains more retinol – and is therefore more powerful – than it actually is?

Even so, 0.05% retinol isn’t completely useless. In fact, retinol is so harsh, you absolutely need to start with a very small concentration and work your way up to 1%. Starting with the higher dose straight away is a recipe to disaster that only leads to dryness and irritation. All things that make wrinkles look worse, not better!

So, what does retinol do?

  1. It has antioxidant properties that destroy the free radicals that cause premature wrinkles and dark spots.
  2. It accelerates cellular turnover (i.e. the skin’s natural exfoliating process), reducing the appearance of dark spots, wrinkles, and acne.
  3. It boosts the production of collagen, the protein that keeps skin firm.

It does this even at tiny concentrations – but do work your way up as soon as your skin can take it.

Related: The Complete Guide To Retinol: What It Is, What It Does, And How To Use It


Retinol isn’t the only retinoid in The Inkey List Retinol. This baby also contains 0.5% Granactive Retinoid (a.k.a. Hydroxypinacolone Retinoate).

Again, beware! Brands want you to think Granactive Retinoid is even more effective than retinol at fighting wrinkles and acne. It simply isn’t true.

There’s NO proof (yet) that Granactive Retinoid is more effective than retinol. Heck, there isn’t even much proof that it can fight wrinkles!

That’s because this retinoid is so new, there isn’t much research on it, yet. The only things we know for sure are:

  • It’s gentler than retinol: Unlike retinol, it doesn’t tend to cause irritation and dryness, making it more suitable for sensitive skin.
  • It’s effective at treating acne: Studies show it’s safe and effective in the treatment of moderate acne. If you have cystic acne, you’ll probably need something stronger only your doctor can prescribe.

Future research may show that Granactive Retinoid is a valid alternative for fighting wrinkles as well. Until then, I recommend it only to women with sensitive, acne-prone skin that can’t tolerate retinol.

Related: Which Form Of Retinoids Is Right For You?

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Peptides are the anomaly in the skincare matrix. In theory, they shouldn’t work: they’re too big to penetrate skin. In practice, studies show they do something. But how?

One theory is they work even when left on the surface of the skin, by sending signals to skin cells to boost collagen production, ect. This serum contains two peptides:

Again, most of the studies on peptides come from the manufacturers. I don’t recommend buying a serum just because it contains peptides. But if they’re an extra (like here), why not give them a go?

Related: The Truth About Peptides In Skincare: Do They Really Work?


The Inkey List Retinol doesn’t only help prevent premature aging. It hydrates skin too. Here’s how:

  • Glycerin: A moisture magnet that attracts water from the environment and binds it into the skin, helping to keep it hydrated.
  • Squalane: Very similar to human sebum, it strengthens the skin’s protective barrier and moisturises skin.
  • Hyaluronic Acid: Like glycerin, it attracts and binds water to the skin. It’s so good, it can hold up to 1000 times its weight in water!

Together, the extra moisture keeps your skin softer and smoother. This is even more important when using a retinol serum. Retinol can be drying, remember? But building extra moisture into this serum, The Inkey List is reducing the potential drying side effects of retinol.

Related: The Complete Guide To Squalane In Skincare: What It Is, What It Does, And How To Use It

The Rest Of The Formula & Ingredients

NOTE: The colours indicate the effectiveness of an ingredient. It is ILLEGAL to put toxic and harmful ingredients in skincare products.

  • Green: It’s effective, proven to work, and helps the product do the best possible job for your skin.
  • Yellow: There’s not much proof it works (at least, yet).
  • Red: What is this doing here?!
  • Water (aqua / Eau): The base of the serum, it’s a solvent that helps dissolve other ingredients in the formula.
  • Butylene Glycol: It’s a humectant that draws moisture from the air into your skin, helping it to stay hydrated for longer. Plus, it’s a solvent that dissolves ingredients that aren’t water-soluble.
  • Propanediol: Like Butylene Glycolic, it’s a humectant that keeps skin hydrated by binding moisture to it. It’s also a solvent.
  • Dicaprylyl Carbonate: An emollient that gives skin a smooth, velvety feel. It also helps formulations spread easier onto your skin.
  • Dimethicone: A silicones that gives skin a smooth feeling, helps formulations spread more easily onto your skin, and fills in fine lines and wrinkles, so they look smaller. Contrary to popular opinion, it doesn’t stop skin from breathing. Dimethicone has a particular molecular structure made up of big molecules with wide gaps in between. Your skin can still perspire (and active ingredients penetrate your skin) through this gaps. It may cause acne, but only when used with comedogenic ingredients.
  • Hydroxyethyl Acrylate/sodium Acryloyldimethyl Taurate Copolymer: This multi-tasker helps to create aesthetically pleasing formulas. It also helps to stabilise formulations and disperse skin-beneficial ingredients.
  • Caprylyl Glycol: It attracts and binds water to your skin, so it stays hydrated for longer. It also helps active ingredients better penetrate skin. Finally, it acts as a preservative to extend the shelf life of the serum.
  • Phospholipids: Another humectant that draws moisture from the air and binds into your skin, where hydration is most needed. It also has antioxidant properties that help prevent wrinkles.
  • Caprylic/capric Glycerides: Derived from coconut oil and glycerin, it’s loaded with fatty acids that strengthen the skin’s protective barrier and help it retain moisture. It also helps thicken products, enhance the spreadability of the serum, and aid penetration of active ingredients.
  • Dimethyl Isosorbide: It helps active ingredients, like retinol, better penetrate into your skin, so they work better and faster.
  • Glycine Soja (soybean) Extract: A rich source of phenolic acids and flavonoids, it has antioxidant properties that help fight premature wrinkles. It also makes skin softer and smoother.
  • Carbomer: It’s a thicken agent that also prevents the oily and watery parts of a formula from separating.
  • Sodium Ascorbate: A form of Vitamin C with mild antioxidant and skin-brightening properties.
  • Tocopherol: A form of Vitamin E. It has antioxidant properties that help prevent premature wrinkles. It also helps extend the shelf life of the serum.
  • Polysorbate 60: It improves the texture and feel of a product.
  • Tocopheryl Acetate: Another form of Vitamin E. It has antioxidant properties that help prevent premature wrinkles. It also helps extend the shelf life of the serum.
  • Glycolipids: It makes skin softer and smoother.
  • Sodium Hydroxide: It helps adjust the pH of skincare products.
  • Disodium Edta: It neutralises the ion metals present in water that may otherwise spoil the formula and make it go bad faster.
  • Glycine Soja (soybean) Sterol: An emollient that makes skin softer and smoother.
  • Leuconostoc/radish Root Ferment Filtrate: A preservative that kills a wide range of bacteria to keep the product safe and effective for longer. But it’s not as effective as other preservatives, such as parabens and phenoxyethanol.
  • Peg-40 Hydrogenated Castor Oil: It makes skin softer and smoother.
  • Polysorbate 20: It improves the texture, feel, and scent of skincare products.
  • Phenoxyethanol: A powerful preservative that kills a wide range of microbes to keep your skincare products safe to use for longer.


The serum is a yellow gel. Its lightweight texture sinks in quickly without leaving a tacky residue behind. It’s just pleasant to use even for oily skin.


It’s fragrance-free. I like that. I’m not a fan of fragrance in skincare. I know it makes the product smell good – and that’s nicer that something that smells like feet or has no smell at all. But fragrance is one of the most irritating ingredients in skincare. Retinol is irritating on its own. No need to add other irritants to the formula when they have no extra benefits for your skin.

How Do You Use The Inkey List Retinol?

If this is your first retinol product, use it only two nights a week. As your skin gets used to it (you’ll know when this happens because there’s no dryness and irritation), you can slowly upgrade to every other night.

Don’t use it in the day. Retinoids make skin more susceptible to sun damage! And don’t use it on the same nights you exfoliate. Retinoids have a gentle exfoliating action. Overexfoliation only leads to dryness and irritation. By using them on alternate nights, you’re getting the best of both worlds.

One more thing: retinol is one of those actives that need to penetrate your skin to work its magic. To give it its best chance of success, apply it on clean skin, just after cleansing, and follow up with a hydrating serum and/or moisturiser.


The serum comes in a white and black tube that, let’s be honest, was copied from The Ordinary. How similar are they?! I still prefer the look of The Ordinary bottles. The Inkey List opted for a squeeze tube. I always worry you don’t get all the product out with this type of packaging, know what I mean? But at least it does protect retinol from the light and air that would spoil it if it came in a jar or see-through container.

Performance & Personal Opinion

I use The Inkey List Retinol every other night, alternating it with exfoliation. I don’t like to mix the two together because they can often irritate skin or dry it out too much. Its texture sinks smoothly into my skin, leaving no tacky residue behind. It layers well with moisturisers, too – no pilling here.

It’s definitely gentle and a little more hydrating than most retinol serums I’ve tried. If you have sensitive skin or are looking for your first retinol serum, this is gentle enough for you (if your skin can’t take this, retinoids are NOT for you).

Does it work? It does help to improve the texture of your skin, making it smoother and brighter. It can also help you fade dark spots a little.

I admit I didn’t see much of a difference – but that’s because I’m used to 1% retinol. Compared to that, this just doesn’t work as well.

But you can’t use 1% straight away. It’ll dry out your skin, irritate it, and make it flake. And then you’re wondering why your wrinkles look so much worse when the exact opposite was supposed to happen. Take it slowly, ladies!

the inkey list retinol

How Does The Inkey List Retinol Compare To The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid 2% Emulsion?

THE INKEY LIST RETINOL THE Ordinary Granactive Retinoid 2% EMULSION
ACTIVES Retinol and Granactive Retinoid Retinol and Granactive Retinoid
TEXTURE Lightweight gel. Creamy texture.
PACKAGING Bottle with a dropper applicator. Squeeze tube.
PERFORMANCE Fights wrinkles and is a little moisturiser. Fights wrinkles without drying out skin.

The Inkey List Retinol and The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid 2% Emulsion contain the same active ingredients: retinol, granactive retinoid, and Squalane. And they’re both fragrance-free. In other words, they both have what it takes to fight wrinkles without drying out or irritating skin.

The Ordinary has a creamier texture while The Inkey List is a gel. They’re both pleasant to use, so which one prefer depends on what your skin likes the most.

The packaging is different, too. The Inkey List retinol comes packaged in a squeeze tube while The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid 2% Emulsion is housed in a bottle with a dropper applicator. The former is better at protective retinol from exposure to light and air, but the latter is more practical to use (and more visually appealing).

In other words, both products do what they say on the tin. Which one you go for depends on details, like packaging and texture – and I can’t decide that for you.

What I Like About The Inkey List Retinol

  • Lightweight gel texture, sinks in quickly into your skin.
  • It’s fragrance-free.
  • Packaging protects retinoids from going bad.
  • It makes skin smoother and brighter.
  • It helps fade away dark spots.
  • It adds a little hydration to your skin.
  • Gentle, doesn’t irritate skin.
  • Affordable price

What I DON’T Like About The Inkey List Retinol

  • I don’t like the look of the packaging.
  • Doesn’t work as well as 1% retinol, obviously.

Who Should Use This?

I recommend this serum to:

  • First time retinol users who need a gentle serum to get started.
  • Sensitive, acne-prone skin that can’t tolerate retinol.
  • Skincare newbies who want to try both retinol and peptides for the first time.

If, on the other hand, you’re already using a serum with a concentration retinol higher than 0.05%, this would be a step back for you.

Does The Inkey List Retinol Live Up To Its Claims?

The INKEY List Retinol Serum helps to stimulate the renewal processes in the skin resulting in brighter, smoother skin.  True.
Slow release formula for low irritation and effective active delivery.  True.
1% RetiStar – A stabilised retinol compound. True, but 1% RetiStar means 0.05% retinol – a much lower dose than implied.
Squalane for hydration and soothing. True.

Is The Inkey List Retinol Cruelty-Free?

The Inkey List has always been cruelty-free. They never tested on animals, they don’t outsource the process to third parties, and don’t sell in countries where animal testing is required by law.

Price & Availability

£9.99 at Cult Beauty and Sephora

The Verdict: Should You Buy It?

If you’re just starting out on your retinol journey or have sensitive, acne-prone skin that can’t tolerate high doses of retinol, this is a good option to consider. If you’re already a retinol pro, don’t be tempted. This would be a step back for you.

Dupes & Alternatives

  • The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid 2% Emulsion (£9.00): I’ve already talked about this. It contains the same active ingredients, but in cream form. The packaging is also more practical to use. Available at Beauty Bay, Boots, Cult Beauty, The Ordinary and Ulta


Water (aqua / Eau), Glycerin, Butylene Glycol, Propanediol, Dicaprylyl Carbonate, Dimethicone, Retinol, Hydroxyethyl Acrylate/sodium Acryloyldimethyl Taurate Copolymer, Caprylyl Glycol, Phospholipids, Caprylic/capric Glycerides, Squalane, Dimethyl Isosorbide, Glycine Soja (soybean) Extract, Carbomer, Sodium Ascorbate, Tocopherol, Polysorbate 60, Tocopheryl Acetate, Glycolipids, Sodium Hydroxide, Disodium Edta, Hydroxypinacolone Retinoate, Glycine Soja (soybean) Sterol, Leuconostoc/radish Root Ferment Filtrate, Peg-40 Hydrogenated Castor Oil, Hyaluronic Acid, Polysorbate 20, Palmitoyl Tetrapeptide-7, Palmitoyl Tripeptide-1, Phenoxyethanol.