These Are The Best Retinols For Sensitive Skin

Best Retinol For Sensitive Skin

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Retinol is like the forbidden fruit for people with sensitive skin. You’re told to steer clear no matter what kind of anti-aging promises you’re told. But here’s the thing, you can have your cake and eat it too. That is you can use retinol even if you have sensitive skin. In fact, the best retinols for sensitive skin help you achieve a healthier complexion with minimal or no irritation.

In a hurry?

Kiehl’s Micro-Dose Retinol Serum is my top pick for the best retinol for sensitive skin. It’s irritant-free, gentle, very creamy, and actually effective in improving skin texture and tone.

In the family of all vitamin A derivatives, which are collectively called retinoids, retinol stands right in the middle. Think of a 3-step ladder with retinoic acid on top and retinol esters at the bottom.

So retinol isn’t as potent or irritating as a prescription retinoid such as tretinoin. But it’s not as weak as a retinol ester such as retinyl palmitate either (1). But even in this state, retinol can still be too much for sensitive skin.

Retinol regulates your skin’s cell turnover rate. In doing so, it stimulates the production of collagen, which in turn, reduces fine lines, hyperpigmentation, and acne (2).

But retinol is a wild card, pretty unpredictable, and unstable. And more often than not, it causes redness, irritation, and sensitivity on the skin. The way retinol works is a hard pill to swallow for beginners, sensitive skin types, and people with rosacea.

However, you do have several workarounds to use retinol on sensitive skin. You can read more about these workarounds for sensitive skin down below. But first, here’s how to choose a retinol when you have sensitive skin.

How To Choose a Retinol Products For Sensitive Skin

Type of Product

Retinol comes in creams, serums, oils, and even toners. Lightweight, fast-absorbing products like serums tend to be more potent, but are likely to be more irritating.

Creams on the other hand are less absorbent. If you have very, very sensitive skin, you might consider starting with a retinol cream instead of a serum.


Always go for a low-concentration retinol serum or cream when you have sensitive skin. If the product doesn’t disclose the concentration, it’s very likely that it’s a low-strength product.

A beginner-friendly concentration of retinol suitable for sensitive skin is usually between 0.01% and 0.025%. This is only one aspect to consider. After all, even a beginner-friendly concentration can irritate your skin if the product isn’t formulated properly.

Type of Retinol

In your serum and creams, retinol can come in pure form or in encapsulated form. Try encapsulated retinol for gentle, slow-release retinol absorption. This will minimize irritation considerably.

Alternatively, consider retinol esters. Products made with esters like retinyl palmitate are less potent than retinol. But they’re also less irritating.

On a side note, retinol has much more research behind it compared to its esters. So instead of going in for a high-strength retinol ester, go for low-strength retinol.

Additionally, you can try new generation retinols such as Granactive retinoid. These are as effective as retinol but they’re, by default, gentler on the skin.

Calming and Hydrating Ingredients

Avoid “minimal” products. If you have sensitive skin, then you’re probably aware of the idea that keeping things minimal is the best way to go with your routine. The logic is that fewer ingredients mean less room for irritation. This can be fine when it’s your moisturizer. However, you do not want to use an active ingredient like retinol in a minimal formulation.

For that reason, look for hydrating ingredients like hyaluronic acid and ceramides. And look for soothing ingredients like green tea in your product. This will prevent damage to your skin barrier and minimize irritation. The formulation of a product makes all the difference in the world.

So go for a retinol serum that contains several anti-inflammatory extracts, humectants, or antioxidants. There is no universe where a pure retinol serum with minimal ingredients will work better for sensitive skin or rosacea than a retinol serum jam-packed with soothing botanicals. Formulation yields tolerance!

Free of Irrıtants

As always, look for gentle formulations that are tolerable for people with sensitive skin. Common irritants found in skincare products are alcohol and fragrance. Either avoid them completely or make sure they are very low in concentration.

How I created This List & My Review Criteria

I have overall sensitive skin because I have rosacea. It’s a skin condition that causes facial redness, and overall skin sensitivity to pretty much everything. So I know a thing or two when it comes to using retinol for sensitive skin. Even though you’re not supposed to use retinol for several days in a row, I decide a retinol serum or cream is suitable for sensitive skin if I can use it at least three days in a row without dealing with redness or irritation. The products below are the ones I can comfortably use and swear by. I added both serums and creams you can choose depending on your preference. You can also find recommended skin types for each product as well as my overall rating for my experience with the products.

The Best Retinols For Sensitive Skin

From serums to creams, find below the best retinols for sensitive skin.

1. Kiehl’s Retinol Skin-Renewing Daily Micro-Dose Serum

Rating: 5 out of 5.
Kiehl's Retinol Skin-Renewing Daily Micro-Dose Serum - Best Retinol For Sensitive Skin

Creamy texture

Concentration unknown

This is one of my favorite retinol serums I’ve ever tried. This is a beginner-friendly retinol serum. But what makes it so gentle is the consistency. Even though it’s a serum, it’s very creamy.

Because of that, it’s not as penetrating to the skin. Also, it’s enriched with ceramides, which help protect the skin barrier.

That’s why I don’t experience any skin dryness or tightness. Whether you’re dealing with uneven skin tone or uneven skin texture, the retinol serum is perfect for all skin types with sensitive skin.

Product Type: Serum
Retinol: Pure retinol
Other Ingredients: Ceramides, hyaluronic acid, glycerin, niacinamide
Skin Type: All skin types
Formula: Alcohol-free, fragrance-free
Size: 1 oz/30 ml

2. First Aid Beauty Fab Skin Lab Retinol Serum 0.25% Pure Concentrate

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.
First Aid Beauty Fab Skin Lab Retinol Serum 0.25% Pure Concentrate - Best Retinol For Sensitive Skin

Made for sensitive skin

May not work for acne-prone skin

This is an incredibly beginner-friendly retinol serum perfect for sensitive skin types. The secret is its formulation! The 0.25% retinol is as gentle as it gets. And on top of that, the serum contains FAB’s signature anti-inflammatory ingredients such as oatmeal and allantoin.

Both of these have soothing effects on the skin, which makes retinol more tolerable. An honorable mention, Argireline instantly smooths out the skin and reduces the look of lines and wrinkles.

The fragrance-free formula delivers retinol into the skin with a nourishing base made with avocado oil. It’s super light and feels creamy on the skin. If you’re a beginner and already have sensitive skin, this is the best retinol serum to target wrinkles without irritation.

Product Type: Serum
Retinol: Pure retinol
Other Ingredients: Argireline, oatmeal, allantoin, aloe
Skin Type: Dry, normal, combination, oily
Formula: Alcohol-free, fragrance-free
Size: 1 oz/30 ml

3. CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.
CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum - Best  Drugstore Retinol For Sensitive Skin

Budget-friendly retinol serum

Contains alcohol

The benefit of this drugstore retinol product for sensitive skin is twofold. First, it’s made with encapsulated retinol, which means a slow-release working mechanism where the skin absorbs retinol gradually rather than all at once.

This eliminates irritation and makes retinol way more tolerable for sensitive skin. And second, the serum has licorice extract to soothe and niacinamide to help with redness, which is handy when you have reactive skin.

And to help with dryness and increase hydration, the fragrance-free serum contains ceramides too. Use it to diminish sun-induced dark spots, stubborn acne marks, and texture irregularities.

Best Retinol Serums For Sensitive Skin - CeraVe Skin Resurfacing Retinol Serum
Image by Ejollify

Product Type: Serum
Retinol: Encapsulated retinol
Other Ingredients: Ceramides, niacinamide, licorice extract, hyaluronic acid
Skin Type: All skin types
Formula: Fragrance-free
Size: 1 oz

4. SkinMedica Age Defense Retinol Complex 0.25

Rating: 4 out of 5.
SkinMedica Age Defense Retinol Complex 0.25

Medical-grade retinol cream

Results take time to show

This one checks all the boxes for a truly gentle retinol product for very sensitive skin. Take low-concentration retinol, encapsulate it, and coat it with soothers: check! The treatment delivers retinol with a fast-absorbing base made with plant-derived squalene and skin-replenishing ceramides.

It also has niacinamide to minimize skin barrier disruption and reduce the look of skin discolorations. Plus, it has a blend of antioxidants from anti-inflammatory botanicals, sea algae, and soothing peptides.

The night treatment has a serum-lotion texture and is great for people with oily and sensitive skin. If you’re prone to acne, you will appreciate the lightweight feel of the treatment.

Product Type: Lotion
Retinol: Encapsulated retinol
Other Ingredients: Niacinamide, ceramides, algae, plant-derived squalane
Skin Type: All skin types
Formula: Alcohol-free
Size: 1 oz/29.6 ml

5. Versed Press Restart Gentle Retinol Serum

Rating: 4 out of 5.
Versed Press Restart Gentle Retinol Serum

Enriched with bakuchiol

Contains vegetable oil

This is another encapsulated retinol serum made with a concentration of 0.03%. Retinol is paired with what’s commonly known as vegan retinol, bakuchiol, with a concentration of 0.05%.

This plant-derived ingredient is touted to be nature’s retinol without the associated side effects. The ingredient is promising -and Dr. Draelos-approved (3)! The serum moisturizes with sunflower seed oil and seabuckthorn oil to mitigate retinol dryness. It also soothes the skin with aloe.

The night serum is super gentle and helps reduce sun damage on sensitive skin while diminishing wrinkles and lines. Its vegan, cruelty-free, and comforting formula is suitable for retinol newbies who need the anti-aging sans the irritation. Also, it’s super affordable!

Product Type: Serum
Retinol: Encapsulated retinol
Other Ingredients: Bakuchiol
Skin Type: All Skin types
Formula: Alcohol-free, fragrance-free
Size: 1 oz/30 ml

6. Sunday Riley Luna Retinol Sleeping Night Oil

Rating: 5 out of 5.
Sunday Riley Luna Retinol Sleeping Night Oil - Best Retinol For Sensitive Skin

Incredibly nourishing

Concentration unknown

This one contains a retinoic acid ester, which is pretty close to the real deal. It’s a patented formula commonly known as Granactive retinoid aka hydroxypinacolone retinoate. Unlike retinol esters, Granactive retinoid directly binds to retinoid receptors and starts working on the skin.

No conversion is necessary. It’s also way more tolerable than retinol. The data is pretty limited on this one as to how effective it is compared to retinol. And the positive reviews usually come from The Ordinary users. I love the ingredient. But I think this formulation is much more tolerable than TO retinoids.

This oil utilizes Granactive retinoid and targets signs of aging while keeping the skin happy with anti-inflammatories. It has a blue color and contains super-rich oils including blue tansy oil.

The retinol oil is perfectly suitable for sensitive skin types and will work great, especially for dry skin types to lock in moisture while improving the skin texture. However, fragrant botanicals are something to keep in mind if your skin is reactive to fragrance.

Product Type: Oil
Retinol: Granactive retinoid
Other Ingredients: Avocado oil, blue tansy oil, blackberry seed oil
Skin Type: Normal, dry, combination
Formula: Alcohol-free, scented
Size: 1.18 oz/35 ml

7. Alpha-H Vitamin A Serum

Rating: 5 out of 5.
Alpha-H Vitamin A Serum

Higher concentration

Higher price per ounce

Some people assume that all clean products are better for sensitive skin. Even though I disagree, this one is a pleasant exception. I used this retinol night serum up and loved what every single drop did to my skin.

Because this was exceptionally softening for my skin. From day one, you can see how the formula makes the skin feel velvety. Note that the 0.5 concentration is in the mid-range.

However, the overall formulation was so well that it softened my fine lines, and made my skin more even-toned, but did not cause redness or irritation. Even though it packs several oils, the serum is surprisingly effective in balancing the skin’s oil production.

Product Type: Serum
Retinol: Pure retinol
Other Ingredients: Squalane, evening primrose oil, macadamia oil
Skin Type: All skin types
Formula: Alcohol-free, scented
Size: 0.84 oz/25 ml

8. Medik8 R-Retinoate Youth Awakening Cream

Rating: 4 out of 5.
Medik8 R-Retinoate Youth Awakening Cream - Best Retinol For Sensitive Skin

Antioxidant-rich formula


As I said, the possibilities are endless. This one utilizes a retinol ester, namely retinyl retinoate, in encapsulated form. As with all esters, the aim is to collect the anti-aging benefits with a stable, non-irritating formula.

With that goal, this moisturizer contains vitamins C and E to provide antioxidant benefits, neutralize free radical damage, and keep your retinol stable. As this is a cream formula, it’s going to be more helpful for people with dry skin. So while working on wrinkles and fine lines, you minimize potential dryness and flakiness.

And the fact that you collect the radiance-boosting benefits of vitamin C makes it all the better for people who are dealing with hyperpigmentation. The cream form is more like lotion and feels super light on the skin. You can use it both as a daily moisturizer and a night cream.

Product Type: Serum/lotion
Retinol: Encapsulated retinyl retinoate
Other Ingredients: Vitamin C, vitamin E, hyaluronic acid
Skin Type: All skin types
Formula: Alcohol-free, fragrance-free
Size: 50 ml

9. L’Oreal Revitalift Anti-Wrinkle + Firming Eye Cream Treatment

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.
L'Oreal Revitalift Anti-Wrinkle + Firming Eye Cream Treatment

Budget-friendly retinol eye cream

Takes time to give noticeable results

If your face requires caution with the products you use, your eye area needs even more. I honestly envy people who comfortably use their face creams around their eyes. If the skin under my eyes even sniffs my retinol cream, it reacts by popping up a few capillaries right there, which worsens my dark circles.

The point is you need to be careful with retinol eye creams when you have sensitive skin. That’s why you can afford to lose some level of potency by opting for a retinol ester. This retinol eye cream uses retinyl palmitate to help sensitive skin. That way, you can address fine lines under the eyes and crow’s feet around the eyes without irritating or flaking the skin.

It has a rich, creamy texture and applies easily. And to prevent any discomfort from retinol, it contains Centella Asiatica, which is incredibly soothing and calming for the skin. And you’re in luck because the cream has caffeine to address dark circles and firm the skin around the eyes as well.

Product Type: Eye cream
Retinol: Retinyl palmitate
Other Ingredients: Caffeine
Skin Type: All skin types
Formula: Alcohol-free, fragrance-free
Size: 0.5 oz

RELATED: The Best Eye Creams For People With Rosacea

So these are the best retinols for sensitive skin. Remember that your skin becomes extra sensitive to sunlight when you’re using retinol. So apply SPF like your youth depends on it! And keep reading to find out more about using retinol when you have sensitive skin.

What to Expect From Retinol When You Have Sensitive Skin

I think the biggest retinol hurdle to cross for sensitive skin types is that you confuse retinization with irritation.

All skin types go through a retinol adjustment period called retinization. During this time, your skin acts weird as it tries to make peace with this new ingredient. You might expect some level of dryness, sensitivity, and flakiness.

You might experience breakouts as well. As long as you follow the rules, these so-called side effects go away once your skin gets a grip, which takes about 4-6 weeks. This is like a badge you earn. It means that your skin is now pretty familiar with retinol. Things get so much better after this.

On the other hand, using retinol too often and too much will result in the same side effects in an aggravated manner. Only this time, you won’t get anything out of it. You will, however, get irritant dermatitis.

And things will not get better unless you stop using retinol. And that will take you right back to square 1. The only way to make sure you don’t end up there is to stick with the tips mentioned below.


From application tips to workarounds, here’s how to use retinol on sensitive skin.

Read Next: The Best Sunscreens To Use With Retinol


  1. Zasada, M., & Budzisz, E. (2019). Retinoids: active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatments. Postepy dermatologii i alergologii36(4), 392–397.
  2. Edgar, J. (2011, June 1). Retinoids for Anti-Aging Skin. WebMD.
  3. Draelos, Z. D., Gunt, H., Zeichner, J., & Levy, S. (2020). Clinical Evaluation of a Nature-Based Bakuchiol Anti-Aging Moisturizer for Sensitive Skin. Journal of drugs in dermatology : JDD19(12), 1181–1183.

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