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 the family of all vitamin A derivatives, which are collectively called retinoids, retinol stands right in the middle. Think of a 3 step ladder where retinoic acid is on top and retinol esters are 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. And here are 3 of them: concentration, formulation, and application. You can read more about these workarounds for sensitive skin down below.
But first, from serums to creams, find below the best retinols for sensitive 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.
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.
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 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.
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!
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 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, the fragrant botanicals are something to keep in mind if your skin is reactive to fragrance.
As I said, the possibilities are endless. This one combines a retinol ester with a retinoic acid ester: retinyl propionate. 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.
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 in 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.
How to Use Retinol on Sensitive Skin
From application tips to workarounds, here’s how to use retinol on sensitive skin.
- 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.
- 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 the esters. So instead of going in for a high-strength retinol ester, go for low-strength retinol.
- 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.
- The formulation of a product makes all the difference in the world. Go for a retinol serum that contains several anti-inflammatory extracts, or humectants, or antioxidants. This mitigates irritation significantly.
- 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!
- Try encapsulated retinol for a gentle, slow-release retinol absorption.
- Application is key. Do not apply your serum or cream on wet/damp skin. Apply your retinol product on bone-dry skin. This is something that is so overlooked for some reason! But a relieving suggestion recently came from board-certified dermatologist Shereene Idriss on her YT channel. She recommends not washing your face before applying retinol. Genius!
- Buffer retinol. Apply your retinol product after you put on your moisturizer. Normally, applying serum on moisturizer is against the right order of applying products because it prevents absorption. In this case, minimal absorption is actually good as it means minimal irritation for sensitive skin.
- If you have sensitive skin, use retinol once a week for 2 weeks, even 4 weeks. After that, use it twice a week for 4 weeks. Your goal is 3 times a week. Retinol isn’t necessarily something you want to use every single day/night.
- Use a pea-size amount. Don’t assume that your skin won’t notice that amount. And don’t try to use it all over like you’d apply a moisturizer.
- Don’t overdo it! You’ll be tempted to use it often and use it more. And I get it, it’s frustrating. And for god’s sake, the products have an expiration date, right? But trust me, going in too often will be like 1 step forward and 3 steps backward. And you won’t even be able to successfully complete the retinization period, which brings me to my next point.
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 above.
So this is how you use retinol on sensitive skin and the best retinol products to get started. During retinization, your skin becomes extra sensitive to sunlight. So apply SPF like your youth depends on it!
Read Next: The Best Sunscreens To Use With Retinol
- Zasada, M., & Budzisz, E. (2019). Retinoids: active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatments. Postepy dermatologii i alergologii, 36(4), 392–397. https://doi.org/10.5114/ada.2019.87443
- Edgar, J. (2011, June 1). Retinoids for Anti-Aging Skin. WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/beauty/features/retinoids-for-aging-skin
- 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 : JDD, 19(12), 1181–1183. https://doi.org/10.36849/JDD.2020.5522