7 Gentle & Beginner-Friendly Retinols For Sensitive Skin

Best Retinol for Sensitive Skin

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In the family of all vitamin A derivatives, which are collectively called retinoids, retinol stands right in the middle. It’s potent but still gentle enough because it’s over-the-counter. It stimulates skin turnover rate, and collagen production, and helps minimize acne, wrinkles, and hyperpigmentation. On the other hand, it can cause dryness and irritation, making it difficult to use retinol on sensitive skin.

I have overall sensitive skin because I have rosacea. It makes my skin sensitive to pretty much everything. So I know a thing or two when it comes to using retinol for sensitive skin. Even though retinol requires some getting used to, and a little bit of adjustment, it works wonders for the skin once you get a handle on it.

And even though it’s a powerful ingredient, there are gentle retinol products that offer the same benefits minus the irritation. If you want to try retinol to manage your skin concerns without aggravating sensitivity, no worries. You can! Whether you prefer a gentle retinol serum or a retinol cream, find below the best retinols for sensitive skin.

Best Retinols For Sensitive Skin

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

Kiehl's Retinol Skin-Renewing Daily Micro-Dose Serum - Best Retinol For Sensitive Skin

Creamy texture
No visible redness or peeling

Concentration unknown

This is one of my favorite beginner-friendly retinol serums that I use on my sensitive skin. 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, niacinamide
Formula: Alcohol-free, fragrance-free
Size: 1 oz/30 ml

2. CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum

CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum - Best  Drugstore Retinol For Sensitive Skin

Budget-friendly retinol serum
Works great for uneven skin tone

The benefit of this drugstore retinol product for sensitive skin is twofold. First, it’s made with encapsulated retinol, which means the skin absorbs retinol gradually rather than all at once. This eliminates irritation and makes retinol way more tolerable for sensitive skin.

And second, it has licorice extract to soothe and niacinamide to help with redness, which is handy when you have reactive skin. To help with dryness and increase hydration, the serum contains ceramides too. Use it to diminish dark spots, stubborn acne marks, and texture irregularities.

Best Retinol Serums For Sensitive Skin - CeraVe Skin Resurfacing Retinol Serum

Product Type: Serum
Retinol: Encapsulated retinol
Other Ingredients: Ceramides, niacinamide, licorice extract
Formula: Fragrance-free
Size: 1 oz/30 ml

3. SkinMedica Age Defense Retinol Complex 0.25

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. It’s low-concentration encapsulated retinol brimming with skin soothers. The treatment delivers retinol with a fast-absorbing base made with plant-derived squalene, skin-replenishing ceramides, and niacinamide.

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, 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
Formula: Alcohol-free
Size: 1 oz/29.6 ml

4. Versed Press Restart Gentle Retinol Serum

Versed Press Restart Gentle Retinol Serum - Best Affordable Retinol Serum for Sensitive Skin

Enriched with bakuchiol
Replenishing formula

This is another encapsulated retinol serum made with a concentration of 0.03%. It also contains 0.05% bakuchiol, which is a plant-derived ingredient also known as vegan retinol. It’s known to have retinol-like effects without irritation.

The bakuchiol serum moisturizes with sunflower seed oil and seabuckthorn oil to mitigate retinol dryness. It also soothes the skin with aloe. It’s super gentle and helps reduce sun damage on sensitive skin while diminishing wrinkles and lines. Its comforting formula is suitable for retinol newbies who need the anti-aging sans the irritation.

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

5. Sunday Riley Luna Retinol Sleeping Night Oil

Sunday Riley Luna Retinol Sleeping Night Oil - Best Retinol For Sensitive Skin

Incredibly nourishing
Very moisturizing formula
No ‘buffering’ needed

Concentration unknown

This one contains a retinoic acid ester, which is a patented formula commonly known as Granactive retinoid. It’s more potent than retinol but gentler on the skin. Plus, this is a retinol oil. So the base of the product is incredibly skin-friendly.

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.

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

6. Alpha-H Vitamin A Serum

Alpha-H Vitamin A Serum

Higher concentration
Softens skins instantly
No greasy uncomfortable feel on the skin

Higher price per ounce

I used up this retinol night serum 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.

But the overall formulation is 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
Formula: Alcohol-free, scented, vegan, cruelty-free
Size: 0.84 oz/25 ml

7. Medik8 R-Retinoate Youth Awakening Cream

Medik8 R-Retinoate Youth Awakening Cream - Best Retinol For Sensitive Skin

Antioxidant-rich formula


The possibilities are endless when it comes to finding a gentle retinol serum for sensitive skin. This cream contains encapsulated retinyl retinoate, which is a gentle retinol derivative. The moisturizing formula also contains vitamins C and E for their antioxidant benefits. 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
Formula: Alcohol-free, fragrance-free
Size: 50 ml/48 gr

So these are the best retinols for sensitive skin. Remember that your skin becomes extra sensitive to sunlight when you’re using retinol. So don’t forget to use sunscreen daily. If you don’t have one, take a look at our round-up of the best sunscreens to use with retinol.

How To Choose Retinol 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 likely a low-strength product. A beginner-friendly concentration of retinol suitable for sensitive skin is usually between 0.01% and 0.025%.

Type of Retinol

Retinol can come in pure form or encapsulated form in your creams and serums. Try encapsulated retinol for gentle, slow-release retinol absorption to minimize irritation. You can also try retinol esters, which are less potent but also less irritating. On a side note, retinol has more research behind it compared to its esters. Instead of going in for a high-strength retinol ester, go for a low-strength retinol.

Calming and Hydrating Ingredients

Look for hydrating ingredients like hyaluronic acid and ceramides and soothing ingredients like green tea in your retinol 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 that contains several anti-inflammatory extracts, humectants, and antioxidants.

Free of Irritants

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.


Read Next: Best Toners to Use with Retinol

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