Those with sensitive skin learn early (and quickly) to tread carefully when it comes to active ingredients in skin care. You won’t see them reviewing that glycolic acid peel on TikTok, and it’s unlikely their beauty horoscope will ever predict 25% vitamin C serums in their future. But believe it or not, using retinol on sensitive skin is entirely doable.
As a quick refresher, retinol or retinoids (a blanket term for all vitamin A derivatives) is a potent anti-aging skin care ingredient. With regular use, it promotes cellular turnover for a brighter, more radiant complexion, improves skin texture, helps the skin produce collagen, and minimizes fine lines and wrinkles, and fights acne and pigmentation. Dermatologists love it because it has a well-researched and proven scientific track record, and is available in both over-the-counter and stronger, prescription-strength varieties.
“Retinoids are the holy grail of a good skin care regimen (outside of sunscreen), so we pretty much recommend them to everyone,” says New York-based dermatologist Dr. Dhaval Bhanusali. The only drawback is that they can be irritating. Even products with a small percentage can cause burning, redness, and peeling when people first start using it, or if it’s used incorrectly. For most retinol users, that initial discomfort isn’t worth the pain, and many quit before they can see results. Despite that, dermatologists say that even people with super sensitive skin can tolerate it and use it continuously, if a few conditions are met. In fact, Dr. Bhanusali says he’s had only one or two patients in his career who have not been able to add retinol into their routines.
Boston-dermatologist Dr. Ranella Hirsch agrees with universal retinol use, but has her patients tick off a few boxes before using these products. For patients with extra sensitive skin, she first treats any underlying conditions causing the sensitivity. Those who suffer from rosacea or perioral dermatitis should start retinol under the guidance of a dermatologist, says Dr. Hirsch, since these conditions are difficult to contain and it’s very easy to spiral out of control while using a retinol if you’re predisposed to them.
If you want to give retinol a shot despite your sensitive skin, here’s what the experts have to say about doing it correctly.
Learn Which Ingredients Play Nicely With Retinol — And Which Ones Don’t
If you’re interested in retinol, you most likely have other products already in your skin care routine. If you’re incorporating it for the first time, it’s important to prioritize using products that have calming and strengthening ingredients to lessen retinol’s harsher effects — most notably dryness.
Many over-the-counter retinol products contain ingredients like ceramides and fatty acids to support the skin barrier, but that might not be enough for delicate complexions. For them, Dr. Tiffany L Clay, a dermatologist in Atlanta, recommends what she calls a “retinol sandwich.” As she says, “Apply a hydrating serum first to get moisture and hydration on the skin, then put on your retinol and follow that with a moisturizer. You have a barrier of protection underneath and then your moisturizer locks in hydration after you apply the retinol.”
To keep the peace, be hyper aware of what other active ingredients are in your skin care routine, even on the days you’re not using retinol. “Sometimes, combining products and ingredients like salicylic acid, glycolic acid, and hydroquinone with retinol can lead to irritation,” says Tiara Willis, a New York-based esthetician. That goes for your professional treatments too, so before you schedule a facial or an in-office treatment, make sure to call ahead and alert your provider to what sort of retinol product you’re currently on. “For many treatments like chemical peels or lasers, clients need to discontinue using retinol for a period of time,” says Willis. Not doing so might result in red, aggravated skin.
Willis also shares the golden rule of retinol that long-term users know never to mess with: SPF is not optional. “Retinol makes your skin sensitive to the sun so everyone who uses it must wear sunscreen,” she says.
Start Low & Slow With Retinol
Dr. Clay says people with sensitive skin shouldn’t be pressured into thinking daily retinol use will be the most effective method for them. She advises to start with once a week, and if that produces no irritation, slowly ramp up to twice a week with a few retinol-free days in between. A few weeks later, you can work up to every other day.
Nearly all users, irrespective of skin color, will suffer through the retinol scaries — the phenomenon of dryness, flaking, peeling and burning after starting a retinol. But melanated skin can also experience unwanted pigmentation. “The dryness can induce an eczema-like reaction with the appearance of hyperpigmentation which takes weeks to months to clear up,” says Dr. Clay. It’s an added reason why people of color should maintain a low and slow approach with retinol, as Dr. Clay says it’s an extremely common side effect.
Pay Attention To Percentages
Work with your dermatologist to determine a product with an appropriate percentage of retinol (which can range from .025% to 1% depending on whether or not it’s a prescription formula). Lower means gentler, which is likely what they will recommend if you have sensitive skin.
Dr. Hirsch says to also discard the thinking that you need to be constantly be upping the percentage of retinol you’re using. “That’s not anywhere as important as consistently using a product,” she says. “You can consistently use [a lower percentage] and get results, though it might take a little bit longer to get there. I would much prefer something weaker less frequently, which you use regularly and stay on it for a year or two, rather than you use something that irritates you, and you wind up using it for some short period of time,” she says. And according to Dr. Clay, this is especially important if you have a darker skin tone.
Be Mindful Of How Much You’re Using
A more conservative approach seems to be the overall theme with retinol, and that goes for the amount of product to be applied as well. A pea-sized amount for the whole face is the classic dermatologist dosing recommendation. Any more than that provides no added benefits but can potentially lead to more irritation.
Dr. Hirsch has a great tip for training yourself to use the right amount. “Split the pea-sized amount into quarters and apply each one to a quadrant of your face,” she says. “Then, take a tissue and press it to your face. If it sticks to your face, you’ve used too much.” She says that most everyone uses too much in the beginning. As a sensitive-skinned sister, I’ve found that using half or even a quarter of the pea-sized amount for the first few weeks is helpful, as it allows the skin to slowly acclimatize to the new ingredient.
Avoid The Hotspots
Beginners should also steer clear of areas that tend to be sensitive: around the eyes, in the creases of the nose, and on the neck and chest. “People come in with pretty exuberant irritation from using it in those places and it’s okay to apply it to those areas, if you’re moisturizing well with a creamier product, as the skin doesn’t produce as much oil in those areas” says Dr. Clay.
Finally, nothing is as valuable as first-hand knowledge. You know your face best, so leverage prior experience to avoid the hotspots that are always the first to show signs of irritation. Personally, I’d never apply retinol to the butterfly area (the inner cheeks on either side of my nose), as that’s the most sensitive and reactive part of my face.
Choose Your Fighter
Innovations in formulation have also made retinol more tolerable to those with sensitive skin. Micro-encapsulated formulas — wherein the retinol molecule is encapsulated within another substance — are much more popular in 2021, and much more easily tolerated. It helps in two ways, says Dr. Hirsch: It allows the product to penetrate into the skin without irritating the epidermis and release the retinol into the deeper layers where it’s most effective. “It’s like a time-release, making it more tolerable since dryness, flaking, peeling, and irritation on the top layer of the epidermis is greatly reduced,” says Dr. Hirsch.
Secondly, like vitamin C, retinol is an unstable ingredient that degrades easily. Micro-encapsulation helps stabilize the formula by physically shielding the retinol from light and air, keeping it fresher and shelf-stable longer. This technology is in products like Alastin Skincare’s Renewal Retinol and Glow Recipe’s popular Avocado Melt Retinol Sleeping Mask.
Equally effective is Dr. Bhanusali’s modus operandi for sensitive skin patients wanting to benefit from retinol. He creates a custom prescriptions via Skin Medicinals, an online platform he founded to make topical prescriptions more cost effective. “Often, I add in hyaluronic acid with the tretinoin, and the formulations also have niacinamide and turmeric which are anti-inflammatories, to help with tolerability,” he says. To combat potential pigmentation in deeper skin tones, his formula includes azelaic acid to block pigmentation, as well as hyaluronic acid to add hydration to the skin.
If traditional retinol still isn’t appealing to you, the buzzy plant-derived alternative, bakuchiol, has retinol-like properties (like stimulating collagen production) but is much gentler and ideal if you are particularly sensitive.
Sometimes Retinol Just Isn’t For You
Despite valiant efforts, it might turn out that retinol simply isn’t in your skin’s best interest. Dr. Clay says in some cases, patients follow a supportive skin care routine with gentler retinol products, follow her instructions, and the tweaks she makes in their routine, but still display burning, redness, or rashes. That’s when she knows the risk is outweighing the benefit and it’s time to stop. Willis agrees: “Not every product works for everyone. Don't feel pressured to follow a trend.”
Below, a few vetted dermatologist picks for the best retinol to use on sensitive skin.
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Dermatologist Dr. Ranella Hirsch says this rich, thick formula does a great job of buffering the retinol so side effects are minimal.
Encapsulated retinol, ceramides, niacinamide and hyaluronic acid make this a winner for dermatologist Dr. Tiffany Clay.
The serum-like texture and calming action with oatmeal and ceramides gets this product a thumbs up from Dr. Hirsch.
Dr. Clay likes these retinol serums which range in percentage from 0.25 to 1.0 yet manage to remain non-irritating. “You can start off with the low percentage and use that for several months and then, continue that one or graduate to the next higher dosage,” she says.
An encapsulated retinol with soothing oat extracts and niacinamide is on Dr. Hirsch’s recommended list. The best part is it comes in two strengths, so you can level up when you’re ready.
Retinol, bakuchiol, and ferulic acid provides resurfacing and antioxidant action, while cucumber extracts and squalane soothe and hydrate. It’s truly gentle, even on the most delicate skin.
Esthetician Tiara Willis likes this light serum with a medium concentration of retinol together with bakuchiol and peptides to strengthen the skin.