Everybody loves retinol, the gold standard for anti-aging, uneven tone, and breakouts, but the truth is that, as good as it is, retinol might be too harsh for some. Due to its ability to encourage cell turnover at an accelerated rate, problematic skins might face more downsides than benefits when using retinol. Yes, you know you should apply retinol at night, but what else? Buckle up because there’s a lot to unpack; we are teaching you how to use retinol on sensitive skin so that you enjoy all its perks to the fullest.
Is retinol good for sensitive skin?
Retinol is great for sensitive skin and might actually be your ticket to a more resilient complexion. Due to its ability to stimulate collagen production and slough off dead, weakened cells, making room for healthier cells, retinol can strengthen skin. Moreover, retinol can restore skin thickening by stimulating cell proliferation, aka it makes cells grow and divide to produce two other cells, leading to increased firmness and elasticity.
How to use retinol on sensitive skin
Here is everything you need to know about using retinol on sensitive skin for more chances to enjoy the benefits without the side effects:
Get your skin ready: Before adding retinol to your routine, make sure you don’t use any sensitizing ingredients, such as exfoliants, benzoyl peroxide, hydroquinone, cleansers with SLSs, or astringent toners, two days prior to retinol. Instead, reach for gentle, skin-replenishing actives, like peptides, ceramides, and niacinamide.
Take it low and slow: Sensitive skin should start using retinol in the lowest-strength concentration — 0.01% to 0.03% — with once-weekly applications. Once the skin gets accustomed to retinol use (which usually happens after the first four to six weeks), you can gradually increase frequency to twice a week, then thrice when your skin becomes trained. Equally important is the quantity of retinol you apply: a pea-sized amount is enough for the entire face. Using too much retinol at once can increase the chances of irritation.
Sandwich method: Sandwiching your retinol is an excellent way to avoid redness and sensitivities as it will create an extra layer of protection between retinol and your skin. This is how you do it: after you have cleansed your face, apply a thin layer of moisturizer, follow with retinol serum, and finish with another layer of moisturizer. Must mention: it’s important to wait a few minutes so that the first layer of moisturizer sinks into the skin before applying retinol.
Start with gentle forms of retinol: A few versions of retinol act milder, and even if the results may take more time to show, at least you don’t risk sensitizing your skin more. One of these forms is encapsulated retinol (also goes by time-release retinol), which frees its molecules slowly instead of all at once, making it less likely to trigger adverse effects than retinol. You can also look out for retinyl propionate and granactive retinoid, as these two forms of retinol need to pass through more conversion steps to become the active form of vitamin A than retinol, hence work milder.
Watch your skin: For sensitive skin is crucial to observe how it reacts to retinol use. Is it constantly red? Flaky and dry? Then you might want to take it slower, give your skin the time to repair, work on strengthening your protective barrier and hydrate it intensely.
Ingredients that make sensitive skin more tolerant to retinol use
A handful of ingredients are needed for healthier skin and aid in supporting sensitive skin to become accustomed to retinol faster. These include ceramides, peptides, and cholesterol, three potent actives that play a key role in increasing skin resilience and minimizing irritations.
Niacinamide is also a must if you want to use retinol on sensitive skin. It has been shown to reduce water loss and reverse the retinol drying effects due to its incredible moisturizing properties, but also because it supports ceramide production in the skin, consolidating the protective barrier.
Humectants that boost hydration are a go-to for enhancing the skin’s resiliency to retinol. So reach for hyaluronic acid, glycerin, and panthenol to offset transepidermal water loss associated with retinol use. Last but not least, ingredients like glucosamine, trehalose, ectoin, and omega fatty acids have also been shown to reduce irritation associated with retinol.
- Always apply retinol on dry skin. If you use retinol on damp skin, it’s a greater likelihood you’ll experience irritation as wet skin is more permeable.
- Try a retinol cream for beginners.
- Never skip sunscreen in your morning skincare routine.
- Donald L. Bjerke, Rui Li, Jason M. Price, Roy L. M. Dobson, MyriamRubecca Rodrigues, The vitamin A ester retinyl propionate has a unique metabolic profile and higher retinoid-related bioactivity over retinol and retinyl palmitate in human skin models, 24 October 2020, https://doi.org/10.1111/exd.14219
- Xiuzu Song, Aie xu, Wei Pan, Brittany Wallin, Rebecca Kivlin, Shan Lu, Cong Cao, Zhigang Bi, Yinsheng Wan, Nicotinamide attenuates aquaporin 3 overexpression induced by retinoic acid through inhibition of EGFR/ERK in cultured human skin keratinocytes, August 1, 2008 https://doi.org/10.3892/ijmm_00000013
- Kang, Seongsu & Kim, Kyunghoe & Jun, Seung-Hyun & Lee, Seonju & Kim, Juhyun & Shin, Joong-Gon & Kim (2021). Anti-Irritant Strategy against Retinol Based on the Genetic Analysis of Korean Population: A Genetically Guided Top–Down Approach
Read next: 8 Reasons Why Retinol Is Not Working for You