When it comes to addressing just about any skin issue — from wrinkles and uneven tone to rough texture and breakouts — retinol is where we’re at. Retinol, the gold standard for youth-boosting skincare, makes skin cell turnover faster, sloughing off dead cells so that the new, healthy ones can take their place. While this comes with endless benefits, the lag time before new cells come to the surface also leaves the skin’s barrier vulnerable, potentially resulting in redness, peeling, or irritation. This has even more chances to happen if your skin is reactive.
So, how to use retinol on sensitive skin? This is likely a question most retinol users have turned over in their heads at one point or another, as we all know that retinol isn’t the most easygoing of ingredients. Even if it has a track record of inducing irritation, you can use retinol on sensitive skin if you start low and slow and follow some directions—don’t fret, it’s all here.
Is retinol good for sensitive skin?
While retinol is safe for sensitive skin, you should err on the side of caution when incorporating a retinol product into your routine. As such, consider adding retinol slowly into your regimen, starting with low-concentrated products and using them 2-3 times a week to allow your skin to adjust.
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, cleansers with sulfates, or astringent toners, two days before. Instead, reach for gentle, skin-replenishing actives like peptides, ceramides, and cholesterol, as they aid in reinforcing the barrier and making the complexion more resilient. Polysaccharides were also shown to maintain skin hydration during retinol use and extend it for three days after, so look out for gentle products containing hyaluronic acid and red and brown algae. Additionally, you can add a niacinamide serum to your routine, as it has been found to reduce water loss and reverse retinol drying effects due to its ability to support ceramide in the skin. Glucosamine, trehalose, ectoin, and omega fatty acids have also been shown to reduce irritation associated with retinol.
- Use it at PM: Always apply your retinol product at night because it can make the skin prone to sun damage.
- Layer on dry skin: Applying your retinol on a damp complexion is more likely to trigger reactions since damp skin is more permeable than wet dry. For this reason, you should apply retinol on completely dry skin.
- Take it low and slow: Because your skin is sensitive, you want to use retinol in the lowest concentration (0.01% to 0.03%) and start with once-weekly applications and gradually increase frequency as tolerated.
- Start with gentle forms of retinol: A few versions of retinol act milder, and even if the results may take more time to appear, at least you don’t risk sensitizing your skin more. One of these forms is encapsulated retinol (also goes by time-released retinol), which frees its molecules slowly instead of all at once, making it less likely to trigger reactions 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 they also work gentler.
- Less is more: The quantity of retinol you apply is essential: a pea-sized amount is enough for the entire face and decollete. Using too much retinol at once can increase the chances of irritation.
- Sandwich method: Sandwiching your retinol is a good way to avoid redness and sensitivities since it will create an extra layer of protection between the retinol and your skin. This is how you do it: after you have cleansed your face, apply a thin layer of moisturizer, follow with a gentle retinol serum, and finish with another layer of moisturizer after retinol. Must mention: it’s important to wait a few minutes so that the first layer of moisturizer sinks into the skin before applying retinol. Otherwise, the two products may interfere with each other.
- Use SPF: Due to retinol’s ability to encourage cell turnover and leave the skin vulnerable, sunscreen is mandatory every morning.
- Watch your skin: It is crucial for people with sensitive skin to observe how their complexion reacts to retinol use. Is it constantly red? Flaky and dry? Then you should consider decreasing frequency or concentration and work on strengthening your protective barrier. On the other hand, if retinol is not working for you, you should use more concentrated products.
- Gruber, J.V.; Stojkoska, V.; Riemer, J. Retinol Has a Skin Dehydrating Effect That Can Be Improved by a Mixture of Water-Soluble Polysaccharides. Cosmetics 2020, 7, 80. https://doi.org/10.3390/cosmetics704008
- 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 (2021). Anti-Irritant Strategy against Retinol Based on the Genetic Analysis of Korean Population: A Genetically Guided Top–Down Approach