- Retinol is a powerful anti-aging solution but it can cause side effects in all skin types.
- When used with caution, it can be used safely on sensitive skin.
- For best results, choose a moisturizer or cream with a low percentage of retinol.
- Always wear a sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher, especially when using retinol.
Due to the wide variety of retinol products available, finding the best retinol for sensitive skin is attainable if you know what to look for and how to use it specifically for your skin type.
Retinol is a type of retinoid, a derivative of vitamin A. Applied topically, it increases skin cell turnover to treat many signs of aging including thinning skin, dark spots, fine lines and wrinkles. It can also boost collagen production and treat hyperpigmentation and acne. To achieve optimal results, it must be regularly applied for a period of several months.
Retinol has associated side effects including redness and peeling during the first few weeks of use. For those with sensitive skin, these symptoms may be severe enough to stop use before ever seeing its positive effects.
However, by choosing the correct product and applying it less frequently than directed, you can safely use this retinoid on sensitive skin and take advantage of its many benefits.
Is It Ok to Use Retinol on Sensitive Skin?
It’s important to understand that anyone who uses retinol will experience some initial side effects regardless of skin type. That being said, it is safe for sensitive skin.
Your likelihood of successfully following through with a retinol regimen can improve if you start by applying a low percentage of (0.01%) just once or twice a week, and gradually increasing frequency as your skin becomes accustomed to the product. Side effects will clear up after two to six weeks.
Who should avoid using retinol?
As a precautionary measure, retinoids are not recommended for use for pregnant or breastfeeding women as they have been linked to birth defects in a small number of cases.
Best Retinol Products for Sensitive Skin
Sensitive skin benefits most from retinol in moisturizing formulas containing low percentages of this active ingredient. Choose over-the-counter (OTC) products and avoid prescription-strength retinoids such as retinoic acid, commonly marketed as Retin-A or Tretinoin, which are too harsh for sensitive skin.
Although you will inevitably experience some side effects when using a retinol skin care product, they should be tolerable enough for you to continue using the product for the duration necessary to see results.
However, If it severely irritates your skin, discontinue use until your skin has fully healed. If you so choose, you can try again by using the product less frequently.
Retinols are available in the form of creams, moisturizers and serums.
Retinol creams are formulated with moisturizing ingredients to cause less irritation than the typical retinol serum. They may include skin-soothing vitamin E and colloidal oatmeal along with other anti-aging ingredients such as peptides and squalane. Retinol creams are designed to be used in conjunction with your regular moisturizer and are well tolerated by dry and combination skin types.
A retinol-containing moisturizer works well for dry skin as it includes nourishing, hydrating ingredients to counteract the retinol’s drying effects. They offer more moisturizing benefits than retinol creams, so you won’t have to use a separate moisturizer after application.
Retinol serums are lightweight and usually contain a higher percentage of active ingredients than creams or moisturizers. They work best on oily or acne-prone skin and are therefore not ideal for dry, sensitive skin. Serums can be used on sensitive combination skin if applied only to the oily parts of the face.
Select a serum with a low percentage of retinol—even 0.01% can produce results over time—and apply a generous layer of moisturizer afterward each time you use it.
How to Use Retinol on Sensitive Skin
Because retinoids cause light sensitivity in skin, it’s best to apply it as part of your evening skin care routine so the product isn’t on your face during the day. Be sure to wear a sunscreen of at least SPF 30 during the duration of your retinol use as you’ll be vulnerable to sunburn.
Step 1: Cleanse gently
Wash your face with a fragrance-free, hypoallergenic cleanser – ideally a cream or lotion to maximize hydration. Gently pat the skin dry.
Step 2: Apply
Apply the retinol cream, moisturizer or serum. You’ll likely only need a pea-sized amount, which may be less than what is instructed on the package.
Step 3: Moisturize
Follow up by applying your regular night cream. If you are using a retinol moisturizer, you will not need this final step.
Start by applying retinol only once a week. You can gradually increase the frequency of use as your skin becomes accustomed to the product.
Vitamin C is an antioxidant that protects skin from free radicals while reducing the signs of aging and increasing elastin and collagen production. It is available in creams, lotions and highly concentrated serums.
Niacinamide, a type of vitamin B, can also reduce fine lines, wrinkles and hyperpigmentation and improve skin elasticity.
Retinol is a vitamin A derivative with powerful anti-aging benefits. It can erase fine lines and wrinkles, thicken skin and boost collagen production.
While it is known to cause irritation in most skin types, it can still be used by people with sensitive skin if the proper precautions are taken. Minimize your skin’s reaction by choosing a moisturizing product with a low percentage of retinol and only apply it once or twice a week.
Always be sure to wear a sunscreen of SPF 30 while using retinol, as your skin’s sensitivity to the sun will be greatly increased.
If your skin cannot tolerate retinol, products containing hyaluronic acid, ceramides, vitamin C and niacinamide can also improve the overall appearance of your skin and reduce the signs of aging in the long term.
- Bissett, D. L., Oblong, J. E., & Berge, C. A. (2006). Niacinamide: A B Vitamin that Improves Aging Facial Skin Appearance. Dermatologic Surgery, 31, 860–866. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16029679
- Mukherjee, S., Date, A., Patravale, V., Korting, H. C., Roeder, A., & Weindl, G. (2006). Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clinical interventions in aging, 1(4), 327–348. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2699641/
- Bozzo, P., Chua-Gocheco, A., & Einarson, A. (2011). Safety of skin care products during pregnancy. Canadian family physician Medecin de famille canadien, 57(6), 665–667. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3114665/
- Pavicic, T., Gagulitz, GG., Lersch, P., Schwach-Abdellaoui, K., Malle, B., Korting, HC., Farwick, M. (2011) Efficacy of cream-based novel formulations of hyaluronic acid of different molecular weights in anti-wrinkle treatment. J Drugs Dermatol, 10(9), 990-1000. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22052267
- Spada, F., Barnes, T. M., & Greive, K. A. (2018). Skin hydration is significantly increased by a cream formulated to mimic the skin’s own natural moisturizing systems. Clinical, cosmetic and investigational dermatology, 11, 491–497. doi:10.2147/CCID.S177697