The Best Retinols For Sensitive Skin, According To Derms

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If you have sensitive (or sensitized) skin, you may be wondering if retinol is safe for you to use. According to three dermatologists who spoke to Bustle for this article — Dr. Brendan Camp, Dr. Marisa Garshick, and Dr. Azadeh Shirazi — the answer is a resounding yes. Still, all three derms agree that sensitive-skinned folks do have to be careful about using retinol the right way. That entails making sure you’re using one of the best retinols for sensitive skin — aka, a product that contains a low concentration of retinol (at least at first) — and allowing your skin to adjust to the product by starting out “low and slow” before working your way up to more frequent use. To learn more, keep reading, because you’ll find answers to your most commonly asked retinol questions below, as well as product recommendations from the experts.

Is retinol safe to use on sensitive skin?

As previously stated, yes — retinol is safe to use on sensitive skin, but there are a few things to keep in mind. “Having sensitive skin should not preclude you from using a retinol,” says Dr. Camp. “While retinols are notorious for untoward side effects, such as dry skin, redness, and irritation, there are ways to use these products in such a way such that all skin types can use them.”

How to use retinol with sensitive skin:

According to Dr. Camp, “Retinols do not have to be applied every night to be effective. When first starting a new retinol product I often recommend patients use it every third night for a month. This allows you to slowly introduce the medication to the skin and gives your skin time to adapt to its effects. Overtime, as your skin becomes more comfortable with the retinol, it can be used with increased frequency.” Dr. Garshick suggests a similar approach: “Those with sensitive skin should introduce retinol at a low concentration and start slowly, which means only using it a few times per week to start. The gradual introduction of a retinol using a ‘low and slow’ technique can help the skin adjust to retinol use and be less likely to cause redness, dryness, or irritation.”

Both Dr. Camp and Dr. Garshick suggest applying a pea-sized amount of retinol to cover your entire face on skin that’s completely dry. (“Applying retinols to skin that is totally dry will limit its absorption, and therefore limit potential side effects. This may mean waiting 10 minutes for the skin to completely dry after washing it before applying the retinol,” Dr. Camp explains.) “Avoid the skin around the eyes, nose, and lip, as they tend to be more sensitive to the effects of retinols,” he adds.

Retinol is usually applied on bare skin that’s been freshly cleansed, but if you have sensitive skin, you may want to rethink your approach. “Those with sensitive skin may prefer to apply a moisturizer after cleansing and then apply a retinol after to reduce irritation,” Dr. Garshick suggests. “ If irritation still persists then there is another option of the sandwich technique, where you would apply moisturizer, then the retinol and then moisturizer again. For those with sensitive skin, it can also help to apply petrolatum ointment such as Vaseline prior to applying a retinol to the skin around the eyelid, corners of the nose, and the lip as this provides a protective barrier to prevent the skin in these areas from being impacted or irritated by the retinol.”

Dr. Shirazi offers up another, similar approach: “I have my [sensitive-skinned] patients break up their night time routine into two parts. Cleanse and moisturize first earlier in the evening, then later, closer to bedtime, apply your retinol on its own. The reason being your skin goes into receiving the retinol cleansed and well hydrated, therefore tolerating it better.”

What are the best retinols for sensitive skin?

“Generally retinols are found over-the-counter while there are prescription retinoids available which tend to be stronger, but may still be an option for those with sensitive skin if introduced gradually,” explains Dr. Garshick. (For this article’s purposes, we’re going to be focusing on over-the-counter products — aka retinols in their truest form — only.)

“A cream-based product may be more hydrating and better tolerated than a gel-based product,” says Dr. Camp, who suggests retinyl propionate as a good option for people with sensitive skin, because it’s a milder version of retinol.

Dr. Shirazi suggests retinyl palmitate, which is similar to retinyl propionate. She says it’s the lightest form of retinol, and calls it “ the chamomile tea version, since it has to be converted three times to have an effect on the skin.” Other types of retinols to consider include standard retinol OTC, which is also gentle, according to Dr. Dhirazi, but “ but more of a green tea.” Last, there’s retinaldehyde — “a black tea version suitable for those who aren’t quite ready for prescription strength, but looking for a step up from retinol.”

In a hurry? These are the best retinols for sensitive skin:

1. Best Retinol Serum: La Roche-Posay Retinol Serum B3

2. Best Retinol Gel: Differin Gel

3. Best Retinol Cream: Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Regenerating Cream

4. Best Retinol Capsules: Elizabeth Arden Retinol Ceramide Capsules

5. Best Retinol Stick: Peace Out Skincare Retinol Eye Stick

What products should you avoid when using retinol on sensitive skin?

All three doctors recommend avoiding other potentially irritating active ingredients and exfoliants when first starting to use retinol. These include, but are not limited to, benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, glycolic acid, vitamin C, and even certain toners. “It is recommended to introduce these products to your skin care regimen only after your skin has adjusted completely to the retinol,” Dr. Camp cautions.

Some last parting words of wisdom from the dermatologists: “Be patient. It is normal for people, even those without sensitive skin, to experience dryness, redness, irritation, or discomfort when starting a retinoid… it is also important to note that if the skin does become irritated at any time when using a retinol, it is okay and encouraged to skip a few days to allow the skin to recover prior to continuing to use it,” says Dr. Garshick. And don’t forget your daily SPF, since retinol can make your skin more sensitive to the sun.

To shop the best retinols for sensitive skin — all suggested by the experts — keep scrolling. Then, pick up one of the best moisturizers to use with retinol.


Best Retinol Serum For Sensitive Skin

Dr. Camp recommends this gentle retinol serum from French pharmacy brand La Roche-Posay. “This product combines retinol with the calming effects of niacinamide and the hydrating effects of hyaluronic acid,” he explains. This super-lightweight serum is made with both pure and time-released retinol (in a low, 0.3% concentration) for optimal efficacy, while glycerin — another humectant, like hyaluronic acid — offers further nourishing benefits, making this a great choice for sensitive skin.


Best Retinol Gel For Sensitive, Acne-Prone Skin

“Especially good for those with acne-prone skin, this formerly prescription retinoid, known as adapalene, is now available over-the-counter and not only works to prevent breakouts, but also to treat acne and improve scarring by boosting collagen production,” says Dr. Garshick. “It can be used once daily and it is often best to start just a few times per week and increase the frequency as tolerated.” Differin gel is also a fan-favorite on Amazon, with over 25,000 perfect five-star ratings — over 150 of which specifically call it out for being good for sensitive skin.


Best Retinol Cream For Sensitive Skin

Dr. Garshick also suggests this retinol cream from Neutrogena. “This cream combines a retinol with hyaluronic acid, making it a particularly great option for those just starting out with a retinol or those with dry or sensitive skin, as the hyaluronic acid helps to boost moisture and reduce irritation,” she explains. She adds that the combination of retinol and hyaluronic acid helps promote the appearance of smoother, firmer skin. And as Dr. Camp noted, creams may be more hydrating than gel-based retinols, and therefore more suitable, for dry, sensitive skin,


Best Retinol Capsules For Sensitive Skin

Dr. Shirazi likes Elizabeth Arden’s Retinol Ceramide Capsules. There are a few reasons why this product is so great: Firstly, the retinol serum inside is balanced out by nourishing, skin-strengthening ceramides, as well as firming and plumping peptides to bolster the retinol’s rejuvenating effects, and three different plant-derived oils — olive, sunflower seed, and avocado — to further nourish skin, making these capsules a great choice for sensitive skin that’s also prone to dryness. Secondly, each capsule contains just the right amount of product for your face and neck, so there’s no guesswork involved when it comes to application.


Best Retinol Stick For Sensitive Under-Eye Skin

Not only is this retinol stick really convenient to use, but it was specifically formulated for use around the sensitive eye contour area. And since the skin under your eyes is the most delicate on your face, you can rest assured that this stick is gentle enough to use on the rest of your face, should you so choose. The solid balm contains encapsulated retinol, moisturizing squalane, a peptide complex for smooth, plump skin, and astaxanthin, an ingredient that can purportedly help fight off environmental aggressors such as free radicals. Obviously, this handy little stick is great for travel, too.


Best Splurge

“Though a bit of a jump in cost compared to other retinol products, this product was made for people with sensitive skin in mind,” says Dr. Camp. PCA Skin’s Retinol Treatment For Sensitive Skin contains a low concentration of time-released retinol, and is also formulated with soothing niacinamide (aka vitamin B3), moisturizing glycerin, hexylresorcinol — another soothing ingredient that, like niacinamide, promotes a more even skin tone — and the brand’s own InflaShield, a patented technology that works to quell any irritation that might occur while using this product.

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