What Derms Want You To Know About Using Retinol On Sensitive Skin

You *can* still use one.

How to use retinol on sensitive skin, according to dermatologists.
Getty Images/MonicaNinker

Retinol is one of the most treasured beauty ingredients. The vitamin A derivative does practically every skin-boosting function you could dream of: It speeds up your cell turnover to reveal smoother, more even skin, stimulates collagen production to combat fine lines and wrinkles, and helps with acne and hyperpigmentation. But, if you’ve got sensitive skin, the power behind this super ingredient may cause some trepidation.

Whenever you start talking about “sloughing off” skin, you should prepare for the possibility of irritation. “Retinol is a great ingredient, but it can have some not-so-great side effects,” explains Dr. Lindsey Zubritsky, M.D., a board-certified, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based dermatologist, pointing to symptoms like redness, dryness, and flaking. This is what’s commonly called retinization, and it can happen to all skin types. “Those who are already prone to these issues can find that retinol exacerbates these problems.” So does that mean retinol is bad for sensitive skin since these complexions are particularly finicky?

Dr. Papri Sarkar, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist based in Boston, Massachusetts, agrees that sensitive complexions tend to have the worst side effects with retinol, especially when the ingredient is first introduced. “That doesn’t mean that people with sensitive or reactive skin can’t use retinols, though,” she says. “It just means they have to be judicious about which ones they choose, how often they use it, and how they apply it.” With a bit of due diligence, you can find a retinol product to safely incorporate into your routine. Read on for expert tips, straight from derms.

We only include products that have been independently selected by Bustle's editorial team. However, we may receive a portion of sales if you purchase a product through a link in this article.

What To Look For In A Retinol For Sensitive Skin

The kind of retinol that you’ll find in over-the-counter products is gentler than their prescription retinoid counterparts (like tretinoin and tazarotene), so starting there is already a good first step. As a refresher: Retinol is a less potent form of retinoid. You’ll find a handful of different retinoid forms on the beauty shelves, retinal and adapalene, but experts advise choosing those that are less potent if your skin is sensitive.

“I recommend starting with a retinyl ester like retinyl palmitate or retinyl propionate,” says Zubritsky. Retinyl esters are on the less-potent end of the retinol spectrum, so they’re less likely to cause irritation — but may also be less effective than a stronger form (which means it’ll take more patience to see results). For folks with sensitive skin, Zubritsky also recommends looking for products formulated with encapsulated retinol, where the retinol is, well, encapsulated at the microscopic level so that the potency is delivered slower and in a more controlled way. Translation? Less potential for irritation. The concentration of retinol matters, too. “When choosing a retinol for sensitive skin, I recommend starting on the lower end, such as .01 to .03%,” Zubritsky adds.

Be sure to also take note of the product’s other ingredients, though. Oftentimes, retinol is paired with other actives to increase the efficacy and/or allow it to penetrate better — and Sarkar says to steer clear of ingredient combos that are super strong. “For sensitive or reactive skin types, this is a big no, especially at first,” she tells Bustle. “I recommend avoiding retinol products that also contain things like glycolic or lactic acid, and vitamin C. Although I love all of those ingredients, they can be irritating also, so pairing it with an [potentially] irritating retinol is too much.”

Instead, both Zubritsky and Sarkar suggest looking for retinol formulas that contain ingredients that can soothe the skin and help combat irritation and dryness: think hyaluronic acid, niacinamide, glycerin, and ceramides.

How To Incorporate Retinol Into Your Routine

Besides looking for the right formula in a retinol, there are best practices to follow in your skin care routine to further keep irritation at bay.

Pair your retinol with gentle products: New York City-based board-certified dermatologist Dr. Rachel Nazarian, M.D., recommends that those with sensitive skin switch to a very mild cleanser and a lightweight, fragrance-free moisturizer. Keep the rest of your regimen simple versus slathering on all the chemical exfoliants you’ve got on your shelf.

Use retinol at night: Apply your retinol in the p.m. rather than the a.m., says Nazarian, as the ingredient can make your skin more prone to sun damage.

Less is more: A little retinol goes a long way. “Using a lot doesn’t increase the benefits and will only risk triggering dryness and irritation,” says Nazarian, who recommends using a pea-sized amount and dotting it around your face, chest, and neck.

Start slow: Don’t immediately apply your retinol every single day. Nazarian says most people should start using the ingredient no more than two or three nights a week (sometimes less if your skin is extremely sensitive) and gradually increase use as your skin becomes accustomed.

Apply it to dry skin: Zubritsky suggests waiting at least 20 minutes after cleansing skin before applying retinol, as slathering it onto damp skin can increase absorption and potentially result in more irritation.

Try the sandwich method: If your skin’s extra sensitive or on the dry side, both Sarkar and Zubritsky recommend the moisturizer sandwich method. “This includes applying a layer of moisturizer followed by a layer of retinol, and sealing it in with a second layer of moisturizer,” she explains.

Use SPF: All of the dermatologists Bustle spoke with stress the importance of wearing a broad-spectrum SPF of at least 30 every day. The fresh skin revealed thanks to retinol will be more sensitive to sun damage, hyperpigmentation, and burning — and you don’t want to undo all your hard work.

Shop Retinol For Sensitive Skin

The Daily Serum

Zubritsky recommends this gentle concoction, which contains a blend of retinol, hydrating vitamin E, and soothing niacinamide to target fine lines and wrinkles while treating dark spots.

The Night Cream

Zubritsky is also a fan of this night cream that pairs retinol with niacinamide to visibly boost your skin’s radiance. Plus, calming ingredients like propanediol and hyaluronic acid help keep your complexion chill, not irritated.

The Retinol-Spiked Moisturizer

This product is basically a two-in-one: It’s a fragrance-free moisturizer that delivers gentle hydration, and it contains retinol to smooth skin while you sleep. Win-win.

The Firming Serum

Sarkar recommends this serum as it’s effective, but gentle. “This retinol serum has glycerin and shea butter to temper the irritation that retinols can sometimes cause,” she tells Bustle.

For Ultra-Nourished Skin

This newly launched serum balances unwanted retinol side effects with moisturizing squalane, soothing algae oil, and inflammation-fighting astralagus — and it’s formulated with melanin-rich skin in mind.

The Plumping Buy

Sarkar is also a fan of this intensive cream that uses a retinaldehyde versus a retinol, making it a gentle option for picky skin. It also contains peptides for added skin-smoothing perks.

The Encapsulated Retinol

This serum contains encapsulated retinol, which is one reason Sarkar recommends it. Alongside the vitamin A derivative, it uses ceramides to boost your skin’s barrier and licorice root extract to help brighten.

The Drugstore Buy

This anti-wrinkle cream combines a sustained-release retinol, hyaluronic acid, and glycerin, and comes highly recommended by Nazarian.

Studies referenced:

Babamiri, K. (2010). Cosmeceuticals: The Evidence Behind the Retinoids. Aesthetic Surgery Journal. Volume 30, Issue 1, January 2010, Pages 74–77,

Ciganovic, P. (2019). Glycerolic Licorice Extracts as Active Cosmeceutical Ingredients: Extraction Optimization, Chemical Characterization, and Biological Activity. Antioxidants.

Leyden, J. (2017). Why Topical Retinoids Are Mainstay of Therapy for Acne. Dermatol Ther.

Liu, P. (2017). Anti-Aging Implications of Astragalus Membranaceus (Huangqi): A Well-Known Chinese Tonic. Aging and Disease.

Zasada, M. & Budzisz, E. (2019). Retinoids: active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatments. Advances in Dermatology Allergology.


Dr. Lindsey Zubritsky, M.D., board-certified dermatologist in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Dr. Papri Sarkar, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in Boston, Massachusetts

Dr. Rachel Nazarian, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in NYC