The "Retinol Sandwich" Method Is Your Ticket To A Drama-Free Glow

How to use the MVP skin care ingredient without the annoying side effects.

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Retinol always seems like a great idea until it turns your face into a flaky, dry desert. While the skin care ingredient is esteemed for its long list of benefits, it’s also notoriously tough to incorporate into a beauty routine, especially if you have sensitive skin. But if you “sandwich” the retinol between two moisturizers, it might be a smoother process.

Known as the retinol sandwich method, this trick combines the power of retinol with the nourishing properties of a moisturizer. The latter product works to offset the irritation and other skin reactions that can occur when you first start to use a retinol.

Why is such a renowned ingredient so problematic, you ask? It’s a vitamin A derivative that’s added to creams and serums to help regulate skin cell turnover, explains Dr. Marisa Garshick, M.D., FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist and clinical assistant professor at Cornell. This helps prevent clogged pores and acne, she tells Bustle, and it also works to boost collagen to improve the appearance of your skin’s texture. When used on a regular basis, retinol can transform a dull complexion into the glowy skin of your dreams. But there’s definitely an adjustment period.

Even when you follow the directions, it’s super common for retinol to cause skin dryness, peeling, redness, and irritation, says Dr. Brendan Camp, M.D., FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist with MDCS Dermatology in Manhattan. “This type of reaction is sometimes referred to as retinol dermatitis,” he tells Bustle. “Retinol dermatitis occurs because of damage or irritation to the skin barrier.”

While they can happen to anyone, retinol’s harsh side effects are more likely to crop up if you have sensitive skin or are prone to rosacea, Garshick says. You can wait a few weeks to see if these symptoms subside on their own as your face adjusts, or help things along by trying out the retinol sandwich method. Here’s what to know about the expert-approved beauty hack.

Benefits Of The Retinol Sandwich Method

Think of the retinol sandwich method as a way to strategically layer your skin care products. Instead of smearing retinol directly onto your skin, the idea is to lay down a moisturizing buffer first. “A retinol sandwich can minimize the side effects of retinol by creating a protective barrier between the product and the skin,” Camp says. Not only does the first layer of moisturizer provide hydration, it also helps limit the amount of retinol that absorbs into your skin, which in turn protects the skin barrier, he explains. Basically, it’s a way to introduce a little less product so your skin has a chance to adjust.

This method is particularly helpful for people with dry and sensitive skin as it makes it easier to tolerate retinol, says Dr. Lauren Penzi, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist with MDCS Dermatology. “The first layer of moisturizer can act as a barrier that can prevent the retinol from penetrating the skin into the deeper dermal layer,” she tells Bustle. “Then the top layer [of moisturizer] helps prevent potential irritation such as dryness, itching, redness, and flaking.” And there you have it: the ideal skin care sandwich.

How To Do The Retinol Sandwich Method

Step One: Cleanse & Moisturize

After cleansing and thoroughly drying your face, Penzi recommends applying a thin layer of a basic, lightweight moisturizer like Cerave PM Facial Moisturizing Lotion or Vanicream.

Step Two: Apply Retinol

Smooth on a thin layer of retinol, avoiding your eyelids and lips. A pea-sized amount is all you need.

Step Three: Moisturize Again

For the third layer, go for a slightly thicker cream or gel to seal in the retinol and protect your skin barrier. Penzi recommends La Roche Posay Toleriane Double Barrier, the Laneige Water Sleeping Mask, or Summer Fridays Jet Lag Mask. And there’s your sandwich.

Are There Any Downsides To The Retinol Sandwich Method?

It’s important to note that applying moisturizer along with your retinol can make it less potent, says Dr. Kseniya Kobets, M.D. a board-certified dermatologist and director of Cosmetic Dermatology at Montefiore-Einstein. But that’s kind of the point; Kobets says less is more when you first start incorporating retinol into your routine. “It’s better to go slow and work [retinol] into your regimen than having to stop using it altogether due to irritation,” she tells Bustle.

It’s also possible you won’t need the top layer of the sandwich. If it seems like your skin is nicely hydrated after you apply the retinol, Kobets suggests skipping the third layer. “Over-moisturizing can definitely be a thing,” she says. “Some ingredients in moisturizers, like dimethicone, may feel very smooth, but overdoing it can clog up pores and cause bumps like milia around the eyes.” Customize it as you need — just as you would with an edible sandwich — and you’ll be well on your way to glowier skin.

Studies referenced:

Becker, LC. (2014). Safety Assessment of Dimethicone Crosspolymers as Used in Cosmetics. Int J Toxicol. doi: 10.1177/1091581814524963.

Kafi, R. (2007). Improvement of naturally aged skin with vitamin A (retinol). Arch Dermatol. 2007 May;143(5):606-12. doi: 10.1001/archderm.143.5.606.

Kim, BH. (2003). The mechanism of retinol-induced irritation and its application to anti-irritant development. Toxicol Lett. doi: 10.1016/j.toxlet.2003.09.001.

Szymański, Ł. (2020). Retinoic Acid and Its Derivatives in Skin. Cells. doi: 10.3390/cells9122660.


Dr. Marisa Garshick, M.D., FAAD, board-certified dermatologist, clinical assistant professor at Cornell

Dr. Brendan Camp, M.D., FAAD, board-certified dermatologist with MDCS Dermatology

Dr. Lauren Penzi, M.D., board-certified dermatologist with MDCS Dermatology

Dr. Kseniya Kobets, M.D., board-certified dermatologist, director of Cosmetic Dermatology at Montefiore-Einstein Advanced Care