Not all retinol is created equal, and that’s actually a great thing if you have sensitive, reactive skin. The ingredient is beloved by dermatologists and consumers alike, thanks to its bevy of benefits. “Retinol helps to regulate skin cell turnover and boost collagen production,” says Marisa Garshick, MD, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist based in New York City. “This improves overall skin tone and texture, helping to address discoloration and reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.”
The best retinols for sensitive skin, at a glance:
- Best overall retinol serum: CeraVe, Resurfacing Retinol Serum, $22
- Best overall retinol cream: Avène, Retrinal 0.1 Intensive Cream, $79
- Best for mature skin: RoC, Retinol Correxion Sensitive Skin Night Cream, $85
- Best for acne-prone sensitive skin: Medik8, Crystal Retinal, $53
- Best for retinol beginners: First Aid Beauty, FAB Skin Lab 0.25 Retinol Serum, $58
- Best drugstore retinol: Neutrogena, Rapid Wrinkle Repair Regenerating Retinol Cream, $24
- Best retinol alternative: Herbivore, Bakuchiol Retinol Alternative Smoothing Serum, $56
- Best derm-developed: Dr. Dennis Gross, Retinol + Ferulic Intense Wrinkle Cream, $77
- Best budget: Versed, Press Restart Gentle Retinol Serum, $22
- Best for dry, sensitive skin: Charlotte Tilbury, Magic Night Cream, $145
- Best for under-eye: Kiehl’s, Micro-Dose Anti-Aging Retinol Serum, $65
- Best splurge: Drunk Elephant, A-Passioni Retinol Cream, $74
But if you’ve tried retinol in the past and it left your skin red and raw, we can understand the hesitancy of returning to the much-beloved skin care ingredient. “The main drawback of using a retinol with sensitive skin is the increased chance of redness, dryness, flaking and irritation,” she says. However, with new product innovations and more research about retinol and related actives like bakuchiol and retinaldehyde, all skin types can get in on the skin-loving benefits with a reduced risk of unsavory side effects.
What should you look for when buying retinol for sensitive skin?
“The key is that you have to use different strengths of retinols if you want to if you account for sensitive skin,” says Mona Gohara, MD, associate clinical professor of dermatology at the Yale School of Medicine. “It’s key to start with a low concentration and introduce it slowly.” You also want to make sure the product contains other ingredients that counteract the irritating qualities of retinol.
“I did research that proved when retinol isn’t formulated with other ingredients that soothe and reinforce the moisture barrier, it can lead to redness, flaking, and peeling,” says Dennis Gross, MD, founder of the eponymous skin-care brand. Look for ingredients like peptides, ceramides, niacinamide, and hyaluronic acid, all which protect, plump, and hydrate your skin. And if your retinol product doesn’t include those ingredients (which is sometimes the case with prescription retinoids like tretinoin), Dr. Garshick says to pair them with a moisturizer or hydrating serum that does.
How should you use retinol for sensitive skin?
“I recommend that you start retinol really gradually; use a pea sized amount over your entire face once a week, then twice, and then work up gradually, all while using a moisturizing, barrier repairing cream” says Dr. Gohara. “This advice is the same for everyone—but it’s especially key for people with sensitive skin.” Dr. Garshick adds that you should avoid using AHAs in conjunction with retinol—at least in the beginning of your journey—as they can add to potential irritation.
“It is important to always remember to apply retinol to dry skin to minimize the potential for irritation,” she says. “You can also apply a petrolatum-based ointment like Vaseline or Aquaphor to the creases near your eyes, lips, and nose to minimize irritation in those areas that are more susceptible to redness and dryness.” And if irritation does occur, Dr. Garshick says it’s okay to stop for a few days and then restart once your skin seems to recover.
Ahead, see 12 of the best retinols for sensitive skin, all recommended by the pros. We’ve included serum and cream formulas and given you all the details so you can make a purchase you feel good about. You’ll find drugstore staples from brands like CeraVe, luxurious innovations from the likes of Dr. Dennis Gross and Charlotte Tilbury, and more of your future top shelf products right here.
The best retinols for sensitive skin
Best overall retinol serum
CeraVe, Resurfacing Retinol Serum — $15.00
CeraVe’s popular retinol serum is potent but gentle on reactive skin without any of the tightness and redness you might get from other retinol-based products. “This serum contains a combination of an encapsulated retinol to help resurface the skin as well as licorice root extract to improve discoloration,” says Dr. Garshick. “In addition, it contains ceramides to help support and strengthen the natural skin barrier and niacinamide which is soothing and calming on the skin.”
Size: 1 oz
Standout ingredients: Encapsulated retinol, ceramides, niacinamide, licorice root extract
- Non-greasy formula
- Can take a long time to fade dark spots
Best overall retinol cream
Avène, Retrinal 0.1 Intensive Cream — $78.00
Dr. Gohara recommends this cream from Avène because it’s formulated with retinaldehyde, which she says is “a precursor to tretinoinic acid and less harsh on your skin.” She considers Retrinal 0.1 stronger than the typical OTC product, but not as strong as a tretinoin you’d pick up from the pharmacy. It’s a moisturizing cream that’s also formulated with peptides and the brand’s soothing spring water.
Size: 1 oz
Standout ingredients: Retinal, peptides, vitamin E, titanium dioxide, thermal spring water
- Formulated with protective peptides
- Gentle enough for rosacea
- Too heavy for oily skin
Best for mature skin
RoC, Retinol Correxion Sensitive Skin Night Cream — $85.00
“This drugstore favorite is a great option for retinol beginners,” says Dr. Garshick. “It works to help reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles and incorporates hyaluronic acid to help with signs of aging.” Though it’s on the pricey end, the top-rated night cream is moisturizing but still lightweight, and reviewers say it helps with concerns like blackheads, too.
Size: 1 oz
Standout ingredients: Retinol, hyaluronic acid, vitamin C, shea butter
- Oil-free formula is great for acne-prone skin
- A little goes a long way
- Can be strong if used multiple days in a row
Best for acne-prone sensitive skin
Medik8, Crystal Retinal — $53.00
Here’s another retinaldehyde-based product with derm’s stamp of approval. “Using stabilized retinaldehyde, this night serum helps to fight wrinkles and fine lines quicker than other commonly used retinols, as retinaldehyde only requires one conversion to retinoic acid, the active form of vitamin A,” says Dr. Garshick. Plus, since it’s double encapsulated, she says it’s gentle on the skin. It comes in five different strengths depending on your tolerability.
Size: 1 oz
Standout ingredients: Encapsulated retinaldehyde, hyaluronic acid, vitamin E, glycerin
- Comes in progressive strengths that you can work up to
- Doesn’t exacerbate breakouts
- Hard to know which strength is best for you
Best for retinol beginners
First Aid Beauty, FAB Skin Lab 0.25 Retinol Serum — $58.00
This top-rated pick from First Aid Beauty comes recommended by Ranella Hirsch, MD, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist in Boston because of its soothing formula that includes colloidal oatmeal, allantoin, and ceramides. It has a potent retinol concentration of 0.25 percent, which makes those protective, soothing ingredients even more important.
Size: 1 oz
Standout ingredients: Retinol, hyaluronic acid, ceramides, colloidal oatmeal, allantoin, vitamin C, vitamin E
- Potent retinol concentration
- Formulated with “Skin Savior Complex” to reduce reactivity
- Might be too strong for very sensitive skin types
Best drugstore retinol
Neutrogena, Rapid Wrinkle Repair Regenerating Retinol Cream — $24.00
All hail drugstore beauty products. This cream doubles up on moisture while delivering an active dose of retinol. “This is a great retinol option for the winter months as it provides retinol benefits and contains hyaluronic acid to help boost moisture, which improves overall tolerability,” says Dr. Garshick.
Size: 1.7 oz
Standout ingredients: Retinol, hyaluronic acid, glycerin, vitamin C
- Effective on fine lines
Best retinol alternative
Herbivore Bakuchiol Retinol Alternative Smoothing Serum — $56.00
Dr. Gohara recommends bakuchiol as a vegan retinol alternative for folks who don’t want to (or can’t) use the real deal. Beyond Herbivore’s gorgeous packaging, it has a combination of bakuchiol, AHAs, and soothing ingredients to resurface and brighten your skin with little to no redness or irritation.
Size: 1 oz
Standout ingredients: Bakuchiol, polyhydroxy acids, tremella mushroom, gluconolactone, aloe
- Vegan option
- Bakuchiol is thought to be less irritating than retinol
- Can pill under other products
Dr. Dennis Gross, Retinol + Ferulic Intense Wrinkle Cream — $77.00
Dermatologists say that a strong moisture barrier and thicker epidermis mean less irritation, so it’s key to find products that have barrier-strengthening and soothing properties. The retinol blend in this thick cream “works to thicken the epidermis, reinforce the moisture barrier and reduce inflammation so you get all of the benefits of retinol without the irritation,” says Dr. Dennis Gross himself. “My golden rule is ‘red skin is a red flag,’ so I knew when I was creating this product, I would have to design a formula that kept the skin in balance the whole time while also delivering a visible texture improvement.” He says to start using it two or three times per week and gradually increase it.
Size: 1.7 oz
Standout ingredients: Retinol, bakuchiol, rambutan, ferulic acid, arnica, cica
- Skin barrier-strengthening formula
- Luxe, thick cream feels moisturizing while resurfacing skin
- Might feel too thick on oily skin types
Versed, Press Restart Gentle Retinol Serum — $22.00
Get you a retinol-based product who can do both. That is, a serum containing both retinol and bakuchiol to target an entire spectrum of skin care concerns, from fine lines to blackheads. “This creamy serum uses a microencapsulated retinol, meaning it’s less likely to cause irritation at the surface,” says Dr. Garshick. “It also incorporates retinol alternatives like bakuchiol as well as antioxidants.”
Size: 1 oz
Standout ingredients: Bakuchiol, encapsulated retinol, shea butter, aloe, hyaluronic acid
- Targets signs of aging and clogged pores/acne
- Light, creamy texture that soaks in quickly
- Might not be potent enough for some
Best for dry, sensitive Skin
Charlotte Tilbury, Magic Night Cream — $145.00
For aging or parched skin, we love this thick cream from Charlotte Tilbury—and so do derms. “Containing a time release retinol, this overnight cream helps to boost radiance while also plumping, improving the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles,” says Dr. Garshick. It also contains vitamin E, which she says nourishes the skin so it won’t leave the skin irritated or dry.
Size: 1.6 oz
Standout ingredients: Retinol, plant-based stem cells, red algae extract, castor seed oil
- Ultra-moisturizing formula is great for winter and dry skin
- Fragrance can be irritating
Best for under-eye
Kiehl’s, Micro-Dose Anti-Aging Retinol Serum — $65.00
If you’re most concerned with fine lines or wrinkles around your eyes, you need a gentle, versatile formulation. While this serum from Kiehl’s is for your whole face and neck, many reviewers note how quickly it plumped and brightened their under-eyes. Dr. Michelle Henry, MD, dermatologist at Skin & Aesthetics Surgery of Manhattan previously recommended it to us, saying, “It has precise microdosing and it is formulated for the most sensitive skin types.”
Size: 1 oz
Standout ingredients: Retinol, peptides, ceramides, glycerin
- Formula evens skin tone gently
- Lightweight, creamy formula that blends easily
- Has a more oily texture that might create breakouts in acne-prone skin
Drunk Elephant, A-Passioni Retinol Cream — $74.00
Drunk Elephant’s concentrated cream marries 1 percent retinol with vitamin F, which provide essential fatty acids that soothe the skin and give it a bit of bounce. “I love the A-Passioni cream because it is an easy-to-use, affordable option to introduce a retinoid into your skincare regimen,” says Dr. Ivy Lee, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in California and Medical Director of Direct Dermatology. “It includes antioxidants and moisturizers which hydrate the skin and work to minimize the risk of irritation that’s common with retinoids.” Mix it with any serum or moisturizing cream already in your rotation for a hydration boost.
Size: 1 oz
Standout ingredients: Retinol, peptides, niacinamide, vitamin F, hyaluronic acid
- Formulated with a skin-friendly, slightly acidic pH 5.8
- Good combination of active and calming ingredients
- Might be too strong for retinol beginners
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