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What is the best retinol for sensitive skin?

How to find gentle yet effective products that deliver the benefits of retinol while minimizing irritation.

Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Sep 7, 2023 • 8 min read
Medically reviewed by Donna McIntyre, NP-BC
Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Sep 7, 2023 • 8 min read
Medically reviewed by Donna McIntyre, NP-BC
We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

Sensitive skin requires special care and attention, especially when you’re including powerful treatments like retinol in your skincare routine. 

Retinol, a vitamin A derivative, is renowned for its anti-aging properties and ability to improve skin texture and tone. But is there a specific retinol you should use if you have sensitive skin?

Here, we’ll take a closer look at what it means to have sensitive skin and how you can find retinol formulas to help you achieve youthful, radiant skin while still maintaining the delicate balance of your sensitive complexion.

There’s no one-size-fits-all in skincare. What works for one person may not necessarily have the same results for someone else. But it’s only natural to want the best! Luckily our team of licensed dermatology providers are regularly reviewing and assessing products on the market and are happy to offer a few recommendations! So here, you’ll find the products that hold up to our rigorous standards.

What is sensitive skin? 

Sensitive skin describes a skin type that is prone to experiencing various adverse, uncomfortable sensations, such as: 

  • Tightness

  • Stinging

  • Burning

  • Tingling

  • Pain

  • Itching 

These sensations can occur in different areas of the body, including the face.¹ The good news is that, in most cases, there are ways you can minimize these uncomfortable symptoms.

What causes sensitive skin?

Understanding the causes of sensitive skin is essential in determining appropriate treatment options. The following factors contribute to sensitive skin:²

Ethnicity: Your race may affect your likeliness of developing sensitive skin. Studies indicate that Caucasians tend to exhibit higher sensitivity, followed by Asians and then African Americans.

Sex: Women have been known to be more likely to report sensitive skin compared to men. This may be because of variations in skin thickness and hormonal influences. 

Location: Your face, particularly your nasolabial fold (the crease or line that runs from the side of your nose to the corners of your mouth) is the primary site for sensitive skin. Thinner skin barrier, increased cosmetic usage, and a higher density of nerve endings contribute to the heightened sensitivity observed in this area. Other regions, such as your forearms, hands, genital area, and scalp, can also be affected by sensitivity.

Environmental factors: Various environmental factors can trigger symptoms of sensitive skin. These include low temperatures, humidity, wind, heat, sun exposure, and pollution. These external elements can disrupt your skin’s barrier function and lead to increased sensitivity.

Cosmetic products: Cosmetics are a common trigger for sensitive skin. Certain ingredients found in cosmetic products, such as alpha-hydroxy acids, alcohol, and fragrances, can increase the likelihood of experiencing symptoms. Alteration of your skin’s pH and penetration of irritants can also contribute to sensitive skin.

It’s important to note that these causes of sensitive skin can vary from person to person. Identifying your specific triggers and underlying factors can help you better understand how to treat your skin and what products to use on it.

What is retinol, and can I use it for sensitive skin?

Retinol is a topical retinoid, which belongs to a group of compounds derived from vitamin A. 

Retinoids have many skincare benefits such as reducing wrinkles, promoting skin cell turnover, protecting collagen, and inhibiting enzymes that degrade collagen. As a result, retinoids are widely used in cosmetics and dermatology for treating skin conditions such as acne, psoriasis, and signs of aging.³ When using retinol for sensitive skin, it's important to approach it cautiously. Starting with a low concentration of retinol allows your skin to adjust gradually and reduces the risk of irritation. Consider looking for gentle formulations that contain less irritating retinoids like retinaldehyde and retinol.⁴

Encapsulated retinol is another option to consider. It’s designed to slowly release the retinol and potentially minimizing irritation.⁵

Before applying retinol to your entire face, perform a patch test on a small area of your skin to assess how your skin reacts and whether any irritation occurs.

Because retinol may potentially cause dryness, be sure to keep your skin well moisturized. Apply a gentle, non-comedogenic moisturizer after using retinol. Additionally, wear sunscreen during the day to protect your skin from sun damage, especially since retinoids increase sun sensitivity.⁶

Sensitivity to retinol can vary from person to person. So, make sure to listen to your skin and adjust your skincare routine accordingly to avoid any discomfort or adverse reactions. We recommend consulting with a dermatology provider to ensure you’re using retinol appropriately and safely.

Taking care of your sensitive skin 

Taking care of sensitive skin requires a gentle and tailored approach. Choose moisturizers with non-comedogenic ingredients, that are fragrance-free, and that don’t contain substances that are known to irritate your skin.⁷ Look for products specifically formulated for sensitive skin to minimize the risk of irritation. Also, apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a high SPF regularly—even on cloudy days—to further protect your skin. Since UV radiation can trigger sensitivity symptoms, a sunscreen specifically formulated for sensitive skin is your best bet.

Speak with a dermatology provider

If you have sensitivity or specific concerns regarding the use of retinol, it’s highly recommended to seek guidance from a dermatology provider. Consulting with a medical provider will allow you to receive personalized recommendations and expert advice tailored to your unique skin needs. They can consider your skin type, sensitivity, and any underlying conditions to determine if retinol is suitable for you. A dermatology provider can also offer alternative treatments or suggest adjustments to your skincare routine to ensure optimal results, while minimizing the risk of irritation or other adverse effects.

Enhance your routine with personalized skincare

Even if you have sensitive skin, Curology can help you create a personalized skincare routine. Snap a few selfies and answer a few questions to connect with a licensed dermatology provider who will curate a custom skincare formula just for your concerns.

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Which brand of retinol is best for sensitive skin?

There’s no specific brand of retinol that’s best for sensitive skin. Retinoids such as retinaldehyde and retinol are generally considered less irritating than other forms.⁸  However, remember that everyone's skin is unique, and what works for one person may not work for another. 

What is the most gentle type of retinoid?

Retinaldehyde and retinol are often considered more tolerable and less likely to irritate than other topical retinoids.⁹ Retinyl palmitate, a retinol derivative, is also known to produce less irritant effects.These milder retinoids can still induce the cellular and molecular changes observed with the application of retinoic acid but with potentially reduced irritation.¹⁰

What percentage of retinol is best for sensitive skin?

It’s generally recommended to start with a low concentration and gradually increase as tolerated. This approach allows your skin to adjust gradually to the retinol and minimizes the risk of irritation. If you have any concerns, consult with a dermatology provider who can evaluate your skin’s sensitivity and provide personalized recommendations on the appropriate retinol concentration for your specific needs.

• • •

P.S. We did the homework so you don’t have to:

  1. Wollenberg, A. and Arnau, A. G. Sensitive skin: A relevant syndrome, be aware. Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology. (2022, March 21)

  2. Duarte, I.,et al. Sensitive skin: review of an ascending concept. An Bras Dermatol. (July, 2017)

  3. Zasada, M. and Budzisz, E. Retinoids: active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatments. Postepy Dermatol Alergol. (August, 2019)

  4. Mukherjee, S., et al. Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clin Interv Aging. (2006)

  5. Shields, CW 4th., et al. Encapsulation and controlled release of retinol from silicone particles for topical delivery. J Control Release. (2018, May 28)

  6. Mukherjee, S., et al. Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clin Interv Aging. Ibid.

  7. Sethi, A., et al. Moisturizers: The Slippery Road. Indian J Dermatol. (May, 2016)

  8. Mukherjee, S., et al. Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clin Interv Aging. Ibid

  9. Mukherjee, S., et al. Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clin Interv Aging. Ibid

  10. Oliveira MB., et al. Topical application of retinyl palmitate-loaded nanotechnology-based drug delivery systems for the treatment of skin aging. Biomed Res Int. Ibid

Donna McIntyre is a board-certified nurse practitioner at Curology. She obtained her Master of Science in Nursing at MGH Institute of Health Professions in Boston, MA. 

* Subject to consultation. Subscription is required. Results may vary.

• • •
Our medical review process:We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team

Donna McIntyre, NP-BC

Donna McIntyre, NP-BC

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