The Best Retinol Treatments For Sensitive Skin, Because Flaky Skin Is a Major Downer

Mia Maguire
The Best Retinol Treatments For Sensitive Skin, Because Flaky Skin Is a Major Downer
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When it comes to a tried-and-true active ingredient that actually yields visible results and is backed by years of clinical research confirming its arguably unrivaled efficacy, retinoids are undoubtedly the gold standard. Touted by dermatologists and estheticians for both its anti-aging and anti-acne magical powers, this chemical compound (derived from vitamin A) helps accelerate cell turnover to reveal a new layer of younger-looking, brighter skin. Of course, finding the right retinol for sensitive skin can be quite the challenge, but more on that later.

Basically, retinoids are powerful and effective chemical exfoliants that work their magic by sloughing away dead skin cells on the skin’s surface to reveal a new layer underneath.  This exfoliating process has several skin-enhancing benefits, including helping soften the look of fine lines, fade dark spots and hyperpigmentation, combat dullness and texture and unclog congested pores. Basically, there’s nothing this hero ingredient can’t do.

Retinol was first introduced to the mainstream skincare market as an acne treatment and was later found (by accident) to have anti-aging benefits as well. While retinoids won’t work to treat cystic acne, they’re a trusted remedy for blasting away blackheads due to clogged pores, and can also help to erase the aftermath of an acne battle by fading scarring and red marks left behind from your teenage years.

While the “shedding” process has some serious transformative effects when it comes to the appearance of our skin, the downside is naturally, well exactly that. Unfortunately, the dead skin cells don’t dissipate into thin air after they turn over, which leads to skin peeling, redness and ultra-dry skin. Because retinoids are an exfoliating active, peeling and some degree of irritation is to be expected for all skin types—even oily—if you actually want to see some results.

In fact, it’s common for those just beginning a retinoid skincare routine to feel like their skin actually looks worse for a few weeks before seeing an improvement. Of course, it’s always recommended to start slow and gradually when introducing any form of retinol into your skincare routine, but for those with extra-sensitive skin or rosacea, sometimes the slow-and-steady approach is still not enough to avoid the unpleasant and rather unsightly side effects that come along with a daily, or even weekly, retinol regimen.

However, for those with sensitive skin, this “transitional period” of extreme dryness, painful and un-concealable skin-cracking and relentless periods of burning skin can be downright unbearable and impossible to hide with even the most hydrating and highest coverage foundations. If you’ve ever felt utterly defeated after trying your best to get in on the retinol wagon, but ended your journey red and defeated because your dullness and dark spots look better than the flakes of dead skin and red patches, you may simply want to consider using a different form of the vitamin A derivative.

There are a few different “strains” of retinoids (retinoic acid, retinaldehyde, retinol, and retinyl palmitate), which vary in level of exfoliating intensity from the most potent prescription strength Retonic Acid, which is most commonly under the names Retin-A and Tretinoin, to the most gentle form in the retinoid family, Retinyl palmitate. If you’ve tried using over-the-counter retinol, which is the second weakest form, to no avail, choosing a product with Retinol Palmitate is going to be your best bet as a starting point. When and if you feel that your skin has adjusted to the active, you can graduate to products containing retinol, but we suggest using them every other evening or twice a week initially. Here are some of the best-reviewed retinoid serums for sensitive and dry skin types.

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Retinol Fusion PM Night Serum

Courtesy of Peter Thomas Roth.

Retinol Fusion PM Night Serum

Comprised of Microencapsulated Retinol, this serum has a “continuous burst of retinol” all night long, per the brand. Basically, its ingredients work gently and effectively the whole time you’re asleep, rather than harshly penetrating your skin all at once for a short blip. Like other alternatives, Vitamins C and E are also included in the impressive ingredients list, so you can bet your skin will have an extra glow and extra protection when you’re using this product on the reg.

SkinMedica Retinol Serum

Courtesy of SkinMedica.

SkinMedia Retinol Complex

This retinol-based night serum contains a “low dose” of 0.5 retinol content and is also infused with soothing calming ingredients like magnolia bark to counteract any irritation.

First Aid Beauty FAB Retinol Serum Dermstore

Courtesy of First Aid Beauty.

First Aid Beauty Fab Retinol Serum

Ideal for both sensitive skin types and retinol rookies, this gentle serum contains a concentrated 0.25 of retinol, along with plumping hyaluronic acid to retain moisture and prevent over-drying.

ROC Retinol Sensitive Night Cream Amazon

Courtesy of RoC.

ROC Retinol Sensitive Night Cream

ROC’s affordable line of retinol-based skincare
products has long been a tried and true drugstore beauty staple. This sensitive version of their best-selling Retinol Night Cream is formulated with a milder form of retinol in a moisturizing cream to reduce irritation and keep the skin hydrated – not flaky.


Paula's Choice Resist Intensive Repair Cream With Retinol Amazon

Courtesy of Paula’s Choice.

Paula’s Choice Intensive Repair Cream With Retinol

This super-rich hydrating cream
blends a gentle concentration of retinol to soften lines and promote a brighter complexion, with anti-inflammatory antioxidants to combat redness and soothe irritation.

Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Moisturizer Amazon

Courtesy of Neutrogena.

Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Moisturizer

There’s a reason why this drugstore anti-aging moisturize
r is backed by 1200 reviews on Amazon alone with a solid 4-star rating. It contains a unique formulation called Retinol SA (“sustained action”) which harnesses the regenerative benefits of retinol along and is enriched with glucose and hyaluronic acid to retain the skin’s moisture balance.

STYLECASTER | Best Retinol For Dry and Sensitive Skin

Courtesy of Dermelect.

Dermelect Flawless Bakuchiol Treatment

This newly-launched Bakuchiol (a similar ingredient to retinol with fewer side effects), helps refine pores, soften the appearance of fine lines, and improve texture without leaving the skin red and flaky.


Sunday Riley Luna Sleeping Night Oil Sephora

Courtesy of Sunday Riley.

Sunday Riley Luna Sleeping Oil

There’s a good reason you’ve likely seen this cult-status night oil
all over your Instagram feeds and in beauty guru’s top shelves for the past couple of years now. Thanks to its oil formula, this retinol product offers the regenerative powers of retinol while providing ample moisture and preventing the peeling before it begins. It’s pricey, but this stellar two-in-one is worth the investment according to its loyal fans.

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