The Best Retinol For Sensitive Skin, Because the Tingling Isn’t For Everyone

Mia Maguire
The Best Retinol For Sensitive Skin, Because the Tingling Isn’t For Everyone
Photo: Allison Kahler.

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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.

In other words, it’s a powerful and effective chemical exfoliant that essentially works 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 de-congested pores.

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. The dead skin cells, unfortunately, 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 (and really, do not forget to use SPF), 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 the relentless burning sensation on the skin can be downright unbearable and impossible to hide — even the most hydrating and highest coverage of 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 (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 (the second weakest form) serums to no avail, choosing a product with Retinul 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 ultra dry skin types.

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1. ROC Retinol Sensitive Night Cream

ROC Retinol Sensitive Night Cream Amazon

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ROC’s affordable line of retinol-based skincare products have long been a tried and true drugstore beauty staple. This sensitive version of their original, cult-favorite Retinol Night Cream is formulated with a milder form of retinol suspended in a super moisturizing cream base to reduce irritation and keep the skin hydrated — not flaky.

2. Paula's Choice Intensive Repair Cream With Retinol

ROC Retinol Sensitive Night Cream Amazon | STYLECASTER

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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, along with super-hydrating hyaluronic acid to help the skin retain moisture for plumped look.

Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Moisturizer Amazon | STYLECASTER

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3. Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Moisturizer

This budget-friendly drugstore moisturizer happens to be one of my favorite skincare staples of all time. It contains a unique formulation called Retinol SA (“sustained action”) which harnesses the regenerative benefits of retinol while reducing the potential of causing irritation and peelings. It’s also enriched with glucose and hyaluronic acid to retain the skin’s moisture balance.

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