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Next time you’re in the company of a dermatologist, pose the ubiquitous desert island question, “if you had to pick one skin care ingredient that actually works, what would it be?” It’s likely that a lot of them would tell you retinoids, or retinol oils for sensitive skin, are the one active ingredient worth adding to your skincare arsenal. Its unparalleled history of proven efficacy backed by clinical research since it was first introduced in the ’70s still reigns supreme. And while it was originally formulated to treat acne, dermatologists quickly noticed that this miraculous formula offered a slew of off-label skin-enhancing “side effects,” including softening fine lines, reducing texture, fading spots from sun damage, and shrinking the look of enlarged pores.
“Retinoids” is the all-encompassing umbrella comprised of different types of chemical compounds derived from Vitamin A that each provides different strength levels and therefore, different levels of irritation. However, retinol is the most common form of the branch in over-the-counter products. It works to improve your skin by speeding up cell turnover through chemical exfoliation or put simply, sloughing away dead skin cells.
Naturally, this skin-shedding journey to better skin doesn’t come without consequence. In fact, it’s common for most people to go through a rather challenging phase when first incorporating a retinoid into their skincare routine. The skin looks worse –red, irritated, dry, and peeling off–before it looks better. While this awful (albeit usually worth-it) period typically resolves itself within about a month, those with extra dry and sensitive skin can be prone to a lengthy period of discomfort, peeling, and having to skip makeup on account of peeling.
Of course, under the retinoid branch, there are milder iterations with lower strengths that are much better suited for those with sensitive skin. Most experts agree that all forms of retinoids will get you to the same spot eventually, but the lower-strength options like Retinyl palmitate and some formulations will take longer to actually give you noticeable results. If you have sensitive skin that’s highly reactive to more potent actives and just can’t get on board with signing up for a month of inflamed skin, there are some formulation hacks that can help you get faster results with fewer of the side effects. Using a retinol-infused facial oil is one of the best ways to harness the effects of retinol while off-setting –or at least subduing — the dryness and peeling.
According to Seattle-based esthetician and founder of Jordan Samuel Skin, Jordan Samuel Pacitti, “putting an active ingredient like retinol in an unscented oil base helps to treat the skin while also adding soothing moisture to counteract any irritation. This allows even sensitive skin to tolerate this amazing ingredient without the traditional irritation and sensitivities associated with retinol.” He also suggests that those with sensitive skin start with lower strength retinol oil to ensure that the skin can handle it all together. “Using a lower strength of retinol more often is more beneficial than doing a once-a-week blast that can possibly cause irritation and inflammation,” Pacitti advises.
The bottom line? If you have sensitive skin or extra dry skin, less is more, patience is key, and an oil suspension is the best place to start. We’ve rounded up some of our favorite retinol-infused facial oils that will gently exfoliate hyper-reactive skin types without wreaking havoc on your skin.
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Sunday Riley Luna Sleeping Night Oil
This cult-status facial oil is a popular shelfie staple not only because of its luxe appearance, but because this super hydrating formula actually works to gently reduce lines and brighten dull tone. While it’s considered a night oil, it also looks seamless when worn under makeup and won’t pill up under foundation. Just make sure to use SPF layered on top, as retinoid-based products can heighten the skin’s sensitivity to the sun.
Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Retinol Oil
It may be pricey for a drugstore facial oil, but the reviews on this best-seller are convincing enough to warrant its steeper price. It’s formulated with Neutrogena’s proprietary Retinol SA – a blend of Retinol, Hyaluronic Acid, and glucose complex. This blend helps accelerate the deposit of retinol into the skin, making it deliver benefits quicker without the irritation of higher-potency retinoid.
The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid 2% Emulsion
Kim Kardashian once praised this $10 product on her app. Given her well-documented battle with psoriasis, we’re assuming that if it works for her, it might work for other types of sensitive and hyper-reactive skin types as well.
Peter Thomas Roth Retinol Fusion PM Night Serum
This oil-based serum contains a form of time-released micro-encapsulated retinol, meaning that it has a sustained delivery and therefore less potential for irritation despite a potent concentration of 1.5%.
StriVectin S.t.a.r. Light Retinol Night Oil
This advanced retinol oil contains three different forms of Vitamin A derivates, including an all-natural, biomimetic formulation that works to improve the skin by mirroring the skin’s reception of retinol for gentle exfoliation. It’s also suspended in moisturizing squalene containing StriVectin’s patented NIA-114 technology, which is specifically designed to counteract and prevent sensitivity and irritation.