Preparation is a must when you’re using retinol for the first time ever. I’m not one to enter any pursuit lightly, so before selecting a product for my virgin skin, I researched. In other words, I read a lot of articles about the anti-aging, acne-clearing, wrinkle-reducing, and collagen-stimulating rewards of this wonder ingredient. Since I’m a total newbie, I knew I needed to start with a low-percentage formula to ease my skin into the fold. That meant finding the best retinol for sensitive skin.
I’m no stranger to acids or other potentially harsh skincare ingredients—I’ve used glycolic acid as well as other AHAs and BHAs in the past—but I didn’t want to throw my skin to the proverbial wolves. After consulting some of my co-workers for product recommendations and moral support, I bought a bottle of the First Aid Beauty Retinol Serum with a 0.25% concentration of retinol formulated for beginners like myself and those with sensitive skin.
My skin went through a fairly uneventful acclimation phase in the beginning; maybe a few more pimples than normal, but nothing I wasn’t prepared for. About two and a half weeks in, I started to experience the dreaded retinol scaries. The skin near my jaw and around my mouth began peeling and the vitamin C serum I used every morning started to feel more tingly than normal. Then I did something most dermatologists would probably caution against: I added a new product to my skincare routine.
Since retinol can make your skin more photo-sensitive, I’d been religious about applying SPF every day. One fateful day I switched to a face sunscreen that had some extra L-ascorbic acid because the brightening, vitamin C-laden ingredients sounded like a nice way to treat my skin. Unfortunately, this product sent my retinol purge into overdrive. I immediately broke out in a red rash and the parts of my face that were already peeling started stinging and burning too.
Not one to panic too much, I looked for the most gentle and soothing skincare products I could find. In another probably-not-derm-recommended turn, I again changed up my routine—this time switching to super calming products with zero fragrance or other irritants that would make my face angry. Because retinol can also be drying (and my skin was already molting like a snake thanks to the expedited cell turnover), I looked to products that would provide extra moisture and hydration. Now, about a week after my mishap, my skin is much happier and the burning, stinging sensation is firmly behind me.
These are the products nursing my skin through a retinol purge. I love them so much, I don’t think they’ll be leaving my medicine cabinet anytime soon.
First Aid Beauty FAB Skin Lab Retinol Serum
I’ve used First Aid Beauty products for years and love how gentle everything is on my skin. When I saw a steady stream of positive reviews for their retinol serum was (especially for beginners like myself) I added it to my cart away.
Aveeno Ultra-Calming Foaming Cleanser
This gentle cleanser from Aveeno lives up to its name—it truly is ultra-calming. And the fragrance-free formula is exactly what my newly sensitive skin needs after a few weeks of using retinol.
Mario Badescu Facial Spray With Aloe, Herbs and Rosewater
This is the lone exception to my new fragrance-free skincare rule. I’ve trusted this Mario Badescu facial spray for years (it has a cult following for a reason) and use it to prep my skin so it can better absorb the serums and moisturizers that follow in my routine.
First Aid Beauty Ultra Repair Hydrating Serum
I started using this hydrating serum from First Aid Beauty a few months ago and don’t plan on turning back anytime soon. It’s common knowledge that retinol can be drying, so this serum provides a moisturizing boost thanks to its hyaluronic acid-rich formula.
Glossier Priming Moisturizer
Glossier’s Priming Moisturizer is another fragrance-free staple in my skincare routine. At its core, this is a no-frills moisturizer that I swear by each and every morning.
Supergoop! Unseen Sunscreen
One of the most parroted pieces of advice to retinol newbies is to use a daily sunscreen since retinol can make the skin more photo-sensitive (daily sunscreen is also just good to use in general). This clear gel formula from Supergoop! agrees with my skin, even though the inclusion of Frankincense doesn’t make it completely fragrance-free.
Cerave PM Facial Moisturizing Lotion
My fancier, more expensive night creams are on an indefinite hiatus thanks to this moisturizing night lotion from Cerave—and more than 1,500 five-star reviews on Amazon agree. The brand’s signature mix of ceramides and skin-restoring ingredients go to work at night to help my skin feel revived and fresh by morning.
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