Beauty

The Best Clean Retinols (If You’re Sensitive)

Written by: Brianna Peters

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Published on: September 5, 2023

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Photo courtesy of Monastery

Retinol can be amazing for everything from fine lines and wrinkles to breakouts and dullness, but it can be irritating, even for those with skin of steel. People with sensitive skin often avoid the skin-boosting compound altogether—but they shouldn’t, says top NYC dermatologist and BeautyCurious podcast cohost Elyse Love, MD. “It’s a myth that sensitive skin can’t tolerate retinol,” she says. “If you start slow and use the right product, the results can be fantastic.”

The right product, Love says, can be anything from a retinol alternative like bakuchiol to a retinol formula designed specifically to be gentle on skin. Here, her tips for reaping the benefits without compromising skin.

1

DECIDE BETWEEN RETINOLS AND RETINOL ALTERNATIVES

Both approaches can give you the results you’re looking for with less irritation; in general, retinols deliver the most powerful results long-term but can be more irritating, while retinol alternatives are more easily tolerated but may not work as dramatically as a retinol. (These generalities may or may not be true for your skin, so trial and error is helpful.) And Love points out that many people who use retinol can tolerate it only once or twice a week, so retinol alternatives are fantastic to use on the days you can’t use retinol.

Gentler Retinols

“Hydrating or soothing ingredients like hyaluronic acid, squalane, ceramides, and peptides can help balance the effects of retinol,” says Love. So can technological advancements like microencapsulating the retinol.

  1. Microencapsulated Retinol

    Marie Veronique
    Multi-Retinol Night Emulsion
    goop, $135SHOP NOW
  2. Hydrating Hyaluronic Acid

    Monastery Made
    Rei Gentle Retinol Cream
    goop, $110SHOP NOW
  3. Skin-Soothing Peptides

    Dr. Few Skincare
    Clean Retinol
    goop, $195SHOP NOW
  4. Moisturizing Glycerin

    Augustinus Bader
    The Retinol Serum
    goop, $375SHOP NOW

Retinol Alternatives

If your skin can’t tolerate even gentle retinol, ingredients like bakuchiol and rambutan deliver results that compare favorably with retinol, with much less potential for irritation.

  1. Bakuchiol-Infused Face Oil with Clinical Results

    goop Beauty
    All-in-One Super Nutrient Face Oil
    goop, $98.00/$89.00 with subscriptionSHOP NOW
  2. Silky Serum with Rambutan

    The Nue Co.
    Skin Filter Serum
    goop, $65SHOP NOW
  3. Rich, Velvety Cream with Bakuchi Seed

    Ranavat
    Renewing Bakuchi Seed Crème
    goop, $95SHOP NOW

2

GO SLOWLY WITH RETINOL

Start by using retinol only once a week, at night, for two weeks, advises Love. “Watch for dryness or irritation,” Love says. “If you don’t have any adverse effects, bump up the frequency to two times a week, with at least 24 hours in between.” Pay attention to your skin and decrease the usage at the first signs of irritation, she says: “That’s how to find your sweet spot for how often you can use retinol without causing a major flare in skin sensitivity.”

  1. Oil with Retinol and Bakuchiol

    Naturopathica
    Holy Basil & Retinol Ageless Night Oil
    goop, $134.00SHOP NOW
  2. Cream with Retinal

    de Mamiel
    Gravity Fix
    goop, $265SHOP NOW

If you go with a retinol alternative, you can use it daily, both morning and night. “Retinol alternatives like bakuchiol don’t have the same undesirable effects associated with retinol, like irritation, redness, and skin sensitivity,” says Love.

  1. Milky Serum with Bakuchiol

    KORA Organics
    Plant Stem Cell Retinol Alternative Serum
    goop, $75SHOP NOW
  2. Pillowy Cream with Bakuchiol

    Furtuna Skin
    Fior di Luna Nightly Renewal Cream
    goop, $285.00SHOP NOW

3

A LITTLE GOES A LONG WAY

Love suggests using a pea-size amount of retinol. “More than that can cause more irritation but not quicker or better results long-term,” she says.

4

APPLY WHEN YOUR SKIN IS DRY

Wet skin intensifies the activity of many ingredients on skin, so make sure your skin isn’t wet when you apply retinol. By the same token, if you want to ramp up the effectiveness of, say, a retinol alternative that’s working well for you, apply it to wet skin.

5

SANDWICH SKIN WITH MOISTURE

Moisturizing before and after retinol can help you sidestep some of the irritating side effects. Love suggests applying retinol between a hydrating serum and a moisturizer, skin balm, or face oil.

  1. Peptide Serum

    goop Beauty
    Youth-Boost Peptide Serum
    goop, $150.00/$135.00 with subscriptionSHOP NOW
  2. Face Oil for Sensitive Skin

    Tata Harper
    Superkind Bio-Shield Face Oil
    goop, $165SHOP NOW
  3. Light, Airy Moisturizer

    Saint Jane
    Hydrating Petal Cream
    goop, $68SHOP NOW
  4. Melty Blue Balm

    Furtuna Skin
    Rinascita Delle Olive Replenishing Balm
    goop, $225SHOP NOW

6

DON’T FEAR THE “RETINOL PURGE”

There’s a difference between your skin adjusting to retinol and a flat-out reaction. “Retinol increases cell turnover, so you may notice a few more breakouts or more-inflamed-than-usual breakouts during your first few weeks with it,” says Love. Burning, stinging, major flaking, or anything more serious is not part of the purge, however. “Those are signs that the product is too strong or being used too frequently,” says Love.

7

GO EASY WITH EXFOLIANTS

“Avoid acids and exfoliants completely on nights when you’re applying retinol,” says Love. “And don’t introduce both a retinol and an exfoliant to your routine at the same time, even if you use them on different nights.” Start with mild exfoliants and move up to medium strength as your skin adjusts.

  1. Mild

    goop Beauty
    Cloudberry Exfoliating Jelly Cleanser
    goop, $35.00/$25.00 with subscriptionSHOP NOW
  2. Medium

    goop Beauty
    Dark Spot Exfoliating Sleep Milk
    goop, $98.00/$89.00 with subscriptionSHOP NOW

8

SUPERCHARGE WITH ANTIOXIDANTS

“Retinol does make the skin more sensitive to the sun, so it’s important to have a morning routine that includes an antioxidant if you use it,” says Love. Some of our favorite antioxidants with brightening benefits for skin: vitamin C, niacinamide, and resveratrol.

  1. Vitamin C

    goop Beauty
    20% Vitamin C + Hyaluronic Acid Glow Serum
    goop, $125.00/$112.00 with subscriptionSHOP NOW
  2. Niacinamide

    Alpyn Beauty
    Wild Nettle & Niacinamide Firming Serum
    goop, $58SHOP NOW
  3. Resveratrol

    Caudalie
    Premier Cru Anti-Aging Serum
    goop, $139SHOP NOW

9

ALWAYS USE MINERAL SUNSCREEN

Every day, every skin type should be using an SPF of at least 30 on their skin, but if you’re using retinol, it’s even more critical because it increases sun sensitivity. Besides not including the skin irritants and hormone-disrupting chemicals found in many chemical formulas, mineral sunscreens have the additional advantage of helping soothe skin (especially zinc oxide, which is the primary ingredient in baby-bottom cream). “I recommend mineral sunscreen to all my patients, but especially those with sensitive skin,” says Love.

  1. Creamy and Lightweight

    Dr. Dennis Gross
    All-Physical Ultimate Defense Sunscreen SPF 50
    goop, $42SHOP NOW
  2. Sheer and Blendable

    DUNE
    The Mineral Melt SPF 30
    goop, $42SHOP NOW
  3. Hydrating and Silky

    Ursa Major
    Force Field SPF 30
    goop, $58SHOP NOW