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Derm Diaries: Can I Use Retinol If I Have Sensitive Skin?

An expert gives the cheat sheet to using this powerhouse ingredient.
November 21, 2022

is often touted by dermatologists and skin care experts as one of the best anti-aging skin care ingredients and that is not something to be taken lightly. It’s transformative and readily available over the counter, but it also has the potential to be really irritating to the skin and definitely takes some trial and error before you may start noticing its benefits. 

Because of this, introducing retinol to sensitive skin in particular, can feel like risky business. It’s understandable, but with the right guidance that doesn’t have to be the case. We reached out to Dr. Michelle Henry, NYC-based board-certified dermatologist and L’Oréal Paris consultant, to reveal what you need to know about using retinol on sensitive skin. Read on as we share her expert tips for introducing this powerhouse ingredient to your sensitive skin routine.

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Can Sensitive Skin Use Retinol?

Sensitive skin types can benefit from retinol, but the deciding factors depend on the formulation, the frequency, and the rest of the products you pair it with. “Go with a low-and-slow approach,” Henry advises. Start off slow and build up use as your skin shows it can tolerate the retinol.

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), retinoids refer to vitamin A (retinol) and many other natural derivatives of vitamin A such as retinoic acid and tretinoin. The terms retinoid and retinol are often used interchangeably and while both are vitamin A, retinoids are a higher concentration than retinol, so sensitive skin types may consider opting for the latter as they start to introduce the ingredient into their skincare routine. 

Retinol works to diminish the appearance of fine lines, improve skin texture, hyperpigmentation and increase surface cell turnover while targeting signs of photoaging, per the NCBI

Editor’s tip: Always consult with your dermatologist before adding new ingredients into your routine like retinol.

How to Use Retinol for Sensitive Skin

While everyone’s skin is different, it is possible to introduce retinol to your skin care routine with minimal irritation, if done correctly. Follow Dr. Henry’s tips below to help you ease into the process.

1. Use a Low Concentration

“Start with the lowest concentration you can find and pair a good moisturizer on top of it,” Henry continues. “If you are explicitly sensitive, then I recommend doing something we call the sandwich method, which is putting your moisturizer on first, putting on your [retinol] and then more moisturizer on top of that.” 

Retinol comes in various strengths, formulations and products like cream and serums. We suggest starting with a gentle product that is formulated with retinol like the L’Oréal Paris RevitaLift Derm Intensives Night Serum, 0.3% Pure Retinol, which includes hydrating hyaluronic and glycerin acid to help minimize possible skin irritation. Sandwich your retinol serum with a hydrating moisturizer like the L’Oréal Paris Age Perfect Skin Care Cell Renewal Midnight Cream. This night cream is formulated with vitamin E to help repair the skin barrier and deeply moisturize, it’s the perfect choice to pair with your retinol. 

You can also make things extra simple by opting for a moisturizer formulated with retinol like the L’Oréal Paris RevitaLift Triple Power Anti-Aging Overnight Mask. This product is actually an overnight mask with a non-greasy texture that works to lock in moisture while Pro-Retinol brightens the skin, reduces the appearance of wrinkles and improves firmness.

2. Start Slow

When introducing retinol to your sensitive skin, remember you’ll never regret starting slow but you will regret overdoing it and irritating your already sensitive skin. “Start out with just two nights a week,” Henry advises. “If you’re not dry, then you can slowly advance.” As your skin tolerates the retinol, slowly increase the usage every few weeks accordingly. 

3. Pair Your Retinol With Hydrating Ingredients

When it comes to products that you layer with your retinol —  less is more — always opt for gentle. “Ingredients that pair well [with retinol] are going to be hydrating ingredients like hyaluronic acid and ceramides. Those ingredients help to fortify your skin barrier and reduce the [irritating] effects of retinoid.” Henry says. 

Hyaluronic acid acts as a humectant and helps the skin to retain moisture, as well as smooth the skin and plump the look of fine lines with moisture, courtesy of the NCBI. According to the Cleveland Clinic, ceramides are fatty acids that naturally form the skin barrier and work to keep it healthy looking. 

Add hyaluronic acid to your skin care routine with the L’Oréal Paris RevitaLift 1.5% Pure Hyaluronic Acid Serum. This lightweight serum quickly absorbs into the skin, offering instant hydration and plumping while reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. It’s a great ingredient to include in your morning and nighttime routine, regardless if you’re using retinol or not. 

To get hyaluronic acid and ceramides in one, we love the L’Oréal Paris RevitaLift Micro Hyaluronic Acid + Ceramides Line-Plumping Water Cream. This non-greasy, water-based moisturizer contains both ingredients to seal in moisture and strengthen the skin barrier with each use. 

4. Avoid Pairing Retinol With Other Irritating Ingredients

Since retinol can be irritating on its own, it’s best to avoid pairing it with other potentially irritating, active ingredients, says Henry. 

“Avoid [pairing retinol with] things like glycolic acid and salicylic acid because they are going to increase [the] risk of skin irritation and inflammation,” she explains. This doesn’t mean you have to swear off acids if you’re using retinol, just avoid using them in the same routine.

5. Try Retinol with Niacinamide

When paired with hydrating ingredients, retinol can be less drying and irritating, which is especially good for sensitive skin. “Niacinamide is quite soothing and calming to the skin,” says Henry. 

The L’Oréal Paris RevitaLift Pressed Night Moisturizer with Retinol + Niacinamide contains both ingredients to help fight the noticeable signs of aging while offering brightening and soothing benefits that won’t dry out the skin. It’s a great product to kick off your retinol journey, especially for sensitive skin, plus, it keeps your night routine quick and easy.


Next: Is It Bad to Store Skin Care Products in the Bathroom?


Written by: Reece Andavolgyi, Photo Design: Crystal Simone

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