The 13 Best Gentle Retinols for Sensitive Skin

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One of the most covetable ingredients in skincare is also one of the most controversial: retinol. As a form of Vitamin A, retinol is known to help combat acne and visible signs of aging—leaving a fresh, smooth glow behind. The catch: Though retinol might be designed to deliver results, it needs to be applied carefully. Since using retinol too often or in larger doses can irritate the most even-keeled skin, the powerful ingredient is often deemed a no-go for those with sensitive skin. With the right formula, however, it is possible for most people to add retinol to their routines.

"Retinol can be problematic for sensitive skin because as it accelerates cell turnover, it can lead to dryness, peeling, redness and irritation, especially in individuals with sensitive skin," says Tiffany Libby a board-certified dermatologist and Mohs surgeon at Brown Dermatology, Providence, Rhode Island."It can also trigger an inflammatory response, causing conditions like eczema to flare up."



Convinced retinol and sensitive skin are mortal enemies? Think again. "Some companies have come out with retinols that are formulated to be gentler on the skin and are thus better tolerated particularly on those with sensitive skin," says Nkem Ugonabo, a board-certified dermatologist and assistant professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. In fact, many brands are flipping the skincare script by offering options with lower doses, natural alternatives, and encapsulated retinol with a slower delivery system.

All it takes is a little bit of research and some skincare know-how, which is exactly why we're sharing the best retinols for sensitive skin here. The list below runs the gamut from consistent crowd-pleasers to dermatologist-approved recommendations, meaning there's something here for everyone. (Yes, even you.)

SkinMedica Age Defense Retinol Complex.25

If you always thought retinol wasn't suitable for your skin type—but are trying it out for the very first time—Libby say this option from SkinMedica is a "great place to start." "It pairs niacinamide, squalane and ceramides with the retinol to help temper the irritation that often accompanies retinoids," she says. "It has a luxurious, creamy feel and absorbs quickly into skin."

With a modest 0.25 concentration of retinol, this formula is a great way to test out the waters; however, Libby says you can always upgrade to the brand's 0.5 and 1.0 concentration if your skin is tolerating this option well.

Customer review: "I've tried different retinol brands, but this is my favorite. It goes on smoothly and is well absorbed by my dry/psoriasis patchy skin. I feel like it even improves those patches. This one is a keeper."—Michelle

<p><a href="https://go.redirectingat.com?id=74968X1596630&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.dermstore.com%2Fskinmedica-retinol-complex-0.25%2F11289676.html&sref=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.harpersbazaar.com%2Fbeauty%2Fskin-care%2Fg60949514%2Fbest-retinol-for-sensitive-skin%2F" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Shop Now;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">Shop Now</a></p><p>SkinMedica Age Defense Retinol Complex.25</p><p>dermstore.com</p><p>$64.00</p>

Regenerist Retinol24 + Peptide Night Moisturizer Cream

You don't have to spend a small fortune on retinol to find a formula that is tough enough to make an impact yet gentle enough to work on sensitive skin. For a budget-friendly best of both worlds, Olay has you covered with its Regenerist Retinol24 + Peptide Night Moisturizer Cream "It is a fragrance-free, lightweight cream that uses retinyl propionate, a lower strength retinoid to help increase skin cell turnover and smooth skin over time," says Dr. Libby. "But remember it's about consistency of use for ultimate results!"

Though retinol might be this cream's star, it also uses peptides and glycerin to smooth, renew, and hydrate the skin.

Customer Review: "I use Olay Regenerist Retionol Night Moisturizer every evening after I clean my face. It is light feeling and not greasy or heavy. It keeps my facial skin smooth and hydrated so in the morning I don't have lots of fine wrinkles."—Fran

<p><a href="https://go.redirectingat.com?id=74968X1596630&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.ulta.com%2Fp%2Fregenerist-retinol24-peptide-night-moisturizer-pimprod2007285&sref=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.harpersbazaar.com%2Fbeauty%2Fskin-care%2Fg60949514%2Fbest-retinol-for-sensitive-skin%2F" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Shop Now;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">Shop Now</a></p><p>Regenerist Retinol24 + Peptide Night Moisturizer Cream</p><p>ulta.com</p><p>$39.99</p>

AlphaRet Overnight Cream

According to Ugonabo, the AlphaRet Overnight Cream is a great option for those who are willing to spend a little more. At $200, this pick does elicit some sticker shock; however, it's built to deliver. "[It has] retinoid as well as a gentle exfoliant (alpha hydroxy acid) to help improve appearance of wrinkles along with tone and texture," she says.

A cocktail of squalane, hyaluronic acid, and glycerin offer a jolt of moisture, while ingredients like bisabolol provide a soothed complexion. According to a customer study, this offering from SkinBetter Science can significantly reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles in four weeks.

Customer Review: "I’ve only been using it for a week, but my skin looks so smooth and healthy. No peeling or redness at all!"—Ashleigh B.

<p><a href="https://shop.lazskincare.com/products/alpharet-overnight-cream" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Shop Now;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">Shop Now</a></p><p>AlphaRet Overnight Cream</p><p>lazskincare.com</p><p>$85.00</p>

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AlphaRet Overnight Cream

lazskincare.com

$85.00

Phyto-Retinol Sleep Serum

At $90, True Botanical's Phyto-Retinol Sleep Serum is one of the pricier options around; however, shoppers agree it's well worth the investment. The brand uses a proprietary ingredient called Peptilium that's clinically proven to work twice as fast as retinol—minus the harsh side effects.

Meanwhile, anti-inflammatory primrose helps soothe the skin and astaxanthin helps reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. (In fact, 100 percent of participants in a study noticed an improvement of fine lines and wrinkles after six weeks of consistent use.) Simply put it on before bedtime and let this formula work its magic while you're sleeping.

Customer review: "This is such a great serum: I have sensitive and dry skin, and this isn’t too harsh. I can use it daily, and when I wake up, my skin looks so fresh and glowing. This will now be a staple in my skincare routine!"—Natasha M.

<p><a href="https://go.redirectingat.com?id=74968X1596630&url=https%3A%2F%2Ftruebotanicals.com%2Fproducts%2Fphyto-retinol-sleep-serum&sref=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.harpersbazaar.com%2Fbeauty%2Fskin-care%2Fg60949514%2Fbest-retinol-for-sensitive-skin%2F" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Shop Now;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">Shop Now</a></p><p>Phyto-Retinol Sleep Serum</p><p>truebotanicals.com</p><p>$90.00</p>

Retinal For All Renewing Serum

Anyone with red, inflamed, or often-irritated skin will find much to love about Peach & Lily's Retinal For All Renewing Serum. "It uses retinal, which only needs one step conversion to the active form of retinoic acid," Libby says. "So while it is the most potent retinol, it's combined with ceramides and ectoin, an anti-inflammatory compound that helps minimize the usual burning, itching or peeling." Oh, and did we mention the formula is fragrance-free, vegan, and made with clean ingredients?

Customer review: "I have oily/acne prone skin and this product is wonderful. No redness, dryness, clogged pores, purging, and any other skin concern that comes with Retinal orRetinol."—Huntington

<p><a href="https://go.redirectingat.com?id=74968X1596630&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.ulta.com%2Fp%2Fretinal-all-renewing-serum-pimprod2036439&sref=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.harpersbazaar.com%2Fbeauty%2Fskin-care%2Fg60949514%2Fbest-retinol-for-sensitive-skin%2F" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Shop Now;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">Shop Now</a></p><p>Retinal For All Renewing Serum</p><p>ulta.com</p><p>$55.00</p>

0.3% Retinol Complex Serum with Peptides

Quench your skin's thirst with an ultra-nourishing, yet gentle, retinol like this one from First Aid Beauty. "This retinol has a silky-smooth texture and uses colloidal oatmeal, allantoin, and aloe vera to help soothe the skin's moisture barrier and prevent and minimize irritation from the retinol," Libby shares. "It is also fragrance-free and keeps skin hydrated and nourished with hyaluronic acid and ceramides." According to a customer study, 98 percent of participants noticed smoother and firmer skin with minimal to no irritation.

Customer review: "I turned 40 this year and decided to change up my skin care. I knew I should try to add retinol, but was a little nervous because I have very dry, sensitive skin. After extensive research reading reviews and ingredients, I decided to give this a try. I have been using it two nights a week for six weeks now and I am very happy. My skin is so soft the next day. I have had no sensitivity issues."—Jenam

<p><a href="https://go.redirectingat.com?id=74968X1596630&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.sephora.com%2Fproduct%2Ffirst-aid-beauty-0-3-retinol-complex-serum-with-peptides-P509442&sref=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.harpersbazaar.com%2Fbeauty%2Fskin-care%2Fg60949514%2Fbest-retinol-for-sensitive-skin%2F" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Shop Now;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">Shop Now</a></p><p>0.3% Retinol Complex Serum with Peptides</p><p>sephora.com</p><p>$48.00</p>

Retinol Alternative Cream

If simply reading the word "retinol" makes your skin sting, you might be better off opting for a retinol alternative like this one from Indie Lee. The clean beauty brand ditched the real deal in favor of an alternative called Rambutan, which promises to tackle everything retinol does. (Elasticity! Firmness! Fine lines! Wrinkles!) This cream also uses paracress extract to reduce visible signs of aging as well as squalane and Orange Milk Tree extract to improve moisture retention.

Customer review: "I've been looking for retinol alternatives so I was happy to find this clean beauty product gifted by Indie Lee. Retinol-like without the downfalls of major peeling and skin irritation. I've been using it for a week and so far no side effects. Can't wait to see how my skin transforms!"—Dani

<p><a href="https://go.redirectingat.com?id=74968X1596630&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.dermstore.com%2Findie-lee-retinol-alternative-cream-45ml%2F13754692.html&sref=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.harpersbazaar.com%2Fbeauty%2Fskin-care%2Fg60949514%2Fbest-retinol-for-sensitive-skin%2F" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Shop Now;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">Shop Now</a></p><p>Retinol Alternative Cream</p><p>dermstore.com</p><p>$72.00</p>

Press Restart Gentle Retinol Serum

Anyone with acne-prone skin can tell you they have a precarious skincare routine: One less-than-perfect formula and you'll wind up breaking out! Fortunately, thanks to its mix of retinol and retinol alternatives, Versed's Press Restart Gentle Retinol Serum is here to help. "This serum has a gel-like consistency and uses a time-release micro-encapsulated retinol to slowly release retinol to the skin, minimizing irritation to skin," Libby adds. While bakuchiol tones and retexturizes the skin without clogging up your pores, arophira keep excess sebum for a minimum.

Customer review: "I have sensitive, acne-prone skin and have always had a hard time using retinol. This has been the first I've ever used where my skin didn't super dry, itchy and red. Sold!"—Vanessan

<p><a href="https://go.redirectingat.com?id=74968X1596630&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.revolve.com%2Fcontent%2Fdeeplink%2Fwomens%2Fproduct%2FVSDE-WU20&sref=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.harpersbazaar.com%2Fbeauty%2Fskin-care%2Fg60949514%2Fbest-retinol-for-sensitive-skin%2F" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Shop Now;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">Shop Now</a></p><p>Press Restart Gentle Retinol Serum</p><p>revolve.com</p><p>$22.00</p>

Retinol Correxion Anti-Aging Wrinkle Night Serum

With the help of retinol and a bio-derived antioxidant that is reportedly twice as effective as Vitamin E, RoC's Retinol Correxion Anti-Aging Wrinkle Night Serum is designed to gently hydrate, smoothen, and firm the skin. (It's also free of any additional fragrances, so you don't have to worry about any scent-instigating irritation.)

When trying retinol for the very first time, it can be difficult to figure out how much is too much. Fortunately, RoC's option comes in pre-made capsules. Not only are they suitable for beginners, but since they provide a mess-free solution, they're also great for avid travelers.

Customer Review: "This is a very good serum. Makes my skin so soft the next morning. Very easy to travel as well since they come in capsules which makes it easy. The capsules contain the perfect quantity that your skin needs per day. I use it every other day as I am very new to retinol and I prefer to take it slow."—Pooja

<p><a href="https://www.amazon.com/dp/B088419TZG?tag=syn-yahoo-20&ascsubtag=%5Bartid%7C10056.g.60949514%5Bsrc%7Cyahoo-us" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Shop Now;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">Shop Now</a></p><p>Retinol Correxion Anti-Aging Wrinkle Night Serum</p><p>amazon.com</p><p>$20.71</p>

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Retinol Correxion Anti-Aging Wrinkle Night Serum

amazon.com

$20.71

Beginner Retinol Gel 0.1%

If merely applying a moisturizer leaves your skin red and irritated, allow Cocokind's Beginner Retinol Gel to step in. Made with 0.1 percent of Tri-Retinoid Comfort Complex, this gel features three different retinoids delivered at various speeds to deliver all the positives of retinol with minimal drawbacks. An herb called cica helps calm down redness, while aloe soothes the skin and offers a light hydration. There's also a hint of squalane to support your skin barrier and prevent moisture loss.

Customer Review: "I've never used a product like this before due to my eczema! did some research and found this product. i did a patch test and no reaction! It has definitely helped my skin look smoother and reduce the redness."—Celeste A.

<p><a href="https://go.redirectingat.com?id=74968X1596630&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.cocokind.com%2Fproducts%2Fbeginner-retinol-gel&sref=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.harpersbazaar.com%2Fbeauty%2Fskin-care%2Fg60949514%2Fbest-retinol-for-sensitive-skin%2F" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Shop Now;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">Shop Now</a></p><p>Beginner Retinol Gel 0.1%</p><p>cocokind.com</p><p>$27.00</p>

Retrinal 0.05 Cream

We love a great aroma as much as the next person, but added fragrances can cause some unnecessary irritation. Not only is this cream from Avène both paraben- and fragrance-free—so it has none of those harsh ingredients—but Ugonabo says it's built with sensitive skin types in mind. "While this is a retrinal, and hence more potent than retinol, it is formulated to be much gentler as it also includes their thermal water to help calm the skin," she adds. Retinaldehyde and relastide peptides work hard to nourish fine lines and wrinkles, leaving a more radiant complexion behind.

Customer Review: "I haven't used retinol in a long time and thought I'd start again. I read how gentle the Retrinal is, and I had no adjustment period with it. The cream feels great on the skin, and I'm looking to graduating to the stronger formula."—Diane P.

<p><a href="https://go.redirectingat.com?id=74968X1596630&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.dermstore.com%2Favene-retrinal-0.05-cream-1.01-fl.-oz.%2F12901656.html&sref=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.harpersbazaar.com%2Fbeauty%2Fskin-care%2Fg60949514%2Fbest-retinol-for-sensitive-skin%2F" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Shop Now;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">Shop Now</a></p><p>Retrinal 0.05 Cream</p><p>dermstore.com</p><p>$49.50</p>

1% Retinol Booster

Leave dull skin and dark spots in the past with the help of this retinol booster from Paula's Choice. Sold as pure retinol, this formula can be mixed into your serum to give an extra oomph to your routine. The one percent of retinol is a larger concentration—so a little can go a very long way—but its slow-release delivery helps soften the effects. This booster also features Plus, ingredients like Vitamin A and non-fragrant extracts do an excellent job with gently improving the skin's brightness, tone, and texture.

Customer Review: "I am so pleased with this product. I kid you not: I've tried about every over-the-counter retinol option available, and this is the only retinol I've found for super-sensitive skin. My skin is smoother, and its tone is more even. My minor fine lines are softer, and my skin is so radiant! I highly, HIGHLY recommend this product!"—Sara E.

<p><a href="https://go.redirectingat.com?id=74968X1596630&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.paulaschoice.com%2F1pct-retinol-booster%2F787.html&sref=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.harpersbazaar.com%2Fbeauty%2Fskin-care%2Fg60949514%2Fbest-retinol-for-sensitive-skin%2F" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Shop Now;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">Shop Now</a></p><p>1% Retinol Booster</p><p>paulaschoice.com</p><p>$4.00</p>

Skin Care Retinol Reform Treatment Serum

If you're looking for gentle yet effective retinol to help tackle rough skin, reach out to Shani Darden for this multitasking option. (According to the brand, this single formula can help combat fine lines, dullness, rough skin, blemishes, and uneven tone.) Here, encapsulated retinol and AHA work together to help improve the texture of your skin without the harsh aftermath. This formula also uses apple fruit extract, which is an antioxidant built to reduce visible signs of aging and provide plenty of pollution protection.

Customer Review: "The only retinol that has not irritated my dry, sensitive skin! I've been able to work up to daily use without issues."—Wondernerd80

<p><a href="https://go.redirectingat.com?id=74968X1596630&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.sephora.com%2Fproduct%2Fshani-darden-retinol-reform-P455926&sref=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.harpersbazaar.com%2Fbeauty%2Fskin-care%2Fg60949514%2Fbest-retinol-for-sensitive-skin%2F" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Shop Now;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">Shop Now</a></p><p>Skin Care Retinol Reform Treatment Serum</p><p>sephora.com</p><p>$89.00</p>

What to Look for in Retinol for Sensitive Skin

Anyone with sensitive skin knows how important it is to do their due diligence on their cosmetics: Anything too harsh can leave their skin irritated, inflamed, or covered in blemishes. So, why would your retinol be any different? In fact, retinol is known for being potentially irritating, so you'll want to be careful here.

"Retinol formulations for sensitive skin may differ from normal retinol with either a lower concentration of the active ingredient or using an encapsulation technology which allows a slower, more controlled release of retinol into the skin, reducing the likelihood of irritation," Libby explains. She also recommends looking for nourishing ingredients like hyaluronic acid, niacinamide, and ceramides, which can help minimize the irritation often associated with retinol.

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What's the appropriate retinol concentration?

Well, it depends. As a general rule of thumb, those with sensitive skin should look for formulas that include less than one percent of retinol. Though one percent is often considered "high-strength," some options feature an encapsulated retinol that slowly releases the power ingredient. (Since your skin won't be exposed to all that retinol at once, it's considered a less intense option.) If you are looking at retinol alternatives—which feature gentler ingredients–you typically don't have to be too concerned with concentration levels.

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What's the difference between retinol and retinal?

If you're doing your skincare research, you might notice that some creams and serums have retinol...and others have retinal. So what gives? What's the difference? Simply put, retinal is closer to the purest form of retinoic acid, which means it's the most fast-acting but also the most irritating. Retinol, on the other hand, is less potent and has the potential to be more gentle.

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How to apply the best retinol for sensitive skin

Just because these retinols are suitable for those with sensitive skin doesn't mean you should rush into incorporating them into your skincare routine. "I always recommend starting slowly, particularly for those with sensitive skin. I would recommend only a pea-sized amount to entire face, just a few nights a week," says Ugonabo. "Preferably, every other night." Since some retinols can cause dryness and irritation, she recommends pairing your formula with moisturizer. "Some patients even opt for a 'sandwich' technique which means applying moisturizer first, then retinol followed by additional moisturizer," the dermatologist adds.

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Meet the Experts

  • Tiffany Libby, MD, FAAD, FACMS is a board-certified dermatologist and Mohs surgeon at Brown Dermatology, Providence, Rhode Island.

  • Nkem Ugonabo is a board-certified dermatologist and Assistant Professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

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More Skin Care Favorites From Bazaar’s Editors

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For more than 150 years, Harper’s Bazaar has been the preeminent fashion and beauty resource for women at every age. We cover what’s new and what’s next in beauty by working with the world’s leading authorities in dermatology, plastic surgery, cosmetics, skincare, hair care, and fragrance. Every story we publish has been thoroughly researched and vetted by our team of beauty editors and industry experts.

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