How to Safely Use Retinols on Sensitive Skin, According to Dermatologists
For folks with sensitive skin, even the most seemingly harmless and soothing ingredients can sometimes cause an adverse reaction (looking at you, niacinamide). So when it comes to retinol, a form of pure vitamin A that aids in cell turnover for healthier skin, those with sensitive skin should tread lightly, as the ingredient has a track record of inducing irritation. "Retinol can be used by nearly everyone if it is used correctly," Erin Gilbert, a New York City-based dermatologist, tells Allure. Her motto? "Start low and take it slow."
Gilbert isn't the only skin-care expert with advice on how to effectively use retinol on sensitive skin. We spoke with several dermatologists and gathered their best tips and tricks for using retinol on delicate and hypersensitive skin types. Scroll through for more.
1. Always do a gentle cleanse
Above all, you want to ensure the skin is properly cleansed before even thinking about using retinol. New York City-based dermatologist Shari Marchbein stresses that washing your face with a gentle cleanser, first, is key. She suggests CeraVe's Hydrating Facial Cleanser, formulated with moisturizing ceramides and hyaluronic acid, and Neutrogena's Ultra Gentle Daily Cleanser, which is made with moisture-locking glycerin. This Best of Beauty winner from Burt's Bees and First Aid Beauty's Pure Skin Face Cleanser are other excellent options, too.
2. Try a gentler version first
Aside from prepping the skin, Zeichner's biggest tip is to consider first experimenting with what's called a retinyl ester. In layman's terms, retinyl ester is a less concentrated form of vitamin A, which isn't as aggressive on sensitive complexions. "Look for [something] like retinyl propionate, as it's much milder on the skin as compared to pure retinol," he says. "You can think of it as an entry-level version." Murad's Retinol Youth Renewal Night Cream contains retinyl propionate, and complexion-calming red-algae extract, which smooths fine lines and wrinkles, as well as soothes irritation.
3. Use moisturizer to your advantage
Ask any dermatologist and they'll tell you: Incorporating a retinol into your skin-care routine without the use of moisturizer is probably a bad idea. That's because without that added layer of hydration, risk of sensitivity is higher. "Moisturizing first should not interfere with how well the retinol absorbs into the skin [and] can protect it from potential irritation," says New York City-based dermatologist Joshua Zeichner.
There are several ways to apply a hydrator with retinol. For starters, you can add a small amount of the vitamin A derivative in with your facial cream to dilute it, or you can use what Marchbein calls "the sandwich technique." The latter involves applying a layer of cream to the skin, using your retinol of choice on top of that, and then slathering on even more moisturizer to lock it all in. "Studies have shown that this base layer of moisturizer does not dilute or reduce the efficacy of the retinoid, but instead helps with tolerability," says Marchbein.
And yes, you can also just simply apply retinol after you've moisturized, without using the sandwich technique, if you find that works for you. Dermatologist and founder of Smarter Skin Dermatology Sejal Shah concurs. "You can use moisturizer before and/or afterward to counteract some of the side effects," she explains.
Case in point: No matter when you apply retinol in your routine — whether it's before, after, through dilution, or using the sandwich method — integrating a moisturizer into your regimen when using retinol can be helpful.
4. Don't overdo it
This tip truly can't be stressed enough. Yes, retinol can be used more often as time builds, but dermatologists suggest starting small with just a pea-size dollop, two or three nights a week. This is so skin can build a tolerance to the ingredient, therefore becoming more accustomed to it over time.
"If everything is going well after about two weeks, and you're experiencing no dryness, redness, or flaking, you can gradually increase the frequency of application of the retinol to every other night for a week or two, then nightly," says Gilbert. "The rule of thumb is: Pull back on how many nights you're using retinol if you're getting irritation or dryness, and move ahead if you're doing fine."
Don't think you won't reap retinol's benefits if you're not using it nightly, either. Gilbert says there are studies that have shown you still get great results using a retinol only three times a week.
5. Avoid other harsh ingredients
When using a retinol, Marchbein says it's best to steer clear of some other ingredients, like glycolic and other acids, which can contribute to dryness and irritation. Instead, she advises using gentle formulations, like the aforementioned cleansers, as well as soothing creams, like Kiehl's Ultra Facial Moisturizer.
6. Stick to cream formulations
In addition to starting out with a low-concentration retinol (ideally, around 0.05 percent), Shah recommends choosing cream formulations because those made of gels or serums tend to be more concentrated. These are 10 of our favorite over-the-counter cream options, if you're in the market for something new.
7. Train your skin
A particularly interesting tip from Shah is to try what she calls the "short contact application." It's a technique that involves applying retinol to skin, and then letting it sit on the skin for a few minutes before washing it off. "As your skin adjusts, you can gradually increase the time and ultimately leave it on overnight," says Shah. She also reiterates that you only need to use a very small amount. "The size of a pea is sufficient for the whole face."
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