J Muckle/Studio D
When it comes to treating any skin aging concerns, retinol cream is — and has always been — the gold standard of skincare. “A derivative of vitamin A, retinol is a well-studied ingredient that has proven benefits for skin, including smoothing the appearance of wrinkles, brightening pigmentation and firming and unclogging pores,” says Danusia Wnek, a chemist in the Beauty, Health & Sustainability Lab at the Good Housekeeping Institute.
But along with its amazing pros comes a few cons as well. “Retinol has the potential to cause side effects, especially for sensitive skin,” says Brendan Camp, M.D., double board-certified dermatologist at MDCS Dermatology in New York City. “The most common are redness, itching and peeling, as well as photosensitivity, swelling and stinging.”
While those with sensitive skin may be more reactive, that doesn’t mean that retinol is off the table. “It may require some modification in the way that it is used, such as its concentration, amount applied and how often you apply it,” Dr. Camp says. Plus, there are different types of retinoids that can work better for sensitive skin, including retinol, retinaldehyde, retinyl palmitate or retinyl propionate. “These types can have similar benefits to the skin as the more intense retinoids, but since they are gentler and less irritating, it takes a longer time to see results,” explains Wnek.
The Good Housekeeping Institute Beauty, Health & Sustainability Lab regularly tests anti-aging serums, day creams, night creams and eye creams, many of which include retinol. These products are evaluated with a group of women aged 35+, who are asked to use their assigned product for four weeks. The lab performed various tests before, during and after the testing period and also gets consumer feedback on a variety of factors including scent, texture, efficacy and more.
Our top picks:
Keep reading for the GH Beauty Lab’s best tested and dermatologist-recommended retinol products for sensitive skin that really work and won’t irritate.
Advertisement – Continue Reading Below
Best Overall Retinol for Sensitive Skin
AGE REVERSE Night Lift Antiaging Face Cream
Now 20% off
Best Value Retinol for Sensitive Skin
Regenerist Retinol24 Night Moisturizer
Best retinol for sensitive skin recommended by dermatologists
LIFT + RENEW SERUM
Best Retinol for Sensitive Skin and Hyperpigmentaton
Retinol Face Serum with Vitamin B3
Best Retinol for Dry, Sensitive Skin
Skin Renewing Retinol Serum
Best Retinol for Sensitive Skin and Acne
Retinol Correxion Deep Wrinkle Anti-Aging Night Cream
Now 29% off
Best Starter Retinol for Sensitive Skin
Clinical Solutions® Retinol 0.5 Set
Best Under Eye Retinol for Sensitive Skin
Retinol Youth Renewal Eye Serum
Best Mild Retinol for Sensitive Skin
First Aid Beauty
FAB Skin Lab Retinol Serum
Best Drugstore Retinol for Sensitive Skin
Restore & Renew Multi Action Eye Cream
In the Beauty Lab, we are constantly testing different types of skincare products that contain retinol. As mentioned above, we gathered a group of testers aged 35+ and ask them to use their assigned product for four weeks. We measure elasticity improvement using the Courage + Khazaka Cutometer and skin features, such as fine lines, spots, pores and texture using the VISIA Skin Analysis System before and after the testing period. Additionally, we use the Courage + Khazaka Corneometer to evaluate these products’ moisturization potential. After the four-week testing period, testers provide their feedback via a standardized questionnaire, rating its texture, scent, absorption, irritation potential and how well it improved the appearance of wrinkles, skin tone, firmness and age spots.
The above products are a combination of lab-tested formulas, as well as top dermatologist retinol picks.
Retinols come in a range of concentrations, from 0.01 percent to 3.0 percent. “If you have sensitive skin, you may want to choose a product with a lower concentration (think 01. to 0.5 percent) to allow your skin to become more accustomed to retinol before graduating to a higher concentration,” advises Dr. Camp. Using higher concentrations may increase the risk of side effects like redness, dryness, flaking or burning.
Dr. Shirazi recommends looking for retinols that are encapsulated and use technology that allows for slower release of the retinol. “Ingredients that help support the skin barrier are also important, like ceramides, glycerin and panthenol, and those that can calm inflammation, like licorice root extract and aloe vera,” she adds. You may want to steer clear of retinols formulated with other actives like glycolic acid or lactic acid, as “it will make the product more potent but also more irritating for sensitive skin,” says Dr. Shirazi.
One last shopping note: you may also want to look for other forms of over-the-counter retinols, like retinyl palmitate and retinaldehyde. “These ingredients are also derivatives of vitamin A and have the same mechanism of action as retinol, but they require more steps to turn into their active forms,” Dr. Camp explains. “As a result, they are less potent, and thus less irritating.”
The short answer is yes, but it depends on the type. You should probably avoid tretinoin, also known as retinoic acid, which is a prescription form of vitamin A that is used by doctors mainly for treating acne but also for anti-aging benefits. “Although it has impressive skin benefits, tretinoin is known to cause redness, irritation and burning, especially on those with more sensitive skin,” Wnek says.
Retinyl palmitate is the lightest and most gentle form. “I call it the chamomile tea version since it has to be converted three times to have an effect on the skin,” says Dr. Shirazi. Over-the-counter retinol is also gentle and offered in varying concentrations, but “more of a green tea.” She considers retinaldehyde a step up, “a black tea version, which is suitable for those who aren’t quite ready for prescription strength, but looking for a step up from retinol.”
“The key is to start off slow,” says Wnek. “Alternate nights of application and increase frequency to nightly once your skin adjusts.” Since retinol increases cell turnover by pushing delicate new skin to the surface, it can potentially cause skin to become more sensitive to the sun. Therefore, Wnek advises to “apply sunscreen everyday when using a retinol (and always).”
Danusia Wnek provided expert insights for this article, including what to look for in a retinol for sensitive skin, how the lab tests retinol products as well as the Beauty Lab’s top picks. She has been testing skincare products including but not limited to eye creams, serums, night creams, neck creams, facial oils and moisturizing creams for over seven years at the Good Housekeeping Institute. She has experience in using specialized skin evaluation lab equipment to gauge changes in skin moisturization, firmness and facial features like wrinkles and texture before and after product use. She also regularly polls our consumer panel on their purchasing and product use habits as well as weighs in on the benefits of skincare ingredients like vitamin C, retinol and niacinamide.
Dori Price worked closely with Danusia to compile the products featured and interviewed the dermatologists quoted in this story. She has over 15 years of experience researching and writing skincare stories, combining her knowledge with the expertise of top industry professionals including dermatologists and aestheticians. She is an expert in all face and body skincare product categories, from cleansers to toners, serums, moisturizers, sunscreens, exfoliators, masks, professional treatments and more.
Advertisement – Continue Reading Below