The Best Retinols for Sensitive Skin in 2023, Tested by Dermatologists and a Grooming Editor

The Best Retinols for Sensitive Skin in 2023, Tested by Dermatologists and a Grooming Editor

Best Buildable Retinol for Sensitive Skin

SkinMedica Age Defense Retinol Complex

Age Defense Retinol Complex

Best Buildable Retinol for Sensitive Skin

SkinMedica Age Defense Retinol Complex

Pros
  • Comes in a variety of strengths
  • Also contains antioxidants and skin moisturizing ingredients

The best part of this high end retinol lotion isn’t just that it also contains skin bolstering ingredients like niacinamide and ceramides (not to mention a potent antioxidant complex), but that it “comes in 0.25%, 0.5%, and 1% so you can pick and choose the right one depending on the skin type,” says Dr. Kim. “It’s very gentle and hydrating and well tolerated even by people with sensitive skin.”

Testing Notes: When it comes to retinol products, this milky lotion is more like a very thick serum. It glides onto your face with ease and smooths over the entire area quickly without any residue. In our testing, we found that it was one of the most elegant to use, not to mention one of the most effective, even at the lower concentration. We especially love the buildable option, which allows you to increase your retinol dose when or as needed without needing to change products.

Format Lotion
Key Ingredients Retinol, Phytoshield complex, niacinamide
Size 1 oz

Best Retinol Cream for Sensitive Skin

Eucerin Q10 Anti-Wrinkle Night Cream

Q10 Anti-Wrinkle Night Cream

Best Retinol Cream for Sensitive Skin

Eucerin Q10 Anti-Wrinkle Night Cream

Pros
  • Fragrance-free
  • Rich texture that is great for dry skin
  • Inexpensive
Cons
  • May be too thick for oily skin

Dr. Zeichner recommends this rich night cream for people with sensitive skin because “it combines Coenzyme Q10 which is a potent antioxidant with a retinyl ester to strengthen and smooth the skin. Since it is not irritating, it can be used across all skin types, even in people who are sensitive.”

Testing Notes: The best part we found about this thick cream is that it negates the need to add an additional moisturizer. It’s incredibly rich and creamy, especially for a cream at this price point, so if you have dry skin, it’s a no brainer. Applying it at night ensures that the retinol has time to work and when we used it, we woke up with hydrated, plump skin without a hint of dryness.

Format Cream
Key Ingredients Pro-retinol, macadamia oil, Vitamin E, coenzyme Q10
Size 1.7 oz

Best Luxury Retinol For Sensitive Skin

Shani Darden Skin Care Retinol Reform® Treatment Serum

Retinol Reform® Treatment Serum

Best Luxury Retinol For Sensitive Skin

Shani Darden Skin Care Retinol Reform® Treatment Serum

While this product doesn’t disclose what percentage of retinol is in the formula, “it’s gentle and is a great option for people who are afraid to start retinol because of skin sensitivity or dryness,” says Dr. Kim.

Testing Notes: Without knowing for sure that the percentage of retinol is in this product, we found that it’s still non-irritating despite what we assume is a slightly higher percentage than others on this list. The addition of exfoliating lactic acid is nice too, which helps to create a smoother, more even look to the skin in addition to the effects of the retinol. And while we used it with no irritation issues, we’d advise those with especially sensitive skin or who have never used retinol before to start extra slow with this one just in case.

Format Serum
Key Ingredients Encapsulated retinol, lactic acid, niacinamide, aloe vera
Size 1 oz

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Best Drugstore Retinol for Sensitive Skin

RoC Derm Correxion Fill + Treat Advanced Retinol Serum

Derm Correxion Fill + Treat Advanced Retinol Serum

Best Drugstore Retinol for Sensitive Skin

RoC Derm Correxion Fill + Treat Advanced Retinol Serum

Now 11% Off

Pros
  • Contains three different forms of hyaluronic acid
  • Able to be refilled
  • Good applicator

“This serum combines a stabilized form of retinol with hyaluronic acid,” says Dr. Zeichner. “They compliment each other to hydrate and plump for immediate benefits, along with longer term benefits from continued retinol use.”

Testing Notes: This retinol is billed as a “wrinkle filler” which is a little bit of a misnomer. Sure, it helps smooth the look of fine lines and wrinkles thanks to the retinol in the formula and because it has so much hyaluronic acid, there is a slight plumping effect to the skin, but these things are cumulative, not immediate. That said, when used properly, it actually does what it says it’s going to do – which is reduce the look of signs of aging. What we love best about it is that, for this price point, it’s actually reliable.

Format Serum
Key Ingredients Retinol, hyaluronic acid, swertiamarin
Size 0.5 oz

Versed Press Restart Gentle Retinol Serum

Press Restart Gentle Retinol Serum

Versed Press Restart Gentle Retinol Serum

Pros
  • Specifically formulated for sensitive skin
  • Contains both retinol and bakuchiol
  • No added fragrance
Cons
  • Some reviewers do not like the smell

This innovative night serum combines encapsulated retinol, which releases more slowly into skin to help curb irritation, with bakuchiol, a plant-derived ingredient with retinol-like properties. The combination means efficacy is high while irritation stays low.

Testing Notes: The thing about retinol is that when there’s not added scent (which is a good thing for sensitive skin), it can sometimes smell a little, well, not great. We will admit that this serum isn’t the greatest smelling, but it’s a small price to pay for a product that works this well. It’s incredibly gentle—none of our testers had any hint of irritation while using it—and since it also contains bakuchiol, a plant-derived retinol alternative, it adds to the gentle vibe without sacrificing efficacy. It’s a solid choice for retinol beginners, especially.

Format Serum
Key Ingredients Encapsulated retinol, bakuchiol, chlorophyll
Size 1 oz.

Best Beginner Retinol for Sensitive Skin

Kiehl’s Micro-Dose Anti-Aging Retinol Serum

Micro-Dose Anti-Aging Retinol Serum

Best Beginner Retinol for Sensitive Skin

Kiehl’s Micro-Dose Anti-Aging Retinol Serum

Pros
  • Small dose of retinol designed to be used every day
  • Also contains ceramides and peptides
  • Easy to apply

Just because Kiehl’s serum is ultra-gentle, doesn’t mean it compromises on efficacy. There is a smaller dose of pure retinol to deliver the results you want with minimal irritation as well as ceramides to help bolster the skin’s protective barrier and peptides to strengthen it.

Testing Notes: Once again, the actual percentage of retinol in this product isn’t disclosed, which is kind of a bummer, but since it’s billed as a “micro-dose” and since none of our testers experienced any irritation, even those who had never used retinol before, we’ll go ahead and assume that it’s very low. Even with a probably very low percentage of retinol, our testers saw an effect after a few weeks which shows us that it really works.

Format Serum
Key Ingredients Retinol, ceramides, peptides
Size 1 oz.

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Best Retinol Night Cream for Sensitive Skin

Olay Regenerist Retinol 24 Night Moisturizer Cream

Regenerist Retinol 24 Night Moisturizer Cream

Best Retinol Night Cream for Sensitive Skin

Olay Regenerist Retinol 24 Night Moisturizer Cream

Pros
  • Fragrance-free
  • Thick, creamy texture
Cons
  • May be too thick for oily skin

The rich, moisturizing texture of this anti-aging cream would work on dry, sensitive skin anyway, but this wonder product ups the ante in additional ways. First, it’s fragrance-free, which makes it ideal for sensitive skin that may react to added fragrance. Second, it not only contains retinol, but also retinyl propionate a more mild form of retinol to help achieve the results you want without irritation.

Testing Notes: Since you only really apply retinol at night, we’ll always be fans of combo products like this that combine retinol with your night cream. Some people say that adding a retinol to the cream can dilute the efficacy (the jury is out on that, by the way), but if you have sensitive skin and are already doing the sandwich method (see below in FAQ’s), then you won’t have to with this rich cream. It’s hydrating enough to moisturize even very dry skin over night and reduce potential irritation while still delivering the results you want from a retinol product.

Format Cream
Key Ingredients Retinol, retinyl propionate, glycerin, niacinamide
Size 1.7 oz

Best Low-Dose Retinol Serum for Sensitive Skin

First Aid Beauty FAB Skin Lab Retinol Serum

FAB Skin Lab Retinol Serum

Best Low-Dose Retinol Serum for Sensitive Skin

First Aid Beauty FAB Skin Lab Retinol Serum

Pros
  • Low concentration of retinol
  • Contains other skin supporting ingredients
Cons
  • Some reviewers don’t like the packaging

If you don’t usually pay attention to ingredient concentrations, you should when it comes to retinol because more isn’t always better. This serum has a low concentration at 0.25% (0.5 and 1% are more common), which makes it perfect for beginners and sensitive skin alike. The formula also contains soothing ingredients like aloe vera, colloidal oatmeal and allantoin to further curb irritation.

Testing Notes: In terms of actual product, this is one of the best low dose retinol serums out there. Our testers found it to be gentle and non-irritating, even for retinol beginners, and the vaguely creamy texture smooths over your face with ease and no gross, filmy residue. You’ll still want to add a moisturizer after you apply it, but it’s so gentle many of our testers found they didn’t need to sandwich it. We will also say, that while the pump situation is not great and the packaging isn’t as easy to use as some others on this list, we didn’t find it to be quite as annoying as some of the reviewers did.

Format Serum
Key Ingredients Retinol, peptides, skin saver complex
Size 1 oz.

Best Pre-Dosed Retinol for Sensitive Skin

Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Retinol Serum Capsules

Rapid Wrinkle Repair Retinol Serum Capsules

Best Pre-Dosed Retinol for Sensitive Skin

Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Retinol Serum Capsules

Now 58% Off

Pros
  • Convenient single-use capsules
  • Capsules are biodegradable
  • Full month supply
Cons
  • Capsules can be hard to open

Not only is this fragrance-free serum gentle on your skin despite the fact that it contains a potent retinol as well as Vitamin E, but it comes in pre-dosed in biodegradable capsules to ensure you never overdo it. Pop one open, apply to your face, and you’re good to go.

Testing Notes: Unlike other formats on this list, we found that these single-use capsules take all the guess work out of how much retinol to use. When we first opened one up, we thought the pea sized amount wouldn’t be enough for our faces, but once we smoothed it around, it was more than enough (and just goes to show how easy it is to use too much product). The formula is thick and viscous, but doesn’t leave any sort of greasy film on your face. And if you travel a lot, these capsule are a lifesaver and eliminate the need to pack bulky bottles of serum.

Format Serum capsules
Key Ingredients Retinol, Vitamin E
Size 30 capsules

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Best Retinol for Dry and Sensitive Skin

CeraVe Anti Aging Retinol Serum

On Sale

Anti Aging Retinol Serum

Best Retinol for Dry and Sensitive Skin

CeraVe Anti Aging Retinol Serum

Now 36% Off

Pros
  • Fragrance-free
  • Non-comedogenic formula (won’t clog pores)
  • Contains other skin supporting ingredients
Cons
  • Some may find the lotion formula too heavy

Yes, of course this lightweight gel serum contains the requisite retinol to help smooth fine lines and wrinkles, improve skin texture and more, but what makes it so good for dry skin particularly is the other ingredients in the formula. Hydrating hyaluronic acid, protecting niacinamide and skin barrier-strengthening ceramides all work to keep your skin balanced and moisturized while the retinol goes to work.

Testing Notes: For a retinol product packed with so many ingredients, this lotion is shockingly simple. It smooths on to your face easily and sinks in instantly, which surprised many of our testers because the formula is slightly thicker than you’d expect. It’s specifically formulated for people with dry and/or sensitive skin and that shows. There’s no added fragrance and the formula feels deeply hydrating even without adding another moisturizer (but you still should).

Format Lotion
Key Ingredients Retinol, hyaluronic acid, niacinamide, ceramides
Size 1 oz.

Best Mixable Retinol for Sensitive Skin

Paula’s Choice BOOST 1% Retinol Booster

BOOST 1% Retinol Booster

Best Mixable Retinol for Sensitive Skin

Paula’s Choice BOOST 1% Retinol Booster

Pros
  • High concentration of retinol
  • Contains soothing ingredients
  • Easily mixed with moisturizer

What makes this retinol serum so great is not just the additional ingredients like ceramides, peptide, antioxidants and licorice extract; all of which help to not only curb irritation, especially on sensitive skin, but also improve the quality of your skin, but the fact that it can be applied by itself or easily mixed with a moisturizer for those who need extra protection.

Testing Notes: Our testers found that even though this serum has a higher percentage of retinol than many others on this list, it’s still somehow super gentle, which makes it ideal for sensitive skin that’s already gotten used to retinol. The serum is designed to be applied directly to your skin or easily mixed in to another moisturizing product for extra protection from irritation, which we found to be a good thought and even better in practice.

Format Serum
Key Ingredients Retinol, peptides, ceramides, oat extract, licorice root extract
Size 0.5 oz

Best Retinol for Sensitive Skin with Squalane

Biossance Squalane + Retinol Night Serum

Squalane + Retinol Night Serum

Best Retinol for Sensitive Skin with Squalane

Biossance Squalane + Retinol Night Serum

Pros
  • Ultra moisturizing formula is great for dry skin
  • Non-greasy

This serum is on the powerful side because it not only contains retinol, but also retinal, a retinoid that is closer in strength to what you’d get in a prescription. Even so, because it’s time released and paired with ultra-moisturizing squalane, this serum is able to deliver results without irritation even on sensitive skin.

Testing Notes: Sensitive skin isn’t just always about irritation, but it can also be about dryness too (or both). We found that the squalane-heavy formula of this serum is incredibly good at keeping skin moisturized and healthy without needing to add a bunch of creams or thicker ingredients. We’re not exactly sure what percentage of retinol is in this formula, but given the results our testers saw, it’s enough to make an obvious difference while still curbing potential irritation.

Format Serum
Key Ingredients Encapsulated retinol, squalane, rosemary, saffron
Size 1 oz.

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What Does Retinol Do?

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The more appropriate question is, what can’t retinol do? “Retinol is perhaps the best studied ingredient we have to fight the signs of aging skin,” says Dr. Zeichner. “It stimulates production of collagen, elastin, and even hyaluronic acid to strengthen the skin and improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. Retinol also stimulates cell turnover, helping the skin shed dead cells. In this way it also can enhance radiance, even skin tone, and even skin texture.” It’s the cell turnover factor that can also make it a valuable ingredient in fighting acne, breakouts, and dark spots from hyperpigmentation.

Why Can Retinol Irritate Sensitive Skin?

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While retinol can drastically improve a variety of skin issues, it’s also powerful, which means it can irritate skin of all kinds, not just sensitive skin. Irritation is especially common “in the first 2-4 weeks of use,” says Dr. Zeichner. “This period, known as retinization, is a several week time span where the skin adjusts to use of the retinol. It can cause redness, dryness, and irritation.” If skin is already prone to these things, retinol can make them even worse, even after that retinization period is long over. It’s best to tread carefully, especially when first introducing retinol to your routine. And for all skin types using retinol, it can make skin more sensitive to sunlight, continues Dr. Zeichner, which means that using daily sunscreen is essential, but particularly with sensitive skin.

How to Use Retinol on Sensitive Skin

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Yes, you can use retinol on sensitive skin. You just have to do it carefully. “Retinol is most effective if it’s layered first,” says Dr. Kim, which means it should be the first product you apply to your face after you wash it. He recommends using a low percentage (0.3% or less) and using it once or twice a week to see how skin reacts before slowly working up to using it every night. Another way to protect your skin while using retinol, according to Dr. Rossi, is the sandwich method. “You should apply your retinol with a hydrating moisturizer,” he says. “Either mix the two together or apply the moisturizer first. This will decrease the retinoid dermatitis (flaking irritation).” Use only a pea size amount of retinol product to make sure you’re not using too much, which can also irritate the skin. How your particular skin reacts to the retinol will depend on what method is right for you. “It is up for debate whether it is better to moisturize before, afterwards or the create a sandwich between moisturizer layers,” says Dr. Zeichner. How you choose to do it depends on your personal preference.

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What Tt Look for in a Retinol for Sensitive Skin

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People with sensitive skin will typically want to choose a product with a lower concentration of retinol, at least at first. Most retinol products contain between 0.5% and 1% retinol, but if you’re worried about irritation, look for one with a lower percentage like 0.25%. In addition, you’ll want to pay attention to what other ingredients are in the formula. “Look for hydrating ingredients like glycerin or calming ingredients such as camellia sinensis,” says Dr. Kim. “Most retinol creams will also have some type of oil to alleviate irritation and dryness as well.” Dr. Rossi also recommends looking for a retinol product that contains peptides, niacinamide and hyaluronic acid.

How We Selected

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To find the best retinols for sensitive skin, Grooming Editor Garrett Munce consulted with a panel of three board-certified dermatologists. Munce, alongside our team of three staff editors tested more than a dozen retinols in the past year to find the right ones that helped improve skin tone without irritating our faces. Munce has over a decade of experience trying, testing, and reporting on retinols for men.

Shop More of the Best Grooming Products for Sensitive Skin

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Headshot of Garrett Munce

Garrett Munce

Garrett Munce writes about men’s style and grooming. He’s written for Esquire, New York Magazine, Spotlyte, and Very Good Light and held staff positions at GQ and W. Follow his skincare obsession on Instagram at @garrettmunce.

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