How to Use Retinol If You Have Sensitive Skin

Woman applying face cream

Jai Jae / Stocksy

We all know that retinol is the gold standard anti-aging ingredient. It’s the show-off we can’t get enough of—it smooths lines and texture, prevent zits, and fades pigmentation. Essentially, it tricks your skin into acting young again. But, like so many show-offs, it’s not for everyone, and some people can find it irritating. Retinol may cause sensitivity, redness, and peeling, and for those with sensitive skin, these side effects can sometimes be unbearable. And with retinol, it only works if you can use it consistently. But there are some ways to include this star ingredient in even the most sensitive skincare regimen.

This Ingredient Makes Retinol Bearable

More and more formulators are factoring niacinamide (a form of vitamin B3) into their retinol products, like Dr. Sam Bunting, who added it to her Flawless Nightly Serum ($48), that contains both retinol and niacinamide.

Niacinamide has two helpful actions. It boosts ceramide production, an essential component of the epidermis’ bricks and mortar structure, which makes skin more robust and tolerant of irritants,” she explains. “It also has an anti-inflammatory action, which helps minimize the impact of starting a retinoid, which can trigger the release of inflammatory mediators in the skin.”

If your skin is strong and healthy, this means that while the retinol-induced peeling (a good sign it's working) will still happen, it won’t come with the downside of irritation. 

More Retinol Hacks for Sensitive Skin

In addition to using a retinol product that contains niacinamide, Dr. Bunting recommends the following tips.

Prep your skin: While you can buffer your retinol application with a layer of niacinamide-rich moisturizer, if your skin is seriously sensitive, you should spend some time before even reaching for the retinol to prep your complexion. “The use of both ceramides and niacinamide topically can help prep skin for retinoid use,” notes Dr. Bunting. “The other things to consider are stripping out all irritants to create space for the retinoid—so avoid foaming cleansers, skip acid toners, and minimize exfoliant use.”

Start slow and steady: For sensitive skin, the key is to go easy on your retinol application, “I tend to start anyone with sensitive skin on a slow and steady program," she says. "I quantify the amount of product to be used, so always start small with a pea-sized amount and use the 13 Dot Technique to ensure even distribution."

Layer up! “I also advise that you buffer your retinol by using a moisturizer first,” says Dr. Bunting. “Start using retinol every other night and think of building up over the course of weeks, not months."

Stop and re-prep: You’ll know you’re going too hard with your retinol applications if your skin becomes red, dry, and flaky. "You’ll also notice other products will sting," she adds. "This indicates it’s time to stop, repair your barrier, and restart only once things normalize at a lower intensity." 

Below, you can watch Dr. Sam Bunting’s video about retinoids for more insights. Then, keep scrolling because you’ll find our edit of the best niacinamide and retinol combos, plus some niacinamide products in case you already have retinol and need niacinamide to soothe your skin. 

Dr Sam's Flawless Nightly Serum
Dr Sam's Flawless Nightly Serum $48.00

Dr. Sam Bunting has formulated her night serum with retinol, bakuchiol, redness-relieving azelaic acid, and calming niacinamide. It's a great all-rounder.

Verso Day Cream
Verso Day Cream with Retinol 8 $110.00

Formulated for sensitive skin, this cream contains a hefty dose of niacinamide, plus the slower-converting retinyl retinoate, which has been found to be more suitable for sensitive skin.

QRx Labs Niacinamide + Retinol Serum
QRxLabs Niacinamide + Retinol Serum $15.00

Prefer serums or on a budget? This serum contains a cocktail of soothing ingredients like aloe vera, vitamin E, jojoba oil, and hyaluronic acid alongside the niacinamide and retinol.

The Ordinary Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1%
The Ordinary Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1% $6.00

Designed for blemish-prone skin (niacinamide can prevent zits, while zinc controls sebum), this will also help strengthen your skin pre-retinol use, or you can apply it as a protective layer before your retinol.

Supplement Bar Ceramide Serum
SKIN INC Supplement Bar Ceramide Serum $35.00

This lightweight serum is great for tackling unwanted retinol-induced redness while strengthening your skin's protective barrier.

Paula's Choice 10% Niacinamide Booster
Paula's Choice 10% Niacinamide Booster $44.00

Add this booster to your daily moisturizer to strengthen your sensitive skin before using retinol, or cocktail it with your retinol to help your complexion to cope.

Article Sources
Byrdie takes every opportunity to use high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial guidelines to learn more about how we keep our content accurate, reliable and trustworthy.
  1. Zasada M, Budzisz E. Retinoids: active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatmentsPostepy Dermatol Alergol. 2019;36(4):392-397. doi:10.5114/ada.2019.87443

  2. Fu JJ, Hillebrand GG, Raleigh P, et al. A randomized, controlled comparative study of the wrinkle reduction benefits of a cosmetic niacinamide/peptide/retinyl propionate product regimen vs. a prescription 0.02% tretinoin product regimenBr J Dermatol. 2010;162(3):647-654. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2133.2009.09436.x

  3. Kim H, Koh J, Baek J, et al. Retinyl retinoate, a novel hybrid vitamin derivative, improves photoaged skin: a double-blind, randomized-controlled trialSkin Res Technol. 2011;17(3):380-385. doi:10.1111/j.1600-0846.2011.00512.x

  4. Fox L, Csongradi C, Aucamp M, du Plessis J, Gerber M. Treatment modalities for acneMolecules. 2016;21(8):1063. doi:10.3390/molecules21081063

Related Stories