Ask Grace: Can I Use Retinol If I Have Sensitive Skin?

Hey Grace,

I’ve heard so much about the benefits of retinol for acne-prone skin and for its anti-aging benefits, so it’s an ingredient I’d really love to try. However, I’ve also heard that it can cause dryness and irritation. I have very sensitive skin which reacts when I use things like masks and some serums, so I was wondering is retinol bad for sensitive skin and can you use retinol with sensitive skin? If not, I’d love to know which retinols are best for sensitive skin and if they actually have any benefits?


You’re right, retinol is an amazing ingredient – it has impressive benefits for signs of skin aging, and also can really help skin that experiences breakouts, pigmentation, scarring, dullness, and rough texture. It’s a real multitasker. But with that said, it does come with its own host of not-so-enjoyable side effects. Things like redness, dry skin, peeling, and increased sensitivity are some of the symptoms that new retinol users may experience. This doesn’t mean that everyone will, but it’s always good to take a preventative approach in order to reduce the chance – and if your skin is already prone to sensitivity, I would work on reducing that first before you start using a retinol. 

To give you a basic understanding of skin sensitivity, everyone’s skin sits on a spectrum of sensitivity. If your skin is more on the sensitive side then it’s likely to experience things like redness and tingling or stinging sensations when you apply products or spend time massaging your face. Sensitivity can be impacted by things like the types of products you use, your environment, the weather, medication, hormones, and age, so you may find that it changes over time. Sensitive skin is usually the result of a damaged skin barrier, so often comes hand-in-hand with concerns like dryness and dehydration. Your skin barrier is the outermost layer of your skin and defends against external stressors like pollution and bactiera while preventing moisture from escaping your skin. The stronger your skin barrier is, the less likely you are to experience sensitivity when applying active ingredients like retinol. You can work on strenghtening and supporting your skin barrier by ensuring that your skin is really well moisturised, by wearing SPF50 sunscreen every day, by avoiding over washing or exfoliating your face, and by not layering multiple active ingredients.

Once your skin barrier is stronger you’ll notice that your skin no longer reacts to masks and serums with redness or stinging, which means it would be more likely to better tolerate using a retinol. Of course, the retinol that you use makes a lot of difference. Opt for a low strength retinol rather than a retinal or retinoid – retinols and retinyls tend to be much more beginner friendly. It’s also worth considering the formula of the product you’re using – if it’s an oil or cream, then this means it will help to nourish your skin while the retinol is working, which helps to negate any unwanted side effects. Check the formula for ingredients like hyaluronic acid, squalane, and ceramides, which will help to keep skin hydrated and soothed. 

Start by using your retinol serum just one evening per week and gradually increase the frequency if your skin responds well and without any signs of increased sensitivity. You could also try buffering your retinol by applying a thick cream to your skin beforehand. Ensure that you keep your skin really well hydrated – a thick night cream is essential – and avoid applying the retinol to areas such as around the eyes and nose, where skin is naturally more sensitive.

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If you have a question for our beauty editor and resident esthetician Grace Day, tweet us at @beautybay using the hashtag #AskGrace for a chance to be featured.