I’m still learning to curb my retinol use after developing an ever so slight addiction. To be honest, the only thing slowing me down is the fact that applying it every day has made my skin more sensitive to other products too. Now, even if I use retinol just a couple days a week, I have to immediately follow it with a super soothing serum or moisturizer to avoid redness and flaking. Bum-mer. As it turns out, knowing how to apply retinol to sensitive skin is kind-of important, even if you’re new to this skin “type” like me.
What is Sensitive Skin?
But first, what exactly is sensitive skin? According to New York board-certified dermatologist and a fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology Dr. Shari Marchbein, it tends to be characterized as red, dry, flaky and irritated. And because of this, it’s much more difficult to tolerate skin care products as many can cause burning and stinging, as well as rashes.
As far as where sensitive skin originates, it really just depends on the person. Sometimes, it can seemingly develop out of nowhere or from a young age. It’s also almost always associated with those who experience eczema, dry skin, allergies and asthma.
“Some people are just genetically prone to having sensitive skin. With our quest for younger, healthier looking skin, we tend to over exfoliate and over cleanse, as well as overuse anti-aging products, which can cause the skin to become even more sensitive red, irritated and acne-prone,” says Dr. Marchbein. “Patients with rosacea and eczema almost universally have very sensitive skin and may have trouble tolerating retinoids, exfoliants, and other irritating ingredients.”
The moral of this story? You’re most likely born with it or like me, did it to yourself.
The Retinol-Sensitive Skin Clash
Before we label retinol the bad guy, let’s start with a refresher of why everyone you know, including me, swears by it. Dr. Marchbein says retinoids (retinol is the OTC version of this) can increase collagen production, as well as the rate of skin cell turnover. When this happens, they usually succeed at improving the texture of skin, softening fine lines , and evening out skin tone. In other words, you glow up.
The downside is that they can also dry out the skin, especially for first-time users, dry or sensitive skin types. This is especially true in the winter months when skin is already more moisture-depleted from the colder weather.
“The frequency is another key irritation factor – the more you use retinol, the more frequently skin is exposed to the ingredient (both the great and not-so-great side effects). Retinoids need to be used at least three times weekly to see benefits,” says Dr. Marchbein. “However, if you can work up to daily use that is even better. If you have dry or sensitive skin, stick with every other day.”
This is why she recommends a “sandwich” technique to help with tolerability as skin gets adjusted.
Make Your Sandwich
It’s actually really simple and sort-of impossible to mess up. What the “sandwiching” technique does is moisturize the skin while helping to mitigate the irritating effects of retinol. Marchbein describes is as a simple, three-product nighttime routine that includes a cleanser, moisturizer, and retinol.
Start by washing your face with a gentle or ultra gentle cleanser such as the Simple Water Boost Micellar Cleansing Facial Gel Wash ($5.97). “Hold off on glycolic or other acid-based cleansers that can contribute to dryness,” adds Dr. Marchbein.
After washing your face, apply a layer of moisturizing cream, preferably something made with one or more of the following ingredients: glycerin, dimethicone, petrolatum, ceramides and hyaluronic acid. The Simple Replenishing Rich Facial Moisturizer ($13.79) and Dove DermaSeries Dry Skin Relief Overnight Face Cream ($16.99) are two of her favorites.
Next, “layer on a pea-sized amount of retinoid to the entire face. If you have especially sensitive skin, start with an over-the-counter retinoid like Differin 0.1% Gel ($28.99), which is milder than prescription retinoids,” says Dr. Marchbein.
Finally, apply another layer of moisturizing cream immediately after applying your retinol. Marchbein notes that even if you don’t use this specific technique, you should end your nighttime routine with a moisturizer anyway, especially in the winter months.
The Sandwiching Benefits
The main benefit to the retinoid “sandwich” technique is that your skin is getting the hydration it needs (and then some) as it’s being chemically exfoliated without taking away from the benefits. After all, the point of retinoids is to treat acne and provide the skin with a more youthful appearance. So those of us who use it don’t want to sacrifice that benefit just because our skin is more sensitive.
Again, not everyone will need to moisturize before and after applying retinoids to help with the dryness, especially those with oily skin and in warmer, more humid weather. However, there’s no harm in adopting this technique. And if you’re worried about so many layers altering the effectiveness of your retinol, fear not.
“A limited number of small studies have shown that a base layer of moisturizer does not dilute or reduce the efficacy of retinol and ultimately helps with tolerability,” says Dr. Marchbein. “However, ingredients in your moisturizer matter. Hyaluronic acid may potentiate the effect of retinoids while glycerin and ceramides can help with tolerability without increasing the effects of retinoids.”
Here are three different affordable retinol products that Dr. Marchbein recommend sensitive skin types use to complete their “sandwich.” Anyone else hungry now?
Differin Gel Acne Treatment
$28.99 at Ulta
Olay Pro-X Hydra Firming Cream
$49.99 at CVS
L’Oreal Paris RevitaLift Cicacream
$17.99 at Ulta