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The Very Best Retinols for Sensitive Skin — Flaking and Burning Be Gone

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Written by Jenna Cartusciello
Best Retinols for Sensitive Skin

Tracking down the best retinol for sensitive skin? I’ve been there before. A few years ago, I was ready to experience the wonders of retinol but my skin just wouldn’t cooperate — flaking, redness and dry patches seemed to appear before the product even touched my face. That was how I discovered that I had sensitive skin and couldn’t tolerate high concentrations of retinol. Fortunately, I learned that I didn’t have to avoid this holy-grail active ingredient. Products with low retinol concentrations and those designed for sensitive skin were game changers for me.

“Formulation is everything when it comes to over-the-counter [retinols],”agrees Dr. Jenny Liu, board-certified dermatologist and YouTuber. “The formulation really determines [the product’s] penetration, potency and efficacy, as well as its irritancy. For example, you may see the terminology ‘encapsulated retinol’ [on a product]. Encapsulation allows for stability but also enhanced penetration and reduced irritation.” Ready to find the best formulation for yourself? Below, learn more about matching your skin type to your ideal product and get a feel for the best retinoids for sensitive skin on the market.

The 16 Best Retinols for Sensitive Skin

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Finding the Best Retinols for Sensitive Skin

For those who need a refresh, retinol is a type of retinoid, or a form of vitamin A that increases skin cell turnover and reduces inflammation (at the right concentration for your skin type, of course). It therefore helps reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, evens out hyperpigmentation and treats acne, making it a sought-after product in the skincare world. However, retinol is not for the faint of heart; it can cause dryness, irritation, flakiness and eczema flare-ups if your skin has a low tolerance.

But that doesn’t mean you should rule it out! If you have sensitive skin, here’s the first thing you need to know on your retinol journey: Products that advertise encapsulated retinol or low concentrations (below 1%) are your best friend. These serums, gels and creams will allow your skin to gradually adjust to retinol so you can incorporate it into your routine for good, and even move up to a higher concentration if necessary. Get a better idea of the factors that influenced our product choices below.

Factors We Considered When Choosing the Best Retinols for Sensitive Skin

Retinol Concentration

“When you’re looking for a retinol to start or when you have sensitive skin, I definitely recommend going with a lower concentration if that information is available,” says Dr. Liu. A concentration below 1% is considered moderate or low, while concentrations at or above 1% are high. Though some brands don’t disclose their products’ exact retinol concentrations, as Dr. Liu points out, this is usually because the active ingredient in them isn’t very potent.

In addition, low concentrations of retinol don’t necessarily mean that the product won’t work. “A 1% retinol from one brand is not going to work in the same way as 1% from another because it all distills down to the formulation,” adds Dr. Liu. “Studies have shown that a 0.25% retinol has been shown to be just as effective as a 1% retinol from another brand.”

Of course, that makes it hard for buyers to know which products will work best for their skin. But in general, Dr. Liu says to still stick with lower concentrations. “If you see a product that is 1%, I would avoid it, unless it’s marketed toward sensitive skin,” she says. “But otherwise it can come down to a little bit of trial and error … giving it ample time to see benefits before you start making changes and trying new products.”


“Aside from encapsulation, when you’re shopping for retinol, I recommend steering away from fragrances and essential oils,” advises Dr. Liu. “I personally have nothing against fragrances (I actually enjoy lightly fragranced products for myself) but when you have sensitive skin, fragrances and essential oils are common allergens that can cause irritation. And if retinol is already an irritating ingredient to start, you want to remove all potential other factors that may reduce your ability to tolerate a topical retinoid.” With these points in mind, none of our product recommendations contain fragrance.

Dr. Liu also recommends avoiding retinol products that contain additional active ingredients, such as alpha and beta hydroxy acids and vitamin C. “Even though products with those two formulated together are going to be far less irritating than you layering the two, it’s something you want to avoid. It’s something you can potentially work your way up to if needed.” We chose to still recommend a few products that contain more than one active ingredient since they have very low active ingredient concentrations overall.


“Look for ingredients that are going to be soothing and work well with retinols — ones that can enhance your skin barrier and increase your tolerability,” says Dr. Liu. “Like niacinamide, which is a great combination with retinol. It not only soothes and supports the skin barrier, but may have some anti-aging properties itself. Ceramides are also great, as are hyaluronic acid and panthenol.” Other ingredients that help sensitive skin include hydrators like glycerin, squalane and aloe vera.

Skincare Routine

What does your skincare routine look like — and do you want to stick to it? If you plan to incorporate retinol into your routine only once per week, then you may be able to tolerate a slightly higher concentration. If you hope to use it more frequently, however, a very low concentration will be easier on your skin. (Note that we still recommend choosing a concentration below 1% if your skin is sensitive.)


Unfortunately, retinol products can get quite expensive because it takes a careful formulation to stabilize this active ingredient and keep it fresh. Serums, gels and creams start at about $9 but can easily reach $200 for only a small bottle. Our recommendations range between $10 and $150, but most of them are under $50.

What Are the Different Types of Retinols for Sensitive Skin?

As far as all retinoids go, retinol has a modest strength level. (The retinoids in order of strongest to weakest are: retinoic acids, which include tretinoin, granactive retinoid, retinal, retinol, retinol esters and finally, bakuchiol.) However, retinol’s strength varies tremendously depending on its concentration and formulation.


Encapsulated retinol refers to individual retinol molecules encased in protective “shells.” The encapsulation allows for a slow release of the retinol into the skin, so it doesn’t aggravate the skin immediately and works steadily throughout the day. It also penetrates the skin more deeply, allowing the product to work better. Encapsulated retinol products can have concentrations as low as 1% and as high as 14%.

Less than 1%

Besides encapsulated retinol products, formulas with a retinol concentration below 1% are ideal for sensitive skin. If you are a beginner, we recommend going even lower — a concentration between 0.01 and 0.03% may be the best place to start.

1% and Above

Experienced retinol users may benefit from a concentration of 1% or above, which can reduce the appearance of deep wrinkles and uneven skin tone. A strong concentration will also produce results more quickly. Generally, we don’t recommend using a high concentration of retinol if your skin gets irritated easily — unless the retinol is encapsulated and formulated for sensitive skin.


Best Overall: CosRx The Retinol 0.1% Cream


  • Low retinol concentration
  • Glides on
  • Soothing ingredients


  • May be too heavy for oily skin
  • May still cause irritation
  • Store in fridge

If you’re hoping to find a product that’s gentle yet effective, our first recommendation is the CosRx Retinol Cream. The 0.1% concentration is low enough to prevent irritation but still strong enough to penetrate the skin and increase skin exfoliation. We love that this product also contains soothing panthenol, vitamin E and glycerin, and that a little goes a long way.

However, this product does contain some heavy moisturizing ingredients, including shea butter and sunflower seed oil. While both moisturizers are non-comedogenic, meaning they don’t clog pores, they may be too thick for oily skin. A few customers also experienced redness and burning, so we strongly encourage you to perform a patch test before applying. Lastly, it’s important to store this product in the fridge to preserve the retinol, which some buyers may find inconvenient.


Best Drugstore: CeraVe Skin Renewing Retinol Serum


  • Encapsulated retinol
  • Moisturizing hyaluronic acid
  • Smooth formula


  • Difficult to absorb
  • May pill on skin
  • Retinol concentration isn’t disclosed

Need something quick and relatively inexpensive? Pop over to your local drugstore to find the CeraVe Skin Renewing Retinol Serum. It contains encapsulated retinol which slowly penetrates the skin over time, along with hyaluronic acid and ceramides (lipid molecules that improve the skin barrier). We also like that the product is smooth and silky.

The downsides: CeraVe doesn’t disclose the exact retinol concentration, though estimates put it between 0.2 and 0.35%. Depending on your skin type, it can also feel as though it’s resting on the surface without getting absorbed, and it can pill.


Best Splurge: Avène RetrinAL 0.1 Intensive Cream


  • Low concentration
  • Thermal spring water may ease inflammation
  • Peptides increase skin elasticity


  • May cause sensitivity
  • Pricey
  • Dispenser issues reported

If you’re looking for something more potent than retinol that still has a low, tolerable concentration, consider the Avène RetrinAL 0.1 Intensive Cream. It contains an 0.1% concentration of retinal — a retinoid that is more effective than retinol but very similar. We also like that the formula has thermal spring water which may ease inflammation, photostable vitamin E and peptides to increase skin elasticity.

Since retinal is a little stronger than retinol, it may cause sensitivity, even in low doses. We encourage you to perform a skin patch test with this product before applying. In addition, Avène products are pricey, and a few customers had issues with the dispenser.


Best for Dry, Sensitive Skin: Innisfree Retinol Cica Moisturizer Recovery Serum


  • Can use every day once skin develops tolerance
  • Hydrating
  • Brightening


  • No longer available at most retailers
  • Also contains small amount of salicylic acid
  • Retinol concentration not disclosed

If retinol dries out your skin no matter what you do, we recommend a hydrating product like the Innisfree Retinol Cica Moisturizer Recovery Serum. It’s gentle enough to use every day (though you should incorporate it into your routine gradually), and contains hydrators like glycerin, sunflower seed oil and allantoin. It also has niacinamide, which enhances the benefits of retinol by further brightening the skin and reducing signs of aging. Since this formula is water based, it’s lightweight and easy to apply.

The downsides? This product contains a small amount of salicylic acid, which shouldn’t cause irritation but may, simply because the formula already contains retinol. In addition, Innisfree does not disclose the exact concentration of retinol, though estimates put it between 0.1 and 0.45%. Lastly, this product isn’t available at most retailers.


Best for Oily, Sensitive Skin: Selfless by Hyram Retinol & Rainbow Algae Repair Serum


  • Sustainably made
  • Encapsulated retinol
  • 2 other gentle, active ingredients


  • Other active ingredients may not be ideal
  • Runny
  • Shiny finish

While moisturizer is important for all skin types — even oily skin — it may not be wise to double down with a moisturizing retinol serum and a moisturizing cream. If you’re trying to avoid excessive moisture in your retinol product, opt for the Selfless by Hyram Retinol & Rainbow Algae Repair Serum. It’s extremely lightweight and contains 2% encapsulated retinol, which is strong enough to be effective but mild enough to reduce the likelihood of irritation. Other gentle, active ingredients include rainbow algae complex (a skin brightener) and 2% tranexamic acid, which enhances the effects of retinol to reduce the appearance of acne scars.

However, the additional active ingredients may not be ideal if you want a product with just retinol. The formula is also very runny, so it can be a little difficult to apply, and it has a shiny finish. We recommend applying a moisturizer afterward.


Best for Combination Sensitive Skin: Cocokind Beginner Retinol Gel 0.1%


  • 3 types of retinoids at low doses
  • Time release
  • Soothing ingredients


  • Moisturizing ingredients may be too heavy
  • May still cause irritation
  • May not be strong enough if you’re an experienced user

Struggling with both flaky skin and oil? Consider a gentle, gel-based formula, like the Cocokind Beginner Retinol Gel. It contains three types of retinoids (0.05% retinol, 0.025% time-released retinal and 0.025% granactive retinoid) which release at different speeds to reduce sensitivity. We also like that it contains soothing ingredients like cica (a soothing herb), aloe vera and squalane.

What some buyers may not like: Squalane and soybean oil (two hydrators in this product) are great for improving elasticity and hydration, but for some users, they may be too heavy. In addition, a few customers found that this product still caused irritation, while others found that it wasn’t strong enough.


Best for Acne-Prone, Sensitive Skin: La Roche-Posay Effaclar Adapalene Gel 0.1% Acne Treatment


  • Unclogs pores
  • Simple ingredient list
  • Smooth application


  • Drying
  • May cause burning
  • Increases sun sensitivity

If you’re struggling with acne or post-acne hyperpigmentation and scarring, adapalene (a topical retinoid) may be a better choice than retinol. It works by unclogging pores and increasing skin cell turnover, which prevents pimples from forming under the skin. We chose the La Roche-Posay Effaclar Adapalene Gel because it contains a low 0.1% dosage of adapalene. The rest of the ingredient list is quite short and contains no fragrances or oils.

However, this product is drying, so it’s very important to apply a moisturizer afterward. It may also cause burning and it increases sun sensitivity (as with all retinoid products) so make sure you apply sunscreen on top of your moisturizer.


Best on Amazon: La Roche-Posay Pure Retinol Face Serum with Vitamin B3


  • Effective yet gentle
  • Hydrating
  • Niacinamide brightens skin


  • Tacky finish
  • Pricey
  • Amazon quality issues

Why is La Roche-Posay’s Pure Retinol Face Serum so highly rated on Amazon? It has an 0.3% concentration of retinol, which is effective yet gentle, along with multiple hydrators that counteract retinol’s drying effects. It also contains niacinamide (vitamin B3), which works with retinol to brighten skin.

However, this product has a slightly tacky finish that some users may not like. It’s also pricey and a few customers have experienced quality issues when purchasing from Amazon.


Best for the Most Sensitive Skin: Versed Press Restart Gentle Retinol Serum


  • Encapsulated retinol
  • Other gentle actives
  • Hydrating


  • May be too heavy on oily skin
  • May not be strong enough
  • Refrigerate to preserve retinol

Looking for the gentlest serum out there that won’t irritate even the most sensitive skin? Try the Versed Press Restart Gentle Retinol Serum. It contains just 0.03% encapsulated retinol along with 0.05% bakuchiol (the gentlest member of the retinoid family) and 1% arophira (fennel extract that mimics retinol and controls sebum production). The formula is also full of hydrating ingredients to plump skin and increase elasticity.

What some buyers may not like: This formula includes several heavy moisturizers like shea butter and rosa canina seed oil, which are non-comedogenic but may be too hydrating for oily skin. In addition, the active ingredients may not be strong enough to make a significant difference. A few customers thought that the product smelled strange — putting it in the fridge to preserve the retinol may make a difference.


Best for Mature, Sensitive Skin: First Aid Beauty FAB Skin Lab Retinol Serum


  • Contains peptides
  • Vegan and cruelty free
  • Great for frequent use


  • Contains BHA
  • Expensive
  • May not be strong enough

On the hunt for a high-quality, no-nonsense retinol serum that gently reduces the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles? We recommend the First Aid Beauty FAB Skin Lab Retinol Serum. It has a buttery-soft feel when you apply it, and we like that it contains hydrating ingredients to soften the skin and prevent irritation and dryness. The retinol concentration is just 0.25%, so it’s great for sensitive skin and beginners.

However, this product contains a small amount of BHA, a preservative and potential carcinogen. It’s also expensive, and the concentration of retinol may not be strong enough to tackle deep wrinkles.


Best Overnight Cream: Skin Better Science AlphaRet Overnight Cream


  • Contains unique blend of retinoid and lactic acid
  • Protects skin barrier
  • Contains antioxidants


  • Expensive
  • AlphaRet concentration unknown
  • Not available at most retailers

Looking to add a little luxury to your skincare routine? Consider the Skin Better Science AlphaRet Overnight Cream. The key active ingredient is AlphaRet — a combined molecule made of retinoid and lactic acid (AHA). The result is a visible reduction in the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles without the traditional irritation of retinoids. Other beneficial ingredients include a peptide blend, skin-barrier protectors like ceramides, squalane and niacinamide and antioxidants like coenzyme Q10, vitamins C and E and green tea extract.

The downsides: This is one of our most expensive product recommendations, and Skin Better Science doesn’t disclose the concentration of AlphaRet. This product also isn’t available at most retailers.


Best for Experienced Users With Sensitive Skin: Peter Thomas Roth Retinol Fusion PM Night Serum


  • Encapsulated
  • Squalane for skin barrier
  • Contains antioxidants


  • Pricey
  • Small bottle
  • May still cause irritation

For the ultimate retinol serum that is designed for sensitive skin, opt for Peter Thomas Roth’s Retinol Fusion PM Night Serum. While the retinol concentration is at 1.5% (a good amount for experienced users), it’s encapsulated to reduce irritation and deliver gradual retinol all night long. We love that this serum contains squalane to improve the skin barrier and increase hydration, as well as vitamins C and E to fight free-radical damage.

However, this product is pricey, especially when you consider that the bottle is just one fluid ounce. The concentration (despite its encapsulation) can also cause irritation depending on your experience level.


Best Gentle Retinol Eye Cream: RoC Retinol Correction Line Smoothing Eye Cream


  • Lightweight
  • Relatively affordable
  • Hydrating


  • Not available at other retailers
  • May still cause irritation
  • May not reduce dark circles

What we like about the RoC Retinol Correction Line Smoothing Cream: It’s gentle enough for the delicate eye area while still targeting fine lines and wrinkles. It also targets dark circles and puffiness, and it contains gentle hydrators like glycerin and panthenol to prevent dryness and irritation. Though the bottle is small, a little goes a long way — especially if you only apply this product around your eyes.

What could be improved: We wish RoC disclosed the exact retinol concentration, which we estimate to be around 0.1%. Despite the low concentration, this product may still cause irritation, and many customers found that it didn’t reduce their dark circles.


Best for Glowy Skin: Mad Hippie Vitamin A Serum


  • Vitamin A is a gentler form of retinol
  • Hydrating ingredients
  • Relatively affordable


  • May still be irritating
  • Tacky finish
  • Vitamin A concentration unknown

The Mad Hippie Vitamin A Serum not only focuses on improving skin texture and elasticity, but also gives it a glowy appearance. It’s all thanks to a combination of low-dose vitamin A (a gentler form of retinol), hyaluronic acid salts (which resist oxidation better than hyaluronic acid alone), aloe vera and coconut oil. Plus, this product is relatively affordable.

However, this product may still be too irritating for the most sensitive skin types, and the formula feels a little tacky after applying. (Applying a moisturizer on top should eliminate this, however.) We also wish Mad Hippie disclosed the exact concentration of vitamin A.


Best for Smoothing Skin: Bliss Youth Got This Prevent-4 + Pure Retinol


  • Hydrators can improve skin barrier
  • Retinol creates even texture
  • Gentle enough for daily use


  • May be too hydrating for oily skin
  • Sticky finish
  • Retinol concentration unknown

Worried about your skin texture? We recommend the Bliss Youth Got This Prevent-4 Pure Retinol. The hydrating formula contains amino acids, peptides, squalane and antioxidants to improve the skin barrier and increase elasticity, while a low concentration of retinol helps create an even texture. We also like that this formula is gentle enough to apply daily.

The downsides: This product may not be the best for oily skin and it has a sticky finish. Bliss also does not disclose the exact concentration of retinol.


Best Patches: Innisfree Retinol Cica Patch


  • Soothe dry skin
  • Prevent future flare-ups
  • Anti-inflammatory ingredients


  • Combines salicylic acid and retinol
  • Not available at most retailers
  • May not be strong enough

Looking to target only a few problem spots on your face? Consider Innisfree’s Retinol Cica Patches. They are similar to hydrocolloid patches, which target underground acne and whiteheads, but have additional benefits like soothing dry skin and preventing future flare-ups. We like that they contain anti-inflammatory ingredients like allantoin and hyaluronic acid.

Note that these patches also contain salicylic acid to target breakouts. While the concentration is low, some buyers may not want to combine retinol with salicylic acid. In addition, this product isn’t available at most retailers, and some buyers feel that the formula isn’t strong enough.

People Also Ask

  • Q: Is retinol good for very sensitive skin?

    A:Our top recommendation is the CosRx The Retinol 0.1% Cream, which is gentle yet effective.

  • Q: What retinol do dermatologists recommend?

    A:Many dermatologists recommend the CeraVe Skin Renewing Retinol Serum, which is relatively affordable, accessible and easy on sensitive skin.

  • Q: What is the difference between retinoid and retinol?

    A:Retinoid is an umbrella term for forms of vitamin A and compounds that are closely related to vitamin A. Retinol is one form of retinoid, and it is moderately strong when compared to all retinoids.

  • Q: Is 0.1% retinol strong enough?

    A:According to Dr. Liu, an 0.1% retinol product is still effective — it’s just far more gentle than stronger concentrations and can take longer to work.

  • Q: How much does a retinol for sensitive skin cost?

    A:Most retinol products for sensitive skin range between $9 and $200. Our recommendations cost between $10 and $150, and many of our recommendations cost less than $50.

Why trust Us

At Us Weekly, we aim to inform readers to make smart purchasing decisions, saving you both time and money. Our editors are obsessed with finding products in a variety of categories from fashion and beauty, to home and fitness.

We try various products, so we can recommend our favorites, and we also summarize feedback and data from other customers. Data, like product reviews and ratings, helps us recommend the best product choices for individual price points and needs.

On top of that, we highlight unique product features for special use cases, ingredients preferences, and more. We strive to make sure you are discovering new products that can make your life easier, while keeping you up to date with the best product choices for types of items you already know and love.

Author photo

By Jenna Cartusciello

Affiliate Commerce Writer Jenna loves recommending great products to her friends and family, so helping the rest of the internet on their quest to find the best stuff makes tremendous sense! Though she mainly writes in-depth buyer’s guides these days, Jenna still enjoys crafting the occasional health article. In her spare time, she loves immersing herself in creative writing. Her favorite authors (for anyone who is willing to geek out with her) include Neil Gaiman, Cheryl Strayed, and Jennifer Egan.

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