The Best Retinol Creams for Beginners and Sensitive Skin 

SKIN CARE REVIEWS

07.09.21DISCLAIMER

According to P&S Intelligence, the global anti-aging market is set to experience an 8.1% CAGR during 2020–2030, growing from $191.5 billion in 2019 to $421.4 billion by 2030, according to P&S Intelligence. When it comes to fighting the signs of age, the gold star ingredient that tops the list according to copious skincare experts is unarguably retinol.

How does retinol work? While most anti-aging skincare products work on a topical level at the epidermis, retinol works at a cellular level. This means it penetrates deep into the dermis, speeding up cell turnover and stimulating collagen production to help your body generate smoother, plumper, revitalized skin. Not only does retinol help new wrinkles from forming, but it also treats the ones you already have.

Even though retinoids (retinol included) are approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), that doesn’t mean they’re void of side effects such as redness, sensitivity, dryness, itchiness, and peeling. Though these symptoms are typically temporary and will improve overtime as your skin gets used to the product, beginners or those with sensitive skin may be better off with a gentler form of retinol — or an alternative the provides the same benefits.

Let’s explore the various ways to start incorporating retinol into your routine, including the best creams for newbies, even if you don’t have a delicate skin type.

Related: Best Retinol Cream

The Best Gentle Retinol Creams: The List

Deep Science Pro Retinoid Oil$60

Formulyst Anti-Aging Cream, $80

La Roche-Posay Redermic R Retinol Cream, $49.99

RoC Retinol Correxion Sensitive Night Cream, $24.99

Origins Planstscription Retinol Night Moisturizer With Alpine Flower, $64

Ole Henriksen Goodnight Glow Retin-ALT Sleeping Crème, $55

Neutrogena Healthy Skin Anti-Wrinkle Night Cream, $13.49

Drunk Elephant A-Passioni Retinol Cream, $74

SkinCeuticals Retinol 0.3%, $67

PCA Skin Intensive Clarity Treatment 0.5% Pure Retinol Night, $92

Kate Somerville DermalQuench Liquid Lift +Retinol, $98

Olay Regenerist Retinol24 Night Face Moisturizer, $38.99

Medik8 Night Ritual Vitamin A, $59

Retinol Cream for sensitive skin

What is Retinol Good For?

Sure, retinol is an excellent fine line and wrinkle fighter, but because it exfoliates on a cellular level, it can effectively treat other skin conditions, including:

  • Acne
  • Large pores caused by collagen loss, oily skin, or acne
  • Age (sun) spots, freckles, and other signs of sun damage known as photoaging
  • Uneven skin texture
  • Melasma and other types of hyperpigmentation

How to Start Using Retinol as a Beginner

If you want to learn how to start retinol (even a gentle formula), slow and steady wins the race — but there are a few other valuable tips to keep in mind if you want to minimize irritation while still reaping the benefits.

Understand the Difference Between Retinol and Retinoids

There’s no one-size-fits-all retinol formula, so when shopping for a retinol cream, you must know the difference in retinoid grades to avoid starting something too strong when you’re just starting out.

To be clear, retinol is just a specific type of retinoid. Over-the-counter (OTC) products usually contain retinol, which is a weaker form. At the same time, “retinoids” typically refer to more potent, prescription-level drugs like tretinoin (the generic name for Retin-A), tazarotene, and adapalene. OTC options include:

  • Retinyl Palmitate: The weakest form of the retinoids.
  • Granactive Retinoids: A bend of chemical esters formulated to deliver similar benefits to retinol while being gentler on the skin.
  • Retinol: The following most potent formula — and the most popular.
  • Adapalene: The strongest over-the-counter option, specifically formulated to treat acne.

 

Give Bakuchiol a Try

Regular retinol can be too aggressive for someone just starting out, but a retinol alternative such as bakuchiol has become an increasingly popular milder alternative to retinoids. This plant extract is the only antioxidant that closely imitates retinol but minus any flaking, dryness, or irritation. While it’s not as potent, there have even been studies that suggest bakuchiol is comparable with retinol in its ability to improve photoaging, fine lines, wrinkles, and elasticity and is better tolerated than retinol. As a bonus, due to the absence of retinoids, pregnant women can benefit from bakuchiol, too.

Related: How Does Retinol Work?, What Are The Side Effects?

 

Experiment With Encapsulated Retinol

Retinol is one of the most notoriously potent anti-aging skincare ingredients — sometimes too potent, even if you don’t have sensitive skin. While you can try a retinol alternative such as bakuchiol, encapsulated retinol is an excellent option for those who want the real deal but want a fool-proof way to build up a tolerance.

As the name implies, encapsulated retinol is delivered into the skin at a slow and steady time-released rate instead of all at once like other forms of retinol. Not only does it protect your skin, but it remains stable and potent for a more extended period of time, thus providing superior benefits.

 

Gradually Build Up a Tolerance

Even if you’re using a gentler form of retinol, it’s still crucial that you gradually build up a tolerance. Start by using a thin layer of cream once a week for the first week, twice, the second, etc. Work yourself up to using the product every other night indefinitely. If you have sensitive skin on top of being a beginner, conduct a patch test to ensure you monitor your skin to see if you get any type of reaction.

 

Apply a Moisturizer First

If you really want to start slowly, apply your moisturizer before your retinol cream (unless, of course, the formula is already a moisturizer) to act as a protective buffer. While it will take longer to see results, this extra step lessens the chance that you’ll experience any side effects.

 

Don’t Mix Too Many Active Ingredients

Read your product labels carefully to ensure you have a clear understanding of what ingredients are in your routine — particularly if you’re using a combination of anti-aging and acne products. Like retinol, alpha and beta hydroxy acids can dry out the skin, so using them all at once can cause excessive dryness and irritation. Also, keep in mind that benzoyl peroxide and retinol cancel one another out.

While there’s some controversy, as a general rule of thumb, don’t mix your retinol products with vitamin C unless you wear the C strictly during the day.

Once you build up a tolerance to retinol (a process known as hardening), you can try experimenting with adding other ingredients to your regimen — just be sure to introduce them separately and slowly.

There are singular products that combine more than one active ingredient, but if you’re not uncertain whether or not your skin can tolerate it, address your concerns with an esthetician or dermatologist.

 

Use Retinol by Night and Sunscreen by Day

While some retinol creams are formulated for daytime use because they contain sunscreen, as a beginner, a safer approach is to wear your retinol cream at night and a traditional broad-spectrum sunscreen (a minimum SPF of 30 during the day) since retinol increases photosensitivity.

 

Be Patient

As results-driven as retinol is, there’s no such thing as a quick-fix or dream cream. Retinol can take a minimum of three months of consistent use (not including the breaking-in period) to see noticeable results. Note that since retinoids change the skin at a cellular level, your skin will return to its normal state if you stop using them.

Best Retinol Cream for Beginners

Deep Science Pro Retinoid Oil$60
It contains a next-generation retinoid to defend skin against free radical damage and reduce visible signs of aging as it fights blemishes. It works double-time to improve the appearance of skin with less irritation.

Formulyst Anti-Aging Cream, $80
A long-term anti-aging formulation developed specifically for mature and devitalized skin, Formulyst’s Anti-Aging Night Cream hydrates, soothes and visibly transforms your skin while you sleep. Time-released encapsulated retinol (as mentioned above) stimulates collagen production, improving the appearance of aging without irritation. Formulated using a nutrient-rich blend of complexes that are high in plant oils, essential fatty acids, and omega oils, this ultra-nourishing and reparative night cream with repair properties also gently exfoliates the upper layer of your skin.

Related: Best Retinol Eye Cream

La Roche-Posay Redermic R Retinol Cream, $49.99
Even though this award-winning retinol cream is formulated with their highest concentration of pure retinol, it visibly reduces signs of aging with minus any irritation. How? A concentrated 0.1% of retinol and a concentrated 0.2% of retinol linoleate combined with adenosine (another anti-aging ingredient) are slowly released into the skin, significantly reducing the possibility of irritation. Its total concentration of 0.3% makes it desirable for sensitive skin types and beginners alike.

RoC Retinol Correxion Sensitive Night Cream, $24.99
This popular drugstore night cream was designed explicitly for retinol newbies or those with sensitive skin. Thanks to a milder yet effective form of retinol, it targets fine lines and wrinkles with minimal (or zero) irritation. It’s clinically proven to show noticeable results in as little as eight weeks with regular use, more so over time. Additionally, it’s dermatologist tested, oil-free, and non-comedogenic so that it won’t clog your pores.

Origins Planstscription Retinol Night Moisturizer With Alpine Flower, $64
Among Origins’ best-selling products is this unique nighttime retinol moisturizer that combines nature with science. The result is a gentle results-driven formula that targets fine lines and wrinkles while speeding up cell renewal void of irritation, providing you start out using a small amount every other night before (gradually) increasing to nightly use.

Ole Henriksen Goodnight Glow Retin-ALT Sleeping Crème, $55
Formulated with bakuchiol and alpha hydroxy acids, fine lines, wrinkles, discoloration, and a dull, lackluster skin tone are targeted while you sleep when your skin goes into repair mode. Edelweiss stem cell (a flower known for its resilience despite harsh environmental conditions) firms and improves elasticity.

Neutrogena Healthy Skin Anti-Wrinkle Night Cream, $13.49
Despite only containing a low .085 percentage of retinol, Neutrogena’s Healthy Skin anti-wrinkle night cream is still an effective arsenal against aging skin. It’s one of several perfect starter creams for retinol beginners or those with sensitive skin. A combination of pro-vitamin B5, vitamin E, and unique moisturizers work with the skin’s natural mechanisms to hydrate, protect, and brighten a dull complexion.

Drunk Elephant A-Passioni Retinol Cream, $74
As with all Drunk Elephant products, you won’t find any sodium laureth sulfate, fragrance, dyes, essential oils, chemical screens, drying alcohols, and silicones, so it’s a dream cream for those with sensitized skin. While the 1% retinol may be too high for some newbies, a blend of passionfruit, apricot, marula, and jojoba oils replenish essential lipids and moisture. At the same time, antioxidant-rich kale, winter cherry, and xanthophylls help defend against environmental free radicals.

Related: Best Retinol Serum

SkinCeuticals Retinol 0.3%, $67
Those just starting out will love this no-fuss, gentle percentage, pure retinol cream that’s suitable for skin that can’t typically handle retinol. It’s formulated with a Soothing Complex made up of a skin-calming blend of bisabolol (derived from the chamomile plant) and boswellia serrata extract (derived from frankincense) to comfort the skin. Once you build a tolerance, you can graduate to the 0.5% or 1% level, providing you don’t have overly sensitive skin.

PCA Skin Intensive Clarity Treatment 0.5% Pure Retinol Night, $92
What’s unique about this retinol cream is that it also contains bakuchiol, the alternative, to act as a buffer despite containing a skin-safe dose of the real thing. The addition of salicylic acid makes this anti-aging treatment an effective acne treatment, too — even when deep, painful cystic nodules are present.

Kate Somerville DermalQuench Liquid Lift +Retinol, $98
This results-driven treatment combines the power of Kate Somervilles’ number one clinic Oxygen treatment with the age-defying properties of natural bio retinols to reveal a brighter, clearer, more plumped, and toned complexion while minimizing irritation. While results are noticeable after just one use, clinical trials show a more significant improvement in fine lines, wrinkles, pore size, and discoloration after just two weeks.

Olay Regenerist Retinol24 Night Face Moisturizer, $38.99
You won’t have to worry about dryness and flakiness with this retinol cream because it deeply hydrates for an impressive 24 hours. Olay’s proprietary formula, including a vitamin B3 (niacinamide) and retinol complex, delivers noticeable improvements in fine lines, wrinkles, texture, tone, discoloration, and pore size. It’s also fragrance- and dye-free, so it’s perfect for those with sensitive skin.

Medik8 Night Ritual Vitamin A, $59
Formulated with 0.2% encapsulated retinol, this rich and incredibly hydrating night cream is the perfect initiation into the vitamin A world of skincare products. The time-released technology ensures that the retinol is gradually delivered while you’re sleeping, resulting in a rejuvenated appearance upon waking up.

Related: Retinol vs. Retinoid

Retinol Creams for Beginners: The Bottom Line

Even though retinoids (retinol included) are approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), that doesn’t mean they’re void of side effects such as redness, sensitivity, dryness, itchiness, and peeling. Though these symptoms are typically temporary and will improve overtime as your skin gets used to the product, beginners or those with sensitive skin may be better off with a gentler form of retinol — or an alternative the provides the same benefits.

If you want to learn how to start retinol (even a gentle formula), slow and steady wins the race — but there are a few other valuable tips to keep in mind if you want to minimize irritation while still reaping the benefits. For example, look for formulas with bakuchiol or encapsulated retinol, apply a moisturizer first, don’t use too many other active ingredients, and wear sunscreen during the day. Most importantly, start slowly and gradually increase how frequently you use a retinol cream until you work yourself up to every other day.

Overall, the best retinol night products include Deep Science Pro Retinoid Oil and Formulyst Anti-Aging Cream.

References:
Anti-aging Market Revenue Worth 421.4 Billion by 2030,” PR Newswire, March 2021.

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