The Best Retinol Creams for Beginners and Sensitive Skin 

SKIN CARE REVIEWS

07.09.21DISCLAIMER
Best best. The Carrot & Stick skincare bundle worth up to $240 for $88. Details below

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.

The Best Gentle Retinol Products for Beginners: The List

BEST OVERALL

BEST: Carrot & Stick The Face Oil, $70

Best bet. The Carrot & Stick skincare bundle worth up to $240 for $88. Select 3 products, including our favorite Carrot & Stick The Face Oil. Use code DERM20 for 20% off. Offer applies to first shipment.

FULL LIST

Formulyst Anti-Aging Cream, $80

Origins Planstscription Retinol Night Moisturizer With Alpine Flower, $64

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

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

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.

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

BEST OVERALL

BEST: Carrot & Stick The Face Oil, $70
This formula contains a next-generation retinoid and potent antioxidants to help reduce visible signs of aging.

FULL LIST

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.

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. 

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.

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.

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.

Retinol Creams and Products for Beginners: The Bottom Line

The best retinol product is Carrot & Stick The Face Oil

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.

FAQs

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

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

OUR TOP SKINCARE PICKS

1

Carrot & Stick

Carrot & Stick takes a tough love approach to skincare. What does this mean? It perfectly balances the power of plants with innovative science, offering the best of both worlds. Read More
2

Formulyst

The philosophy of Formulyst is long-term and effective skincare, rather than covering up any imperfections. The comprehensive line of products tackles everything from wrinkles to dark spots and dry skin. While some brands rely on unnecessary fillers and scents, Formulyst focuses on ingredients that help create results, such as vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Read More

No comments yet

Your Review

Recommended Articles