The best retinol for sensitive skin according to a Beauty Editor

Formulas for the most sensitive of skin

Beauty Crew Beauty Editor / January 24 2024

Retinol is one of the most well-researched, anti-ageing skin care ingredients in the world. 

The powerful active is derived from vitamin A and helps to boost cell turnover, which in turn improves collagen production, minimises the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, evens out skin tone, smooths skin texture and even balances sebum production. 

However retinol can also prove to be irritating to those with sensitive skin, which is why it's recommended that first time retinol users or those prone to irritation try the 'low and slow'  and 'sandwich' methods. 

The 'low and slow' application method aims to boost the user's retinol tolerance over time by integrating the ingredient into an evening skin care routine once a week. After the skin becomes more tolerant, one might increase the frequency of use to twice a week and so on. However, if the skin becomes red, flaky, itchy or irritated then it's recommended to reduce or halt use completely until the skin has calmed down. 

The 'sandwich' method requires one to apply a layer of moisturiser before applying retinol, and then another layer of moisturiser is applied over the top. This helps to dilute the retinol and it also slows it's absorption into the skin because moisturiser has a thicker consistency and a larger molecular weight. 

But what is the best retinol to use for sensitive skin? Keep scrolling, these are BEAUTYcrew's top picks in the category...

2024's top 3 retinol products for sensitive skin

CeraVe Skin Renewing Retinol Serum, $41.99, Priceline
COSRX The Retinol 0.1 Cream, $57, Adore Beauty
innisfree Retinol Cica Repair Ampoule, $58, Adore Beauty


CeraVe Skin Renewing Retinol Serum
from $33.59 at Priceline

This gentle retinol serum combines one per cent retinol with low concentrations of AHAs (glycolic and lactic acid), BHA (salicylic acid), hyaluronic acid, niacinamide and three essential ceramides. This unique combination of ingredients simultaneously helps to renew the skin by encouraging cell turnover and supporting and strengthening the skin's natural moisture barrier function. It's this combination of powerful actives and nourishing ingredients, which makes it a great option for those with sensitive skin. The formula itself has a thicker consistency than most serums too, which means it will be absorbed slower into the skin. 

Key features:

Hydrating hyaluronic acid
Moisture barrier-strengthening ceramides
Niacinamide, AHAs & BHAs to clarify skin tone, improve skin texture and minimise the appearance of pores and fine lines
Low concentration of retinol (one per cent)
Thick consistency

Available at:

COSRX The Retinol 0.1 Cream
from $57 at Adore Beauty

Specifically formulated with sensitive skin types in mind, this retinol cream contains 0.1 per cent retinol, alongside panthenol, vitamin E and adenosine. The low concentration of retinol coupled with a cocktail of hydrating, soothing and nourishing supplementary ingredients means that this cream is going to be less likely to cause redness, dryness, itchiness and irritation than traditional, stronger retinols. When used continuously over time one can expect to see an improvement in skin elasticity, firmness, hydration, cellular turnover, tone and texture. Plus, a minimisation in the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. 

Key features:

Soothing and hydrating panthenol
Soothing, nourishing and moisturising vitamin E
Adenosine to improve skin elasticity
Cream retinol formulas are gentler on skin than serums because they are absorbed slower

Available at:

innisfree Retinol Cica Repair Ampoule
from $58 at Adore Beauty

We had the pleasure of testing out the innisfree Retinol Cica Repair Ampoule when it first launched in 2022 and it has been one of our favourite gentle retinol options ever since. Last year it underwent a makeover with innisfree debuting a new range of minimalist packaging, but inside is the same formula we know and love. The team at innisfree have incorporated ceramides centella asiatica, hyaluronic acid, niacinamide and adenosine into the formula, which contains a super low concentration of retinol (0.015 per cent). Unlike most retinols which target signs of ageing, this serum was formulated with acne-prone skin in mind. The serum aims to help regulate sebum and oil production, minimise the size of pores, and improve skin tone and texture too. Soothing ingredients have been also included in the formula to help alleviate the redness and irritation typically associated with breakouts. 

Key features:

Centella asiatica helps to reduce redness and angry pimples
Hydrating hyaluronic acid 
Strengthening ceramides
Niacinamide to improve skin clarity and enhance radiance
Adenosine to firm skin

Available at:

Paula's Choice RESIST Intensive Repair Cream
from $39.20 at Paula's Choice

Paula's Choice has concocted this richly moisturising retinol cream for folks with very dry skin. It contains just 0.01 per cent retinol to minimise any potential irritation, as well as a nourishing blend of the emollient moisturiser jojoba oil and antioxidant-rich ingredients niacinamide, green tea, liquorice extract. There's also hydrating humectants hyaluronic acid and glycerin. Plus, skin strengthening ceramides, smoothing peptides and firming adenosine. This exhaustive list of ingredients tackles a myriad of skin concerns including skin texture, a lack of firmness, dryness, dullness and visible fine lines. 

Key features:

Transforms a dry, dull complexion into hydrated and radiant skin
Smooths and firms skin
Minimises the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles

Available at:

FIRST AID BEAUTY Skin Lab Retinol Serum .25% Pure Concentrate
from $99 at Adore Beauty

Enriched with a slew of soothing ingredients such as aloe, colloidal oatmeal, hyaluronic acid and ceramides, this retinol serum has been specifically formulated with sensitive skin in mind. It also contains 0.25 per cent retinol, vitamin C and vitamin E, which work in unison to revitalise the appearance of skin over time. With continued use one can expect to see a reduction in the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, an improvement in firmness and a smoother complexion too.  

Key features:

A cocktail of skin soothing ingredients (aloe, colloidal oatmeal, hyaluronic acid, ceramides)
Vitamin E and C enhance skin radiance, improve texture and tone
A low concentration of retinol (0.25 per cent) to minimise the risk of potential irritation

Available at:

Medik8 Retinol 3TR Advanced 0.3% Vitamin A Serum
from $76 at Adore Beauty

Medik8's retinol range has been designed to assist an individual at every stage of their retinol journey. If you're new to retinol or have sensitive skin the Medik8 Retinol 3TR Advanced 0.3% Vitamin A Serum is the one for you. It contains a low concentration of retinol (0.3 per cent) alongside stabilising vitamin E to minimise irritation during application. The serum has been formulated to absorb quickly into skin, so if your skin is not as resilient to retinol as you would like yet or you're apprehensive about using the ingredient, we would recommend using the sandwich method when applying this particular formula. The serum is designed to be used in the evening and helps to enhance the skin's natural regenerative process, which happens when we are sleeping. With continued use one will see an improvement in the appearance of wrinkles, radiance and skin clarity. 

Key features:

Enhances the skin's natural nightly regeneration process
Vitamin E helps to stabilise retinol and minimise irritation
Contains a low concentration of retinol (0.3 per cent)
Fast-absorbing formula

Available at:

What kind of retinol is best for sensitive skin?

The best retinol for sensitive skin is a retinol product with a low concentration, ideally 1 per cent or less. Serums and moisturisers with thicker textures are better for sensitive skin because they take longer to be absorbed into the skin, which allows the retinol to slowly release over time. Finding formulas with soothing, strengthening and hydrating ingredients is also important as these help to minimise any potential redness, flakiness, itchiness or irritation that can typically occur when using retinol. 

What is the best retinol for beginners? Here, you'll find everything you’ve always wanted to know about retinol.

Main image credit: @for_everyoung10

Briar Clark got her start in the media industry in 2017, as an intern for Marie Claire and InStyle. Since then, her keen interest in fashion and beauty has landed her gigs as a Digital Content Producer and Beauty Editor with titles like Girlfriend, Refinery29, BEAUTYcrew and beautyheaven. She loves the way seemingly innocuous topics like skin care and style have the ability to put a smile on people’s faces or make them think about themselves a little differently. A big believer in self love and experimentation, Briar has made a point of becoming the Australian beauty industry’s unofficial guinea pig for unusual treatments and daring hair trends. When she’s not testing out the latest beauty launches, Briar is big on broadening her horizons, mostly in the form of food but she’s also partial to travelling to new destinations both near and far (and of course, allocating an extra bag to bring their best beauty offerings home with her).

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