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Can You Use Retinol if You Have Sensitive Skin? Dermatologist Advice

February 01, 2022

Read to find out how to recognise if you have sensitive skin, what causes skin sensitivity and what the best products are to treat the condition.

Author: Maria Ageeva & Georgie Falcone

Reading time: 6 minutes

Can you use retinol if you have sensitive skin? Yes, you can! However, it is important to start by using a low concentration then increasing gradually.

Find out how to recognise if you have sensitive skin, what causes skin sensitivity, and the best products to use if you suffer from sensitive skin.

How to Know if You Have Sensitive Skin

While people may hold the opinion that sensitive skin is merely easily irritable skin, other features characterise this skin condition. This can include sudden redness, itchiness, inflammation and undesirable break-outs.

Experts point out, that currently there is no universal checklist for a definitive “diagnosis” of a sensitive skin type. However, according to Dr Katz with Forefront Dermatology¹, there are several symptoms that, if experienced regularly, could be a sign that you might have sensitive skin.

Sensitive Skin Symptoms

1. Skin Reactions

The first sign that you might experience is high skin sensitivity due to the reactiveness of your skin. This means that your skin is highly responsive to any product that you might be using. This may not only include cosmetic, skin or hair care products, but also household products such as soaps, detergents, fragrances and perfumes. These may trigger your skin to react by becoming dry, red, or itchy.

2. Redness

Secondly, a common sensitive skin symptom is redness. This can appear in many different forms, such as rashes, red bumps, blushing or visibly dilated blood vessels. Generally, as soon you remove the agent of irritation, the redness should leave. If not, there are treatments that can rid your skin from unwanted bumps, rashes and otherwise inflammation.

3. Excessive Dryness

Excessive dryness is another sign you might be suffering from sensitive skin. Sensitive and dry skin often co-occur together. Furthermore, when not taken care of, dry skin with raised skin sensitivity can lead to acne breakouts, cracking and flaking. Cold, dry weather can also trigger this. Using a gentle moisturiser daily can prevent your skin from becoming overly dry and damaged.

4. Skin Rashes

If you frequently notice that your skin is prone to developing rashes quickly, it might be another sign that you’re dealing with sensitive skin. When exposed to an irritant, your skin might flare up, appear red, flaky, dry or develop a bumpy rash.

5. Frequent Breakouts

Another sign you might have sensitive skin is frequent breakouts. This can often look like acne with red bumps and pustules. Moreover, choosing the wrong acne products may only worsen the acne and the overall condition of your skin.

6. Recurring Sunburn

Recurring sunburns can also be a sign of raised skin sensitivity. However, regardless of your skin's sensitivity, it is important to wear SPF daily (preferably with SPF 30 or higher). This will ensure skin protection from UVA and UVB rays. Since some ingredients in sunscreens can cause allergic reactions, look for ones with the ingredients zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.

What Causes Sensitive Skin?

Raised skin sensitivity can be brought on by a myriad of different reasons.

Damaged Moisture Barrier
First of all, if you have dehydrated or dry skin, it can easily become sensitive if you have a damaged moisture barrier. This can make your skin feel itchy and rough to the touch. Furthermore, it can appear flaky. Sometimes it may even crack and bleed. In order to prevent this, you need to heal your skin’s moisture barrier by applying moisturising creams and replacing harsh scrubs with gentle cleansers.
Eczema is another reason why you might be suffering from overly sensitive skin. Also known as atopic dermatitis, eczema is a condition that can make your skin appear extremely dry, red, cracked and swollen. Furthermore, it can harm your skin’s capacity to shield you from irritating agents. This can include germs, environmental pollution or chemicals in your laundry detergent. Moreover, eczema can also increase skin sensitivity to products that would usually would be harmless, such as soaps or cosmetic products. In some cases, rich moisturising creams, ointments or an over-the-counter topical treatment are enough to tackle eczema by applying it to affected areas. However, for other, more severe cases, it is best to consult with a dermatology practitioner when choosing your treatment.
Another reason for developing higher skin sensitivity is irritant or allergic contact dermatitis. This appears as a red, itchy rash with dry, scaly skin. Furthermore, it can develop as a result of your skin’s protective layer contacting a damaging irritant. Contact dermatitis can affect several areas. However usually, it develops only in the area that has had direct contact with an irritant. While contact dermatitis usually clears up on its own within a couple of weeks, it is very important to identify the trigger of your irritation. This will prevent further flare-ups of the condition.

How Do You Fix Sensitive Skin?

Generally, anyone struggling with different levels of skin sensitivity should avoid harsh astringents and exfoliants. Furthermore, you should use a gentle, fragrance-free soap. Additionally, use essential oils (diluted) instead of perfumes, as well as a fragrance-free laundry detergent.

Moreover, it is important to always use a shaving cream or gel when shaving. Finally, always test new products on a discreet area of skin (at least one day before trying a full-application).

Is Retinol Bad for Dry or Sensitive Skin?

Retinol, among other retinoids, is a vitamin-A derived acid. It is available in skincare products in different strengths depending on its concentration. Retinoid products are popular in the treatment of different skin conditions. This can include acne or hormonal breakouts. However, they are also effective for reversing the signs of aging and sun damage, as well as maintaining your skin’s collagen production and overall health.

While retinoid-based products are generally beneficial for all skin types, experts urge to pay attention to the concentration of retinol and use it with caution. For example, start using it gradually and only increase usage when your skin becomes accustomed to it. This will prevent irritation.

Contrary to many beliefs about the dangers of using retinol, according to experts, it is perfectly safe to use on your skin when used correctly², and only when used improperly it can cause some unwanted side effects.

How to Use Retinol if You Have Skin Sensitivity

Retinol products help stimulate your skin’s collagen production, enhance cell turnover, brighten and even out skin tone, and reduce pigmentation and fine lines. With the correct use, retinol is effective and provides relief for even sensitive skin.

In order to avoid unwanted side effects and achieve the best results, introduce retinol into your routine gradually. Start by using retinol products that are low in concentration, and allow your skin to adjust to the effects of the product. Then, gradually, raise the concentration. Moreover, specialists advise applying a gentle moisturiser before a retinol treatment, or on top of it.

What Is the Best Retinol Serum for Sensitive Skin?

Osmosis features a range of skincare products that use the least irritating form of retinoids, retinaldehyde. Retinaldehyde encourages skin cell regeneration and collagen production. The Osmosis Correct Preventative Retinal Serum is a vitamin A serum that works to reduce the signs of skin aging and sun damage. Other ingredients include peptides, hyaluronic and lactic acid. These active ingredients help the skin to produce collagen, and attract and retain moisture.

Another Osmosis retinaldehyde product is the Renew Advanced Retinal Serum. This solution features the highest concentration of retinaldehyde but remains gentle. This is because retinaldehyde is the least irritating form of vitamin A. Moreover, it stimulates elastin and collagen production on a cellular level. This reverses signs of skin aging, such as fine lines and wrinkles, along with uneven skin thickness and tone.

Another product similar to retinol, that doesn't actually include retinol, is Indeed Labs' Bakuchiol Reface Pads. These can be a part of your daily skincare routine and are easy to use on the go. Bakuchiol Reface Pads give all of the anti-aging benefits of retinol, but without the risk of sensitivity or irritation. The pads use the clinically backed anti-aging ingredient bakuchiol. This acts similarly to retinol but does not irritate the skin. Other ingredients include niacinamide, antioxidants, and hydrating actives to repair skin aging, sun damage, and scarring, while soothing and plumping the skin. The product is free from phthalates and sulfates, silicone and parabens, fragrance and artificial colouring, as well as alcohol and mineral oil.

Dermatologists suggest these products, as they contain lower doses of retinol, or use retinol-alternative solutions. This means they are safe for sensitive skin. Therefore, they are unlikely to cause irritation and unwanted side effects.

What Is the Best Moisturiser to Use With Retinol?

As mentioned above, specifically for sensitive skin, experts urge to use moisturiser prior to topical application of retinol treatment. The Osmosis Skincare Quench Nourishing Moisturizer is an effective moisturiser to use in conjunction with retinol. This is because it is gentle on sensitive skin, and free from any harsh ingredients that may interact with retinol. Moreover, it works to restore the skin's natural hydration levels and improve skin barrier function. Furthermore, it features ingredients such as hyaluronic acid, squalane, jojoba seed oil, and organic shea butter. All of which are extremely hydrating, moisturising, and have an abundance of anti-aging properties.

Hopefully, this guidance will help you to start implementing retinoids in your skincare routine safely and effectively. And remember, there is no time like the present, because according to dermatologists it is best to start using retinoids in your 20s to achieve the best results and prevent signs of aging at their roots!


  • 1. Katz P. 6 Signs You Have Sensitive Skin [Internet]. Forefront Dermatology. 2022. Available from:
  • 2. Ries G & Hess R. 1999. Retinol: Safety Considerations for its Use in Cosmetic Products. Journal of Toxicology: Cutaneous and Ocular Toxicology. 18:3, 169-18., DOI: 10.3109/15569529909044238