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The Best Retinol Products For Sensitive Skin

When it comes to tried-and-true skincare staples, there are few that can hold a candle to retinoids, a class of chemical compounds that includes retinol, retinal and retinoic acid (among many others). For the purpose of clarity, we’ll be focusing on the most popular over-the-counter vitamin A derivative, retinol. Between the years of research, clinical studies, and dermatologist-backed results, retinol is widely considered the gold standard when it comes to effectively treating a long list of concerns. 

Retinol is clinically proven to address the following skin issues (just to name a few): fine lines and wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, acne, dullness, congested pores and texture. And we could keep going. No, really. Retinol, which turns into retinoic acid when applied topically onto the skin, sloughs away dead skin cells, revealing brighter, smoother skin underneath, and it encourages the production of collagen, reducing the appearance of wrinkles and dark spots. 

Sounds perfect, right? Aside from the fact that retinoids should be avoided during pregnancy as a precautionary measure, since excessive amounts of vitamin A can disrupt fetal development, it really is a do-it-all hero ingredient. There’s just one other small issue. 

For those with ultra-sensitive skin, just the mere thought of applying a retinol serum can be enough to send your skin into a panic-induced peeling frenzy. If you’re a retinol user, then you know that before you get to enjoy all of the aforementioned benefits of the star ingredient, you must first go through *pause for dramatic effect* …the purge.

Skin purging happens when your skin has been introduced to an active ingredient that’s increased its cell turnover rate, causing it to start shedding skin cells at a faster-than-normal rate. This, unfortunately, presents itself as what can only be described as face dandruff. You’ll see bits of skin peeling off that are essentially everything that you’re trying to get rid of (dead cells, excess sebum, pore-clogging debris) that must rise to the top before they flake off and make room for new, healthy skin cells. The purge should only last about three or four weeks.

But if you already deal with dry, sensitive, flaky skin sans retinol, then the thought of intentionally putting your skin through a month of all of that may just be too much to bear. That’s why skincare brands have found a happy medium for those who want to dip a toe into the wild waters of retinol, instead of diving head-first into a pool of skin flakes. Whether these products feature lower concentrations of retinol (anywhere between 0.25% and 1% is where most formulations fall) or retinol that’s blended into other soothing ingredients, like oils and heavy creams, these days there are plenty of ways to get into the retinol game and reap its rewards without compromising the state of your skin. 

Below are four of our favourite non-scary, super-chill retinol products that still actually work.

Olay Regenerist Retinol24 Night Facial Serum, $52.99 

Olay’s new line of retinol products features niacinamide (also known as vitamin B3) as one of its main ingredients, allowing its moisturizing benefits to balance out retinol’s exfoliating powers.

Jordan Samuel Skin Retinol Treatment Oil, $43 USD 

We love this retinol pick because it’s blended into a soothing combo of cranberry seed and marula oil. The result? A seriously gentle experience. 

Glow Recipe Avocado Melt Retinol Eye Sleeping Mask, $56

The Instagram-famous brand’s retinol mask is made with antioxidant-rich avocado oil, which is super hydrating. Better yet, it’s made with encapsulated retinol, so it gently releases the ingredient a little bit at a time, rather than all at once, which can be irritating. 

Philosophy Help Me Retinol Night Treatment, $62 

Formulated with bisabolol (the main component in the essential oil extracted from naturally soothing German chamomile) and encapsulated retinol (ensuring gradual release), you can rest assured that you won’t be seeing any face dandruff here.

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