Traditionally, retinol and sensitive skin have been frenemies in the skin-care world—but as formulas get more advanced, they're now able to enter BFF territory. When they're getting along, they'll give you mirror-finish skin. And when they're not, well, let's just say the words "red" and "dry" come to mind. While pairing your retinol with other products certainly works, board-certified dermatologist Shari Marchbein, MD put me on to a different method—the retinol sandwich—back in 2019. And it recently blew up on TikTok.
The retinol sandwich method essentially involves making a "sandwich" on your skin using a moisturizer (the bread!) and retinol (the meat!). I know, it sounds weird, so allow Dr. Marchbein to explain. "After washing your face, apply a layer of moisturizing cream," she says. "Then apply a pea-sized amount of retinoid, and then another layer of moisturizer on top." Et voilà: a retinol sandwich perfect for sensitive skin. Or any skin, for that matter. And although it's got "retinol" in the name, you can use this method with any retinoid ranging from retinal to prescription-strength tretinoin.
Retinoids can be so drying because they work to increase cell turnover and remove the top layer of dead skin cells. You may notice irritation, peeling, scaling, redness, or burning during the first few weeks of using a retinoid, but these symptoms can also pop up during the winter when the air is dryer and cooler. Marisa Garshick, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City, says the retinol sandwich method is best reserved for those who have tried retinoids and found them to be too harsh. If your skin tolerates retinoids just fine, there's no need to sandwich.
"There's a lot of people who use retinoids and get irritated and dry," says Dr. Garshick. "It's thought that when you put a layer of moisturizer underneath the retinoid, you're able to help lessen the irritation that goes along with it." However, because you're minimizing penetration, you may not get the same benefit that you'd get if you used the retinoid sans sandwich. "this may also dampen the retinoids' impact. "If you're someone who's otherwise unable to tolerate a retinoid and using the retinol sandwich technique is your only way to do it, then go for it. Cause you're still gonna have some benefits that are better than none." Note that you can also spot sandwich if some areas are more sensitive to retinoids than others, like the eyelids or the corners of the mouth.
How to make retinol sandwich
1. Apply a lightweight moisturizer
When choosing a moisturizer to apply under the retinoid, Dr. Garshick says to keep it light. "You do want it to be a little bit more lightweight to allow some degree of penetration," she says. She likes the Vanicream Moisturizing Lotion ($13), the La Roche-Posay Toleriane Double Repair Face Moisturizer ($11), and the Vichy Mineral 89 Prebiotic Concentrate Serum ($35).
Dr. Garshick also loves this moisturizer from La Roche Posay. It includes niacinamide, which is a super soothing ingredient that pairs great with retinoids.
“Vichy makes its like Mineral 89 prebiotic concentrate and that has been shown to help minimize retinol irritation,” says Dr. Garshick. “It’s a little bit more of like a serum consistency but has moisturizing benefits as well.”
2. Put on the retinoid
Next, you apply your retinoid. Some of Dr. Garshick's favorite gentle retinoids are the RoC Retinol Correxion Retinol Face Serum ($33), the CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum ($20), and the Medik8 Crystal Retinal ($53).
This is the most gentle formulation of Medik8’s Crystal Retinal. Retinal, aka retinaldehyde, is “good for somebody who is in between a prescription retinoid and an OTC retinol,” says Dr. Garshick. “Retinaldehyde basically is a little bit more potent than retinol and a little bit less irritating than a prescription.”
3. Lock it in with something thick
To finish off the sandwich technique (I love using the phrase "sandwich technique" so much), be sure to always immediately follow up your retinoid with a moisturizing cream that contains glycerin or hyaluronic acid as a key ingredient. "This helps ease dryness and is especially important in the winter months," says Dr. Marchbein. She calls out the Simple Replenishing Rich Moisturizer ($9) as one of her fave soothing topicals. Two other great moisturizers are the Pond's Dry Skin Cream Facial Moisturizer ($8) and the Yina Hydracloud Cream ($98).
The Hydracloud Cream is packed with glycerin and hyaluronic-acid-rich tremella mushroom to flood your skin with moisture. Plus, it’s got a ginseng complex, niacinamide, and centella to boost collagen production, reduce inflammation, enhance skin elasticity, and protect against oxidative stress.
Treat yourself to a "retinol sandwich" at least three times a week, and your skin will be feeling as nourished and full as if you were to feed it an actual sandwich. Less delicious, sure, but arguably just as nutritious... at least, as far as your skin is concerned.
Learn more about retinol:
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