A “Retinol Sandwich” Could Be the Key to Your Sensitive Skin

Written by Chelsea Burns

True sensitive-skin types know the struggle. It's the one where you’re so tempted to try the latest and greatest skin-care ingredients, trends, and products, but you’re forced to stick to your boring, bland routine out of fear of making your skin more sensitive (hi, it’s me!). This temptation has become all the more difficult thanks to social media sharing a new sensitive-skin “remedy” every week. Case in point: the "retinol sandwich" method, which has gone viral for being the supposed cure to all retinoid issues, even for the most reactive of skin types. Still, when it comes to retinol, you gotta know what you're getting yourself into first.

The retinol sandwich method is an application technique that's said to be ideal for sensitive skin. Before you start slathering, though, it's important to get the facts straight before you start messing around with retinol. To better understand how the retinol sandwich can affect your skin, we spoke to board-certified dermatologists Kimberly Jerdan, MD, and Shari Marchbein, MD, for everything to know about the skin-care trend. 

Experts in this article

  • Kimberly Jerdan, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and cosmetic and laser surgeon in Oklahoma
  • Shari Marchbein, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City

What is retinol? 

Retinol has become the go-to term to reference retinoids, which is a compound derived from vitamin A, Dr. Jerdan explains. "For topical products, there are many different forms of retinoids,” she says, including over-the-counter options (like the gentler retinol, the mid-tier retinaldehyde—aka retinal—and the acne-specific adapalene), along with prescription options (like retinoic acid, tazarotene, and trifarotene).

Stocksy / Viktor Solomin
Stocksy / Rebecca Spencer

While all of these different forms of retinoids work at various strengths, they essentially do the same thing: help slough off your skin faster, leaving it feeling smoother and looking brighter. Your skin naturally renews itself every 28 to 30 days (though it gets slower as you get older), but retinoids can significantly cut down that turnover time, depending on the strength of the formula you use. 

All skin types can experience sensitivity to retinoids, but if you already have sensitive skin, going on a retinoid can heighten that sensitivity. Why? Because any sort of barrier or protection your skin had gotten used to is now getting stripped away, thanks to that extra-fast cellular turnover. This disruption of the skin barrier paired with its rapid exfoliation is also why skin tends to be more dry and flaky, which can then exacerbate preexisting sensitive-skin issues. 

What is a retinol sandwich? 

A retinol sandwich uses moisturizer to create a buffer between the active ingredient and your skin to prevent it from being as irritating. The end goal? Less dryness, peeling, and sensitivity. So, instead of applying retinol to clean, dry skin as you'd typically do, a retinol sandwich instructs you to "sandwich" it between two layers of moisturizer to help buffer the intensity.

When should you make a retinol sandwich?

Already using retinol? You can implement the retinol sandwich method whenever you want to help decrease sensitivity. Just getting started with retinol? You can implement the 1-2-3 method:

  • Week 1: Apply your retinol (using the retinol sandwich method) just one night this week. 
  • Week 2: Apply your retinol sandwich two nights this week. 
  • Week 3: Apply your retinol sandwich (you guessed it) three nights this week and continue indefinitely.  

What are the benefits of the retinol sandwich method? 

The benefits of the retinol sandwich include creating a barrier between your skin and your retinoid to help reduce sensitivity. It also makes retinol more tolerable for sensitive skin. Retinol (while powerful) can make your skin feel dry and irritated before you start noticing significant changes. By sandwiching your retinol between moisturizer, you can help reduce those reactions. 

If you have sensitive skin that hasn't been able to handle retinol in the past, the protective barrier of the retinol sandwich method helps “water down” the retinol’s potency, helping to mitigate potential inflammation and irritation. Ultimately, the retinol sandwich method lets you customize your retinol experience and can help introduce your skin to the ingredient in a more tolerable manner, which is ideal if your skin is naturally sensitive and reactive.

What type of moisturizer should you use for the retinol sandwich method? 

When it comes to choosing which moisturizer you should sandwich your retinol between, Dr. Jerdan says, "the blander, the better," advising against anything with active ingredients to avoid irritating your skin when combined with retinoids. Dr. Marchbein says to look for moisturizers with glycerin (a hydrating humectant) and dimethicone (a protective silicone) to help hydrate and soothe the skin if you're using a retinoid. 

Stocksy / Marc Tran

What ingredients should you avoid when using retinol? 

If your skin is sensitive, the main thing you want to stay away from while introducing a retinol is any other exfoliating products—whether that be manually, like a scrub, or chemically, like an acid. Retinol is already exfoliating your skin, so anything extra can make your skin even more prone to irritation. According to Dr. Jerdan, you don’t want to have any other ingredients competing with your retinoid, since it’s the (already powerful) star of the show.

Other ingredients that tend to cause sensitivity include benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid (both of which can be drying and harsh) and vitamin C (another active that can irritate some skin types). They’re usually fine to use on the days when you’re not applying retinol, but check with your dermatologist or consider pausing them while you introduce retinol to your routine. 

Does the retinol sandwich method make the retinol less effective? 

While the retinol sandwich method can help the ingredient be gentler on your skin, the jury’s still out on whether it makes the ingredient less effective—and by how much. However, if your skin is sensitive, the point of the retinol sandwich is to water things down a little, thereby making retinol more tolerable. Most moisturizers (especially those with oil) create a barrier that prevents even absorption so, yes, it’s highly possible that if you’re using a heavier moisturizer before you apply your retinoid, it'll be less "effective"—which is a good thing, if you have sensitive skin.

Remember: The goal here is to help your sensitive skin build a tolerance to retinoids, since any amount of retinol (even watered-down) is more beneficial than no retinol at all. Still, to help maximize absorption while limiting negative effects, experts typically recommend applying your moisturizer, waiting 15 minutes before applying your retinol, then waiting another 15 minutes applying your top layer of moisturizer.

Final takeaway

Experts sing the praises of retinol because it works. Fine lines? Retinol. Acne? Retinol. Dark spots—you get the point. But if you have sensitive skin, retinol can make your skin more prone to irritation than not. Because of this, your retinol routine may require some tweaking to get the most of the ingredient without compromising your skin. 

Ultimately, the retinol sandwich might sound like just another buzzy term, but it's a simple concept that could work wonders for sensitive skin. Before you alter your routine, the key is to understand your skin and its unique needs. If you're already using retinol regularly and your skin is managing just fine, using the sandwiching method may not make a huge difference. However, if your skin is reactive, you may find adding a retinol sandwich into your skin-care routine beneficial, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Hero Illustration by Janet Mac