Skin-Care Tips Serums

Retinol Serums Can Be Harsh on My Sensitive Skin, But This New Derm-Beloved Formula Is Gentle Enough I Can Use It Daily

Photo: Getty Images/JGI/Jamie Grill
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Retinol is so celebrated by industry insiders that it definitely would make it into the “beauty ingredients hall of fame,” if that was something that existed. Even if you’re not super hooked into the skin-care world, you’ve likely heard of retinol. It’s arguably the most famous hero ingredient (and certainly one that derms recommend to adults over and over again). But it’s always been a bit of a blindspot for me, because I have such textbook sensitive skin. So I’ve been a little wary of retinol, mainly because while, yes, it has many skin-saving powers–but it also can cause irritation if you’re like me and are prone to dry, sensitive skin.

So when I saw that Summer Fridays just launched their Midnight Ritual Retinol Renewal Serum ($69), I was immediately intrigued. Summer Fridays is an ingredient-conscious, vegan beauty brand that amassed a major fan-following since it launched in 2018 with its best-seller, The Jet Lag Mask ($49). Their new Retinol Renewal Serum is gentle enough to use on sensitive skin, while still giving the benefits of a stronger retinol product—combined with everything I know and love about Summer Fridays and a retinol formula that's made for sensitive skin, I knew I was in.

What is retinol?

But first, what exactly is retinol? Sure you’ve heard of it, but can you define it? In the simplest terms, retinol is a topical vitamin A derivative that helps reduce pigmentation, smooth skin and improve its overall texture. People sometimes use the term “retinol” and “retinoid” interchangeably, but they’re not the same. The easiest way to think of it is that retinol is an OTC (over-the-counter) version of retinoids, which are stronger but also require a prescription. Retinol is so popular because it’s one of the most effective ways to topically improve the texture of skin and reduce fine lines without going to a cosmetic dermatologist for Botox or other injectables.

What makes Summer Fridays retinol serum better for sensitive skin?

If you’re like me and have sensitive skin, you definitely want to opt for a gentler retinol versus a prescription-strength retinoid. But even some over-the-counter retinols can leave skin red, dried out and irritated. But the Midnight Ritual Retinol Renewal Serum is a vegan blend of retinol and retinyl linoleate, a plant-based derivative of retinol. But what separates it from other serums is that it’s enhanced with tiger grass and oatmeal that soothes skin and can actually reduce redness, unlike many other OTC retinol serums.

We reached out to board-certified dermatologist Dr. Sam Ellis who recommends this serum especially if you’re new to retinol. “Retinol is one of the most tried-and-true skin-care ingredients when it comes to improving skin tone and texture,” explains Dr. Ellis. “However, many people aren’t able to incorporate this powerhouse ingredient into their routine because it can potentially irritate the skin. This is where Midnight Ritual Retinol really shines—it’s a gentle, but effective, retinol formula that blends natural ingredients that nourish skin.”

How do you use Summer Fridays retinol serum?

In the evening, apply one to two pumps over clean, dry skin. You want to use retinol products at night, since retinol can make your skin more sensitive to UV rays—hence the product’s “midnight ritual” name. Also, be sure to always use an SPF of 30 or higher as a part of your daily routine in the morning. I’ve used retinol before, so I used this serum daily (nightly, once a day) and I had no irritation whatsoever. But if you’re new to retinol, Dr. Ellis recommends building up to daily use. “Slowly incorporate retinol into your routine to minimize irritation,” she suggests. “The easiest way to do this is to use it one night a week for one week, then two nights a week for two weeks, then three nights until you eventually work your way up to nightly use.”

And keep in mind when it comes to retinol serums, patience is key. It typically takes about four weeks to notice a visible difference, but I personally did feel an overall improvement in the smoothness of my skin after about two weeks. “The biggest benefits of retinol come with long-term use,” explains Dr. Ellis.

Also, whenever I use a new serum I have a little trick I like to call “the backhand test.” Before I use it on my face I put some on the back of my left hand and wait a minute until it absorbs, and I don’t put any on my right hand. Then I close my eyes and feel both hands, and the difference is so stark. My left hand felt smooth and supple, and my right felt more rough and dry, comparatively.

Finally, a note on the concept of "anti-aging." Retinol products are often talked about in the same sentence as the term “age-fighting.” But in reality, no product fights aging—no matter what product we use, with each year we age—and that’s something to be celebrated, not fought. But retinol serums, like Summer Friday’s, can help brighten, smooth and soothe skin–which I just want to note is different than “fighting age.”

Bottom line? If you’ve been skittish around retinol or have never used one before, start with a gentle serum like the Midnight Ritual Retinol Renewal Serum from Summer Fridays.

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Our editors independently select these products. Making a purchase through our links may earn Well+Good a commission.

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