Retinol and retinoids are a powerhouse skin-care ingredient anti-aging skincare — and for good reason.
They work by converting vitamin A into retinoic acid by skin cells — the only difference is how fast. Retinols, available over the counter, work slower than prescription retinoids.
However, both can cause skin drying and irritation — especially if you’re new to using them. The side effects can last for weeks, leading many to suffer from painful, dry skin or give up altogether.
But the retinol sandwich method is often touted on social media as the answer to these woes.
“The idea here is you want it to buffer the retinoid,” board-certified dermatologist Whitney Bowe, MD, said in a TikTok post. “But you don’t want to block the retinoid entirely.”
How the Retinol Sandwich Method Works
Retinol sandwiching aims to buffer the retinoid, reducing potential irritation without blocking its effectiveness.
@drwhitneybowe Here’s how to build a retinoid sandwich on retinoid night for beginners or those with sensitive skin. #thatboweglow #skincycling #dermatologist #tretinoin #retinol ♬ Under The Influence – Chris Brown
It allows for a more comfortable introduction to retinoids, ensuring you get the benefits without the drawbacks.
- Cleanse and Dry Your Skin. The first step in your skincare routine should be thoroughly cleaning your skin.
This removes any impurities and prepares your skin for the retinoid. Make sure your skin is completely dry before moving on to the next step.
- Apply a Lightweight Moisturizer. “Ideally, one that doesn’t have ingredients like petroleum jelly, mineral oil, or dimethicone,” Bowe advises.
This first layer of moisturizer acts as a barrier, protecting sensitive areas around the eyes, smile lines, chin, and neck from potential irritation.
If you prefer, you can also use a hydrating serum instead of a moisturizer, but “just make sure it’s completely dry” before proceeding, Bowe adds.
- Apply the Retinoid. “So you want to use a pea-sized amount of retinoid, and you want to dab that pea all over your face,” she continues.
“Take another pea for the neck, two peas for the chest,” and rub it in thoroughly.
- Apply a Second Layer of Moisturizer. “You don’t wanna push the retinoid unpredictably into the skin and drive irritation,” Bowe warns.
So, for the second layer of moisturizer, avoid using an occlusive like petroleum jelly.
And remember: Retinoids make the skin more sensitive to sunlight, so always wear sunscreen.
The retinol sandwich method is good for those new to retinol or have sensitive skin.
One of the most significant benefits is reducing skin irritation. By buffering the retinoid with layers of moisturizer, you’re less likely to experience redness, peeling, or dryness.
Another benefit is the promotion of skin cell turnover and collagen production.
Retinol is known for its anti-aging properties, and this method allows you to reap those benefits without the harsh side effects.
It’s a win-win for all skin types, from sensitive to oily. This method provides a more comfortable introduction to retinoids, ensuring that you get the benefits of improved skin texture and tone without the drawbacks of irritation.
While the sandwiching method effectively reduces irritation, it has downsides.
One of the primary drawbacks is the potential dilution of the retinoid’s potency.
Because you’re buffering the retinoid with moisturizer, you may not get the full strength of the product, making it less effective for treating more severe skin issues like deep wrinkles or acne scars.
Another drawback could be the complexity of the routine. For those who prefer a straightforward skincare regimen, adding multiple layers and waiting for products to dry might be a drag — especially at night when you’re exhausted from a busy day.
Additionally, the method may not be suitable for all types of retinoids or moisturizers, requiring some trial and error to find the perfect combination for your skin.
If the retinol sandwiching method doesn’t quite fit your skincare needs or lifestyle, there are other ways to add retinoids to your skincare routine.
Skip the Moisture Barrier
“You can actually skip that first step and apply the retinoid directly onto dry skin,” dermatologist Whitney Bowe mentioned in her video. “It’ll actually increase the potency.”
This direct application method is particularly suitable for those who have built up a tolerance to retinoids and are looking for a more potent effect.
However, this approach may increase the risk of skin irritation, so it’s best suited for those with retinoid experience.
Use the ‘Rule of Three’
You can also gradually introduce retinoids into your routine by following the “Rule of Three,” which involves only using powerful products on certain days.
The Rule of 3 is straightforward:
- Start by applying retinol once a week for one week.
- Increase the frequency to twice weekly for the next two weeks if your skin tolerates it.
- Finally, apply retinol three times a week for three weeks.
After completing these phases, you can consider moving toward applying retinol every second night, provided you’re not experiencing any adverse side effects. If you are, take a step back until your skin adjusts.
Add Other Ingredients
Another alternative is to use retinol or retinoid products that are formulated with built-in moisturizers or soothing ingredients like hyaluronic acid and niacinamide.
These formulations aim to reduce irritation while still delivering retinoids’ anti-aging and skin-renewing benefits. They’re a convenient option for those who prefer a simplified skincare routine.
Use Retinoid Alternatives
For those who are extremely sensitive to retinoids, considering retinol alternatives like bakuchiol could be beneficial.
Bakuchiol is a plant-based ingredient that has been shown to offer similar anti-aging benefits to retinol but with less irritation.
It’s a great option for those with sensitive skin or those who are pregnant and advised to avoid retinoids.
Go For Time-Released Retinoids
Lastly, you can also opt for encapsulated retinol products.
These products release retinol over time, providing a slower, more controlled delivery that minimizes irritation. They’re an excellent choice for those who want to ease into using retinoids or have experienced irritation in the past.