What is the Retinol Sandwich Method and does it really work?

9 Min Read

Truly sensitive skin types know the struggle. It’s the one where you’re so tempted to try out the latest and greatest skincare ingredients, trends and products, but you’re forced to stick to your boring, boring routine for fear of making your skin more sensitive (hello, it’s me !). This temptation has become all the more difficult as social media shares a new “cure” for sensitive skin every week. Case in point: the “retinol sandwich” method, which has gone viral as the supposed cure for all retinoid problems, even for the most reactive skin types. But when it comes to retinol, you first need to know what you’re getting into.

The retinol sandwich method is an application technique that would be ideal for sensitive skin. However, before you start slathering, it’s important to get the facts straight before messing around with retinol. To better understand how the retinol sandwich can affect your skin, we spoke with board-certified dermatologists Kimberly JerdanM.D., and Shari MarchbeinMD, for all things skin care trend.

Experts in this article

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

What is retinol?

Retinol has become the benchmark for retinoids, a compound derived from vitamin A, explains Dr. Jerdan out. “For topical products, there are many different forms of retinoids,” she says, including over-the-counter options (such as the gentler retinol, the medium retinaldehyde, or retinal, and the acne-specific adapalene), along with prescription products. options (such as retinoic acid, tazarotene and trifarotene).

Stocksy / Viktor Solomin
Stocksy/Rebecca Spencer

While all of these different forms of retinoids work at different strengths, they essentially do the same thing: loosen your skin faster, making it feel smoother and look brighter. Your skin naturally renews itself every 28 to 30 days (although this slows down as you age), but retinoids can significantly shorten that recovery time, depending on the strength of the formula you use.

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All skin types can be sensitive to retinoids, but if you already have sensitive skin, you can use retinoids to increase that sensitivity. Why? Because any form of barrier or protection that your skin had become accustomed to is now removed, thanks to that extra rapid cell turnover. This disruption of the skin barrier, combined with the rapid exfoliation, is also why skin is often drier and flakier, which can then worsen existing problems with sensitive skin.

What is a retinol sandwich?

A retinol sandwich uses a moisturizer to create a buffer between the active ingredient and your skin to keep it from being just as irritating. The end goal? Less dryness, peeling and sensitivity. So instead of applying retinol to clean, dry skin as you normally would, 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?

Are you already using retinol? You can use the retinol sandwich method whenever you want to help reduce sensitivity. Just started with retinol? You can implement the 1-2-3 method:

  • Week 1: Apply your retinol just one evening this week (using the retinol sandwich method).
  • Week 2: Apply your retinol sandwich two evenings 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 (although powerful) can leave your skin feeling dry and irritated before you start to notice significant changes. Placing your retinol between moisturizers can help reduce these reactions.

If you have sensitive skin that hasn’t handled retinol well in the past, the protective barrier of the retinol sandwich method helps dilute the power of retinol, reducing potential inflammation and irritation. Ultimately, the retinol sandwich method allows you to customize your retinol experience and introduce your skin to the ingredient in a more bearable way, which is ideal if your skin is naturally sensitive and reactive.

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

When it comes to choosing which moisturizer to layer your retinol with, Dr. Jerdan: “the milder, the better”, and he advises against anything with active ingredients to prevent irritation of your skin in combination 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 when introducing a retinol is other exfoliating products, whether that’s manual, like a scrub, or chemical, like an acid. Retinol already exfoliates your skin, so anything extra can make your skin even more susceptible to irritation. According to Dr. Jerdan, you don’t want other ingredients competing with your retinoid because it’s the (already powerful) star of the show.

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

Does the retinol sandwich method make the retinol less effective?

While the retinol sandwich method may make the ingredient gentler on your skin, the jury is still out on whether it makes the ingredient less effective – and to what extent. However, if your skin is sensitive, the point of the retinol sandwich is to water things down a bit, making retinol more bearable. Most moisturizers (especially those with oil) create a barrier that prevents even absorption, so yes, it’s very possible that if you use a heavier moisturizer before applying your retinoid, it will be less “effective” – ​​which is a good thing. thing, if you have sensitive skin.

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

Last takeaway

Experts praise retinol because it works. Fine lines? Retinol. Acne? Retinol. Dark spots, you get the idea. But if you have sensitive skin, retinol can make your skin more prone to irritation than not. Because of this, your retinol routine may need some adjustments to get the most out of the ingredient without putting your skin at risk.

Ultimately, the retinol sandwich may sound like just another buzz term, but it’s a simple concept that can work wonders for sensitive skin. Before changing your routine, it’s important that you understand your skin and its unique needs. If you already use retinol regularly and your skin is doing fine, using the sandwich method may not make a big difference. However, if your skin is reactive, adding a retinol sandwich to your skincare routine may be helpful, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Hero illustration by Janet Mac

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