5 Beginner Active Serums That Don't Flare Up My Sensitive Skin

For Adore Beauty.



After having my son in 2019, I suddenly experienced dry, red bumps around my mouth, nose and eyes.

You can read all about my sensitive skin journey in my previous Beauty IQ article, but long story short, I was diagnosed with rosacea and perioral dermatitis.

Almost two years on, my skin is glowy, healthy and clear... 90 per cent of the time.

Flare ups are few and far between, and I am back using a consistent skincare routine incorporating cosmeceutical, active serums.

(Cosmeceutical/active skin care refers to products containing active ingredients that can cause a physical change in the skin.)

If you have a sensitive skin condition or have previously experienced skin sensitivity, you'll know it means giving up your serums with active ingredients like vitamin A and exfoliating acids - at least for a while.

So, how did my skin and I get to this place of being able to use active skin care, after having such a severely compromised skin barrier?

Let me tell you what I wish someone would've explained to me a year ago...

Can You Use Active Ingredients if You Have Sensitive Skin?

Yes, but proceed with caution. And the advice of a dermatologist or dermal therapist.

After stripping back all of my skin care for months to manage my perioral dermatitis, only when my face was no longer stinging and burning was I ready to incorporate active serums back into my routine.

My dermatologist Dr Andrew Freeman from The Skin Centre cautioned me to try only one new product per fortnight, and to monitor my skin closely in case I needed to stop or pull back.

Best Serums for Sensitive Skin.

What came next was a lot of trial (and a little bit of error).

I sifted through many product trials and website reviews before slowly putting a new product to the sensitive skin test one day per week over the last nine months. While some set me a few steps back, I've managed to find a small selection of serums I think are most effective on my dry and sensitive skin.

Note: Not everyone’s skin is alike though, so what works for my dry and sensitive skin might not be best for you.

Cosmeceutical serums are expensive, but it's where I invest my money in my routine because they're where I see real results. If I'm going to pay for a serum, it had better work.

From the best exfoliator for sensitive skin to the sensitive skin retinol I use, here are the five active serums I believe in wholeheartedly - and will always repurchase.

1. The All-Rounder Best Serum for Sensitive Skin.

What: asap super B complex 30ml A does-everything serum you can use morning and/or night to reduce the appearance of inflammation, and improve skin texture and hydration. Why it works for my sensitive skin: Long-time Beauty IQ readers and podcast listeners will know this is one of beauty editor Joanna's favourite ever serums. If you have dull, dehydrated, sensitive or redness-prone skin (or all of the above), it's the first active serum I'd suggest you start with. My dermatologist also recommended trying a serum with niacinamide (vitamin B3) and anti-inflammatory antioxidant resveratrol for my rosacea, so I selected this one because it has both - plus hydrating hyaluronic acid. The serum has a thin consistency with a gooey, wet texture that spreads very easily across my whole face and immediately gives off a cooling and soothing sensation. I've done a full review showing my asap super B results after three months of consistent use, you can read it here. Oh, and I bought three tubes of this serum before I recently moved to Canada because asap doesn't ship outside Australia yet. I hope this tells you how much I love it.

2. Retinol for Sensitive Skin.

What: Medik8 Crystal Retinal 1

An effective, non-irritating vitamin A serum to improve skin texture and reduce the appearance of signs of ageing like fine lines and wrinkles.

Why it works for my sensitive skin:

In my experience, this is THE entry level vitamin A product for any skincare beginner looking to address the signs of ageing.

Vitamin A is the gold star of anti-ageing ingredients because it has the most research and clinical evidence to support its ability to increase cell turnover, skin brightness and collagen production, and reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.

It's a notoriously hardcore ingredient with a reputation for burning people's faces off (not always literally, but it can destroy your skin barrier). But there are different forms of vitamin A, from gentle right through to prescription vitamin A.

Medik8 Crystal Retinal 1 contains retinal (or retinaldehyde), a potent form of vitamin A stronger than retinol but not as strong as prescription retinoids. The key is the brand's crystal encapsulation tech that slowly releases the retinal into the skin for effective results, without the irritation.

The lightweight, creamy formula seamlessly absorbs into my face after my evening cleanse and prior to moisturiser, and doesn't pill or ball up when layered with my other products.

I started off using one evening per week, but now after two months of use, I apply every second night! No burning, redness or stinging (also known as 'retinol uglies').

There are actually four different strengths of this product: Crystal Retinal 1 (sensitive skin or new to vitamin A), Retinal 3 (normal strength), Retinal 6 (super-strength) and Retinal 10 (ultra-strength).

Once I've finished my Retinal 1 tube, I'll purchase Retinal 3 and see how my skin tolerates the increase in strength.

3. Best Vitamin C Serum for Sensitive Skin.

What: SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic Serum

Yep, this is the most talked-about vitamin C serum in the world and yep, I think it's worth the price tag.

Why it works for my sensitive skin:

Vitamin C is another notoriously irritating skincare ingredient. It comes in a variety of different forms ranging from least effective but most stable, to most effective but least stable.

This is why it can be hard to find an effective vitamin C serum that won't cause irritation, and why the SkinCeuticals vitamin C serum is so expensive.

The formula contains 15 per cent L-ascorbic acid (the most effective and studied form of vitamin C), 1 per cent vitamin E and 0.5 per cent ferulic acid. Together, these ingredients at these specific percentages deliver the most effective results with the least amount of irritation.

The formula is also patented, meaning there's not another serum out there with the same formula and you won't find a cheaper dupe. And I've tried, trust me.

It's the best vitamin C serum for sensitive skin I've tried - I apply it in the morning underneath *sunscreen to maximise my protection against free radical damage (from pollution and air quality) and damaging UVA/UVB rays.

Yes, it is expensive and smells like hot dog water, but I will repurchase because it works so well for my skin.

4. Best Exfoliator for Sensitive Skin.

What: Alpha-H Liquid Gold Midnight Reboot Serum 50ml

An exfoliating, resurfacing serum that combines chemical exfoliation with a very gentle form of vitamin A for serious glow. You can read our full Alpha-H Liquid Gold Midnight Reboot serum review here.

Why it works for my sensitive skin:

Don't freak out. Over-exfoliation is real and very scary, but this serum won't make your face peel off in sheets.

Usually, you wouldn't use an exfoliating serum and a vitamin A serum in the same skincare routine (because they both increase cell turnover), but when formulated together, the two ingredients can help each other to work more effectively.

The formula contains 14 per cent glycolic acid (an AHA) and 1 per cent granactive retinoid (a very gentle vitamin A derivative), and has been specifically formulated and tested for sensitive skin.

A little goes a long way, and my skin tolerates this serum best when applied one night a week after cleansing and before moisturiser.

5. Best Hydrating Serum for Sensitive Skin.

What: Medik8 Hydr8 B5 Liquid Rehydration Serum 30ml

A mega hydration serum that can only be described as an injection of pure dewiness.

Why it works for my sensitive skin:

I first bought Medik8 Hydra B5 for two reasons...

Firstly, to use on its own when my skin's feeling too sensitive or reactive to apply my usual vitamin A, vitamin B or vitamin C serums. And secondly, to apply on top of my vitamin C serum in the morning for an extra hydration boost to make my dry skin look alive and glowy.

The formula contains hyaluronic acid and vitamin B5 (panthenol) to boost the skin's moisture content and plump the appearance of fine lines and texture caused by dehydration. Gently press the beautifully weightless and gooey liquid onto your face before layering any other products on top.

I'm obsessed. Can you tell? I've already used over half of my bottle in a month. Will be repurchasing.

So, to answer the question of where to start with active serums if you have sensitive skin... yes, you can!

These are my top five I'd absolutely repurchase. It's not essential to use them all in the one routine, so start with whichever serums you think will best suit your skin and skin concerns.

I hope this breakdown was helpful to my fellow sensitive skin friends. But as always, check with your doctor or skin specialist if you have any concerns.



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