Everything You Need to Know About the “Retinoid Sandwich” Technique

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Three skincare bottles in a row

There are some unavoidable truths when it comes to skincare — one being that cellulite is nearly unavoidable. Another: blemishes crop up when you least expect them. And retinol, while known to be the gold standard for anti-aging, is likely to cause irritation to your complexion if you’re never used it before. So, when I recently attended an event on new innovations in beauty and skincare, I zeroed in on one dermatologist’s mention of a special “retinol sandwich” method she uses to keep her skin in shape.  After the panel, I seized the opportunity to connect with said expert, Dr. Shari Marchbein, MD, board-certified dermatologist and clinical assistant professor of dermatology at the NYU School of MedicineTM. I had to learn more.

[Editor's note: Retinol shouldn't be used by those who are pregnant, considering getting pregnant, or nursing. Please consult with your doctor before use.]

As it turns out, Marchbein’s method has nothing to do with food; rather, the proverbial “sandwich” refers to the way she applies retinoids. “Retinoids work wonders: not only are they the backbone of any acne [care] routine, but they can increase collagen production, as well as the rate of skin cell turnover,” Marchbein says. “By doing so, they are highly effective at improving the texture of skin and giving it a glow, minimizing fine lines and wrinkles, evening out skin tone and even decreasing pore size.”

The catch: retinoids are also notorious for drying out skin. This is especially true for dry and sensitive types, as well as first-time retinol users. If your skin is oily, the ingredient still poses a threat in winter months, when cold temperature saps skin’s natural moisture. The Retinoid Sandwich Technique is a method of “padding” the skin, or providing buffers that help protect from potential retinol-induced irritation — without detracting from its many benefits. Below, Marchbein shares her step-by-step recipe for making your own retinol sandwich — and possibly your best skin yet.


For starters, you’ll want to make sure you’re working with a clean canvas. “Wash your face with an ultra-gentle cleanser (such as Simple® Water Boost Micellar Facial Gel Wash, $6 or Neutrogena® Ultra Gentle Cleanser, $25 for a pack of three). Skip glycolic or other acid-based cleansers that can contribute to dryness,” Marchbein advises.

Step 1

After washing your face, immediately apply a layer of moisturizing cream. This will serve as the foundation of the sandwich, and the first layer of defense against potential irritation. Just make sure the moisturizer contains glycerin, dimethicone, petrolatum, ceramides, and/or hyaluronic acid as key ingredients,” Marchbein advises. These ingredients act as humectants (to draw moisture in from the air), occlusives (to lock in moisture), and skin barrier strengtheners. Some of her favorite formulas include Simple Replenishing Rich Moisturizer ($9) and Dove® DermaSeries® Dry Relief Overnight Face Cream ($15). Apply a normal, dime-sized amount over the entire face.

Step 2

After cleansing and paving the skin with a layer of moisture, you’re ready to apply the star ingredient, retinol. Marchbein suggests applying only a pea-sized amount of product  to the entire face. “If you have especially sensitive skin, start with an over-the-counter retinoid like Differin® 0.1% Gel ($13),” she says. If you’re still unsure, consult with your dermatologist.

Step 3

After applying the retinol “filling,” complete the sandwich by piling on another layer of moisturizer. “You can use the same cream from the first step, or try another formula,” Marchbein notes. This will help keep your skin hydrated despite retinol’s traditionally drying effects.

Dr. Marchbein recommends using this method as you apply retinol at least several times a week (ideally at night) to see the benefits, but ask your dermatologist how frequently you should space it out to start with. “Dryness and peeling can be expected for four to six weeks,” warns Marchbein. (And, yes, you will see significantly less dryness when using the sandwich technique.) “If there is no dryness or, as you tolerate it better, usage can be increased to every night, which is even better! However, if you have dry or sensitive skin, stick with every other day,” Marchbein cautions.

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