I Used the Wrong Moisturizer With Tretinoin for Years—Derms Say Try This Instead

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If you've ever used a retinoid, you know what a toll it can take on your skin barrier if you're not extra careful. Unfortunately, I had to learn that lesson the hard way. I used tretinoin for years but paired it with the wrong moisturizer, and, well, let's just say I'm still paying the price. Ask any dermatologist, and they'll tell you tretinoin is one of the strongest retinoids available. It's recommended that those with dry, sensitive, or reactive skin use it cautiously and start slow. However, once you start to use tretinoin, you'll likely see some incredible results.

But repeat after me: Hydration is vital. I'd been using tretinoin for a while when I realized my moisture barrier wasn't in great shape, so I stopped using it to let my skin recover. While I recently reincorporated a gentle retinol into my routine, I'm taking it slow and flooding my sensitive skin with extra hydration via a rich moisturizer. If you use tretinoin (or are thinking about starting) and need to know what moisturizer to pair with it, I've got you.

I asked dermatologists to break down the benefits of tretinoin and share the moisturizer they'd recommend people of each skin type pair with it.

What is tretinoin?

Board-certified dermatologist Brendan Camp, MD, gave us the rundown on tretinoin. "Tretinoin is a topical retinoid medication," he says. "While it's first and foremost an acne medication, tretinoin is also used for treating the effects of photoaging, namely fine lines, wrinkles, and dark spots. Tretinoin can increase collagen production over time when used regularly. It also helps normalize skin cell turnover to address texture changes and prevent the formation of blackheads and whiteheads."

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Tretinoin vs. retinol

But there's a difference between regular retinol and tretinoin, according to board-certified dermatologist and Maei MD founder Rebecca Marcus, MD. "Retinol must be converted to retinoic acid to have an effect as opposed to [tretinoin, which is] prescription-strength and exists as retinoic acid [already]," Marcus explains. "Since retinols need to be converted to retinoic acid, they can take longer to have an effect but are often less irritating on the skin. This can make them a little more tolerable than a prescription alternative."

How does tretinoin benefit the skin?

When used correctly, tretinoin can help with everything from uneven texture, acne, fine lines, and dark spots. Those with dry skin, however, might tolerate lotion formulas of tretinoin, such as the prescription brands Altreno and Arazlo, Marcus says. She also suggests slowly working your way up to daily use when using any form of retinoid.

How to use tretinoin

"Using tretinoin two or three nights a week is a good idea. Then work up to nightly applications as your skin gets used to it," she says. "Tretinoins—and, in fact, all retinoids—make skin more sun sensitive, so it's more important than ever to remember your daily sunscreen. Retinoids should not be used by pregnant people. They should be applied at night, not during the day, as they are not photostable and therefore their efficacy is decreased by UV rays."

Best Overall: Vanicream Daily Facial Moisturizer

This article was published at an earlier date and has been updated.

Shawna Hudson
Associate Beauty Editor

Shawna Hudson has worked in editorial for over six years, with experience covering entertainment, fashion, culture, celebrities, and her favorite topic of all, beauty. She graduated from California State University, Fullerton, with a degree in journalism and has written for other publications such as Bustle, The Zoe Report, Byrdie, Elite Daily, Mane Addicts, and more. She is currently an associate beauty editor at Who What Wear and hopes to continue feeding her (completely out-of-control) beauty obsession as long as she can. Stay up to date on her latest finds on Instagram @shawnasimonee.