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. Keep scrolling to discover what they had to share.
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."
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."
Below you'll find the moisturizers Marcus recommends using with tretinoin.
The Best Moisturizers to Use With Tretinoin
"Serum 6 by Maei MD is a multifunctional product containing antioxidants, hyaluronic acid, peptides, niacinamide, probiotics, and plant-based stem cells. It is excellent for sensitive skin for several reasons. The form of vitamin C used in Serum 6 is 3-0 ethyl ascorbic acid, a potent but extremely well-tolerated and stable form of this essential antioxidant. Avena sativa, niacinamide, shiitake mushroom, and lactobacillus ferment all have anti-inflammatory effects, while hyaluronic acid, saccharide isomerate, and pseudoaltermonas ferment are amongst several deeply hydrating ingredients in this serum." — Marcus
I'm a huge fan of Dieux's Deliverance Serum, but this restoring moisturizer is just as good. It contains everything your skin barrier needs to heal, protect, and stay hydrated. Phytosterols, fatty acids, peptides, ceramides, and squalane help keep skin strong, resilient, and hydrated when using things like tretinoin.
This hyaluronic acid-rich moisturizer from Glow Recipe brightens and balances skin with plum, willowherb, and polyglutamic acid, a hydrating peptide. It's a great option for all skin types since the formula is noncomedogenic. It won't clog pores but can provide acne-prone skin with the rich moisture it needs when it's also being treated with a retinoid.
If you have extremely dry skin but want to incorporate tretinoin into your routine, you'll definitely want to combat irritation with this rich cream from Skinfix. It contains active lipids, peptides, small-particle hyaluronic acid, and shea butter to coat the skin in soothing moisture.
The Boissance Squalane + Omega Moisturizer strengthens and repairs the skin barrier with ceramides, fatty acids, squalane, and hyaluronic acid. It's great for combatting the flakiness, dryness, and irritation that can happen if you're a first-time tretinoin user.
If your barrier isn't in great shape or you have extra dry, mature skin, SkinCeuticals' heavy-duty moisturizer is the one to use. Although it is rich in lipids, cholesterol, and fatty acids, it can also be used on acne-prone skin as it contains zero pore-clogging ingredients.
I love this restorative cream from Symbiome because the formula is simple but incredibly effective. The brand's unique sebum-like formula creates a protective coating on the skin with phytosterols and triglycerides that help restore a healthy skin barrier. It's also rich in antioxidants like tocopherol and ferulic acid to help protect against stress and irritation. It's now a non-negotiable step in my routine and is great for my sensitive skin.