Retin-A is one of the most popular acne treatments on the market today. This drug has been well-researched and proven to be effective at treating a wide range of acne severities. One of the drawbacks of this treatment is that it often dries out the skin. Fortunately, a solid moisturizing routine will help to mitigate this side effect. Read on for all that you need to know about choosing the best moisturizer to combat the drying effects of Retin-A.

What Is Retin-A?

As the brand name for the drug tretinoin, Retin-A is only available through prescription. The drug is especially beneficial when looking to treat comedonal acne such as whiteheads and blackheads. Retin-A is applied topically to affected areas and comes in both cream or gel forms. By speeding up the rate in which cells turn over, the skin is more quickly exfoliated. This rapid exfoliation keeps pore blockages at a minimum and works to clear (and prevent) acne.

Why Does Retin-A Make Your Skin Dry and Flaky?

The most common side effect of Retin-A use is dry and flaky skin. Although Retin-A is the gold standard for topical acne treatments, this regimen can come at a price. The dry and flaky skin is most likely to occur at the onset of use. Although it may be tempting to ditch the treatment because of this side effect, it is important to remain consistent with your application. Your skin will be less likely to peel once it builds up a tolerance to the Retin-A. Using a mild cleanser and taking care to properly moisturize the skin on a daily basis will help to combat the side effects of dry and flaky skin.

Best Moisturizers to Prevent Retin-A Peeling

Wondering what moisturizer you should use with Retin-A? Here is our list of approved moisturizers to help prevent dryness and flaking while using Retin-A.

1. CeraVe PM Facial Moisturizing Lotion (Normal to Oily)

cerave daily moisturizing (normal to oily skin)

A great option to restore moisture from Retin-A, for all skin types. Best for those with minor peeling.

  • How to use: Gently massage a dime to quarter sized amount of moisturizer after using Retin-A
  • How this product helps Retin-A users: CeraVe PM's hyaluronic acid and ceramides work together to protect the skin's natural protective barrier and lock in moisture.
  • What to expect: This moisturizing lotion works hard to keep skin hydrated throughout the day and night. Although it is called CeraVe PM, you can use this product anytime of the day. It is only called PM because it does not contain sunscreen. The lightweight and non-greasy formula will not exacerbate the acne problems. The niacinamide in the lotion improves the appearance of the skin with its soothing properties

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2. CeraVe Daily Moisturizing Lotion (Normal to Dry)

cerave pm (normal to dry skin)

Another great option for skin peeling caused by Retin-A, suited for normal to dry skin

  • How to use: Gently massage a dime to quarter sized amount of moisturizer after using Retin-A
  • How this product helps Retin-A users: The ceramides and hyaluronic acid work in tandem to fight off the dry and flaky skin that can accompany the use of Retin-A.
  • What to expect:  The non-comedogenic, hypoallergenic, oil-free, and fragrance-free formula will not clog pores, and works to keep the skin hydrated, soft and subtle. This product will restore much needed moisture that is lost when using Retin-A

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3. Aquaphor Healing Ointment (For Very Dry or Cracked Skin)

aquaphor healing ointment

Aquaphor healing ointment is excellent for helping Retin-A peeling

  • How to use: Gently massage a dime to quarter sized amount of moisturizer after using Retin-A
  • How this product helps Retin-A users: This advanced moisturizing lotion is clinically proven to deliver smooth and healthy skin. The high concentration of 41 percent petrolatum heals dry and flaky skin with each usage. The panthenol and glycerin nourish and moisturizes dry skin while restoring the natural protective barrier of the epidermis
  • What to expect: This product is free of fragrance, dyes, and preservatives, making it safe for even the most sensitive skin. It will ultimately help improve the appearance and texture of skin peeling caused by Retin-A. It is non-irritating and is a wonderful option when used with Retin-A

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How to Use a Moisturizer With Retin-A

1. Buffering Method

Buffering is the term used to describe the process of mixing your Retin-A treatment with your non-comedogenic face moisturizer. Doing so will dilute the Retin-A and make it less likely to cause dry and flaky skin. Although you will reduce the efficacy of the Retin-A if you buffer, your skin will still receive the moisture that it needs. Buffering is the way to go for patients with skin that does not tolerate the powerful effects of Retin-A.

2. Applying AFTER Retin-A

You can feel free to use a moisturizer after applying Retin-A if you do not have sensitive skin. It is best to give the Retin-A treatment at least one to two minutes to set into the skin before applying the moisturizer. This will maximize the effectiveness of the Retin-A treatment.

Other Tips for Retin-A Use

1. Sunscreen is Key

Retin-A makes your skin more sensitive to the sun and its harmful UV rays. If you plan to use Retin-A in the morning, be sure to always apply sunscreen at the same time. If you do not want to wear a daily sunscreen, then you need to apply the Retin-A treatment at night. FYI - check out our list of best facial sunscreens.

2. Build Tolerance Slowly

It takes skin time to adjust to the powerful effects of Retin-A. Gradually increasing your usage of this treatment will help the skin to build tolerance slowly and hopefully mitigate some of the most common side effects. If wearing it all day is too harsh for your skin, it is fine if you wash it off after it sits on your skin for a few hours.

3. Use Retin-A Every Other Day

If the drying continues to be a problem for your skin, you can scale back to using the product every other day. This will allow your skin to rest and recover between applications. Once your skin begins to tolerate the treatment better, you can start to build back your protocol so that you are eventually using the Retin-A daily.

4. Do Not Overuse

Sometimes less is more. Although it is tempting to go all out in the hopes of achieving faster and better results, overusing this powerful product can backfire on you. Overuse of Retin-A will increase the chances that you develop irritated skin that is more susceptible to drying and flaking.

5. Ditch the Mechanical Exfoliation

Washcloths and loofahs will only serve to further irritate the skin, leading to more flaking and drying. When cleaning your face, be sure to just use your fingers and rub in gentle circular motions. It is also important to skip the products that contain abrasive ingredients that will inflame the skin.

6. Be Patient

Retin-A takes time to work. Not only does the product need time to fully realize its potential, but your skin also needs time to adjust to the aggressive nature of the treatment. Because it can take weeks to see any visible results, have faith and continue to use the product consistently before ditching it.

7. Consult a Professional

Your dermatologist will be able to answer any questions that you have about using Retin-A. Lean on their expertise if you have any doubts or concerns about your treatment plan.


Do you have to use a moisturizer with Retin-A?

Whether you need a moisturizer with your Retin-A is a personal issue depending on how your skin reacts to the medication. Although it is not always necessary, many people find it helpful to use a moisturizer if the Retin-A is causing their skin to dry out.

How long should you wait to apply moisturizer after Retin-A?

It is best to apply moisturizer approximately one to two minutes after using the Retin-A. It is important to make sure that the Retin-A has set before applying moisturizer.

Do you apply moisturizer before or after Retin-A?

Moisturizer needs to be applied after the Retin-A. However, if your skin is especially dry or sensitive, you can apply the moisturizer before using the Retin-A treatment. As discussed above in more detail, this process is buffering. Although you will not receive the full benefits of the Retin-A, it is a better alternative than dealing with dry and irritated skin.

What is the best sunscreen to use with Retin-A?

Because Retin-A causes your sun to be more sensitive to the effects of the sun, proper sunscreen is a must when on this treatment. The best kind of sunscreen to use is the one that is formulated specifically for your skin type. You need to select a sunscreen that will prevent tanning of any intensity.

Can you mix Retin-A with your moisturizer?

Yes, also known as buffering, this process will dilute the tretinoin and help keep your skin hydrated while using Retin-A.