Retin-A (a brand name for tretinoin) is one of the most researched anti-aging and anti-acne treatments available.
It’s incredibly effective.
However, a well-known side-effect of tretinoin is skin irritation which can leave you with red, inflamed, and flakey skin.
For this reason, a good moisturizer is essential.
So what are the best moisturizers to use with Retin-A/ Tretinoin?
Here’s a rundown of what to look for in a moisturizer when using Retin-A.
Plus, which are the best moisturizers to use with Retin-A based on your skin type or concern.
What Is Retin-A?
Retin-A is a brand name for the topical retinoid Tretinoin. Retinoids are vitamin A derivatives that increase skin cell turnover – the rate that your skin produces new cells and sheds them from its surface.
Skin cell turnover slows down as you age and causes dead skin cells to accumulate on the surface of your skin. This prevents your skin from reflecting light and can leave you with a ‘dull and tired’ complexion.
Reduced skin cell turnover is also one of the main causes of acne and leads to blocked pores that form whiteheads and blackheads and can become inflamed to form more severe forms of acne.
While the main way in which retinoids, such as Retin-A, work is by increasing skin cell turnover, they can also:
- Reduce sun-damage
- Boost collagen production
- Improve the appearance of wrinkles
- Reduce skin pigmentation
- Increase skin hydration
- Reduce the inflammation that is associated with acne and acne scarring
- Act as an antioxidant
- Prevent the growth of bacteria on your skin .
Unfortunately, it is very common for Retin-A to cause irritation, redness, dryness, and peeling when you first start using it. This is because it can damage your skin’s barrier and increase the amount of water that is lost from your skin.
What is a Barrier Repairing Moisturizer?
Your skin’s barrier acts as a waterproof wall to prevent water from escaping your skin and irritants and pollutants from entering it. This wall is made up of skin cells (bricks) that are held together by a glue or cement-like mixture of lipids (fats).
This mixture is called your lipid matrix and is mainly made up of ceramides, cholesterol, and fatty acids.
Damage to your skin’s barrier involves reductions in these lipids which creates holes that water can escape through and irritants can enter.
Barrier-repairing moisturizers are generally emollients that contain synthetic or plant-based lipids to fill in these gaps and replenish the lipids that naturally occur within your skin.
This can restore your skin’s barrier, increase skin hydration, reduce inflammation, and provide an overall more radiant appearance.
Generally speaking, the best moisturizer to use with Retin-A will likely be a barrier-repairing one.
Hydrating Skincare Ingredients
A number of other skincare ingredients can also increase your skin’s hydration by drawing water into your skin (humectants) or by providing a physical film over the skin to prevent water loss (occlusives).
- Hyaluronic Acid
- Lactic Acid (as well as other alpha-hydroxy acids – AHAs)
- Petroleum Jelly/Vaseline
One particularly useful ingredient that can hydrate skin as well as boost the effects of Retin-A is niacinamide.
Niacinamide is a water-soluble form of vitamin B3 that has a wide range of benefits for your skin. It’s anti-aging, reduces pigmentation, fights acne, reduces facial redness, and hydrates skin.
As you can see, it has a number of skin benefits in common with retinoids.
Niacinamide’s hydrating effects are thought to be down to its ability to increase the number of lipids naturally produced within your skin’s barrier, which means that it may be a great alternative to a barrier-repairing moisturizer.
Although, a barrier-repairing moisturizer with the addition of niacinamide would be one of the best moisturizers to use with Retin-A.
In fact, research suggests that pre-treating your skin with niacinamide prior to commencing Retin-A treatment can increase your skin’s tolerance towards Retin-A and reduce the chances of irritation .
You can read more about how well niacinamide and Retin-A complement each other here.
Other skincare ingredients that may boost skin hydration, although it is less clear as to how they work, include:
- Centella Asiatica
- Snail Mucin
- Aloe Vera
- Vitamin C
The Best Moisturizer to use with Retin-A (Tretinoin)
Ideally, the best moisturizer to use with Retin A will be barrier-repairing with a combination of ceramides, cholesterol, and fatty acids. The addition of other hydrating ingredients would also be an added bonus.
Here are the best moisturizers to use with Retin-A in general and according to your skin type and/or the skin conditions you are trying to treat.
Skinceuticals Triple Lipid Restore
Best For: Closest match to your skins natural lipids
Key ingredients: Ceramides, Cholesterol, Fatty Acids.
The Triple Lipid Restore moisturizer is one of the best moisturizers to use with Retin-A due to its combination of ceramides, cholesterol, and fatty acids.
Not only is it more effective to combine all three lipids in order to restore your barrier function, but they ideally need to be in a similar ratio to how they’re naturally found in your lipid matrix .
This moisturizer is probably as close as you will get to the ideal ratio without a prescription (e.g. Epiceram).
La Roche-Posay Toleraine Double Repair Face Moisturizer
Best For: Quick Barrier Recovery/Sensitive Skin
Key Ingredients: Ceramides, Fatty Acids, Niacinamide, Glycerin, Dimethicone.
La Roche-Posay’s Double Repair Moisturizer contains a combination of ceramides and niacinamide which can help replenish missing ceramides and encourage the production of your skins natural lipids.
Glycerin acts as a humectant to draw water into your individual skin cells, while dimethicone creates an occlusive barrier that prevents water loss from the surface of your skin.
This may be one of the best moisturizers to use with Retin-A as it moisturizes your skin in more than one way and can restore your skin’s barrier after one-hour of application.
CeraVe Moisturizing Cream
Best For: Cost-Effective/Budget Friendly
Key Ingredients: Ceramides (3 types), Glycerin, Dimethicone, Hyaluronic Acid.
This budget-friendly moisturizer from CeraVe is another example of one of the best moisturizers to use with Retin-A, especially if you’re looking for affordability.
It contains three different types of ceramides to help restore your skins barrier, as well as glycerin and hyaluronic acid to increase the water content of your skin and dimethicone to prevent that water from escaping.
It is widely considered to be a holy grail skincare product among Redditors.
Dermalogica Intensive Moisture Balance
Best For: Anti-Aging & Added Antioxidants
Key Ingredients: BioReplenish Complex, Hyaluronic Acid, Centella Asiatica, Aloe Vera, Chlorella Algae, Echinacea, Superoxide Dismutase.
Dermalogica’s Intensive Moisture Balance is my own personal holy grail moisturizer. It does exactly what it says on the tube – balances your skin.
The trademarked BioReplenish Complex contains key barrier lipids to help restore your skin’s barrier function, while the combination of hyaluronic acid, Centella Asiatica, Aloe Vera, and Echinacea help to increase the moisture content of your skin.
It contains a powerhouse of antioxidants to help fight free radicals and keep your skin looking younger for longer.
It is definitely, in my opinion, one of the best moisturizers to use with Retin-A – particularly if you’re using Retin-A for anti-aging or anti-acne purposes!
La Roche-Posay Cicabaume B5
Best For: All Skin Types
Key Ingredients: Dimethicone, Glycerin, Shea Butter, Panthenol, Madecassoside.
This soothing and healing cream by La Roche-Posay is so gentle that it’s even recommended for babies as young as one-month-old.
The addition of Centella Asiatica in the form of Madecassoside makes this one of the best moisturizers to use with Retin-A as it has a little something for all skin types; it can soothe skin and blemishes, hydrate your skin, balance sebum levels, improve acne, reduce the signs of aging, reduce redness, and increase your skin’s levels of antioxidants.
In addition, copper, zinc, and manganese enhance the effects of Madecassoside to help reduce the appearance of dry, irritated skin.
The cream is formulated with La-Roche Posay’s soothing thermal spring water and has a rich and nourishing texture complete with a non-oily, non-sticky, matte finish.
CosRx Balancium Comfort Ceramide Cream
Best For: Combination/Acne-Prone Skin
Key Ingredients: Centella Asiatica Leaf Water, Glycerin, Ceramides, Panthenol, Niacinamide, Hyualuronic Acid, Asiaticoside, Asiatic Acid, Madecassic Acid.
The CosRx Balancium Comfort Ceramide Cream may be one of the best moisturizers to use with Retin-A if you have combination skin.
That’s because it contains niacinamide and Centella Asiatica extracts – two ingredients that are both hydrating and can help reduce oil production. This means that it can help balance your skin while helping to repair any barrier damage.
Eau Thermale Avene Skin Recovery Cream
Best For: Sensitive Skin & Minimal Ingredients.
Key Ingredients: Avene Thermal Spring Water, Glycerin, Squalene, Parcerine.
Avene’s Skin Recovery Cream is often recommended by dermatologists after laser treatments as it’s so good at calming and soothing irritated skin.
It’s formulated with minimal ingredients to ensure maximum tolerance by sensitive skin.
Trademarked ingredient Parcerine can restore your skin’s barrier function while reducing redness and irritation while other ingredients help to moisturize, nourish, and protect your skin.
It’s minimal ingredients make it one of the best moisturizers to use with Retin-A if you have sensitive and reactive skin.
General Tips For Using Retin-A
While a good moisturizer is essential for avoiding Retin-A induced skin irritation, there are a number of other tips that can make your Retin-A journey all that more pleasant.
- Ensure A Strong Skin Barrier Before You Start Retin-A: If you haven’t yet started using Retin-A, consider investing in a good moisturizer to use twice a day for a few weeks before you start. This can help strengthen your skin’s barrier and may help prevent you from experiencing Retin-A induced skin irritation in the first place.
- Start Slow & Allow Your Skin To Build Up Tolerance: Start by using Retin-A once a week for two weeks. If you don’t experience any irritation then increase your use to twice a week for two weeks, and continue to increase your frequency of use as your skin tolerates. Some people may find that they can never get to the point of using Retin-A daily, but you can still get the same benefits by using it two-to-three times a week.
- Use Retin-A Only At Night: Not only is Retin-A deactivated by sunlight but it can increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun so its best kept to night-time use!
- Use Sunscreen Every Day: You should be wearing sunscreen every day anyway, but it’s particularly important to use sunscreen while you are using Retin-A in order to prevent the risk of sun damage caused by your skin’s increased sensitivity to the sun.
- Consider ‘Buffering’: If you can start to feel your skin getting irritated, consider ‘buffering’ which refers to the practice of applying your moisturizer before your Retin-A to help slow the rate that it penetrates your skin and reduce the risk of irritation.
- Take A Break: If your skin is already irritated, red, and flakey – take a break! Avoid using Retin-A (and any other active ingredients) for at least two weeks and focus on rehydrating your skin and repairing your skin’s barrier. Continuing to push through the irritation can make it a lot harder to treat in the long-run.
- Avoid Using Other Active Ingredients Until Your Skin Has Adjusted to Retin-A: Ingredients such as AHAs, BHAs, and ascorbic acid work really well in combination with retinoids, BUT, this can cause increased irritation. With active ingredients, it’s important to introduce them one at a time. The biggest mistake people make with their skincare is adding too many different ingredients into their routine at once. This is even more important when it comes to prescription-strength treatments like Retin-A.
- Switch To A Gentler Cleanser, To Begin With: If you’re using Retin-A to help with acne, then it’s highly likely you’re using cleansers that contain ingredients that are tough on oil. In most circumstances, these cleansers are absolutely fine, but they do have the potential to strip your skin of its natural lipids which can damage your skin’s barrier. For this reason, you may want to switch to a gentler cleanser when you begin using Retin-A or if you are already using Retin-A and experiencing irritation.
A Summary of the Best Moisturizers to use with Retin-A (Tretinoin)
Retin-A is a brand name for tretinoin which is a retinoid and helps to increase skin cell turnover. It is particularly good for treating the signs of aging and improving the appearance of acne.
However, the majority of people will experience some form of irritation when they begin using Retin-A.
This is because it can damage your skin’s barrier and dehydrate your skin. Barrier-repairing moisturizers are those that replenish your skin’s natural lipids, strengthen your skin’s barrier, and increase skin hydration.
The best moisturizers to use with Retin-A will be those that can help repair your skin’s barrier, reduce inflammation, and soothe your skin.
What Moisturizer Should I Use With Retin-A?
Generally speaking, it’s down to personal preference as to what moisturizer you should use with Retin-A, but hopefully, after reading this article you will have a better idea of what to look for in a moisturizer to use with Retin-A.
- Mukherjee, S., Date, A., Patravale, V. et al. (2006). ‘Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety’, Clin Interv Aging, 1, 327-348. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2699641/
- Pechere, M., Germanier, L., Siegenthaler, G., Pechere, J. & Saurat, J. (2002). ‘The antibacterial activity of topical retinoids: the case of retinaldehyde’, Dermatology, 205(2), 153-158. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12218231
- Song, X., Xu, A., Pan, W. et al. (2008). ‘Nicotinamide attenuates aquaporin 3 overexpression induced by retinoic acid through inhibition of EGFR/ERK in cultured human skin keratinocytes’, Int J Mol Med., 22(2), 1107-3756. Available at: https://www.spandidos-publications.com/ijmm/22/2/229
- Man, M., Feingold, K. & Elias, P. (1993). ‘Exogenous lipids influence permeability barrier recovery in acetone-treated murine skin’, Arch Dermatol., 129(6), 728-738. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8507075?dopt=Abstract
I absolutely loved this article. As an esthetician, this has been EXACTLY how I have advised my patients to use retinoids for years. I have worked in plastic surgery and dermatology and have been outraged at the lack of education patients are given. The benefits of retinoids are immense and I feel like so many people give up on it too soon because they weren’t educated on how to use it successfully. It is so refreshing to see a medical professional invested in the education part of our industry- which in my opinion is key to success.
Stellar product recommendations as well 😉
Laura H. MSc. RN.
Thank you so much! I really appreciate the kind words and you’re so right about education being the key to successful retinoid treatment! 💕
What an wonderfully informative article. I was just prescribed retin-a and wanted recommendations based on the science. Thank you! I have ordered one of the products mentioned and was happy it was less than $20. I experienced flaky/patchy skin peeling after first week of applying the retin-a and realized I wasnt doing the barrier first. I thought moisturizing after was sufficient. Thank-you for the tips and information! Glad I was able to find you, via google 🙂
Laura H. MSc. RN.
Hi Stephanie, I’m so happy you found the article useful! How are you getting on with the Retin-A? Did the moisturiser help? 💕