Serious acne is no joke and, more often than not, clearing it requires a trip to the dermatologist. Unfortunately, things don’t end there. Topical prescription acne treatments like tretinoin, for example, won’t work if they aren’t used properly. With that said, the
best moisturizers to use with tretinoin cream (also known by the brand name Retin A) won’t interfere with the medication and will prevent and relieve common side effects — namely, drying, flaking, sensitivity, and inflammation.
Tretinoin is a topical form of vitamin A that
works as both an anti-inflammatory and a chemical exfoliant. By increasing skin cell turnover, it helps get rid of stubborn acne and can also prevent breakouts and clogged pores. Seems simple (and amazing), right? It is, but a lot of times, people make the mistake of simply adding tretinoin cream into their existing acne-fighting skin care routine without making any alterations. Doing this can cause seriously dry skin and severe irritation that shows up as flaking, redness, and burning. Ouch!
Dr. David Lortscher, a board-certified dermatologist and founder and CEO of Curology, you'll want to pair your tretinoin cream with a deeply hydrating moisturizer that's, ideally, oil-free and noncomedogenic, to keep breakouts at bay while still providing enough hydration to counteract tretinoin's drying effects.
“Generally, you may find you need a more hydrating moisturizer with a cream or gel base to help combat flaking or dryness, especially in the winter months," Dr. Lortscher tells Bustle. Another tip? “Avoid or use caution when moisturizers contain harsh alcohols, vitamin C, benzoyl peroxide, and glycolic and lactic acids."
If you've recently obtained prescription tretinoin cream and are afraid to make its drying effects worse, the key to
choosing the right moisturizer is to err on the gentle side. Any one of the seven options below will provide the hydration your skin needs so that you can be on your way to clear, glowing skin ASAP. 1 The Overall Best: Avène Eau Thermale Skin Recovery Cream
rich but gentle face cream checks off all the necessary boxes when choosing a moisturizer to use with tretinoin. It's free of any harsh ingredients, like fragrance and alcohol; it's oil-free (if you're using tretinoin in the first place, you're probably dealing with oily skin and clogged pores, so this stuff won't cause any further congestion); and it was made with with sensitive, irritated skin in mind, which again, is important when dealing with the side effects of tretinoin. Made to combat dryness, itching, burning, flaking, and other types of irritation, it's produced and manufactured in a completely sterile environment, making it one of the safest, highest-quality moisturizers around. Relevant review: “I recently started tretinoin. If you have ever used retin-a, you know that the first few weeks can be challenging. [...] Literally every moisturizer I had in the house burned on my skin because they almost all have alcohol or fragrance and possibly other anti-aging properties that don't mix well with tretinoin. So, I researched and found that this cream was recommended. I must say, I am so glad I bought it because it makes the tretinoin journey so much more pleasant after ONE day of using this cream already. I put it over the tretinoin and so far my skin has calmed down completely. I am amazed. This cream is on the pricey side, but super worth it.” 2 Best Night Cream: Naturium Plant Ceramide Rich Moisture Cream
You can absolutely use the Avène moisturizer above as a night cream, and you could use
Naturium Plant Ceramide Rich Moisture Cream during the daytime, too. But this rich cream is an especially great choice for nighttime use because it’s full of barrier-strengthening ceramides that help your skin repair itself as you rest (which is something it’s already doing while you sleep, so this complements that process wonderfully). In addition to ceramides, this fragrance-free moisturizer is also loaded with other nourishing ingredients like glycerin, olive oil, squalane, and shea butter — aka all the ingredients super-dry, flaky skin needs. Relevant review: “I have been searching for a moisturizer to help minimize the effects of tretinoin and, to date, this is the only one that has almost completely alleviated the flaking and peeling. The most impressive thing is that I saw and felt the results after the first use and I’m sure that by continuing to use this product diligently the results will just get better over time.” 3 Best Budget Moisturizer: CeraVe Moisturizing Cream
A true drugstore classic,
CeraVe Moisturizing Cream seems to be beloved by all. The fragrance-free formula uses three different ceramides to help strengthen and repair your skin, while glycerin and hyaluronic acid provide even more moisture and hydration. This can be used on both your face and body, and rings up at just $10 for 12 ounces; or, you can pick up the massive, 19-ounce tub for just over $15, if you’re looking to spend a bit more upfront on an even better value. Relevant review: “I have very dry, acne-prone skin. I'm also on tretinoin, which can be drying as well. This moisturizing cream is the best thing I've used to keep my skin flake-free. I've tried multiple more expensive moisturizers and nothing comes close to this one. It's the best!” 4 Best Balm For Flaky Patches: La Roche-Posay Cicaplast Baume B5 Multi-Purpose Balm
Your new secret weapon against dry skin and tretinoin irritation?
La Roche-Posay's Cicaplast Baume B5 Multi-Purpose Balm. With its propriety blend of panthenol, shea butter, and glycerin, this rich balm/cream expertly provides superior hydration while instantly soothing dry, rough skin. It's very thick, so it's best used as a night cream, or as a spot treatment on particularly flaky patches. (If you're using it all over your face, give your skin a nice, deep massage to allow it to sink in.) You can also use Cicaplast as a rich lip balm, as an ointment for burns, or on very dry elbows, cuticles, and heels. Relevant review: "This moisturizer is so great at repairing a damaged moisture barrier and irritation. It goes on thick and white and dries down to a dewy clear finish. It absorbs nicely within minutes. I'm using tretinoin so my skin is taking a beating and this repairs damage over night. Love it!” 5 Best Sunscreen: EltaMD UV Daily Broad-Spectrum SPF 40 Facial Sunscreen
The most important step in any skin care routine that includes tretinoin cream is sun protection. And when it comes to sunscreen, EltaMD's cult-favorite
UV Daily Broad-Spectrum With SPF 40 is the best of the best. The derm-favorite formula not only offers serious UV protection, but it also contains hyaluronic acid to boost your skin's moisture content and hydrate dry skin all day long. Plus, it's sheer enough to be worn under makeup, and absorbs beautifully (and quickly) into skin. Relevant review: “Wow! I have super sensitive skin prone to allergic break outs from dust. My doctor [prescribed] clindamycin and retin a to fade the scars left behind. Retin A makes your skin super dry and flaky esp in the beginning but also irritates it. This caused other lotions to actually feel like they were burning when applied. Not this! My skin felt super dry and flaky and I put this on. About 80% of the dryness was gone and my skin felt smooth and soothed immediately.” 6 Best "Clean" Moisturizer: Juice Beauty SPF 30 Oil-Free Moisturizer
If you're all about “clean" beauty products (take that term with a grain of salt),
Juice Beauty's SPF 30 Oil-Free Moisturizer is for you. It's a lightweight, vegan moisturizer and sunscreen with SPF 30 (to protect your skin from UV rays and further irritation), so it cuts down on the need to apply two different products in the morning. It also contains aloe vera, sea algae, and antioxidant-rich grape and pomegranate extracts to leave your skin smooth, soft, and radiant. Many of the ingredients in here are grown on the brand’s own organic farm in California, and it doesn’t contain things like silicones, synthetic fragrance, or propylene glycol, which some people prefer to avoid. Relevant review: "I am a Retin-A user, so I need a heavy sunscreen on my face during the day. This one works very well, w/o the greasiness I had w/ the other products I tried. Plus it's organic & cruelty free. HUGE selling points for me." 7 Best Korean Moisturizer: PURITO Centella Green Level Recovery Cream
If you’re a Korean beauty devotee, pick up
PURITO Centella Green Level Recovery Cream. As its name implies, it helps dry, irritated skin recover using healing ingredients like centella asiatica, niacinamide, and madecassic acid. There are also ceramides in here, as well as more traditional moisturizers like shea butter and argan oil. Formulated to be safe for sensitive skin like all the creams on this list, it comes packaged in a 1.7-ounce, squeeze-tube bottle that’s ideal for traveling. Relevant review: “This cream has a light yet very hydrating/moisturizing texture, feels almost like a water cream. I have combo and acne prone skin and this product toned down my redness and skin irritation after 3 days! Would definitely repurchase, wonderful product for the price.” Studies referenced: Tretinoin: A Review Of Its Anti-inflammatory Properties in the Treatment Of Acne, Nicholas Schmidt-Eugene Gans - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3225141/ Experts: Dr. David Lortscher, a board-certified dermatologist and founder and CEO of Curology.