If a person uses tretinoin properly, it may improve skin appearance, but it can cause dryness. Therefore, dermatologists may advise people to use moisturizers to help minimize tretinoin’s side effects.

Tretinoin is a naturally-occurring acid of retinol. It belongs to a class of compounds known as retinoids, which derive from vitamin A. This group of medications can benefit the skin by reducing inflammation and unclogging pores. Retinoids come in different strengths and can help with a variety of skin conditions, such as acne and psoriasis.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) first approved tretinoin as a topical acne treatment in 1971. While the substance is effective for treating acne, it can also cause dry skin. Therefore, dermatologists advise that people avoid skin products that may cause skin irritation and dryness and use a moisturizer to help reduce tolerability issues.

In this article, we will discuss how tretinoin works, possible side effects, and how to use tretinoin cream with moisturizer.

A person applying a moisturizer to their skin.Share on Pinterest
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Tretinoin is the generic name for a medication that derives from vitamin A. This treatment is available in topical and oral formulations. However, doctors will only prescribe it as a topical treatment to help manage acne, as oral tretinoin is an option to treat acute promyelocytic leukemia. This topical medication is available as a lotion, gel, or cream under several different brand names, such as:

  • Retin-A
  • Renova
  • Altreno
  • Avita
  • Refissa
  • Atralin

In addition to treating acne, tretinoin can help reduce the appearance of fine wrinkles, dark spots, and rough patches of skin. Tretinoin encourages the peeling of the skin, which can help unclog pores, decrease inflammation in skin cells, and decrease the visibility of dark spots and fine lines on the face.

A dermatologist may not recommend tretinoin for people with extremely sensitive skin or for those who experience frequent skin redness. This is because it may cause sensitivity and dryness during early use. Some of the more common side effects of tretinoin can include:

  • blistering or swelling
  • a sensation of warmth or stinging
  • changes in skin pigmentation
  • peeling
  • redness
  • initial worsening of acne sores

Tretinoin can also increase the skin’s sensitivity to sunlight, so individuals who use topical tretinoin should avoid excessive sun exposure. They should also make sure to wear sunscreen, sunglasses, and sufficient clothing to cover their skin when they go outside.

Many of tretinoin’s side effects are mild and will resolve over time. However, individuals who experience severe discomfort or pain after using it should speak with their doctor.

Tretinoin is not suitable for people who are or are planning to become pregnant, as it may harm a developing fetus.

While highly effective, the possible side effects of skin discomfort may make using tretinoin difficult. However, a 2019 study notes that using tretinoin with a moisturizer can help reduce its potential irritation and drying effects.

However, while moisturizers may provide relief, combining other skin products with tretinoin could lead to further skin irritation or damage. People using tretinoin should avoid:

  • skin products with large amounts of alcohol
  • lime
  • astringents
  • spices
  • harsh soaps
  • shampoos
  • sulfur
  • benzoyl peroxide
  • menthol
  • resorcinol
  • salicylic acid
  • hair coloring chemicals
  • hair removal products

Furthermore, individuals who have used these products should wait before starting treatment with tretinoin. This will help prevent a potentially dangerous skin reaction. People can still use cosmetics, but they should cleanse the treatment areas thoroughly before applying tretinoin. Additionally, doctors will ensure that it does not interact with any other current medications that individuals are using.

Tretinoin creams come in various strengths. Before beginning treatment, individuals should speak with a healthcare professional to determine the best concentration for their skin. A doctor may recommend starting with a low concentration of tretinoin and gradually increasing the dosage. This can help prevent any serious skin reactions to the substance.

Once they are ready to begin tretinoin treatment, individuals can follow these steps each night:

  1. Wash and dry the treatment area with mild soap and water.
  2. Allow the skin to dry thoroughly for 20–30 minutes.
  3. Apply tretinoin cream, gel, or lotion with clean and dry fingertips.
  4. Ensure to cover the treatment area with a thin, even layer.

To prevent skin dryness, people using tretinoin should use a moisturizer. Additionally, as it can make their skin photosensitive, it is advisable to apply tretinoin once a day, in the evening.

Individuals who use tretinoin for acne will likely notice their acne worsening right after they begin treatment. However, this is expected, and it typically takes 2–3 weeks for tretinoin to take effect. In some instances, it can take up to 6 weeks before beneficial effects appear.

For further information on using tretinoin, make sure to consult with a doctor. They can alter the tretinoin dosage or treatment schedule as necessary.

Although tretinoin has been an effective treatment for many individuals, it is not the only retinoid available for topical use. Some other retinoids that can help with acne treatment include the below.


Tazarotene is a retinoid for treating acne and psoriasis. Conventionally, it is available in concentrations that range from 0.05% to 0.1%. However, a 2019 study explored the use of a less potent version of tazarotene, which is available at a 0.045% strength.

Researchers found that this lower strength formulation improved moderate to severe acne for many patients without causing serious side effects. Therefore, this version of tazarotene may be suitable for individuals with sensitive skin who are seeking acne relief.


Adapalene is another retinoid that can treat acne. It does not react as severely to sunlight, so users can apply the substance during the day.

A 0.1% strength adapalene gel is also available for purchase over the counter. Generally, individuals who use this gel with a facial moisturizer experience fewer side effects than those who use higher-strength products.


Trifarotene comes in a cream that helps treat facial and body acne. In one study, people with acne who used trifarotene for 12 weeks saw a 20–90% reduction in inflammatory lesions.

However, trifarotene is only available by prescription. It is also often more expensive than tretinoin, making the latter a better option for many people seeking cheaper acne treatments.

Acne is a common condition that can cause discomfort and emotional distress. Although retinoids can help treat acne, home remedies can also help acne-prone skin.

One of the best ways to keep acne at bay is to follow a daily skin care routine, which may include:

  • washing the face twice a day with a gentle cleanser
  • avoiding products that dry the skin
  • minimizing makeup use and avoiding cosmetics that may trigger acne
  • using lukewarm water and avoiding harsh scrubs or towels
  • keeping hair away from the face to prevent a breakout
  • avoiding picking or squeezing pimples

People with acne-prone skin may also benefit from consulting with dermatologists. These professionals can help create effective skin care routines tailored to each individual.

When using tretinoin, it is important to keep a doctor informed about any unexpected skin changes or serious side effects. Anyone experiencing pain after using the substance should consult a healthcare professional.

A person should also report any signs of an allergic reaction to a medical professional. Itchiness or hives that occur at the tretinoin treatment area could indicate an allergic response and may require immediate attention.

Tretinoin is a retinoid that people can use to treat skin conditions such as acne vulgaris. With correct use, this medication can help reduce the appearance and frequency of breakouts.

A common side effect of using tretinoin is dry skin. As such, people can use a gentle moisturizer to help their skin maintain hydration and prevent discomfort and other unwanted side effects. Following directions for tretinoin use and keeping track of any skin changes is important to manage tretinoin treatment. While no one medication is right for everyone, many people have successfully used tretinoin to benefit their skin health.