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Should You Apply Tretinoin Before or After Moisturizer?

In the days of old apothecaries, the order of potion application may not have been a topic of debate, but in today's advanced world of skincare, the sequence in which we apply products is a subject of much discussion.

I've spent years dissecting the intricacies of dermatological treatments, and the conundrum of whether to apply tretinoin before or after moisturizer is one that I encounter frequently. It's a question that doesn't merely boil down to right or wrong, but rather to understanding the delicate dance between potency and protection for our skin.

As we explore this topic, I'll be drawing on my professional experience to guide you through the variables that can influence this decision, such as skin type, the concentration of tretinoin, and your overall skincare goals. Stick with me as we peel back the layers of this complex skincare strategy, and I'll help you navigate toward an answer that could be a game-changer for your routine.

woman Applying Tretinoin Before or After Moisturizer

Key Takeaways

  • The optimal application order of tretinoin and moisturizer depends on your skin type and individual needs.

  • For dry/sensitive skin, pre-moisturizing using the sandwich method can help minimize irritation and dryness.

  • Those with oily skin may prefer applying tretinoin directly to the skin without moisturizer, but should monitor for signs of irritation and consider the sandwich method if needed.

  • Alternative methods like the buffering lotion technique or wait time strategy can be explored to find the most comfortable routine. Experimentation and adjusting based on skin feedback are key.

Understanding Tretinoin and Its Benefits

Tretinoin, a derivative of vitamin A, has been proven to effectively treat acne, diminish wrinkles, and repair sun-damaged skin through its ability to accelerate cell turnover and collagen production. As a dermatologist, I've seen it transform complexions by refining skin texture and reducing the appearance of fine lines.

This retinoid works at a cellular level, prompting cells to renew more quickly. It's this rapid cell turnover that helps clear acne by preventing dead skin cells from clogging pores. Moreover, by stimulating collagen synthesis, tretinoin fortifies the skin's structural integrity, thus softening wrinkles and improving skin elasticity.

I advise my patients to incorporate tretinoin into their skincare routines with care, as it's potent and can cause skin irritation if not used correctly. It's essential to start with a lower concentration, gradually increasing as the skin builds tolerance. Consistent nighttime applications can lead to remarkable improvements, but it requires patience and persistence.

In serving others, I emphasize that tretinoin isn't a quick fix but a long-term commitment to skin health. By following a tailored approach, individuals can harness the full potential of tretinoin while minimizing adverse effects, ensuring a smoother, clearer, and more youthful complexion.

post showing all Tretinoin Buy Products including tretinoin uk cream and gel

Moisturizing: Before or After Tretinoin?

Understanding the role of tretinoin in skin rejuvenation is crucial, as it promotes cell turnover and enhances collagen production. Equally critical is incorporating moisturizing into your skincare routine effectively when using tretinoin to achieve optimal results and maintain skin comfort.

The timing of moisturizer application with tretinoin depends on individual skin type and reaction to the treatment.

  • If you experience dryness or irritation, it may be beneficial to apply a moisturizer before tretinoin. This creates a buffer, mitigating the active ingredient's potential intensity on the skin. For a deeper understanding of this approach, consider reading [How to Use Tretinoin Cream with Moisturizer]

  • Dry Skin: Start with a moisturizer, allowing it to fully absorb, followed by the tretinoin application.

  • Sensitive Skin: A more substantial moisturizing layer could be necessary to safeguard against irritation.

  • Combination Skin: Moisturizer might be required only on the drier zones before tretinoin is applied.

For those with oily skin or seasoned retinol users, applying tretinoin directly before moisturizing may be suitable. Keeping an eye on how your skin responds and adapting your routine is essential. Should there be any uncertainty, it's always wise to consult a dermatologist for a personalized skincare regimen.

2 different moisturizer in one frame

Tailoring Approach Based on Skin Type

When considering the use of tretinoin, it's essential to tailor your application method to your individual skin type, as this can significantly influence both the effectiveness of the treatment and the comfort of your skin.

For those with sensitive skin, building a barrier with a moisturizer formulated to soothe and protect can mitigate potential irritation during the adjustment period. This dilution strategy effectively reduces the intensity of tretinoin's active properties, allowing the skin to acclimate without foregoing benefits.

If you have dry skin, you might find that applying a moisturizer before tretinoin helps prevent further moisture loss. It's important to select a moisturizer that supports the skin's barrier function, providing a cushion against the retinoid's potent effects.

On the contrary, if your skin is oily or less sensitive, you may tolerate applying tretinoin directly onto the skin, followed by a moisturizer to hydrate without overloading your skin with emollients.

Tailoring your approach based on skin type isn't just a suggestion; it's a critical step in optimizing your skincare regimen. By carefully selecting the sequence and products you use with tretinoin, you ensure that your skin reaps the maximum benefits with minimal discomfort.

Keep in mind, everyone's skin is unique, so it's vital to listen to your skin's response and adjust accordingly.

Ai generated image of woman with moisturizer applied on her face

Experimenting With Alternative Methods

In exploring tretinoin application, I've found that the buffering lotion technique—applying a thin lotion before tretinoin—can significantly reduce irritation for some patients.

I've also observed that adhering to a wait time strategy, where one waits 15-20 minutes post-application before moisturizing, allows the skin to fully absorb the retinoid, maximizing its benefits.

These methods aren't one-size-fits-all, and careful observation of the skin's response is essential to tailor the ideal regimen.

Buffering Lotion Technique

One alternative method to consider for those seeking a gentler introduction to tretinoin is the buffering lotion technique, which involves applying a thin layer of lotion before the retinoid to reduce potential irritation.

Here's how it works:

Apply a hydrating moisturizer:

  • Choose a product: Opt for a non-comedogenic, fragrance-free moisturizer.

  • Layering: Gently apply a thin layer to the skin, focusing on dry areas.

Wait for absorption:

  • Timing: Allow the moisturizer to fully absorb into the skin, which can take a few minutes.

Apply tretinoin:

  • Amount: Use a pea-sized amount of tretinoin to avoid excess application.

  • Application: Carefully apply it over the moisturizer to buffer the skin against dryness and irritation.

This method can help mitigate the initial dryness and irritation commonly associated with starting tretinoin or apply retinol treatments.

Wait Time Strategy

Building on the concept of the buffering lotion technique, the wait time strategy offers another approach to tretinoin application that can further tailor treatment to individual skin sensitivities and absorption rates. By allowing the skin to fully absorb retinol and moisturizer separately, we optimize the benefits of both.

Here's how I approach it: 

After cleansing, I use a moisturizer to hydrate and prevent water loss. Then, I wait for about 20 minutes before applying a thin layer of tretinoin. This method ensures my skin is properly moisturized, mitigating potential irritation without diluting the retinoid's efficacy.

Conversely, if I apply tretinoin first, I give it the same wait time to penetrate before applying your moisturizer to seal in the treatment.

Demystifying Skincare Terms

Navigating the lexicon of skincare, one often encounters terms like 'retinoid,' 'retinol,' and various brand names, each carrying unique implications for potency and use. Understanding these terms is crucial for anyone looking to serve others in the realm of dermatology effectively.


  • Retinization: The process by which skin adapts to retinoids, often requiring a gradual introduction to minimize irritation.

  • Potency: Prescription-strength options like tretinoin are more potent than over-the-counter retinol, necessitating careful application.

  • Application: Typically applied at night due to sensitivity to sunlight, using only a pea-sized amount for the entire face.


  • Layering: Apply products from the thinnest to the thickest consistency to maximize absorption without hindering the retinoid's efficacy.

  • Occlusive Agents: Ingredients that form a barrier on the skin to prevent moisture loss, often used after retinoids to seal in hydration.

Application Techniques:

  • Buffering: Applying moisturizer before a retinoid can reduce irritation for sensitive skin types.

  • Direct Contact: Applying a retinoid to bare skin may increase its effectiveness but should be approached with caution to minimize potential side effects.

Armed with these details, one can approach skincare with an authoritative and detailed understanding, ensuring that the care and advice provided are both professional and considerate of individual needs.

The ‘Glow' and ‘Purge' Phenomenon

Patients commonly encounter the 'purge' phase when initiating treatment with tretinoin, a stage marked by a temporary surge in breakouts that's actually indicative of the medication's effectiveness in accelerating skin cell turnover. As a dermatologist, I reassure my patients that while the purge phenomenon can be discouraging, it's a positive sign that the tretinoin is working as intended.

comparison of 3 images showing tretinoin purge before and after

This enhanced shedding of skin leads to the unwanted side effects of peeling and flaking, which some may mistakenly interpret as an adverse reaction to the treatment. Nevertheless, this phase is transitory and generally diminishes as the skin acclimatizes to the treatment. During this period, it's vital to adhere to a gentle skincare regimen and steer clear of additional irritants that could aggravate the skin.

Following the purge phase, patients can look forward to the 'glow'—a period where fresh, healthy skin cells emerge, resulting in a more refined and even-toned appearance. Achieving this glow is a primary objective for users of retinoids like tretinoin.

To aid patients through the purge phase and towards attaining the glow, I often suggest the use of a non-comedogenic moisturizer which can help alleviate and hydrate the skin, thereby reducing the discomfort associated with the early stages of treatment. Patience and consistent skincare practices are essential for a successful outcome.

For further insight into managing the tretinoin journey, including mitigating dark spots and incorporating other skincare products, patients can explore a comprehensive guide that discusses using tretinoin in conjunction with other skincare ingredients such as vitamin C (Can I Use Vitamin C with Tretinoin)


To conclude, the optimal sequence of applying tretinoin and moisturizer isn't a universal directive—it's as individual as your skin. Just like a bespoke suit is crafted to fit one's unique measurements, your approach to tretinoin application should be tailored to suit your skin's specific requirements.

Some patients find success applying tretinoin before moisturizer, while others see better results with the reverse. It's an invitation to experiment and closely monitor how your skin reacts. Commit to this personalized journey, trust in the scientific principles behind tretinoin, and be ready to fine-tune your routine based on what you observe. The path to enhanced skin resilience and a glowing complexion is paved with such customization.

If you're considering incorporating tretinoin into your skincare regimen and want to purchase tretinoin cream or gel, visit our shop page for a selection of quality products.

For those seeking further information on tretinoin and its use in skincare, the American Academy of Dermatology provides reputable resources that can offer valuable insights (American Academy of Dermatology).


Should I apply moisturizer or retinol first?

It is commonly suggested to apply a layer of moisturizer first, then apply your retinol. This is especially true for those just starting to use retinol products as it can assist in reducing the potential for dryness and irritation.

Why should I apply a layer of moisturizer before using retinol?

Using a moisturizer first can create a barrier that can reduce the retinol's drying and irritating effect. The moisturizer can help to keep the skin damp, reducing the chances of redness and sensitivity.

What happens if my skin feels dry even after applying moisturizer?

You might want to apply a serum with ingredients like hyaluronic acid. Acid based serums can help revitalize your skin’s natural barriers to retain more moisture and make your skin a little less sensitive to the retinol.

Can I use retinol without a moisturizer?

While you can certainly apply retinol without a moisturizer, it's not generally recommended. Most skin types do better when a thin layer of moisturizer is used before the retinol. This can help counter the drying effect of the retinol.

What's the right way to start using retinol?

When you start using retinol, it’s best to proceed slowly. Begin by applying a small amount in the evening, following a gentle cleanser and a layer of moisturizer. This gradual introduction can help limit skin irritation and dryness that may occur in the initial phase.

What are the skin goals when using retinol?

Retinol is a type of retinoid, a family of chemical compounds related to vitamin A. These compounds are used to treat several skin issues including acne, pigmentation, and signs of aging. Regular use can lead to brighter skin, diminished fine lines, and better skin texture.

How long does it take to see visible results from using retinol?

Results from using retinol can vary greatly depending on your skin type, the strength of the retinol you’re using and how regularly you can apply it. On average, users may need to wait about 12 weeks to see visible results.

Can retinol make your skin more sensitive to the sun?

Yes, retinol and other retinoids can make your skin more sensitive to the sun, which is why they are usually applied in the evening. During the day, it's important to apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen to protect your skin.

Can I layer other products over retinol?

Yes, it is recommended to “sandwich” your retinol between two layers of moisturizer if you’re looking for a way to curb the incidence of drying and peeling.

Is retinol safe for all skin types?

While retinol is generally safe for all skin types, those with very sensitive skin may want to avoid it. It is always advisable to perform a patch test before fully adding a new product like retinol to your skincare regimen.



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