The Best Moisturizers To Pair With Skin-Drying Retinols

Retinols are great, but they'll dry out your skin if you don't pair them with the right skin care. Dermatologists share their picks.

Retinol products do it all: They help increase cell turnover, even out skin tone, stimulate collagen production and more. But they can also be drying ― especially the prescription-grade kind, which is more powerful than anything you’ll find over the counter. It’s vital that you pair your retinol products with a strong moisturizer, but many will clog your pores and cause even more trouble. We asked dermatologists what to look for, and what to avoid.

First, some definitions: retinols, retinoids and retinoic acid

While “retinol” is often used as a blanket term to describe these skin-boosting vitamin A derivatives, when it comes to the prescription stuff we’re mostly talking about retinoids.

“Both retinoids and retinol are vitamin A derivatives that ultimately get converted into retinoic acid, the active form of the molecule,” Dr. Corey Hartman, medical director and founder of Skin Wellness Dermatology in Birmingham, Alabama, and clinical assistant professor at the Department of Dermatology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, told HuffPost. He puts it simply: “Retinols are over-the-counter (OTC) or physician-dispensed. Retinoids are prescription.”

Dr. Papri Sarkar, a dermatologist in Brookline, Massachusetts, told HuffPost that retinols and retinoids both work by entering a cell and directing it to increase skin turnover and produce new collagen, which helps to give a plumper appearance to skin, decrease and prevent fine wrinkling and even out skin tone.

Hartman explained that retinols have a lower concentration of retinoic acid. This means they work more gradually, and are therefore less irritating than retinoids. The trade-off here is that while retinols are less irritating, results will take longer. Retinoids, on the other hand, have a higher concentration of retinoic acid. Since retinoic acid is the active form, retinoids can get to work on the skin faster. The results from a retinoid are more dramatic, but there’s a higher risk of experiencing dryness, redness, peeling and irritation as your skin adjusts to the product.

Dr. Annie Gonzalez, board-certified Miami dermatologist of Riverchase Dermatology, noted that starting with a retinol is a good way to introduce your skin to this type of product, and that you can eventually work up to a prescription retinoid.

Moisturizer to the rescue

When it comes to pairing a moisturizer with a prescription retinoid, Hartman recommends looking for bland moisturizers with ceramides, hyaluronic acid or humectants, but no other active ingredients. In other words, keep it simple.

In terms of application, you have a few options to choose from, depending on how dry or sensitive your skin is. If you can tolerate it, Sarkar instructs patients to use the retinoid and then apply a moisturizer over it after a few minutes or 30 minutes later. If your skin is sensitive, she recommends mixing your retinoid with moisturizer in a 1:1 ratio.

For people with more sensitive skin, Sarkar recommends the retinoid sandwich technique, in which you apply a layer of moisturizer, then your retinoid, then moisturizer on top of the retinoid. Lastly, if you have super sensitive skin, she recommends applying your retinoid and then washing it off after 30 minutes. Afterward, apply your moisturizer and an occlusive cream on top. (Occlusives ― think Vaseline ― form a protective layer on the surface of your skin to create a barrier that prevents moisture loss.)

“You can mix and match any of these,” Sarkar said. “I choose to mix in a 1:1 ratio, and on days that my skin feels like it might protest in the morning, I add an occlusive on top of the mixture. Right now my treatment of choice is the Belif True Cream mixed with retinoid and then occluded with healing ointment.”

Dermatologist-approved moisturizers to pair with prescription retinoids

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Weleda Skin Food
Weleda's iconic Skin Food cream is a must for anyone who needs to drench their skin in powerful hydrators. It's a cult favorite for people with dry skin thanks to the potent blend of rich, plant-based ingredients that include swee almond oils, chamomile and more. They're a lifesaver come winter or when using drying products like retinoids.
Dieux Instant Angel moisturizer
Nourish your skin's natural moisture barrier with this rich and hydrating face cream from Dieux. It deeply moisturizes, supports and repairs damaged skin thanks to a healing blend of ceramides, peptides, glycerine, squalane and more. It's fragrance-free and non-comedogenic, though those with acneic skin may find it to be a bit too thick.
The favorite: CeraVe Moisturizing Cream
This dermatologist darling (developed with dermatologists, even) was recommended by all of the experts interviewed for this story. “Although this is non-comedogenic, it is thoroughly moisturizing,” Gonzalez said. “It’s fragrance free, oil free, hypoallergenic and very reasonably priced.”

This cream is Sarkar’s go-to during the winter months and when her skin barrier is very irritated. “I reach for the CeraVe cream as it has a high percentage of oil compared to the lotion, which helps seal in the moisture my skin still has and mimics the skin barrier to prevent further water loss or irritation.”
Vichy Minéral 89 Hyaluronic Acid Face Moisturizer
Dr. Joyce Park, dermatologist at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation in Northern California, told HuffPost that this lightweight hyaluronic acid serum is perfect for the spring and summer months. It’s fragrance-free and can be used on its own or layered under another moisturizer.
Neutrogena Hydro Boost Gel-Cream
“This unique formulation absorbs quickly like a gel, but can offer lasting hydration like a cream,” Park said. “I like recommending this for patients who don’t like a thick or sticky feeling on their skin from other moisturizers.”
Similarly... Neutrogena Hydro Boost Water Gel
Gonzalez recommends a similar product, Neutrogena Hydro Boost Water Gel, which has the same hydrating ingredient: hyaluronic acid. “This is an excellent moisturizer to use with retinoids,” she said. “It’s a lightweight gel that gives a nice, cooling sensation when applied. It’s free of what people don’t want, such as dyes and fragrance.” She added that this moisturizer is great for people with oily skin, as it’s non-comedogenic and oil-free.
SkinCeuticals Triple Lipid Restore 2:4:2
“This is a great moisturizer for retinoids due to its triple threat combination of ceramides, cholesterol and fatty acids,” Gonzalez said. “These serve to restore the skin’s barrier function.”

Gonzalez added that this product can shorten the adjustment period to retinoids by up to a week while also reducing dryness. “It usually takes between two to six weeks to adapt to prescription retinoids,” she said. “Flaking and redness are normal within this period, and cell turnover is usually 21-28 days.”
Belif The True Cream Moisturizing Bomb
“This is a moisturizing cream with a modicum of heft that has glycerin and panthenol to hold on to moisture, macadamia seed oil to lightly coat and oat extract to soothe the skin,” Sarkar said. When she uses a retinoid on her dry, sensitive skin, she mixes it with this cream in a 1:1 ratio.
Belif The True Cream Aqua Bomb
Sarkar describes this product as a light, gel-like cream that feels like water when applied to the skin. “Its combination of oat kernel and plant extracts hydrate and condition, while ceramides and cholesterol boost oils without heaviness,” she said. “Although this formula contains a small amount of shea butter, it still feels surprisingly light and doesn’t seem to clog pores.”
Aveeno Sheer Hydration Lotion
“The colloidal oatmeal in this product helps to restore skin hydration and bring balance to the barrier to seal in hydration and decrease irritation,” Hartman said.

Vanicream Moisturizing Lotion
This lighter version of Vanicream Moisturizing Cream claims to help restore and maintain normal moisture levels for your skin, while soothing redness, irritation or itchiness. “It’s free of dyes, fragrance, formaldehyde and lanolin and has a light formulation that won’t clog pores,” Hartman said.
Avène Revitalizing Nourishing Cream
Park describes this moisturizer as a “luxurious-feeling rich and thick cream for extra dry skin.”

Before You Go

CeraVe AM Facial Moisturizing Lotion with SPF 30

Skin Care Products With Niacinamide