There are so many reasons to love retinol-infused skin care products. Not only can they help to reduce the look of sun damage and treat or prevent acne, but it increases cell turnover, stimulates collagen and evens out skin tone, making it the hardest working ingredient in the biz. This is not your everyday TikTok beauty trend. That said, it doesn’t come without side effects, unfortunately. While prescription-grade creams are the most potent, any and all beauty products featuring retinol can be very drying. As a result, it’s of the utmost importance that you pair your retinol with a nourishing and hydrating moisturizer, though you want to take care that you aren’t clogging your pores in the process.
Those of us with acne-prone, sensitive skin need to be vigilant about avoiding moisturizers that could potentially cause congestion or irritation. Prioritize non-comedogenic moisturizers and oils (though even those might be risky for people with acneic skin). You’ll also want to avoid anything that is formulated with fragrance since it can lead to redness, skin peeling, rashes and worse. It can be overwhelming to parse through ingredient lists to figure out what’s right for your skin, so 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 generously.
“You can mix and match any of these,” Sarkar said. “I choose to mix in a 1:1 ratio, right now my treatment of choice is the Belif True Cream.”
Remember that you might experience some minor flakiness or irritation the first few weeks after starting a retinoid. This is normal and should pass within a week or so. But be sure to contact your dermatologist if it persists for longer.
Dermatologist-approved moisturizers to pair with prescription retinoids
HuffPost may receive a share from purchases made via links on this page. Prices and availability subject to change.
Bioddance Squalane + Omega Repair cream
Nourish your skin with Biossance's beautiful active ingredient-infused cream. Ingredients like ceramides, hyaluronic acid and squalane work together to strengthen and hydrate, plump and heal dry skin.Promising review
: "Light feel, deep moisture. Love this moisturizer! A little goes a long way. Light enough to not overpower yet packs a delightful punch of moisture." — skinsavvy23
Paula's Choice Skin Recovery replenishing moisturizer
Get all the benefits of an anti-aging moisturizer with a thirst-quenching moisturizer from Paula's Choice which was formulated to soothe and hydrate even the most sensitive, reactive skin. Peptides improve the look of fine lines and wrinkles while hyaluronic acid moisturizes and helps to strengthen the natural moisture barrier.Promising review
: "I originally purchased this as an overnight moisturizer, but I now wear it day and night I love it. It feels like it actually penetrates the skin and doesn’t just sit on top. Makeup goes well over it and doesn’t cause any pilling. I have combination skin and it works great for me, leaves my skin looking hydrated and bouncy ." — Diane
Tatcha The Dewy skin cream
This deliciously decadent cream from Tatcha is definitely a splurge, but it feels like a breath of fresh air for dry skin. It's wildly creamy and nourishing without feeling heavy, oily or greasy. It's formulated Japanese purple rice which is full of antioxidants that drench the skin, leaving it soft, smooth and plump.Promising review:
"I have dry to normal skin, and this works so well!! I had a few acne marks that hadn't gone away in a while, but after 2 days of using this, they had gone away!!! Makes my skin so, so soft. Amazing to wear under makeup, I've noticed that it's made my base look so smooth. I've heard that this product doesn't work as well for those who have oily skin, so think about that before buying!" — EmmyThan
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.”Promising review
: "If you're looking for ACTUAL soft, silky and glowing lookin skin then look no further you have found it with CeraVe Moisturizing Cream. Some companies say that their products will give you soft, glowing silky skin and it's just ALL words but with CeraVe that's NOT the case at all. They talk the talk and can TRULY back it up. Just look at ALL of their GREAT reviews. CeraVe Moisturizing Cream is very creamy and not too heavy. It's just right. If you have dry skin or if your skin dries out in the colder weather then this would be a good product for you to buy. Thank you to Amazon, CeraVe and the vendor for making this GREAT product available and sooo affordable to the public." — Lady K
Weleda Skin Food moisturizer
While not specifically recommended by any of the dermatologists we spoke with, Weleda's iconic Skin Food cream is longtime customer favorite and a must for anyone who needs to drench their skin in powerful hydrators, thanks to the potent blend of rich, plant-based ingredients that include sweet almond oils, chamomile and more. This product is a lifesaver come winter or when using drying products like retinoids.Promising review
: "A little goes a long way with this cream. It’s my “go-to” product for dry skin. I keep one at home and one in my purse. You can use it for just about anything and everything! I use it as a face cream, hand cream, body cream, cuticle softener and foot cream. I use it on my sensitive skin and on my toddler and we have never had any issues. The price point is a little towards the higher end but it is a very luxurious formula and worth every penny. This is my 2nd tube and I will continue to buy this. I love Weleda!" — Home Store
Dieux Instant Angel moisturizer
Nourish your skin's natural moisture barrier with this rich and hydrating face cream from Dieux, a brand favored by a number of editors on HuffPost’s shopping team. 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.Promising review
: "My skin has never been healthier. I’ve tried many moisturizers and none have restored my barrier like this. My skin stays moisturized all day instead of drying back out right away. I’m hooked." — Megan S.
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.Promising review
: "This is a great product. It really hydrates the skin, leaving a soft dry touch. It doesn't have a strong or characteristic smell, is easy to spread and dries quickly." — Andrea
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.”Promising review:
"I have used more moisturizers than I care to admit and this one has been my #1 for just over a year. I naturally have oily skin and have always hated how moisturizers left my face feeling wet and heavy. (not to mention putting makeup over it? forget about it) I know, no matter what skin type you have, moisturizing is good, so I looked and looked for SOMETHING to give me peace. I've found it in this product. It is very lightweight and locks in that moisture perfectly. Packaging was good, too." — Jess O.
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.Promising review:
"When I first purchased this moisturizer, it was at the recommendation of a dermatologist due to an ongoing acne issue that my daughter was experiencing. The doctor told us, “Just a dab will do you.” After seeing the container I said to my daughter, “I sure hope a dab will do you because this stuff is expensive for such a small jar.” So she began to use it along with her prescribed acne treatment. That dab goes a long way. And the result was fabulous skin and so soft and smooth. My wife began to use it and was amazed with the moisturizing capabilities of that little dab. Well, I am a hold out. No self-respecting man would ever use something like this. Well, I gave in. Winter is tough on me working outdoors often in the cold northeast. Since finding this non-greasy facial moisturizer, I have been told that my face looks good…amazing for an ugly guy! We do also use the Neutrogena Hydroboost Facial cleanser as it compliments the moisturizer well. If you have skin that has been dried by medication, cold winds, or old age…I highly recommend this. I won’t even look to try something else since I am a fan that buys sensibly." — Father of Three
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.”Promising review
: "Love it. This is my favorite moisturizer. I always had dry patches on my skin and the makeup doesn't look good with it. After using this, I don't ever see any patches anymore and my makeup goes on very nicely." — Li907
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.Promising review:
"Honestly I think the 100mL is more worth it for the price of $83 and I've been using this for almost 3 years now and it's probably the best hydrating cream I have. I've tried many different creams that are supposed to hydrate and moisturize but they can't defeat this belif cream. If you have dry skin especially during the winter times, I would recommend getting this item with the Witch Hazel Herbal Extract Toner! And during night times, I would use the laneige cica night cream twice a week. I've been using this pair for a while and it doesn't defeat any other skincare items I've used before. If you're in between oily and dry skin, I would try the aqua bomb hydrating toner with this! Both toners do the job ESPECIALLY this cream!" — FloralScents
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.”Promising review
: "I tried 3 or 4 different moisturizers after my previous was discontinued, and this has been my holy grail! The texture is a mix between a gel and a cream, and feels hydrating without being oily. I have combo skin and my fiancée has dry skin, and we both use it every single day because it works so well for both of us. Really nice subtle citrus-y scent as well. I feel instant hydration with this product." — DevShi
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.Promising review
: "I love this lotion, it’s not at all sticky or greasy feeling it dries quick and moisturizes better than the regular lotions out there. My skin specifically gets dry in the winter so I have to use lotion all winter long🙄. Now I don’t dread it as much because the aveeno sheer moister doesn’t make me greasy and dirty feeling. I get the moister I need without the sticky gross feeling. I definitely recommend this to people with sensitive, dry skin." — Chi
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.Promising review
: "I've been using Vanicream Moisturizing Lotion for several years daily as an after shave cream and as necessary for dry skin. It is light, absorbs quickly and very skin-friendly. Like Vanicream bar soap, this is an excellent product that is worth a 5-star review." — Encer1
Avène Revitalizing Nourishing Cream
Park describes this moisturizer as a “luxurious-feeling rich and thick cream for extra dry skin.”Promising review:
"As I got older my skin became more sensitive, and red in tone. This is an excellent product I first experienced while getting a facial. This moisturizer is excellent for sensitive skin. I have enjoyed it and have used this product line for over 2 years. I highly recommend it!" — E Garrett