How to Treat Dry and Peeling Skin From Retin-A

You've been using Retin-A (tretinoin) to treat your acne. Now your skin is dry and peeling. And it almost looks worse than the acne itself.

Peeling, flaky skin is common with any topical retinoid like Retin-A. This side effect tends to be worst during the first few weeks of use.

But don't ditch your treatment. This article leads you step-by-step through how to reduce the side effects and help your skin look and feel better.

Tips for Treating Dry Skin from Retin-A
Verywell / Emilie Dunphy

For All Topical Retinoids

The same process will work for problems from any topical retinoid, including:

Washing and Drying

Look at your face wash. Have you been using one meant for oily or acne-prone skin? If so, switch to a mild cleanser. Choices include:

  • Unscented Dove
  • The basic Neutrogena bar
  • Cetaphil cleanser

Or try cream-based, non-foaming cleansers. These are less drying than foaming face washes.

Ask your healthcare provider or dermatologist what they recommend. You can always skip the cleansing products and use plain water (unless you need to remove makeup).

Stop using shaving lotions, aftershaves, perfumes, and cologne for the time being. While using Retin-A, they can increase dryness, burning, and stinging.

No OTC Products

Avoid over-the-counter (0TC) acne treatment products. They include astringent toners, medicated pads, or anything containing benzoyl peroxide. Unless your dermatologist says otherwise, your tretinoin medication is the only acne treatment you need.

Dry Your Skin Before Application

After cleansing, make sure your skin is completely dry before applying Retin-A. Moisture increases the chance of skin irritation. Many dermatologists recommend waiting at least 20 minutes after cleansing.

Recap

Switch to a mild face wash like unscented Dove or Cetaphil. Non-foaming cleansers are less drying. If you don't wear makeup, you can use plain water. Skip shaving lotions or anything scented.

Don't apply Retin-A to wet skin. That increases your risk of irritation.

Moisturizing

While using any topical retinoid, a moisturizer is a must. If you typically don't use one, start now. Using it every day can stave off the worst of the dryness. It's also soothing.

But not any moisturizer will do. A fragrance-free, hypoallergenic version is less irritating. Look for one made for sensitive skin.

Already using a moisturizer but still feeling dry? Your normal product may not be strong enough now. Try a heavier one.

Be certain it is labeled non-comedogenic. That means it won't clog your pores.

Avoid moisturizers with exfoliating ingredients like:

Their labels often say "brightening," "blemish-control," or "anti-aging." Tretinoin already does these things for you.

You do need sun protection, though. Topical retinoids can make your skin more susceptible to sun damage. Look for a moisturizer that's SPF 30 or higher.

Apply the Moisturizer First

Wash, dry, moisturize—then use Retin-A. The moisturizer forms a protective barrier and lessens irritation. Let your moisturizer absorb for a few minutes. Then apply Retin-A over the top.

Gently Exfoliate

No matter what, you'll likely get some dryness and flaking early on. If it bothers you, gently exfoliate. The best way is to massage the skin with a soft, damp washcloth.

Don't scrub too hard—you could make your skin feel worse. Definitely don't use abrasive scrubs. These are too rough for your skin right now.

Recap

Moisturize between drying and applying Retin-A. Use a fragrance-free, hypoallergenic, non-comedogenic moisturizer made for sensitive skin. You may need a heavier product than you've used before.

Your skin is vulnerable to sun damage. Use an SPF 30 or higher moisturizer.

If you exfoliate, use a soft washcloth and be gentle.

Medication Schedule

You should always use medications as directed by a healthcare provider. However, if you're having side effects, let your provider know. You may be able to adjust your medication schedule.

It's also important not to over-use your medication.

Don't Overuse Retin-A

Using Retin-A more often than prescribed won't make it work faster. Plus, it's a surefire way to get red, irritated, peeling skin.

You just need a pea-sized drop for your entire face. Even a dime-sized dollop is way too much.

Build Tolerance Slowly

Wearing the medication all day may be too irritating at first. See if you can leave it on for an hour, then wash it off with soap and water.

If your skin is still irritated, cut back to 20 minutes. Then build up your tolerance slowly. That gives your skin a chance to adjust while reducing side effects.

Your skin may never tolerate all-day use. But you can still get significant benefits with a short application time.

Scale Back

Is your skin still dry and peeling? Try using Retin-A for a short time every other day. Once every two to three days may be okay, as well. (Again, check with your dermatologist.)

Skipping days gives your skin a rest. Once it starts feeling better, slowly work up to using it every day (or as directed by your healthcare provider).

Don't stop using your treatment altogether. As your skin adjusts, dryness and peeling will taper off. Try to keep your eye on the goal.

Summary

To avoid dry, irritated, flaking skin with Retin-A, cleanse your skin in this order:

  1. Use a mild cleanser
  2. Dry your skin well
  3. Moisturize
  4. Apply the medicine

Look for gentle products that won't further irritate your skin. Exfoliate with a soft washcloth, not abrasive products. Protect your skin from sun damage.

Using extra Retin-A won't make your acne go away faster. It will only irritate your skin more. Ask your dermatologist about ways to scale back and slowly build up your skin's tolerance to the medicine.

A Word From Verywell

It's frustrating to have your skin treatment make you look worse. If you simply can't take it, tell your dermatologist. Ask for a new treatment schedule if they don't suggest one.

Retin-A is a powerful medication. Give it a chance. Once you get past the side effects and see your acne clear, it'll be worth it.

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5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  3. Del Rosso JQ. The role of skin care as an integral component in the management of acne vulgaris: part 1: the importance of cleanser and moisturizer ingredients, design, and product selectionJ Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2013;6(12):19–27.

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