How do you layer skin care products with tretinoin?

Hi Dr. Bailey,

Hope you’re having a wonderful summer!

I wanted to ask if the Green Tea Antioxidant Skin Therapy – Replenix Power of Three Cream can be used before tretinoin and what the benefit is? I’m also wondering if a moisturizer can be applied either before or after using tretinoin?



Hello Robin,

Layering skin care products is an important way to customize your skin care. It’s also the best way to accurately address your unique skin problems because strong, professional skin care ingredients don’t all live well together in the same container.  Product layering is tricky though and you need to do it right! Application timing and product combination can make or break results and often you won’t know thing aren’t working for weeks or months. It’s why I’m so specific about the products and regimens that I recommend.

Tretinoin cream (tretinoin is the generic name for Retin A or Renova) is one of the best skin care products you can use to reverse the signs of skin aging, sun damage, uneven pigmentation and treat acne.  It also is one of the most complex skin care products to add to your regimen.

Tretinoin cream is applied at night.  It breaks down on exposure to light so it’s best to put it on right before you turn out your light to go to sleep.  It also causes irritation if you apply it to skin that is damp.  Because of these two particular tretinoin ‘issues’, the steps of my night time skin care regimen for tretinoin users are as follows:

  1. Wash
  2. Apply any other skin care products
  3. Wait at least 15 or 30 minutes
  4. Apply tretinoin right before turning out the light

This means that in step 2 I would recommend applying Green Tea Antioxidant Skin Therapy – Replenix Power of Three Cream and then a moisturizer if needed.  This is followed by step 3, which is to wait at least 15 minutes before step 4, the application of tretinoin right before ‘lights out’.

The benefit to nightly application of Green Tea Antioxidant Skin Therapy – Replenix Power of Three Cream is all get all the antioxidant and anti inflammatory effects that it offers.  Green Tea Antioxidant Skin Therapy – Replenix Power of Three Cream and CF Creams are simply the best antioxidant green tea skin care product made, in my opinion, and they work best when applied twice a day.  (Click here to read more about these Replenix Creams.) Moisturizer gets applied next because moisturizers are always applied within 3 minutes after toweling dry or else they don’t work.  Yes tretinoin is in a moisturizing base, but because it causes irritation if applied to damp skin, it can’t be your moisturizer!

For more information on Retin A (tretinoin) use and what I tell my patients, click on the links below:

Does Light Break Down Retin A?

Layering Skin Care Products With Dimethicone

How To Correctly Use Retin A For Acne and Anti Aging Skin Care

Tretinoin is a tricky product but the results are so worth the trouble. I’ve been using it since I was 27 years old (and I’m just about to turn 53) and I think my skin looks better now than it did when I was 26.  In fact, my office staff found my Dermatology Residency application photo in a file drawer and they were shocked at the difference!

Precise and powerful skin care directed at exactly your skin problems can transform your skin. Keep up the good work and thanks for a great question, I hope my answer helps.

Warm Regards,

Cynthia Bailey MD, Dermatologist

If you have questions about skin care or skin health please send them to me using the Contact Dr. Bailey button at the top of the page.

Disclaimer: Please realize that availing yourself of the opportunity to submit and receive answers to your questions from Dr. Bailey does not confer a doctor/patient relationship with Dr. Bailey. The information provided by Dr. Bailey is general health information inspired by your question. It should not be a substitute for obtaining medical advice from your physician and is not intended to diagnose or treat any specific medical problem (and is not an extension of the care Dr. Bailey has provided in her office for existing patients of her practice). Never ignore your own doctor’s advice because of something you read here; this information is for general informational purpose only.

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12 Responses to “How do you layer skin care products with tretinoin?”

  1. Jenna August 8, 2011 at 8:19 pm #

    I applied Retin A as you have suggested but didn’t use any other skincare products with it. For three weeks (the duration of the use) my skin was an oily mess. I’m talking a complete oil slick throughout the day and night. It was embarrassing and impossible to control for more than an hour. After researching it, I found that some people who had this side effect still had it months (or a year) after starting a retinoid. I also had this problem when using Azelex and decided to stop after three months.

    Is there anything that can be done? I would love to be able to use Retin A!

  2. Ramza August 8, 2011 at 8:19 pm #

    Thank you for the great blog. All of this is tremendously informative to me. Extending on this question, is it important to rub in your products to the point where they are “soaked” into your skin or can you just apply them and let them absorb on their own? Does this also apply to physical and chemical sunscreens as well? I have heard contradicting advice regarding how much you should be rubbing in your products and admittedly, it would be more efficient for me if I could just go throw on some sunscreen on my face and go on with the rest of the day instead of sitting there rubbing in my sunscreen every time I reapply every 3 hours.

    Thank you again.

  3. Susan Woodie August 9, 2011 at 5:52 pm #

    I enjoy getting your skin care blog. I’m interested in ordering some of the Replenix products you mention. I currently use Obagi Clear, Exoderm Forte and Blender with the Tretinoin. Which of the Replenix products would you recommend using with the Tretinoin. I’m 56 and have been using Obagi for several years, but find that it doesn’t seem to be working as well as it once did. Thanks.

  4. Cynthia Bailey MD August 10, 2011 at 11:46 am #

    Hello Susan,
    You’ll see in my Obagi post that I usually just have my patients on the Nu Derm system for 3 months. I don’t usually have them use hydroquinone for extended time except in rare cases. I then transition them to tretinoin plus either one of my glycolic kits the antiaging kit with or without glycolic as the moisturizer, depending on their skin. That would include the Replenix CF cream, but Replenix Power of Three would be great too for someone not wanting to use the entire antioxidant kit. I also love the Replenix Eye Repair Cream. They are all on my site. Mineral sunscreen is also a must and Citrix is great I hope that helps.
    Warm Regards, Cynthia Bailey MD

  5. Cynthia Bailey MD August 10, 2011 at 11:51 am #

    Hello Ramza,
    Great question. The only benefit to rubbing in a mineral sunscreen is to get the product to be transparent. If that is not a problem, then, no it is not necessary to rub products into the skin. Mineral sunscreens sit on the outside of your skin and do their work there. Rubbing just de-clumps the mineral particles for invisibility.

    The chemical sunscreens do need to enter the skin and rubbing would help them do that faster.

    All other products will melt and diffuse in all by themselves.

    Warm Regards,
    Cynthia Bailey MD

  6. Cynthia Bailey MD August 10, 2011 at 11:58 am #

    Hello Jenna,
    The oil glands actually don’t increase or decrease oil production much. The ‘big daddy’ retinoid, Accutane, is actually the only medicine that will actually shrink oil glands, so theoretically a retinoid should move the glands in the less, not more direction.

    I suspect it’s the product residual that feels oily. I have my patients adjust their cleansing method as one means of creating the right ‘feel’ on the skin. Here in the office we love Facial Buf Pufs and the Clarisonic Pro. Retin A goes on at night and will feel oily on the skin until it is entirely washed off in the morning.

    Warm Regards,
    Cynthia Bailey MD

  7. Jenna August 10, 2011 at 8:31 pm #

    So it’s not possible for the gland to amp up oil production due to an irritant? I thoroughly washed my face in the morning so I don’t believe it was residue. So odd! Thanks for the feedback.

  8. tanless August 14, 2011 at 2:58 pm #

    Sometimes tretinoin causes skin to look more slick. I’m not sure how and why, but it’s temporary, at least it was for me, after about 3rd or 4th month of use it suddenly went away and my skin was normal again. Tretinoin irritation (I think it’s called retinoid dermatitis) doesn’t cause my skin become oily, on the contrary, if I overdose then skin turns dry and peels like crazy, similar to a mild tretinoin peel (it’s a quite unique 1-2% tretinoin treatment).

  9. Donna August 20, 2011 at 9:35 pm #

    I recently started using tretinoin for my acne and this information has been very helpful! Is there a type of moisturizer you can recommend to use on really dry skin with acne? It doesn’t seem to matter how soon I apply moisturizer after washing my face, it always seems to end up feeling really tight. But I’ve always heard oily moisturizers made acne worse and I don’t want that either. Thanks so much!!

  10. Cynthia Bailey MD August 23, 2011 at 7:02 am #

    Hello Donna,
    This is a great question. I’m going to give you a summary answer here and then a more detailed one in an Ask Dr. Bailey post.

    There are 3 usual reasons why I see this happen to my acne patients: 1. It’s usually that the washing step in a person’s skin care regimen was done with a product that is too drying and irritating. 2. That one of the acne medicines is causing irritation or allergic reaction (often salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide), or 3. That the tretinoin is being applied incorrectly such as immediately after washing, too often or is a strength that is too strong for a person’s particular skin.

    If after exploring which of these explanations is the most likely cause of the dry feeling, and making adjustments accordingly, the skin still feels like it ‘wants’ a moisturizer then I recommend the Glycolix Elite Ultra Lite which works beautifully for my acne patients and is oil free, hydrating with ingredients like glycerin.

    Great question!
    Cynthia Bailey MD

  11. Ozana August 24, 2011 at 7:14 am #

    Thank you for posting all this useful information that dermatologists, even those prescribing Retin-A, do not give. I am so happy that you say that after washing my face I can apply other creams or serums and apply Retin-A only right before bed, because I was told to wait 30 minutes after washing my face (and during that time my skin became so dry and tight that I wouldn’t even dare smile) and then apply Retin-A and not apply anything else before it.

    My question is: would you please give us more information on layering specific skincare products before Retin-A. How and IF can one layer Vitamin C, Acids (BHA or AHA), Hydroquinone, Niacinamide and glucosamine, or Copper peptides with Retin-A? Any advice also re the PH of these products, which, if I understand you correctly, are to be applied (if you say that they can be combined in the same evening) at least 30 minutes before Retin-A. Thank you so much in advance for your answer, as this is a question that up until now I’ve never found a complete and consistent answer to.

    And last thing: to reduce the risk for irritation and also to make it more easily to spread on the skin (I find Retin-A so difficult to spread properly on the whole face and I always end up using to much), can one mix in the hand Retin-A with another cream, for example Replenix Retinol Plus Smoothing Serum or an Antioxidant serum before applying on the skin?? Thank you!!!!

  12. Cynthia Bailey MD August 25, 2011 at 2:53 pm #

    The quick answer to these good questions is that I don’t recommend my patients apply other actives such as vitamin C, glycolic acid, BHAs or copper on nights that they are using RetinA. I have my patients use those in the morning after washing off the RetinA. At night it’s usually Replenix CF or Power of Three then a moisturizer if needed, wait the 15+ min and finally the RetinA. It is possible to mix the RetinA with another product to dilute it if a lower strength is desired but that would be the only reason to do so.