I'm often asked by readers, "how do you layer skin care products with tretinoin?" I've been doing it for years in my practice and on my own face. I've seen the results for over 30+ years including the success or failure of many layering options. My recommendations are built from this experience. Here is one of the reader questions that I received regarding how to layer products with a skin care routine that includes tretinoin.
Hi Dr. Bailey,
Hope you're having a wonderful summer!
I wanted to ask if the Green Tea Antioxidant Skin Therapy 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? Thanks! 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. That is because strong, professional skin care ingredients often don't live well when formulated together, and dispensed into the same container.
Product layering is tricky though, and you need to do it right! Application timing, and product combinations, can make or break results with this sort of a skin care routine. 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.
I created my Complete Facial Skin Care Kit to layer and work well with tretinoin treatment.
The kit includes 4 key products:
- Extremely Gentle Foaming Facial Cleanser which is a pH balanced facial cleanser that cleans skin well without irritating or over-drying.
- Green Tea Antioxidant Skin Therapy which helps soothe skin irritation and fights skin aging by loading the skin's antioxidant reserve with the best antioxidant for skin care (EGCG-3 polyphenols).
- Daily Moisturizing Face Cream which is enriched with barrier supporting ingredients to fight skin dryness.
- Sheer Strength Pure Physical SPF 50+ Sunscreen to protect skin from sun damage and collagen loss.
Tretinoin (Retin A) is one of the most dermatologist-recommended products to fight skin aging.
Tretinoin cream (tretinoin is the generic name for Retin A or Renova) is one of the best skin care products you can use to fight many of the common facial skin problems:
- It can reverse the signs of skin aging and sun damage.
- It helps correct uneven pigmentation.
- It is a great ingredient to treat acne.
All of the tretinoin benefits have excellent scientific proof:
- The mechanism of how tretinoin stimulates collagen formation to reverse wrinkles is fully worked out.
- The different ways that it helps to reduce unwanted pigment problems such as melasma and sun spots have been identified.
- The way that it works to alters skin structure to brighten the complexion and give it a dewy and youthful appearance is also well understood.
Tretinoin is a prescription medication.
Is there a non-prescription product similar to tretinoin with proven benefits?
Yes there is. Tretinoin is a retinoid. Retinol is in the same family, also has good scientific evidence for the same skin benefits, and is the best retinoid that is available without prescription. It is converted to retinoic acid in your skin (which is what tretinoin is). Retinol is less irritating than tretinoin. It's nice to have a non-prescription retinoid to fight skin aging!
Apply Retinoids like Tretinoin and Retinol at night
Tretinoin cream (like retinol) is applied at night. Retinoids break down on exposure to light so it's best to put them on right before you turn out your light to go to sleep.
Apply tretinoin to dry skin
Tretinoin is more likely to cause skin irritation if you apply it to skin that is damp. This is not true of retinol but because of these two particular tretinoin 'issues', the steps of my night time skin care regimen for tretinoin users are as follows:
How to layer other skin care products with tretinoin at bedtime
- Wash your face and any other skin where you will be applying tretinoin.
- Apply any other skin care products that are compatible with tretinoin such as Green Tea Antioxidant Skin Therapy and Daily Moisturizing Face Cream.
- Wait at least 15 or 30 minutes
- Apply tretinoin right before turning out the light
The benefit to nightly application of Green Tea Antioxidant Skin Therapy before tretinoin is to get all the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects to help your skin tolerate tretinoin and fend off skin aging.
Green Tea Antioxidant Skin Therapy is simply the best antioxidant green tea skin care product made in my opinion. It contains a patented form of highly concentration green tea polyphenol (ECGC type) antioxidants. - Dr. Bailey
ECGC green tea polyphenols have proven benefits to skin including,
an ability to fight inflammation,
- lower sebum production,
- reduction in the P. acnes germ that causes acne,
- and blocking key steps in the formation of non-melanoma skin cancer.
I like this product applied to skin twice a day. My Retinol Night Cream contains the same amount of this patented high concentration of ECGC green tea polyphenol antioxidant. It thus combines retinoid skin benefits with green tea benefits, and does not require a prescription. It is much less irritating than tretinoin and can be applied in place of the Green Tea Antioxidant Skin Therapy. Moisturizer can be layered immediately, and you can then turn off the lights and go to bed!
Note that your moisturizer gets applied after Green Tea Skin Therapy (or my Retinol Night Cream which actually contains the same green tea antioxidants), because I like thin products applied under richer base products. My preferred moisturizer for this skin care combo is my Daily Face Cream that comes in my Complete Facial Skin Care Kit. For best results, moisturizers are always applied within 3 minutes after toweling dry.
When tretinoin is used, the moisturizer is applied and then skin is allowed to wait 15 minutes before tretinoin application. Then it's 'lights out'. Yes, tretinoin is in a moisturizing base, but because it causes irritation if applied to damp skin, it can't be your moisturizer!
Click here to see my Complete Facial Skin Care Routine, designed by me to support tretinoin use in my practice.
What's the bottom line with how you layer skin care products with tretinoin?
Having the right products that are compatible with tretinoin and that support skin tolerance of tretinoin is important. Tretinoin is a tricky product but the results are so worth the trouble. I personally have been using tretinoin since I was 27 years old (I was about to turn 53 when I first wrote this post and am updating it at 62!). I think my skin looks better now than it did when I was 26 (yes even at 62!). In fact, my office staff found my Dermatology Residency application photo in a file drawer and they were shocked at the difference!
(Dr. B note added in 2018 and still accurate as of 2021: I now alternate tretinoin and my Retinol Cream depending on my nightly schedule of washing before turning out the lights. Basically, there is a retinoid product on my face every night. Results are the same with both retinol and tretinoin for me! Yep, retinoids are still helping me fight the signs of 60 years of age on my fair complexion, and my early sun tanning years.)
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.
Cynthia Bailey MD, Dermatologist
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.