Way to go, you! Congratulations on the decision to use tretinoin! You will not regret it in the long run. 

Decades of research support its role in treating various skin concerns like acne, dark spots, and signs of aging. Tretinoin, commonly known under the brand name Retin A, is a medication that belongs to a class of drugs known as topical retinoids. It is derived from Vitamin A and is available only by prescription. 

Tretinoin's status as the gold standard in skincare is well-earned, thanks to its proven efficacy and versatility. One of the key reasons is its ability to stimulate cell turnover: dead skin cells are exfoliated from the surface of the skin and replaced with fresh, healthy skin. The increased rate of cell renewal helps clear up acne, smooths the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, and evens out skin tone by reducing hyperpigmentation. 

Perhaps best of all, tretinoin is scientifically proven to boost collagen production.

Why is collagen so important? Here are 5 reasons:

  1. Strength & Structure: Collagen provides the foundational structure and strength to the skin. It is the most abundant protein in the skin and forms a mesh-like framework that gives skin its firmness. Without adequate collagen, skin can become thin and fragile.
  2. Hydration: Collagen molecules can hold water, helping to keep the skin hydrated and plump.
  3. Anti-Wrinkle: Adequate collagen levels help minimize the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, as it supports the skin's natural plumpness.
  4. Faster Healing: Strong, healthy skin tends to heal more quickly and effectively, reducing the likelihood of scars for acne-prone skin.
  5. Resilience to Damage: Healthy skin is better able to resist environmental damage, such as exposure to UV radiation and pollution, which are known to accelerate aging of the skin.

Unfortunately, collagen production decreases as we age, contributing to visible signs of aging like fine lines, wrinkles, and loss of elasticity and firmness. UV radiation, free radicals, and poor lifestyle choices also damage collagen proteins. The increased rate of cell regeneration stimulated by retinoids helps replace lost collagen and promote younger-looking, firmer skin.

Tretinoin truly is an indispensable asset to your skincare regimen.

But you also need to know that maintaining the right skin care routine while using retinoids is just as important as using the medication itself.

Given its powerful effect on skin cell turnover, the skin may initially respond with side effects like dryness, peeling, or slight irritation. This is why it's really important to use a hydrating, gentle facial cleanser that doesn't strip the skin of its natural oils and maintains the skin's moisture barrier. 

What is the best cleanser to use with tretinoin? First, let's talk about why choosing the right facial cleanser even matters.  

A facial cleanser serves the crucial function of removing dirt, oil, and other impurities from the skin, keeping it clean and free from clogged pores. It prepares the skin for the application of medication or other skincare products, ensuring that active ingredients can penetrate the skin effectively. 

The right cleanser can help maintain the skin's natural moisture balance, preventing the dryness and skin irritation often associated with potent topical medications like tretinoin. This is why choosing an appropriate cleanser is a key step in maximizing the benefits of a prescription retinoid in your daily skincare routine.

Using the wrong facial cleanser in conjunction with a retinoid can damage the skin barrier. This is primarily due to the fact that topical tretinoin increases sensitivity, and using cleansers that contain harsh ingredients, fragrance, or alcohol will lead to dryness, flaking, redness, and even chemical burns.

Steer clear of these face cleanser ingredients:

AVOID!
  • Alcohols: Denatured alcohol, ethyl alcohol, or isopropyl alcohol. Alcohols are used for their quick-drying properties and to give a temporary "tight" feeling to the skin. These ingredients are typically included in products for oily skin and can be very irritating if you have a dry or sensitive skin type. 
  • Sulfates: Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES). Sulfates are used as surfactants to create foam that helps remove dirt and oils from the skin. Sulfates are considered safe for most skin types, but they can be irritating to some people, especially those with dry, or eczema-prone skin. 
  • Physical exfoliants: Gritty or granular ingredients like beads, salt, sugar, or ground nut shells. These ingredients scrub dead cells from the surface of the skin. Using physical exfoliants in addition to tretinoin is over-exfoliating, plain and simple. It will lead to micro tears in the skin, inflammation, and damage to the skin barrier.  
  • Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs): Glycolic acid, lactic acid, and citric acid are all examples of AHAs. These are chemical exfoliants that improve the tone and texture of the skin, but they should not be used in combination with tretinoin. 
  • Beta Hydroxy Acids:  BHAs are also chemical exfoliants and include ingredients like salicylic acid, willow bark extract, and tropic acid (generally used in professional chemical peels).
  • Fragrance and dyes:  These additives are included in some products to improve the experience of using the product, giving it a pleasant smell or color. Fragrances and dyes can be irritating to some skin types, though, and many people are allergic to them.

Characteristics of a Suitable Cleanser

The ideal cleanser should be non-comedogenic (doesn't clog pores) and soap-free. Look for products that are:

  • pH Balanced - The skin's natural pH level is slightly acidic, typically between 4.5 and 5.5. This acidity helps protect the skin from harmful bacteria and supports the skin's natural barrier function - the acid mantle. Tretinoin use can disrupt this balance, leaving the skin more prone to dryness, irritation, and damage, so using a pH-balanced cleanser that aligns with the skin's natural pH level ensures that the skin's acid mantle is not harmed. The intention is to prevent common side effects associated with retinoid use, such as redness, dryness, and flaky skin.
  • Gentle - Skin that is irritated or inflamed may not respond as well to the treatment, which impacts the overall effectiveness of the tretinoin skincare routine. It's really important to use a cleanser with gentle ingredients that won't cause the skin to react. Look for ingredients that support the skin's healing and rejuvenation process while on tretinoin cream. A gentle cleanser will help ensure the skin can reap the full benefits of the medication without unwelcome side effects.
  • Hydrating - Dry skin not only leads to discomfort and potential irritation, but it can also compromise the skin's natural barrier function, making it more susceptible to environmental aggressors and potential irritants. With impaired barrier function, the skin may also struggle to absorb the medication effectively. A hydrated skin surface, on the other hand, is more receptive to topical treatments and can handle the potent effects of tretinoin much better.

Ingredients That Complement Tretinoin

There are certain ingredients that work synergistically with tretinoin. Here are the ingredients you want to use in combination with retinoids:

Hyaluronic Acid

Hyaluronic acid is exceptionally hydrating. It  enhances skin hydration and relieves the dryness commonly associated with retinoids. It also promotes a healthy skin barrier function. Due to its light and non-greasy texture, hyaluronic acid is easily absorbed. By providing a surge of moisture to the skin, it facilitates a better tolerance to tretinoin and improves overall results. 

Ceramides

Using ceramides and tretinoin together can offer a more comprehensive skincare regimen. Tretinoin works on a cellular level to renew the skin and ceramides work on the outermost layer to maintain barrier integrity. The two work well together to improve the overall health and appearance of the skin.



Peptides

When applied topically in skincare products, peptides trigger skin cells to perform certain functions such as building collagen and elastin, which are essential for maintaining the skin's firmness and elasticity. Over time, this can result in smoother, less wrinkled skin.
Including peptide-based products into your skincare routine, especially in conjunction with other potent ingredients like retinoids, can have a transformative effect.





Aloe Vera

Aloe Vera is known to soothe and calm skin that has been irritated by tretinoin. Many facial cleansers on the market contain aloe vera due to its soothing, hydrating, and anti-inflammatory properties. 


Niacinamide

Niacinamide and tretinoin are both potent skincare ingredients that offer unique benefits, yet they can synergistically enhance each other when incorporated into the same skincare routine. Niacinamide's anti-inflammatory properties can alleviate skin irritation often triggered by tretinoin use. Niacinamide also enhances the skin barrier by increasing ceramide production. By fortifying the skin barrier and calming inflammation, niacinamide can improve the skin's overall tolerance to tretinoin, paving the way for more consistent and effective long-term use.

Sunscreen

OK, so you won't be looking for sunscreen as an ingredient in a facial cleanser but I do want to mention how important sun protection is. Tretinoin can make the skin more sensitive to the sun, so using a broad-spectrum SPF of at least 30 is necessary.  

9 Facial Cleansers That Pair Well With Tretinoin

Budget Friendly Brand

1. CeraVe Hydrating Cleanser

As always, CeraVe makes the list! This is a gentle, hydrating cleanser that contains ceramides, hyaluronic acid, and glycerin to maintain the skin's natural barrier while cleansing. Formulated with essential ceramides and hyaluronic acid to help restore and maintain the skin's natural barrier while providing deep hydration.

Best Suited For:
The CeraVe Hydrating Cleanser is an excellent option for individuals with normal to dry skin types seeking a cleanser that offers deep hydration.

Pros
+ Affordable
+ Fragrance-free, non-irritating
+ Suitable for sensitive skin
+ Dermatologist-approved

Cons
- Not tough on heavy makeup
- Too mild for deep cleansing

Budget Friendly Brand

2. Aveeno Ultra-Calming Hydrating Gel Cleanser

The Aveeno Ultra-Calming Hydrating Gel Cleanser is a gentle, soap-free face wash designed to cleanse and calm sensitive skin. Formulated with feverfew, a soothing ingredient related to chamomile, to effectively cleanse the skin while minimizing redness and irritation.

Best Suited For:

The Aveeno Ultra-Calming Hydrating Gel Cleanser is an excellent choice for those with sensitive skin looking for a gentle, calming cleanser.

Pros
+ Gentle and soothing
+ Hydrating
+ Fragrance-free
+ Affordable and widely available

Cons
- Might not remove heavy makeup
- Possible allergic reactions to plant extract
- Not ideal for oily skin

Budget Friendly Brand

3. Garnier Green Labs Ultra Soothing Cream Cleanser

The Garnier Green Labs Ultra Soothing Cream Cleanser is a versatile cleanser that provides intense hydration and soothing. Formulated with hemp seeds and niacinamide, it reduces redness and calms sensitive skin, making it suitable for use with tretinoin.

Best Suited For:
Sensitive skin 

Pros
+ Vegan Formula
+ Hemp Seed Oil and essential fatty acids
+ Soothing Ingredients
+ No Parabens or dyes 

Cons
- Fragrance
- May not effectively remove heavy makeup
- Not Hypoallergenic
- Not readily available in all regions

Mid-Range Brand

4. La Roche-Posay Toleriane Hydrating Gentle Cleanser

La Roche-Posay's Toleriane Hydrating Gentle Cleanser is specially formulated to gently remove makeup, impurities, and dirt. It also replenishes skin with essential lipids and niacinamide while retaining the skin's natural protective barrier.

Best Suited For:
Individuals with normal to dry skin, including those with sensitive skin or conditions like eczema. This can also be an excellent choice for those using retinoids, as it cleanses gently without causing irritation.

Pros
+ Dermatologist tested
+ pH balanced
+ Non-comedogenic
+ Effectively removes makeup

Cons
- A bit more expensive
- Not a great option for oily skin

Mid-Range Brand

5. Avène Tolerance Extremely Gentle Cleanser Lotion

Avène offers a selection of products designed specifically for sensitive skin types, and their Tolerance Extremely Gentle Cleanser Lotion is no exception. This cleanser offers a gentle, soothing experience for those dealing with irritated or sensitive skin, making it an excellent addition to a tretinoin skincare routine.

Best Suited For:
Designed specifically for hypersensitive and irritable skin

Pros
+ Limited number of ingredients
+ Avène Thermal Spring Water is soothing
+ Free from soap, fragrance, and parabens
+ Non-comedogenic and hypoallergenic

Cons
- More expensive than some drugstore brands
- May not effectively remove heavy makeup
- Won't deeply cleanse oily skin
- Not readily available in all regions

Mid-Range Brand

6. Juice Cleanse Soothing Aloe Face Cleanser

The Well People Juice Cleanse Aloe Face Cleanser is an organic, plant-based cleanser formulated to detoxify, balance, and hydrate the skin. Enriched with aloe vera and chia seed, this cleanser promotes a clean and fresh complexion while providing gentle exfoliation.

Best Suited For:
Suitable for all skin types, including sensitive skin. For individuals who value organic, plant-based skincare products. 

Pros
+ Contains organic and plant based ingredients
+ Aloe vera content soothes and hydrates
+ No parabens, sulfates, phthalates
+ No artificial fragrance

Cons
- Higher price point than many drugstore cleansers
- May not effectively remove heavy makeup

Luxury Brand

7. Clé de Peau Softening Cleansing Foam

Clé de Peau Beauté is a luxury skincare brand, and their Softening Cleansing Foam is positioned as a high-end product. This luxurious foam is generally designed to offer a rich, creamy lather that aims to cleanse the skin thoroughly while maintaining its natural moisture balance.

Best Suited For:
If you are willing to invest in a luxurious skincare routine and are searching for a hydrating cleanser that offers a deep yet gentle cleanse, Clé de Peau's Softening Cleansing Foam is a good choice. Suitable for most skin types, but particularly beneficial for those with dry or sensitive skin.

Pros
+ Effective cleansing
+ Hyaluronic acid
+ High-quality ingredients
+ Dermatologically Tested

Cons
- Price makes it out of reach for many people
- Fragrance
- Not hypoallergenic

Luxury Brand

8. Kiehl's Calendula Deep Cleansing Foaming Face Wash

Kiehl's Calendula Deep Cleansing Foaming Face Wash is a creamy gel formula that activates with water to create a dense foam. It is designed to cleanse and refresh the skin without stripping it of its natural oils.

Best Suited For:
Kiehl's Calendula Deep Cleansing Foaming Face Wash is best suited for individuals with normal to oily skin who do not mind investing in a slightly pricier product. However, those with sensitive or extremely dry skin, or those sensitive to strong scents, may want to consider other options.

Pros
+ Formulated with calendula and glycerin
+ Effectively cleanses without over-drying
+ No parabens, sulfates, or phthalates
+ Suitable for normal and oily skin types

Cons
- Higher price point than other face washes
- Not for very dry or sensitive skin types

Luxury Brand

9. La Mer The Cleansing Foam

This luxurious cleanser is infused with La Mer's signature Miracle Broth™, a formula that contains sea kelp and other nutrients, to hydrate and rejuvenate the skin. It aims to gently cleanse the skin without stripping it of its natural oils, making it a good option to use before applying tretinoin.

Best Suited For:
People looking for a premium, luxurious skincare routine and are willing to invest in high-end products. Ideal for those who are also using potent skincare ingredients like tretinoin and want a cleanser that is less likely to contribute to skin irritation.

Pros
+ Luxurious experience
+ High-quality ingredients
+ Rich foam deeply cleanses
+ Will not leave skin dry

Cons
- Very expensive
- Some may not find it worth the price

What About Serums to Use With Tretinoin?

Facial cleanser brands formulate products with a variety of beneficial ingredients. It might be more common, though, to find serums or moisturizers that contain ingredients that pair well with tretinoin, rather than cleansers. This is because cleansers are wash-off products and may not offer the full benefits of active ingredients as a leave-on product would. Look for serums that you can layer from brands like The Ordinary, Good Molecules, Revolution Beauty, and Be Minimalist. 

The Wrap Up

The journey towards healthier skin is achievable with tretinoin! Understanding the interaction between tretinoin and other skincare ingredients can significantly improve your skin's tolerance and the overall results.

Whether you're on a budget or willing to splurge, it's important to choose a cleanser that not only works efficiently but also nurtures your skin. Remember that your cleanser should serve as a foundation for your skincare routine and should, ideally, alleviate irritation and dryness rather than contribute to it.

Ultimately, the goal is balanced, healthy skin. Keep in mind, you may need to experiment a bit before you find what works best for you. So, happy cleansing, and here's to a successful tretinoin journey!

Do you use tretinoin? What has your experience been? Let me know in the comments below!

About the Author

I am a newly-licensed cosmetologist with 2 years of experience in the beauty industry. I also work in beauty retail and I have a product addiction. I want it all. I'm a Gen Z Scorpio, persistent, and creative. I sing, play guitar, make spoon rings, and I bake the BEST chocolate cookies.

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