Retin-A Is Making My Skin Peel. Help!

8 Tips to Help You Beat Dry, Peeling, Flaking Skin Caused by Retin-A (Tretinoin)

Topical retinoid cream
Photo: Christine Glade / Getty Images

You just started using Retin-A (tretinoin) to treat you acne.  Now your skin is so dry, it almost looks worse than the acne itself (it certainly feels a whole lot worse).

Unfortunately, dry skin, peeling, and flaking are pretty much par for the course when you're using a topical retinoid like Retin-A.  These side effects tend to be at their worst during the first few weeks of starting treatment.

Don't ditch your Retin-A just yet, though.

There are some things you can do to help control that dry skin, and help your skin look and feel a whole lot better.

1.  Swap out your acne treatments for extra gentle skin care products.

If you've been using a face wash meant for oily or acne-prone skin, the first thing you'll want to do is switch to a mild cleanser.  Unscented Dove, the basic Neutrogena bar, or Cetaphil cleanser are all gentle choices.

Also, steer clear of other acne treatment products, astringent toners, shaving lotions, aftershaves, perfumes, and cologne. Using these products while using Retin-A can make dryness, burning and stinging worse. 

2.  Dry your skin really well.

Make sure your skin is completely dry after cleansing and before applying Retin-A.  Any bit of moisture left on the skin can increase your chance of skin irritation. Many dermatologists recommend waiting at least 20 minutes after cleansing before applying your medication.

3. Get yourself a good, oil-free moisturizer.

While using any topical retinoid medication, a moisturizer is a must!  Even if you typically don't use a facial moisturizer, you'll definitely want to start now.  Using it every day can help stave off the worst of the dryness and makes your skin look a whole lot better.

A fragrance-free, hypoallergenic brand will be less irritating to your already tender skin. Whatever brand you use, be certain it is labeled noncomedogenic, so it won't clog your pores.

4. Try putting your moisturizer on first, then layering Retin-A over the top.

You can also use that lovely moisturizer as a buffer between your skin and the Retin-A, to help lessen the irritating effects.  Put your moisturizer on first, let it absorb for a few minutes, then apply Retin-A over the top.

5. Don't overdo your application.

It's tempting to use extra medication in the hopes it will clear your skin faster, but using it more often than your doctor prescribed is a surefire way to get red, irritated, peeling skin. Don't overdo your application -- more won't clear your skin faster. And a small dab of Retin-A will go a long way.

6.  Gently remove flaking skin with a soft cloth.

Even with careful treatment, expect to get some amount dryness and flaking, especially during your first few weeks of using Retin-A.

If flaky skin is really bothering you, you can remove it by gently massaging the skin with a damp washcloth.

Take care not to scrub too hard, though, or you could make your skin feel worse.  And definitely, don't use super abrasive scrubs.

7.  Scale back use to every other day.

Is your skin still uncomfortably dry and peeling?  Try using your Retin-A every other day, or every two to three days, for a short period of time. Once your skin starts to feel better, slowly work up to using it every day (or as directed).

Don't stop using your treatment altogether. As your skin adjusts to the medication, dryness and peeling will lessen.  Try to keep your eye on the prize!

8. Tell your dermatologist if you just can't handle the side effects. 

If your skin is extremely dry, or you have severe peeling, flaking, burning, redness or irritation, let your dermatologist know right away.  Just be prepared -- your dermatologist will probably ask you to keep up with treatment for the time being.

Here's where you'll have to be honest with yourself and your doctor.  If you feel like you simply can't take the side effects, tell your dermatologist.  He/she can help you devise a new acne treatment plan if need be. 

Trying a new medication is better than just stopping treatment altogether.  But remember, all acne medications cause dryness and peeling, so some degree.

Want to know if the side effects you're experiencing are normal, and what to expect down the road with your treatment?  Check out this week-by-week guide to Retin-A (tretinoin) treatment.

Next Steps:

Everything You Need to Know About Retin-A (Tretinoin)

What Is the Difference Between Retin-A and Tretinoin?

Source: "Tretinoin." MedlinePlus. 03 April 2000. U.S. National Library of Medicine & National Institutes of Health. 9 Sep 2007.

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