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Retinol is often touted as one of the most powerful skin ingredients out there, and while it can totally transform your skin, it can also aggravate it significantly at first. The initial redness and dryness are a small price to pay for the eventual results (trust us!), but you can help minimize the negative effects of retinol by using a top-notch daily moisturizer.
Shop TODAY polled several dermatologists and skin care experts to find out what ingredients we should be looking for while shopping for a moisturizer. They were also nice enough to share their product picks! With their help, you'll be enjoying all the benefits of retinol without all the annoying side effects.
Best moisturizers and creams to use with retinol, according to experts
Retinol can work wonders for your skin and can treat the visible signs of aging, but it can also be pretty harsh on your skin. "In the first two to four weeks, the skin undergoes a process known as retinization, where the skin cells adjust to the retinol itself. This can lead to dryness, flaking and redness. That is why it is so important to pair your retinol with a moisturizer," Dr. Joshua Zeichner, board-certified dermatologist and director of cosmetic and clinical research at Mount Sinai Hospital's department of dermatology, said.
Dr. Liia Ramachandra, a former pharma executive and skin care expert, told Shop TODAY she loves this repairing moisturizer and touted the benefits of one key ingredient: niacinamide. "Niacinamide helps build cells in the skin while also protecting them from environmental stressors such as sunlight, pollution and toxins. It also plays an important role in soothing and helping to restore the skin barrier," she explained.
If you're already dealing with sensitive skin or allergies, retinol can exacerbate things and potentially cause rashes, but the right moisturizer can help your complexion adjust in the early stages of retinol use.
Ramachandra recommends this cruelty-free gel cream that contains two types of hyaluronic acid. "The ingredient is known to soothe inflammation and help strengthen the skin. Hyaluronic acid can also be used to plump and hydrate," she said.
Prefer a more streamlined ingredient list? Boston dermatologist Dr. Ranella Hirsch loves the fact that this lotion is free of dyes and fragrances. "It makes it a great, light option for even sensitive skin types trying to get started on a retinol," she said.
The bestseller is pretty darn affordable and it also happens to be quite popular with Amazon shoppers, who've given it over 5,300 five-star ratings.
"Retinols function by revving up cell turnover. This can (and frequently does) yield some level of irritation and/or dryness," Hirsch explained. "Judicious use of a good moisturizer can help counter this for a beginning user or even someone who has been using it for a long time."
The derm is a fan of this gentle, noncomedogenic moisturizer that works for all skin types. "It offers long-term hydration with ceramides and glycerin," she shared.
Normally, we'd be tempted to apply a retinol before a moisturizer, but board-certified plastic surgeon Dr. Troy Pittman suggests doing the exact opposite. "Moisturizing first before applying retinol will not interfere with the retinol’s ability to absorb into the skin. A moisturizer will allow the retinol to be a little gentler on your skin, and it will protect you from potential dryness," he revealed.
The Washington, D.C.-based expert listed glycerin and hyaluronic acid as the two powerhouse ingredients in this Neutrogena gel cream and said it has a number of great benefits for your complexion. "It has no fragrance, is dye-free and restores the skin’s natural barrier against moisture loss. This moisturizer quenches extra-dry skin, relieves intense dryness and leaves the skin looking smooth, which is excellent for those using retinol," he said.
Don't be surprised if your skin rebels a bit when you first start using a retinol. "Especially early on, retinoids cause an exfoliation of the keratinocytes and that can disrupt the lipid barrier," board-certified dermatologist Mary Lupo revealed. "It is worse in very dry climates and during the first few weeks of use."
The skin care expert recommends using a soothing moisturizer to combat those initial growing pains and named this as one of her top picks. "It's a great choice as a hydrating gel in humid climates and for acne-prone skin," she said.
Dr. Alan Parks, founder of DermWarehouse, couldn't help but give a shoutout to the power of ceramides. "They are a great ingredient in a moisturizer because they help to protect and maintain the moisture barrier of the skin, which is responsible for its overall health and hydration," he told us.
We're not suggesting you go two days without moisturizing, but if you do get a little lazy, this one just so happens to provide 48-hour hydration and Parks particularly digs its light formula.
This bestseller has won the hearts of Amazon shoppers (it has 2,800+ five-star ratings!) and it's also earned Pittman's respect. "It uses micropearl technology to absorb excess oil and has glycerin, which keeps the skin smooth and soft. It also contains SPF 30, which is good for those using retinol since retinol increases your skin’s sensitivity to the sun’s rays," he told us.
Pittman reminded us that it's essential to apply sunscreen throughout the day and said this lightweight formula won’t clog pores, which makes it particularly great for those with combination or oily skin.
Ever wonder why your skin gets so dry while using a retinol? Parks broke it down for us: "Retinol increases the rate that your cells turn over themselves exponentially, producing the anti-aging effects you know and love. This means that your skin gets rid of its old skin layers faster than usual, which can cause a significant amount of dryness and flaking."
The derm swears by this lightweight cream that works equally well for all skin types, even oily ones. "If you have oily skin, adding that moisture back into your skin is important and can actually help regulate oil production in your skin. This cream is light, yet nourishing, with ingredients like antioxidants and vitamin E," he said.
"Using a moisturizer before or after (or both) when using a retinol reduces irritation without sacrificing the effectiveness of the retinol," Parks explained. If you're in the market for a new nighttime moisturizer, this lightweight gel is a great option.
"It locks in moisture and protects the moisture barrier. It uses a strong combination of aloe, hyaluronic acid, glycerin and other natural extracts to gently but effectively hydrate the skin and protect it from damage," he said.
Board-certified NYC plastic surgeon Dr. Ryan Neinstein thinks retinols are the "best way to rejuvenate and replenish our skin at home" but he recognizes that they can do a number on your skin, at least initially. That's why he suggests using this gentle moisturizer with SPF.
Neinstein pointed out that the light formula is ideal for sensitive skin and we also love that it's non-greasy and absorbs quickly. Of course, we also dig the fact that it's free of parabens and fragrances!
Like the other skin care experts we polled, Neinstein agrees that with retinol can minimize irritation and maximize skin glow. He told us that many of his patients enjoy using this daily moisturizer from Skintelligence and said it's great for all skin types.
The potent formula is full of antioxidants that fend off free radicals and fight back against premature aging. It works well under makeup or on its own and also includes ginseng extract, a soothing ingredient, and aloe extract, a known hydrator.
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