Skincare, Acne, Anti-aging, Skin school

Tretinoin Peeling – OMG! Half My Face Is Flaking off at the Office!

tretinoin skin peeling flaking

written by Emma Wilson

updated on

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Using tretinoin was always one of those things I thought I would do when I got “older.” I have read it is exploding in popularity online. For decades, retinoids have been the gold standard for anti-aging, anti-wrinkle, and anti-acne in skincare. They’re prescribed for everything.

And guess what: I’m older. I’m only 37, of course, but every day of 37 is one step closer to 40, which is closer to 50. At my last dermatologist visit, she listened to me gripe about stubborn acne scars, hyperpigmentation, and teeny wrinkles no other person could see, and she asked, “Well, why aren’t you on a retinoid?”

So now I am.

What Is Tretinoin Peeling?

tretinoin skin peeling black woman

I primarily work from home, but there have been times I’m in the office, go to the bathroom, and notice that my chin and nose are on the verge of flaking off. Thanks, tretinoin.

What I didn’t know is that the skin will undergo retinization when introducing tretinoin. The goal is to maximize the positive benefits of tretinoin while minimizing irritation.

Retinoic acid binds to its receptor in the skin and starts speeding up shedding old skin cells via “cell turnover.” Tretinoin will start eating away at that outer layer of your skin from the first time you apply it. Remember your stratum corneum, or horny layer? It will get the skin underneath ready to meet the world quicker, so you’re most likely dealing with peeling skin.

Tretinoin skin peeling and flaking is one of tretinoin’s side effects. This means flaking. Lots of it. Especially right at the start of your treatment. Tretinoin peeling usually happens in the first two to six weeks of using tretinoin.

Many users also experience tretinoin purging during the adjusting period, aka the retinol uglies.

How Do I Avoid Flaking and Peeling?

tretinoin extremely dry skin peeling

Avoid Increased Absorption

You should let your skin dry completely after washing it and before applying tretinoin. Wet skin increases absorption and flaking.

Waiting 10 to 30 minutes after washing will keep your skin from absorbing too much product. This should cut down on irritation.

Avoid Sensitive Areas

Tretinoin should not be applied around the eyes, mouth, nasal creases, and mucous membranes. Protect these areas with occlusive such as Vaseline* before using tretinoin.

Take it Slowly

Don’t rush into it; go slow. I’ve been on my retinol for a while, but I still apply it only every other night. Skincare is a marathon, not a race.

You need the teeniest amount, too—a pea-size dab is fine.

Start with a lower percentage formulation: 0.025% or 0.04%. 0.05% is pretty high at first. 0.1% is VERY high. The Retin-A Micro Gel formulation is generally less irritating.

You might want to ease into your tretinoin application to prevent excess peeling and keep yourself from looking like a monster. You can play around with the frequency of application, maybe every other night, or every third night, until your skin can tolerate it without too much irritation.

Don’t use it nightly. Your skin needs time to get used to it, so don’t go crazy and slather it on each night. To build tolerance, apply once every two-three days in the beginning. Use the other nights to add plenty of hydration and moisturization.


There are several methods of applying tretinoin to reduce irritation.

Applying moisturizer before tretinoin is called “buffering.” It slightly dilutes tretinoin and can be ideal for a beginner to get through the retinization phase.

Applying moisturizer both before and after is called “sandwiching.” This is a good strategy during retinization or to avoid/deal with dryness and peeling.


A tretinoin routine works best when it combines hydrating, moisturizing, and occlusive. So many of you are struggling because you slap some moisturizer on a dehydrated face. It would be best if you had the hydration aspect as well.

Moisturize Intensly

Moisturizing is vital when the skin is flaking from tretinoin use. Seo Yeon Lee for Garden of Muses

I use Real Barrier Extreme Cream when my skin feels flaky and irritated. I like to slather it on and let it absorb into my skin.

Strengthening your skin barrier is crucial. For that, an appropriate moisturizer is vital. Using a moisturizer improves tretinoin outcomes 1-4, especially with niacinamide 6.


Slugging is applying a thin layer of petroleum jelly over your entire face. It locks in the moisture from your routine, helping it soak in better and helping your skin to retain moisture.

Vaseline, Aquaphor, CeraVe Healing Ointment, or La Roche Posay Cicaplast Baume* are good examples that can be used on “off” nights to help prevent dryness. Gently pat on a skinny layer.

Don’t slug over tretinoin. In some cases, slugging over tretinoin can do more harm than good. It can cause an increase in irritation instead of alleviating it. Slugging over actives increases their absorption rate and can also increase irritation.

How to Treat Peeling Skin from Tretinoin

Remove Excess Skin

If you do get flaky, be careful with how you treat it. Mechanical exfoliation could damage your skin in its vulnerable state. Try gently washing your skin with your hands in the morning to slough off the flakes.

Don’t force the skin off because that may lead to increased irritation. Whatever you do, don’t pull on the skin flakes.

Purito Konjac Sponge*Affiliate links below.

If the peeling is severe, take a gentle cloth or Konjac sponge* and lightly brush the skin when washing to help lift some of it.

Some good options: a konjac sponge or a gentle exfoliating powder. I have this same one from Amazon*, and it’s my ride-or-die in emergency flaking situations. Use sparingly (I did a quick scrub once a week) and gently slough flakes away without irritating your sensitized skin.

Don’t do a full-on exfoliation if your skin isn’t fully adjusted to tretinoin. It could lead to damaging your skin’s moisture barrier.

Beauty of Joseon Ginseng Cleansing Oil
Mia Peterson for Garden Of Muses. *Affiliate links below.

Another way to gently remove the excess skin is oil cleansing. Get an emulsifying oil cleanser that will wash off easily. I love the Beauty Of Joseon Ginseng Cleansing Oil. It is gentle and doesn’t further strip or dry the skin.

Hydrate Dry Tretinoin Skin

The best way to treat dry skin from tretinoin is to add layer after layer of hydration. Layer them from thinnest to thickest – this is the moment to go wild with your hydrating products.

Thank You Farmer True Water Deep Serum EX
Thank You Farmer True Water Deep Serum EX by Adela Wong for Garden of Muses.*Affiliate links below.

Thank You Farmer True Water Deep Serum EX is a highly hydrating serum with an exciting composition. It feels like snail mucin stretching on the skin, even though it does not contain snail mucin.

When applied to the skin, it becomes watery and brings hydration, which also helps lock onto the face well. This serum absorbs well into the skin, making it suitable for those who don’t like greasy serums or don’t want them to leave a sticky feeling on the skin. Please read Adela’s Thank You Farmer True Water Deep Serum EX review.

Follow up with a moisturizer and sunscreen to protect your skin.

Avoid Makeup

Makeup can increase your flakes’ appearance. A hydrating tinted sunscreen would be much more advisable.

Should I Keep Using Tretinoin If My Face Is Peeling?

It’s crucial to remember that tretinoin skin peeling is an average effect of tretinoin and is not very concerning. It is not a reason to quit tretinoin. If it becomes too much, follow the steps described above.

Lastly, before concluding that tretinoin is not suitable for you, you should:

  1. Consult with your doctor or provider first.
  2. Consider skipping a night of tretinoin if you have lots of flaking.
  3. Switch formulations. Some people experience breakouts triggered by a particular formulation. If you’re still breaking out after 4-6 months, consider switching types (gel → cream, cream → gel).
  4. Is your routine too irritating? Cut out ALL other actives and focus on hydration.
  5. Are you using it too infrequently? If so, the skin must undergo the retinization process each time. That inherently involves some irritation. If you go too slow, your skin may never acclimate. Try increasing your frequency to at least four times a week.
  6. Hydrate. Hydrate. Hydrate.
  7. Moisturize. Moisturize. Moisturize.

How Long Does Tretinoin Peeling Last?

tretinoin extremely dry skin peeling

Typically, skin peeling stops after two to six weeks of treatment as your body replaces the old skin with new, fresh skin cells and your skin acclimates.

No Peeling with Tretinoin?

People who started tretinoin weeks or months ago and have not experienced peeling or redness may wonder if tretinoin is even working.

Peeling, redness, and irritation are undesirable side effects during retinization, but they are neither signs of efficacy nor predictors of long-time results. Every skin is unique and if you can use tretinoin without any side effects from the beginning, consider yourself lucky.

Also, there is no relationship between the degrees of efficacy and the degree of irritation [7].

Bottom line: Don’t worry if you are not getting irritation from tretinoin at the start of treatment – it doesn’t mean it’s not working.

Example Tretinoin Routine

This simple routine may be used, in the beginning, to avoid skin flaking on tretinoin:


  1. Pyunkang Yul Low PH Pore Deep Cleansing Foam (optional)
  2. Round Lab Mugwort Calming Toner
  3. Holika Holika Good Cera Super Ceramide Cream
  4. Lanolips lip balm (optional)
  5. Cosrx Vitamin E Vitalizing Sunscreen


  1. Beauty Of Joseon Ginseng Cleansing Oil
  2. Pyunkang Yul Low PH Pore Deep Cleansing Foam
  3. Round Lab Mugwort Calming Toner
  4. Benton Snail Bee High Content Steam Cream
  5. Tretinoin
  6. Illiyoon Ceramide Ato Concentrate Cream
  7. Lanolips lip balm* (optional)

(*affiliate links)

Final Thoughts

Stick it out, and you’ll have #glowingskin in no time.

As always, you do you, be kind to your skin and yourself!
Remember that every person’s skin and skin type is different, so what might work for me might not work for you, and vice versa.
So before adding a new product to your skincare routine, it pays to do a little research first. Pay special attention to ingredients that you might react to.
Doing a patch test is always a good idea. Unsure? Best to consult your dermatologist.
Happy skin experimenting, and don’t forget the sunscreen!

Show Me Proof

  • [1] Adjunctive use of a facial moisturizer SPF 30 containing ceramide precursor improves tolerability of topical tretinoin 0.05%: a randomized, investigator-blinded, split-face study. 01 Sep 2012, 11(9):1104-1107
  • [2]Moisturizer improves tolerability for tazarotene and does not negatively impact efficacy. Tanghetti, Emil, et al. Poster presented at 32nd Annual Hawaii Dermatology Seminar. 2008.
  • [3] The Role of Skin Care as an Integral Component in the Management of Acne Vulgaris: Part 1: The Importance of Cleanser and Moisturizer Ingredients, Design, and Product Selection. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2013 Dec; 6(12): 19–27.
  • [4]The Role of Skin Care as an Integral Component in the Management of Acne Vulgaris: Part 2: Tolerability and Performance of a Designated Skin Care Regimen Using a Foam Wash and Moisturizer SPF 30 in Patients with Acne Vulgaris Undergoing Active Treatment. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2013 Dec; 6(12): 28–36.
  • [5]Schorr ES1, Sidou F, Kerrouche N. (2012) Adjunctive use of a facial moisturizer SPF 30 containing ceramide precursor improves tolerability of topical tretinoin 0.05%: a randomized, investigator-blinded, split-face study. Journal of Drugs in Dermatology : JDD, 01 Sep 2012, 11(9):1104-1107
  • [6] Draelos, Zoe Diana (2008) Clinical Situations Conducive to Proactive Skin Health and Anti-Aging Improvement. Journal of Investigative Dermatology Symposium Proceedings. Vol. 13. No. 1. Elsevier, 2008.
  • [7] Griffiths CEM, Kang S, Ellis CN, et al. Two Concentrations of Topical Tretinoin (Retinoic Acid) Cause Similar Improvement of Photoaging but Different Degrees of IrritationA Double-blind, Vehicle-Controlled Comparison of 0.1% and 0.025% Tretinoin CreamsArch Dermatol. 1995;131(9):1037–1044. doi:10.1001/archderm.1995.01690210067011

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