Skincare, Acne, Anti-aging, Skin school

Does Tretinoin damage the skin barrier?

tretinoin skin barrier
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When starting tretinoin, the irritation that occurs during the early phases of retinization could be discouraging.
Moreover, if you are too eager to get that tret glow immediately, you might feel encouraged to start too fast or with a too strong potency medication. That could lead to the disruption of your protective skin moisture layer or even damage your skin barrier.

A healthy skin barrier that functions optimally is essential for good skin health. The continuous use of prescription retinoids significantly disrupts the function of the outer skin barrier.
The barrier disruption resulting in the penetration of external elements and skin-caring ingredients triggers a destructive cycle of chronic inflammation and further damage the barrier.

Topical tretinoin compromises the stratum corneum barrier leading to irritation3. Tretinoin users can detect skin barrier function abnormalities several months after stopping prescription retinoids.

Can tretinoin damage the skin barrier?

Put it shortly; yes, it can if you don’t use it properly.

tretinoin skin barrier damage

First, you need to read the rest of our tretinoin articles.

How to protect the skin barrier while using tretinoin

hydration to repair skin barrier damage on tretinoin

Use tretinoin with a calming, protective routine, and rest assured you won’t damage your skin’s protective barrier.

Thin, sensitive, and reactive skin should build up tretinoin use gradually, while thick, oily skin can typically handle more. Your skin can tolerate more in warm, humid months and less in the winter when the skin is dry and more easily irritated.

Are you a skin nerd? Read our new, science-backed, 101 Guide on Houttuynia Cordata aka Heartleaf!

Signs tretinoin damaged your skin barrier

  1. Redness
  2. Shiny skin
  3. Dryness
  4. Irritation to the point that even water stings.

How to fix damaged barrier on tretinoin

Ease up on tretinoin

First and foremost, if tretinoin is the culprit for your damaged skin barrier, you should pause it until you repair it and the symptoms subside.

Ditch all other actives too.


Stick to a simple but hydrating & moisturizing routine based. Think non-stripping cleanser, hydrating & calming toner, moisturizer, and SPF.

Do not try or add new skincare products or ingredients.


Study results show that improving the skin barrier before beginning tretinoin and using a barrier-enhancing moisturizer during therapy eases retinization and increases benefits2. The barrier-enhancing moisturizer used contained a mixture of vitamins: niacinamide, panthenol, and tocopheryl acetate, along with other moisturizing ingredients to enhance stratum corneum barrier function.

How to start again after damaging your skin barrier

Add niacinamide to your skincare routine before starting retinoids. The use of niacinamide has been proven to improve the skin barrier before beginning tretinoin1.

Start slowly by using tretinoin once every two or three days to build up tolerance.

Start with a low strength, such as 0.025.

Sandwich the tretinoin between moisturizers. Use a light moisturizer before the tretinoin and a richer, more occlusive one after. Follow our complete guide to buffering on tretinoin.

Best products to fixing skin barrier damage

Best moisturizers

real barrier extreme cream review 1
  1. Real Barrier Extreme Cream
  2. Illiyoon Ceramide Ato Concentrate Cream
  3. Holika Holika Good Cera Super Ceramide Cream


  1. Draelos ZD, Ertel KD, Berge CA. Facilitating facial retinization through barrier improvement. Cutis. 2006 Oct;78(4):275-81. PMID: 17121065.
  2. Lebwohl M, Herrmann LG. Impaired skin barrier function in dermatologic disease and repair with moisturization. Cutis. 2005 Dec;76(6 Suppl):7-12. PMID: 16869176.
  3. Effendy I, Kwangsukstith C, Lee JY, Maibach HI. Functional changes in human stratum corneum induced by topical glycolic acid: comparison with all-trans retinoic acid. Acta Derm Venereol. 1995 Nov;75(6):455-8. doi: 10.2340/0001555575455458. PMID: 8651024.

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