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Retinoids and Winter: How to Avoid Dry, Irritated Skin

Kristin Hall

Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP

Written by Our Editorial Team

Last updated 10/02/2020

Have you noticed your skin drying out during winter? It’s common to develop dry skin in winter, especially if you live in a colder, less humid part of the world. 

From lower temperatures to heavier winds, a variety of factors all contribute to drier, itchier skin as winter starts to creep in. This can be a major annoyance if you use a retinoid such as tretinoin to help treat your acne or as an anti-aging treatment.

Used on their own, topical retinoids like tretinoin can have a mild irritating effect on your skin, especially during the first few months of treatment. Combine this with cold winter weather and the results aren’t always pretty.

Luckily, retinoids and winter can coexist. Below, we’ve explained how you can use tretinoin in winter for its acne prevention and anti-aging benefits, all while avoiding the oh-so-common dry skin that many people experience during winter. 

Why Does Winter Weather Dry Out Your Skin?

If you live in a chillier, less humid part of the world, winter weather can be a perfect storm of conditions for dry, itchy skin.

A variety of factors all contribute to dry skin during winter. The first is the decline in temperature that occurs as winter sets in. As the temperature drops, your skin can lose its natural moisture and oils, leaving you with skin that looks and feels drier than normal.

Then, there’s the wind factor. If you live in a windy area, the cold winds that occur during winter can leave you with mild wind burn — a condition that can cause your skin to become red, irritated and overly dry after you spend time outside.

Third, there’s the humidity factor. Humidity levels are usually at their lowest in winter, meaning there’s less moisture in the air to keep your skin hydrated and soft. And that can wreak havoc on your skin health.

Finally, there’s the risk of illness. From the common cold to the flu, viruses and other infections are more common during winter, meaning you may have a higher risk of developing dry skin as the result of an illness.

In short, if you have sensitive skin, winter can be tough, especially if you use skincare products such as retinoids that can contribute to dryness. Luckily, these issues are treatable using a few simple — but effective — tactics.

How to Avoid Dry Skin in Winter

While retinoids and dryness go hand in hand, it’s usually possible to continue using tretinoin in winter without experiencing any unwanted or out of the ordinary dryness, peeling or irritation. The solution is a mix of good habits for protecting your skin, as well as a variety of skin-protecting products.

Apply Tretinoin to Dry, Clean Skin

First, make sure your skin is completely dry, clean and free of any other products before you apply any topical tretinoin. This reduces the risk of tretinoin and other skincare products contributing to dryness while you sleep.

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Add a Moisturizer to Your Skincare Routine

If you get dry skin after using tretinoin, especially in winter, adding an irritant-free moisturizer to your skincare routine can be a big help.

It’s perfectly safe to use tretinoin and moisturizer together. Applying a moisturizer to your skin after using tretinoin has no negative effects on tretinoin’s effectiveness for acne prevention or anti-aging, provided you use the right kind of moisturizer and give it enough time to be absorbed by your skin. 

If you’re prone to dry skin in winter, it’s best to avoid moisturizers that contain alcohol, benzoyl peroxide, artificial fragrances and salicylic acid. While these ingredients have their benefits, all of them can contribute to dryness and skin irritation if you have sensitive skin.

Using moisturizer with tretinoin is simple. After you’ve applied the tretinoin cream to your skin, wait 20 to 30 minutes for it to soak in. After your skin has completely absorbed the tretinoin, apply the moisturizer as normal, making sure you let it soak in before sleeping. 

Switch to Every-Other-Day Application

One easy way to avoid overly dry, irritated skin from using tretinoin in winter is to switch from daily to every-other-day application. 

Using tretinoin every other day is still effective for acne prevention and anti-aging. It’s also an easy way to protect your skin. By giving your skin more “off” time, you can reduce your risk of developing dryness, irritation, peeling and other common side effects.

If you’re skin is that sensitive to tretinoin, you can talk to your healthcare provider about lowering your prescription strength of the medication, or about applying it even less frequently than every other day. 

Use a Lower-Strength Tretinoin Cream

Topical tretinoin is available in a variety of strengths, from mild 0.01 percent and 0.025 percent tretinoin creams, gels, lotions and solutions, to stronger 0.05 percent and 0.1 percent products. 

If you’re prone to dryness and skin irritation during winter, switching from your regular tretinoin product to a product with a lower concentration of tretinoin is an easy way to five your skin some relief. 

While higher-strength topical tretinoin solutions tend to work the best for acne prevention and anti-aging, studies show that lower-strength tretinoin products are still effective, all while being less likely to cause dryness, peeling and skin irritation. 

Use Sunscreen When You’re Outside

Think you don’t need sunscreen in cloudy, overcast winter weather? Think again. While clouds are effective at blocking UVB rays, they do little to block the UVA radiation that can lead to dryness and irritated, itchy skin. 

UVA and UVB rays are a little different. While UVB rays are the primary cause of sunburn and redness, UVA rays are more likely to cause deep damage to your skin. UVA rays are a major cause of skin cancer and some aesthetic signs of aging, making them best avoided. 

Because tretinoin increases your skin’s sensitivity to UV radiation, it’s important to keep using sunscreen, with an SPF of 15 or greater, during winter if you also use tretinoin to treat acne or prevent the signs of aging. It’s also best to wear a hat or other physical covers if the weather is particularly bright.

Bright and snowy outside? Since snow and ice can reflect UVA rays and worsen exposure, it’s especially important to protect yourself if you live in a snowy, icey area. 

Not sure which sunscreen to use? Our guide to sun exposure goes into more detail on the best ways to protect yourself from UV radiation while using tretinoin. 

Protect Yourself With Lip Balm

Finally, it’s important to keep your lips protected during winter. While moisturizer can do a great job at protecting your skin, cold temperatures and heavy winds can easily take their toll on your lips, causing them to become chapped, cracked and uncomfortable.

If you get dry lips in winter, try applying an irritant-free lip balm before you use tretinoin. This not only helps your lips stay hydrated, but the oils in the lip balm also reduce the risk of accidentally getting tretinoin on your lips. 

When you’re out and about, keep a tube of lip balm available at all times. If you notice your lips getting dry, tingly or irritated, apply it as needed to keep them hydrated and fully protected from the wind, cold and sunlight. 

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Learn More About Tretinoin

From treating and preventing acne to reducing the signs of aging, tretinoin is a highly effective medication that has a range of benefits.

Our guides to using tretinoin to treat hormonal acne, cystic acne and facial aging go into more detail on how tretinoin works, as well as how you can use it to improve your skin, appearance and self-confidence. 

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment. Learn more about our editorial standards here.