Today we’re talking all about the best serum to use with tretinoin in this unsponsored roundup. All opinions are my own (and I have personally tried each of the products recommended unless noted). This post may contain affiliate links.
Let’s Talk Serums!
Are you looking for the best serum to use with tretinoin? In this post we’ll cover:
- reasons you’d want to pair a serum with tretinoin
- skincare ingredients to look for (and those to avoid)
- my top recs + favorite serums to use with tretinoin
My experience with Tretinoin
I started using Tretinoin, a topical retinoid, back in 2020. When the pandemic hit, I found myself going weeks on end without any makeup. This was helpful for my skin, yes, but it also meant I started noticing more what my bare skin looked like. I started reading more about the effects of photoaging and … ordered my first bottle of Tretinoin, a prescription retinoid.
Since then I’ve used it on and off. I got pregnant and took a break. I have also forgotten to bring it on extended trips for 2+ weeks. You can see a big difference in my skin when I am not using Tretinoin regularly. My skin breaks out more when I am not using it and I have more dark spots.
I have mildly sensitive skin and finding the right balance with Tretinoin has been a struggle. If I use it too little, I don’t see any benefits. If I use it too much, my rosacea flares up and I get very dry skin. My skin gets very red, very sensitive, and very dry. Throw in a cold winter trip and I’m toast (very flaky, sensitive, dry toast).
In addition to using Tretinoin on a 3-4 times a week schedule, SERUMS and MOISTURIZERS have been my best friend. This is ESPECIALLY true during the adjustment period when I start using Tretinoin again after a break (ie: pregnancy or even a long trip when I forget to bring it).
Can I use Serums with Tretinoin?
Absolutely! Serums are a great way to increase the benefits of tretinoin and to balance out the side effects. Depending on what your goals are and the type of skin you have, there are lots of great serums to use in conjunction with tretinoin cream.
Ingredients to look for when choosing a serum to use with Tretinoin:
Which serum you pick to use with Tretinoin in your skincare routine is going to depend on what your goals are. I’ve narrowed it down to two different categories:
Ingredients to support the benefits of Tretinoin (make your tretinoin even more effective):
- Vitamin C: Retinoids like tretinoin and vitamin C work well together as they both promote collagen production and enhance each other’s effect. Vitamin C is generally less of an irritant so these can often be applied in combination.
- Azelaic Acid: This chemical exfoliator unblocks pores which facilitates cellular turnover and targets/eliminates acne-causing bacteria. This is a less potent ingredient than tretinoin that can still improve acne, hyper pigmentation, improving texture and brightening skin. It is derm approved to be used together (see this interview).
Serum Ingredients to help combat the irritation that can come with tretinoin
Using these ingredients is especially helpful if you’re having redness or sensitivity (whether you are just getting started or not).
- Hyaluronic Acid: Hyaluronic acid is like a moisture magnet. It can hold onto a lot of water, making your skin look plump and hydrated. It’s a natural substance found in your skin that’s really good at keeping things moisturized.
- Glycerin: Glycerin is like a drink of water for your skin. It attracts moisture from the air and locks it into your skin, making it soft and smooth. It’s like a protective shield that keeps your skin from getting dry.
- Ceramides: Ceramides are like the bodyguards of your skin. They’re part of the skin’s defense system, sealing the protective barrier to keep water in and bad stuff out.
- Polyglutamic Acid: Think of this as a cozy blanket for your skin. It forms a gentle, thin layer that holds onto water, so your skin stays moisturized. It’s like having a shield against dry air.
- Jojoba Oil: Jojoba oil is a bit like the natural oils your skin makes. It sinks in nicely and helps balance out how much oil your skin produces.
- Argan Oil: Argan oil is like a treat for your skin. It’s packed with good stuff like fatty acids and vitamins that make your skin feel soft and happy. Consider it a nourishing snack for your skin.
- Squalene: It’s really good at sinking into your skin and locking in moisture. It’s like a shield that fights off dryness.
- Calendula: Known for soothing irritation and redness, consider it a gentle hug for your skin.
- Niacinamide: Niacinamide is like a multitasker for your skin. It helps repair your skin’s DNA and reduces redness. It also helps make your skin stronger and more bouncy by boosting collagen and ceramides.
- Vitamin E: Vitamin E is like a bodyguard for your skin cells. It’s great at protecting your skin from damage and it also helps to lock in moisture. It’s like a shield that keeps your skin safe and hydrated.
ingredients at a glance:
- Vitamin C
- Azaelic Acid
- Hyaluronic Acid:
- Polyglutamic Acid:
- Jojoba Oil:
- Argan Oil:
- Vitamin E:
Serum Ingredients to avoid while using Tretinoin:
Everyone’s level of tolerance to active ingredients is different but more sensitive skin types should be mindful when it comes to combining tretinoin with AHAs and BHAs. As a general rule, exfoliating acids can trigger extreme dryness when combined with tretinoin. Azelaic Acid seems to be the exception to this and has been recommended by some dermatologists for use with Tretinoin.
Unless you’ve talked to your dermatologist, you should also avoid using salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide while using tretinoin.
Best Serums to use with Tretinoin:
Here are the best serums to use in combination with Tretinoin that are under $100. I haven’t ventured into skincare above that price point (but if I did I would buy the Cle De Peau serum and this Dr. Barbara Sturm night moisturizer to go with tretinioin).
Best Hyaluronic Acid Serum
1. Dime Beauty Hyaluronic Acid Serum
I have been using this one for 4 months and love it (besides the perfumes, it is my very favorite product from Dime Beauty). This is the brand’s flagship product for a reason. The viscosity is such that it isn’t too thin (it doesn’t drain through your fingers and drip everywhere and run down your face before you can rub it in). It also isn’t too thick that it doesn’t absorb easily. This leaves my skin feeling full, hydrated, and happy. You’ll love it and it is perfect for daily use with tretinoin.
Key Ingredients: Hyaluronic Acid
Favorite Acne Fighting Serum
1. Hey Honey Be Clear Serum
If you’re using a retinoid to help clear up acne, this one is a great addition to your routine. This oil-free formula is made from bee propolis that helps clarify, balance and restore. It is hydrating and gentle on skin and uses the anti-microbial properties of honey to help combat pesky acne. I love how this one feels going onto my face and can easily be layered under makeup in the morning or after your retinoid at night.
Key Ingredients: Bee Propolis, Oat Beta-Glucan, Honey
Best Budget Serum
1. The Ordinary Niacinamide Serum
The Ordinary skincare brand wins for solid formulations at budget prices. This niacinamide serum is very soothing and hydrating, perfect if you have any skin irritation after starting tretinoin. This one reinforces your skin barrier (which can be compromised in the ramp-up process for tretinoin) over time. It will feel nice and hydrating day one but you’ll see the more important benefits over a few weeks. You can purchase online or in-store at Ulta.
Key Ingredients: Niacinaminde, Zinc
Budget Serum Runner-Up: The Ordinary 100% Plant Based Squalene
1. The Ordinary Squalane Serum
This plant-derived squalene serum is very hydrating. It is thicker than the other serums and takes a second to absorb but to get anything else close to this from another brand you’ll pay double. I also really like the Hyaluronic Acid from The Ordinary (just not quite as much as the others on this list).
Key Ingredients: Hyaluronic Acid
Another Super Hydrating Option
Farmacy Filling Good Hyaluronic Acid Serum
Another fantastic hyaluronic acid choice, this serum plumps and fills your skin. It is ultra-moisturizing and a great thickness. Plus, that bottle will look gorgeous on your counter 😉
Key Ingredients: Hyaluronic Acid
Best Multi-purpose Serum
Dime Beauty Blue Facial Oil
I’ve only been using this one for a few weeks and I LOVE it. This is your all-in-one serum solution. The three powerhouse oil ingredients nursing and hydrate, leaving your skin feeling soft and full. It also helps fight damage from free radicals, fills in fine lines and wrinkles, and has anti-inflammatory properties (so it helps fight redness and and sensitivities from the retinoid).
Most nights I use 2-3 different serums after my retinoid but if I use this one, I only need one.
You can use code “ELISABETH” for 15% off
Key Ingredients: Blue Tansy Oil, Black Cumin Seed Oil, Rosehip Oil
Best budget Vitamin C Serum
MaeLove Vitamin C Serum
This budget-friendly serum has a cult following as a fantastic dupe for the iconic Skinceuticals c e Ferulic acid serum. If you’re not up for the $182 price tag, this serum delivers a lot of the same brightening and hydrating benefits.
*I haven’t actually used this one yet but once I’m out of my current vitamin C serum, I already have this in my cart.
Key ingredients: Vitamin C
BONUS: Best facial sunscreen to use with tretinoin
Elta MD is the #1 dermatologist-recommended skincare brand for a reason (and more dermatologists personally use this sunscreen than any other brand). I have tried a million different facial sunscreens from Dime’s Wonderscreen to Tula and this one is just better than all of them. It absorbs without a white cast and protects your skin. It goes on under my makeup just fine and I forget I even put it on. I’ve spend more money on other brands and I keep coming back to this one.
Tip: Just don’t forget to moisturize!
We covered serums in this post but don’t forget to use a thick moisturizer at night following your trentinoin and your serum. If you’re looking for the best moisturizers, this is the one I’m currently using and love.
Also, wait 1 minute between serums or moisturizers to let the previous product absorb into your skin before applying another.
Can I use a serum before tretinoin?
I mean, you can, but I wouldn’t. Best practice is applying tretinoin to clean, dry skin. This maximizes the amount of tretinoin that will be absorbed and will give you the best results. After your tretinoin has absorbed, you can apply serums.
Can I use vitamin C serum with tretinoin?
Yes, you can use a vitamin C serum with tretinoin, but it’s recommended to separate their application. Vitamin C is best applied in the morning, as it provides antioxidant protection and boosts collagen production. Tretinoin, on the other hand, is typically used at night to encourage skin cell turnover. Using them at different times reduces the risk of irritation that might occur if they’re applied together.
Should I use tretinoin before or after serum?
It’s generally advised to use tretinoin before applying a serum or moisturizer. Serums are designed to deliver specific active ingredients, like antioxidants or hydration, to your skin. Applying tretinoin before the serum ensures that the retinoid can penetrate your skin without any barriers. Dear Brightly (the Tretinoin brand I use) recommends applying it directly to freshly washed skin after you have patted it dry.
For my evening skincare routine, I wash my face with a gentle cleanser, pat it dry, and apply my tretinoin. Then I brush my teeth or go put on pajamas to give the retinoid a few minutes to sink in before applying serums or moisturizer.