For acne sufferers who haven’t seen results from over-the-counter or prescription topicals, the vitamin A derivative isotretinoin (commonly known by the brand name Accutane) is pretty much a miracle drug. According to Yunyoung Claire Chang, a dermatologist at Union Square Laser Dermatology, taking the medication — which is usually administered over the course of several months — “leads to reduction in oil production and shrinking of the oil glands.” Many patients find that their acne never returns.
But because it’s so powerful, it comes with some unpleasant side effects. There’s the potential to cause severe birth defects and changes in cholesterol and liver enzymes (which is why it’s important to not get pregnant while on the medication and to have your doctor perform regular blood tests), and Accutane can also be extremely drying — which is often a new problem for acne patients. “Many products that patients may be using already to treat acne can further irritate the skin,” says Chang. “I recommend discontinuing products that include drying or irritating ingredients, including benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, glycolic acid, and retinoids.”
Since those ingredients probably make up most of the typical acne patient’s skin-care arsenal, going on Accutane requires a total routine revamp. We asked Chang and six more dermatologists and skincare experts what products Accutane users should stock up on.
Best overall product for Accutane users
According to Chang, more than 90 percent of Accutane users experience chapped lips, so if you add one thing to your routine while on the medication, make it a soothing balm that treats painful dryness and cracking. A cult favorite among Accutane users, Aquaphor — an occlusive that locks in moisture — is your best bet, with raves from Chang, Jenny Liu — a board-certified dermatologist who blogs at DermTalk — and dermatologist Cybele Fishman. It’s also the “go-to” balm for dermatologist David Colbert, founder and head physician of New York Dermatology Group, who calls it “a simple and very effective product,” as well as dermatologist Natalie Moulton-Levy who appreciates that it’s a “a thick emollient” that’s very hydrating. It’s rich in moisturizers like cosmetic-grade petroleum jelly, glycerin, and shea butter.
Best cleansers for Accutane users
All of the dermatologists we spoke with advise Accutane users to steer clear of harsh and drying cleansers that strip the skin of its natural oils. To prevent further irritating dry skin, Chang says to “look for cleansers that are fragrance-free and hypoallergenic.” She likes that CeraVe’s cleanser “contains ceramides and hyaluronic acid to add moisture to the skin.” Liu, who also recommends the CeraVe cleanser, explains that ceramides are important as they’re “natural lipids often missing in dry skin.” Plus, she likes that it’s fragrance-free and contains minimal preservatives so it’s gentle enough for sensitive skin.
For those who wear makeup while on Accutane, Nicki Zevola Benvenuti, founder of FutureDerm, likes these gentle wipes that don’t require rinsing and actually impart moisture on the skin. “Now is not the time for a deep cleanse,” she says, “now’s the time to retain and restore as much moisture as you can.”
Best facial moisturizers for Accutane users
Recommended by Chang, Liu, and Moulton-Levy, CeraVe’s moisturizer is another solid pick that, like the cleanser, helps replenish ceramides in dry skin. As Chang says, “It is important to be religious with moisturizer use while on isotretinoin, reapplying multiple times per day,” and she notes that the CeraVe cream includes other hydrating ingredients like hyaluronic acid and glycerin.
On the higher end of moisturizers, Chang recommends this SkinCeuticals cream because it’s “extremely moisturizing while not being too heavy on the skin.” Along with ceramides, antioxidants and vitamin E work to replenish the skin and prevent environmental damage. It’s also one of Benvenuti’s favorites. “It has cholesterol and fatty acids,” she says, “and it can really help hydrate dry skin on multiple levels.” Along with drying out the oils on your skin, she explains, Accutane slows down the production of new oils, which is why patients need these supplemental lipids.
For a lightweight, budget-friendly moisturizer, dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, director of cosmetic and clinical research in the department of dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital, suggests this gel-based Neutrogena cream, which he says “uses hyaluronic acid to deliver higher levels of hydration without weighing down facial skin.”
Best body wash for Accutane users
Since Accutane dries out skin all over the body, Zeichner suggests using Dove’s moisturizing body wash, as “it contains ultra-hydrating ingredients to moisturize the skin while you wash.” And as good as a long, hot shower might feel in the moment, Chang suggests “limiting showers to five to ten minutes and using lukewarm water,” as hot water can further dry out the skin. Liu adds that Dove’s bar soap is also good for sensitive skin if you prefer bars to liquids.
Best body moisturizers for Accutane users
“The best time to apply moisturizers is within three minutes of showering, when your skin absorbs the moisture the best,” says Chang. So after your brief, not-too-steamy shower, reach for hydrating creams like this one, which she calls a “rich, fragrance-free and noncomedogenic cream to help repair dry skin while on Accutane.” The key ingredient is colloidal oatmeal, which several of our experts consider an all-star for replenishing moisture. Zeichner and Benvenuti agree that Aveeno’s colloidal oatmeal is very soothing, and this cream pairs it with shea butter and ceramides for added hydration.
Because it’s made specifically for sensitive skin, Liu loves Vanicream as an allover “heavy-duty moisturizer suitable for face and body.” The giant tub will last you a while, so feel free to spread it on thick. Fishman, who is also a fan of the brand’s cleanser, likes that their products are formulated without “fragrance, parabens, or formaldehyde releasers,” which can be irritating.
Best lip treatments for Accutane users
Dr. Fishman likes this “safe-to-eat” option from Tata Harper — many of her patients, she says, are lip-lickers, and are concerned about accidentally ingesting whatever they’re using on their mouths. Beyond the natural ingredients, the stuff also “feels great on the lips,” she says, and contains antioxidants like green tea and acai, along with cocoa butter, an emollient, which helps to lock moisture in.
Fishman also likes this cult-favorite, K-beauty lip treatment, which she says is great for preventing water loss in the lips overnight. It’s one of Sephora’s best reviewed products to date, with over 6,000 glowing five-star reviews, and both Cut writer Kathleen Hou and Strategist writer Rio Vera-Newton are addicted to it: “This lip treatment helps get rid of dry and rough skin by the morning when you apply it before bed,” says Viera-Newton. It contains hyaluronic acid, which is deeply hydrating, and apparently works especially well when it comes to “fighting the drying effects of heating and air conditioning,” Fishman says. Although the OG flavor, aptly named “original,” is currently out of stock, you can still snag vanilla and apple lime.
For very dry and irritated lips, Moulton-Levy recommends this medicated lip balm. She says, “it has a small amount of hydrocortisone in it and is very helpful with dryness.” Often found in medications that treat eczema and rashes, hydrocortisone is especially effective at reducing the pain and itchiness that comes with chapped lips. Strategist beauty writer Rio Viera-Newton is also a fan. She writes, “For winter days when it feels like my lips are about to fall off of my face, this is my go-to.”
Best sunscreen for Accutane users
“Accutane makes you extremely sensitive to the sun, so a broad-spectrum, high SPF sunscreen is a must,” says Zeichner. We’ve heard dermatologists rave about EltaMD sunscreen in the past, so it wasn’t surprising to hear that Chang says this is her “favorite sunscreen for Accutane patients because it is a 100 percent physical sunscreen that provides broad-spectrum UV coverage and also contains hyaluronic acid to improve hydration in the skin.” Compared to chemical sunscreens, physical ones are more gentle on sensitive skin.
If you’re already using the EltaMD UV Clear sunscreen (one of our favorite overall sunscreens), Moulton-Levy says it’s fine for Accutane patients since “it has ingredients which help acne-prone skin,” while providing sun protection. Additionally, Fishman says, “It has zinc, which blocks UVA and UVB, and niacinamide which helps quell the redness you sometimes see with Accutane.”
Liu recommended Cerave Tinted Mineral Sunscreen for Accutane patients, specifically patients of color: “Tinted sunscreen is important, especially for patients of color, as ultraviolet and visible rays will prolong discoloration, which is often a concern in acne patients,” she says. Zinc oxide gives sunscreens their tint, and protects the skin from UV and visible light, which can trigger hyperpigmentation, especially in skin of color. It’s also hydrating and nonirritating, Liu notes, thanks to ingredients like niacinamide and ceramides, which help to maintain the skin’s natural barrier.