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Glycolic, lactic, citric, and malic acids —all of these belong to the family of alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs).

These acids act as chemical exfoliants, dissolving the bonds keeping dead cells on your skin’s surface, explains NYC board certified dermatologist Dr. Hadley King.

This encourages your skin to shed those cells, leaving smooth, healthy skin underneath.

AHAs also work as humectants, adds Dr. Orit Markowitz, an NYC board certified dermatologist and founder of OptiSkin. In other words, they help draw moisture into the skin to keep it hydrated.

Retinol, on the other hand, belongs to the family of vitamin A derivatives known as retinoids. Retinoids promote skin cell turnover and help prevent keratin debris from clumping up with skin cells to clog pores, King explains.

And that’s not all. Retinoids can also:

  • boost collagen production for healthier skin
  • decrease discoloration left behind by pimples
  • cut the healing time for acne

Yet, while retinol’s effects extend deeper into your skin, AHAs only work on the top layers. Combining these two ingredients, then, might seem like a great way to create an ultra-powerful skin care cocktail.

But does it really work that way? Can combining these skin care ingredients really do wonders for your skin — or cause irritation instead? Read on to find out.

Once you know what AHAs and retinol can do for your skin, it might not be a huge leap to imagine why you might want to use both in your skin care routine.

The next question is: Can you?

King explains this answer generally depends on your skin, the formulation of the products you want to combine, and any other products you use regularly.

When combining skin care ingredients, it’s always a good idea to consider what’s best for your skin’s overall health.

If you don’t have particularly sensitive skin and the formulas aren’t too irritating, King goes on to say, your skin may be able to tolerate these two ingredients.

Research from 2015 also suggests that combining retinol and an AHA exfoliant together can be an effective combination for hyperpigmentation caused by acne.

However, experts generally advise not using the two ingredients at the exact same time, since this can lead to dryness and irritation. Instead, you might try alternating them on different days to help your skin build tolerance.

When talking about AHAs, it’s hard to ignore beta hydroxy acids (BHAs).

These are similar, King says, as they also chemically exfoliate the skin.

But water-soluble AHAs primarily act on your skin’s surface. Oil-soluble BHAs, on the other hand, can penetrate deeper into your pores.

You might have some familiarity with one of the most common BHAs, salicylic acid, especially if you have oilier skin. This BHA is known to help unclog pores and reduce breakouts.

King notes that it also has anti-inflammatory and skin-calming properties, so people with sensitive skin can often still use it.

What about using an AHA, BHA, and retinol all in the same regimen?

Again, it all depends on your skin and the formulas you’re already using, plus the ones you want to add.

According to a 2009 review, combining an AHA and BHA could lead to fuller-looking skin. Remember, though, that both are exfoliants. It’s best to avoid layering them directly on top of each other.

Instead, try using them at different times of day, on different days, or even on different parts of your face, as needed.

You can also buy products containing both ingredients. Skin care products that combine ingredients like this tend to have a lowered efficacy to create a more synergistic effect, Markowitz explains.

Adding retinol into the mix can be a little trickier. While it’s possible to use all three, you’ll want to leave enough time between applications for your skin to cope — at least a day, to be on the safe side. It’s also best to avoid using powerful strengths.

If your skin doesn’t tolerate this ingredient combination well, you’ll know pretty quickly.

Keep in mind that you’ll want to steer clear of retinol if you’re pregnant or nursing.

It never hurts to connect with a dermatologist before combining these ingredients. Dermatologists can offer personalized guidance and product recommendations based on your skin type and skin care needs, along with tips to avoid irritation or damage to your skin.

Not sure about using AHAs and retinol together? You do have a few alternatives.

Bakuchiol, for example, comes from the seeds of the babichi plant. This plant-based ingredient offers similar benefits to retinol.

Research from 2019 suggested bakuchiol is just as effective, with the added bonus of it being less likely to cause negative side effects.

As for what to use instead of AHA?

King recommends polyhydroxy acids (PHAs), like gluconolactone. PHAs may be a better choice, because they have a larger molecule size, she explains. That means they don’t penetrate as deep and are less likely to be irritating or drying.

When adding any new product to your skin care routine, starting slow is always the best option.

Never used AHAs or retinol before? Start with one, just once or twice per week. If your skin seems to be coping well, you can begin adding in the other on alternating days.

Just take care to avoid using both ingredients at the same time of day, as this can easily lead to irritation. Instead, if your skin can handle both ingredients on the same day, you can try using an AHA in the morning and retinol at night, or vice versa.

But if you’d like to give them both a try in one swift sweep, King recommends the skinbetter science AlphaRet range.

These mix a retinoid with glycolic and lactic acid, which is unusual due to the potential for irritation.

King notes, though, that the brand “has done a great job formulating an effective product that is well-tolerated.”

You know your skin best.

If you have sensitive skin, you’re more likely to experience side effects. That said, anyone can experience irritation when using strong skin care products —especially when combining multiple ingredients.

To help reduce the chance of that happening, opt for products with lower concentrations and alternate them a couple of times a week.

You can also stick with one product to start. Then, if your skin’s happy, you can go from there.

Remember: While it’s important to apply sunscreen every day, protecting your skin from the sun becomes even more essential when using retinoids.

Check out our guide to the best sunscreens.

Both AHA and retinol offer plenty of skin benefits.

So, when you want to get the best of both worlds, you might consider combining the two in your regular skin care routine.

While this might not be entirely out of the question, it’s best to do so gradually, for the sake of your skin, and avoid using them at the same time of day.

Still not sure what’s right for you? A dermatologist can offer more guidance.


Lauren Sharkey is a U.K.-based journalist and author specializing in women’s issues. When she isn’t trying to discover a way to banish migraines, she can be found uncovering the answers to your lurking health questions. She has also written a book profiling young female activists across the globe and is currently building a community of such resisters. Catch her on Twitter.