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What you may not realize, though, is that these ingredients don’t work in exactly the same way.
Glycolic acid acts on the surface to help exfoliate skin. Retinol, on the other hand, works on a deeper level to help improve your skin’s look and feel.
If you’ve heard you shouldn’t combine these two ingredients, we’ve got some good news for you: You don’t, in fact, have to choose between them. You can incorporate both into your skin care routine to enjoy the best of both worlds, so to speak.
Here’s everything you need to know about taking advantage of these skin care powerhouses.
Glycolic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) derived from sugar cane. You’ll find it in a wide range of products, from cleansers and masks to peels and serums.
As a chemical exfoliant, glycolic acid helps rejuvenate the skin and even out skin tone, explains board certified dermatologist Dr. Anna Chacon.
It does this by dissolving the “glue” between skin cells, which makes it easier to remove dead skin from the top layer.
Along with revealing the fresher skin that lies underneath, this acid also enables other products to penetrate the skin more easily. As a result, it can have some benefit if you’re looking to treat acne and hyperpigmentation.
How to use
Over-the-counter products typically contain lower percentages of glycolic acid, generally onlyup to 30 percent. Your dermatologist may use a much higher strength in an in-office chemical peel.
Different types of products come with different recommendations for use, but these general guidelines can help:
- You can generally use face washes with lower percentages of glycolic acid every day.
- You can use more active serums once or twice a week.
- If your skin seems to tolerate the ingredients well and you’d like to see more results, try slowly increasing your use to three times a week or every other day.
Retinol is a topical treatment derived from vitamin A.
Since retinol isn’t quite as strong as other retinoids, you won’t need a prescription to purchase it, and you’ll find it in many over-the-counter products.
“Retinol stimulates new collagen production and is often used to help skin turnover,” Chacon explains.
As these particular benefits can help reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles and improve skin discoloration, retinol may offer more in the way of aging support than glycolic acid.
It can also unclog pores, which could help prevent acne breakouts.
How to use
Retinol can have a drying effect on your skin, so you’ll typically want to start using retinol products slowly. These guidelines can help:
- Begin using retinol once or twice a week.
- Cleanse skin before applying retinol, and follow up with a good moisturizer.
- Gradually increase use to every other day, provided your skin seems to tolerate it well and you don’t experience any adverse effects.
- Consider using retinol products at night, since they can make your skin more sensitive to ultraviolet light for the first few months of use.
- Make sure to apply sunscreen every day.
Retinol and glycolic acid have some similar skin care benefits. Both products can, for example, help treat acne and offer aging support.
If you have to choose between the two, the ideal product can depend on what want to achieve.
Chacon notes that “it’s good to have a little bit of both in your routine,” where possible.
She explains that she uses retinol at night to help with both acne and skin rejuvenation. As for glycolic acid, she prefers it in cleansers and chemical peels for a periodic skin brightening effect.
In the past, you might have been cautioned against using both glycolic acid and retinol in your skin care routine.
This advice stems from the myth that glycolic acid, or any other alpha or beta hydroxy acid, affected retinol’s ability to work.
Still, while the two ingredients may complement each other in some cases, you generally won’t want to mix them directly — that could, quite literally, be a recipe for irritation. Instead, aim to use them at different times of the day, or even on different days.
“I generally don’t use both at the same time,” says Chacon. “I tend to combine retinol in my night serum, and use glycolic acid in my daytime routine as a cleanser or as a body lotion.”
How to use both
These tips can help you safely use both ingredients in your skin care routine:
- Introduce retinol slowly. Aim for once weekly to make sure your skin can tolerate it.
- Gradually increase use to a few times a week, or every other day.
- Add in glycolic acid on a day you don’t use retinol.
- Gradually increase use of glycolic acid to every other day, if needed.
If your skin can tolerate both ingredients with no dryness or irritation, you can eventually begin using one in the morning and one in the evening.
Just take care to avoid applying any products containing active ingredients, like vitamin C, directly after using glycolic acid.
You’ll also want to avoid using other AHAs with glycolic acid, since mixing them can cause a reaction.
If you have dry or sensitive skin, or any other skin care concerns, you may want to connect with a dermatologist before adding any new products to your routine.
Both of these ingredients could potentially cause some side effects.
Some of these effects, like acne breakouts and swelling after retinol use, are fairly rare. Others, like sun sensitivity, happen more commonly.
Most people can tolerate glycolic acid, but experts recommend avoiding retinol and other topical retinoids if you’re pregnant or nursing.
You may want to talk to your dermatologist or other healthcare provider before trying either ingredient if you have rosacea or other skin sensitivities.
A few other risks to keep in mind:
Both retinol and glycolic acid can make your skin more sensitive to the sun.
Wearing sunscreen daily (and reapplying as needed) can help reduce the risk of sunburn and sun damage.
Peeling and flaking
Again, both of the ingredients can cause peeling and flaking skin. That’s why you’ll want to proceed with caution if you have dry or sensitive skin.
This effect may only last temporarily. Still, if you start to notice some flaking, it may be worth cutting back on your applications, trying a weaker product, or stopping use completely.
A dermatologist can point you down the best path for your skin type.
Using too many rejuvenation products or exfoliants can irritate the skin, Chacon explains.
You might notice this irritation as redness, burning, or skin that feels tight and uncomfortable.
When your skin can’t tolerate a skin care ingredient, you’ll generally start to notice some irritation and itchiness.
If you notice itchiness when using glycolic acid or retinol, it’s wise to stop using the products and check with your dermatologist or doctor before trying them again.
If you have a darker skin tone, you may find that glycolic acid leaves dark marks on your skin.
To help reduce the risk of hyperpigmentation:
- Choose only products containing lower concentrations of glycolic acid.
- Avoid doubling up on glycolic acid products.
- Use sunscreen and moisturizer regularly.
- Avoid exfoliating or scrubbing your face after using glycolic acid.
Looking for just the right product?
Chacon recommends reading product reviews and checking the ingredients list to make sure you don’t have any allergies or sensitivities to anything in the product.
“I also recommend starting out with the lowest strength to avoid any potential irritation or negative reactions,” Chacon notes.
A few options:
If you’re a newbie to either ingredient or have somewhat sensitive skin, you’ll probably want to skip products with multiple active ingredients, like other acids or vitamin C.
Both glycolic acid and retinol have skin-rejuvenating effects, so either ingredient could offer just the boost you’re seeking for your skin care routine.
Just take care not to overdo it. While you can use the two on alternating days or even at different times on the same day, aim to start slow, and always seek medical advice for any adverse reactions.
If you experience any discomfort, or your skin concerns don’t seem to improve, connecting with a dermatologist is a good next step.
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.