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How to Use Glycolic Acid and Retinol Together

Updated: Jan 20

Glycolic acid and retinol are two skincare actives that provide varied benefits to the skin that range from anti-aging, to smooth and brighter skin. Whether both can be used together is a question I get a lot from skincare intermediates looking to improve their routine. This guide will provide insights on how to integrate both into a skincare routine safely.

How to Combine Glycolic Acid and Retinol

Habiba using a Glycolic Acid Toner from The Ordinary brand.

Understanding how to use glycolic acid and retinol starts by understanding how both function. This will not only guide you on how to use them but also evaluate if you need both to tackle your skin concern.


Glycolic acid is a chemical exfoliant that exfoliates the surface level of the skin. This activity will help get rid of skin texture, dull skin tone, and get rid of dead skin cells.


Retinol on the other hand penetrates deeper levels of the skin and speeds up the skin cell renewal process. It boosts collagen production and leads to younger, firmer, and brighter skin.


Marrying the exfoliating power of glycolic acid with the age-defying effects of retinol can enhance skin health, but it requires careful planning. The reason is, that these two molecules are very potent and have the potential to irritate the skin when not used carefully. Here’s how to add both to your routine without irritating your skin

Introduce Retinol Slowly Into Your Routine:

Starting with retinol requires a patient approach. As such, you can opt to start with products containing 0.25% to 0.5% concentrations initially. A study in the Journal of Dermatological Treatment supports this cautious start by indicating that lower concentrations reduce the initial redness and peeling that higher doses might induce.


The reason I recommend starting with retinol first is that it is the most irritating of both actives. You want your skin to get used to retinol first before introducing glycolic acid especially if you are new to skin care. For normal to dry skin and sensitive skin, use retinol 3x a week at night. For oily and combo skin use start 3x a week and build up to 4 or 5x a week. If your skin feels overly irritated, reduce frequency or stop the product completely.

Add Glycolic Acid Later On:

Once your skin has become acclimated to retinol (typically 4-6 weeks), you can introduce glycolic acid. This staggered approach ensures that your skin has sufficiently adapted, reducing the potential for irritation. For beginners, it is not advisable to use both in the same routine. However, if your skin can tolerate it, use both at night. However, do not exfoliate more than 3x a week.

Monitor Skin Results for any Irritation:

It’s paramount to be observant. Look out for excessive redness, flaking, or heightened sensitivity. Remember, combining glycolic acid and retinol in the same routine can be overtaxing on the skin, potentially causing inflammation.

Alternate their Usage Between Day and Night:

One method to mitigate potential adverse effects is by using glycolic acid in the morning and retinol at night. This ensures that each ingredient gets its time to work without interference.

Don't When Using Glycolic Acid and/or Retinol

Keeping track of all skincare actives and their interactions can be very confusing. However, it is important to remember the critical points to avoid irritating your skin when using potent ingredients like retinol and glycolic acid together:

Avoid Retinol When Pregnant or Nursing:

Retinoids, the family of vitamin A derivatives to which retinol belongs, have been associated with birth defects when taken orally. While topical applications haven’t shown the same risks, it’s always safer to consult a doctor. Source

Do Not Use Both Products at the Same Time:

For a long time, it was believed that retinol and AHAs like glycolic acid could not be paired in the same routine. It was thought AHAs reduce the effectiveness of retinol which was proven to be false. However, you should err with caution as far as these two actives are concerned due to their potency.


Directly layering glycolic acid over retinol can intensify potential irritations. Your skin might not be able to handle this double exfoliation if you are new to either of these actives. It is best to use glycolic acid in the day and retinol at night.


However for seasoned users, if your skin can tolerate both actives use a glycolic acid cleanser, and later in your routine apply your retinol.

Dos When Using Glycolic Acid and/or Retinol

Maximizing the benefits of these ingredients requires specific best practices:

Pick a Good Moisturizer:

Both retinol and glycolic acid can be dried. A hydrating moisturizer replenishes the skin’s barrier, making products like hyaluronic acid or ceramide-based creams ideal.

Use Sunscreen:

Glycolic acid and retinol increase photosensitivity. Daily SPF application protects against potential UV damage. Source

Visit a Dermatologist if You Have Sensitive Skin:

Before adding actives to your routine, consult a skincare professional. They can provide tailored advice, ensuring your skin’s health is prioritized.

Benefits of Pairing Glycolic Acid and Retinol

Using glycolic acid and retinol together in a skincare routine can offer a synergistic effect, enhancing the individual benefits of each ingredient. When used correctly, these benefits can include:

Enhanced Exfoliation:

Glycolic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) that aids in shedding dead skin cells from the skin’s surface. This exfoliating property is complemented by retinol, which promotes cell turnover from the deeper layers of the skin.

Improved Skin Texture:

The combined action of glycolic acid’s surface exfoliation and retinol’s deeper cellular turnover can help smoothen the skin, reducing rough patches and improving overall texture.

Collagen Stimulation:

Retinol is known to boost collagen production, which can reduce the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines. With the addition of glycolic acid, which also has some collagen-boosting properties, the effects can be more pronounced.

Enhanced Penetration of Products:

As glycolic acid exfoliates the surface of the skin, it can enhance the penetration of retinol and other skincare products, making them more effective.

Pore Refinement:

Both glycolic acid and retinol can help minimize the appearance of enlarged pores by exfoliating dead skin cells that can stretch pores and by promoting healthy collagen around the pores.

Hyperpigmentation Reduction:

The combined cell-turnover-promoting properties of both ingredients can help in fading dark spots, sun spots, and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation more rapidly than using each product alone.

Acne Management:

Both ingredients can contribute to clearer skin. Glycolic acid can unblock pores, while retinol can regulate sebum production and reduce the likelihood of pores becoming clogged.

Improved Skin Hydration:

Some formulations of glycolic acid are humectants, meaning they draw moisture into the skin. This can help offset the sometimes-drying effects of retinol, maintaining skin hydration.

Anti-Aging Synergy:

The combined effects of improved texture, reduced fine lines, increased collagen, and even skin tone can collectively contribute to a more youthful appearance.

Potential Side Effects When Using Glycolic Acid and Retinol Together

Using these ingredients can lead to several side effects. Awareness is crucial:

Sun Exposure:

By revealing new and brighter skin layers, glycolic and retinol increase the risk of your skin being sensitized when exposed to UV radiation. Increased susceptibility to UV rays can lead to faster skin aging and a heightened risk of skin cancers. Regular sunscreen application is non-negotiable.

Redness:

Initial use can cause inflammation. However, this often subsides as the skin adjusts. If redness persists it may be a sign that your skin is getting irritated

Peeling and Flaking:

The skin may shed more rapidly, leading to visible flaking. This is a common side effect of retinol as it speeds up the skin cell renewal cycle and causes old skin to shed faster.

Hyperpigmentation:

Again, because both actives reveal younger and brighter skin, if not protected properly your skin will be at risk of UV-induced hyperpigmentation. Without sun protection, there’s an elevated risk of developing dark spots.

Itchiness:

A tingling sensation is expected initially but should not persist. If prolonged, consult a dermatologist.

The Best Glycolic Acid Products to Buy

This all-round gentle formulation makes it perfect for glycolic acid beginners. It blends glycolic and lactic acid for gentle exfoliation, licorice root extract to brighten the skin, hyaluronic acid for hydration, and 3 ceramides to nourish the skin’s barrier.

A unique blend of glycolic acid and aloe Vera that offers hydration while promoting exfoliation. Suitable for skincare intermediates who already have experience with exfoliating products. You can purchase it HERE.

For those with sensitive skin, you might be familiar with the brand La Roche-Posay. Their Glycolic Acid Serum is enriched with vitamin B5. The serum also boasts kojic acid, efficient in brightening the skin and reducing hyperpigmentation signs.

The Best Retinol Products to Buy

The perfect introduction for those new to retinol. Formulated with a 0.1% retinol concentration, this cream is specially designed to deliver transformative results while minimizing dryness and irritation. Ideal for sensitive or dry skin, it's recommended for night-time application up to 3x weekly.

Its advanced formulation promises rapid results without excessive dryness. Expertly crafted by RoC, these capsules provide targeted treatment to diminish the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles while you sleep. Each capsule delivers a precise dose of serum enriched with retinol, ensuring maximum efficiency without overloading the skin. Designed for nightly use, these capsules offer a convenient, no-mess application to incorporate into your skincare routine.

This serum is formulated for those new to retinol or with sensitive skin. This serum is designed to provide the benefits of retinol without the common irritations. Infused with natural retinol alternatives, it aims to smooth texture and improve the appearance of fine lines.

Moreover, its lightweight, gel-like texture is easily absorbed and can be incorporated into both morning and evening skincare routines. Known for its added moisturizing agents, perfect for dry skin types.

Best Products with Glycolic Acid and Retinol

These powerful pads combine glycolic acid and retinol to exfoliate and rejuvenate, revealing a smoother, more radiant complexion. The dual-action formula helps to reduce the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and uneven skin tone while promoting cell turnover for fresher, more youthful-looking skin. Ideal for all skin types, these convenient peel pads are easy to use, making them a perfect addition to your skincare routine.

FAQs

Between Glycolic Acid and Retinol, Which is Best for Anti-aging?

Both have anti-aging properties, with retinol targeting wrinkles and glycolic acid focusing on texture and pigmentation. A combination, used correctly, can be potent.

Can I Use Glycolic Acid with Retinol?

Yes, but not concurrently. Spacing their application avoids overburdening the skin.

Is Glycolic Acid Better Than Retinol?

Each serves different primary functions. Glycolic acid excels in exfoliation, while retinol is superior for collagen production and wrinkle reduction.


Remember, everyone’s skin is unique. What works for one person may not for another. Always consult with a skincare professional when in doubt. I have an Olay Retinol Body Wash Review that you should check out for an in-depth analysis of my usage of that amazing product.

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