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Can you use Glycolic acid with Retinol – What’s better for your skin?

If you are a skincare freak, you must be having Retinol and Glycolic acid, the two powerhouse ingredients in your bathroom cabinets or somewhere. And you are confused about will Glycolic acid with Retinol work for your skin or if can it rather damage it.

Let’s see what science has to say about this

Glycolic Acid Retinol
PH is 3.6 PH is 5.5
Strong active ingredient Strong active ingredient
Glycolic Acid vs Retinol PH table

When the PH of two strong active ingredients is in conflict, it’s not going to make either of the ingredients effective for your skin. Also, ingredients in Hydroxy acids (Glycolic acid) can compromise the stability of Retinol. So yeah, the combination of applying them together one after the other is tricky ladies. I’d suggest you don’t do it. Nevertheless, if you still want to try this combo together, you need to have strong skin built up.

What is Glycolic Acid?

Glycolic acid is an Alpha Hydroxy Acid-AHA which is water soluble & is naturally derived from Sugar cane. Since it has a smaller molecular structure, it can go deep into the skin layer from the epidermis to the dermis & functions from within, hence if you have highly sensitive skin, either skip Glycolic acid or start with a very low concentration.

Picture of a girl with bright even skin tone from consistent usage of Glycolic acid

Bright even-toned skin from the constant usage of Glycolic Acid

What are the benefits of Glycolic Acid?

  • Glycolic acid acts as the mildest chemical exfoliator which breaks all the congestion of the skin like dead skin cells, sebum, dirt, and oil & cleans the clogged pores from within.
  • It resurfaces & improves skin texture over time.
  • Glycolic acid promotes cell turnover which stimulates collagen production in the skin & eliminates wrinkles & fine lines
  • Repairs the skin concerns like skin discoloration, sun damage & dull skin

What are the side effects of Glycolic Acid?

  • Glycolic acid makes your skin sensitive to UV rays of the sun, which means it increases your photosensitivity to the skin. Hence always wear sunblock when you’re out during the day.
  • The temporary side effect could be peeling or flaking, so start with a low Concentration

What more to know before incorporating Glycolic Acid in your skincare routine?

  • Don’t apply Glycolic Acid on damp skin
  • Avoid doubling up on Glycolic Acid ingredients as you can over-exfoliate
  • Don’t use it every day in the beginning, 3 times a week is a good start
  • Don’t scrub or exfoliate your face after using Glycolic Acid
  • If you’re pregnant or nursing, use glycolic acid under 7%

How to use Glycolic Acid?

Facewash daily
Toner 3 nights a week under 7%
Serum 3 nights a week under 10%
Peels Once in 4 weeks 20%
Masks Once a week Under 10%

What is Retinol?

Retinol is a gold standard, oil-soluble derivative of Vitamin A which just doesn’t work on the surface but goes deep into the layers of the skin & exfoliates from within by eliminating dead skin cells & bacterial growth which ultimately leads to the regeneration of fresh young cells & clean pores which helps tremendously in acne control.

What are the benefits of Retinol?

  • Retinol Boost Collagen & Elastin production by speeding cellular skin turnover.
  • Treats acne, acne scars & skin discoloration.
  • Works wonders for fine lines, wrinkles, sun damage & hyperpigmentation.
  • In short, it helps really well with aging skin & is an effective treatment for acne!!

Picture of a girl with hyperpigmentation cure stages with regular usage of Retinol

Hyperpigmentation cure stages with regular usage of Retinol

What are the side effects of Retinol?

  • It increases the photosensitivity of the skin; hence you always need to apply sunblock when stepping outside otherwise you can burn your skin easily.
  • Newbies generally tend to develop irritation/burns/flakiness/redness when starting the retinol journey, hence start with a very low concentration & increase gradually.
  • If you are not able to handle the side effects by yourself, contact a board-certified dermatologist. 

Tips to remember while incorporating Retinol safely in skincare routine

  • Apply just a pea-sized amount
  • Don’t use Retinol on damp skin
  • Don’t mix Retinol with any other ingredient except Hyaluronic acid, Azelaic acid & Niacinamide
  • Do not use it very close to your eyes, mouth, nose
  • Avoid using any other potential irritants like acids or chemical exfoliants when you’re just starting off on Retinol. This can minimize your excess flaking.
  • Use the Sandwich method of ‘moisturizer-retinol moisturizer’, which Means a layer of moisturizer then Retinol then moisturizer again. This will prevent any possibilities of irritation.
  • Don’t use Retinol when you are pregnant/nursing, have very sensitive skin, or have dry skin conditions like eczema or psoriasis. 
  • You can start using Retinol from the early 20s with proper precautions
  • Start with a concentration of .025% – 0.1%, two times a week. Can go up to 1% gradually every other night when your skin feels ready.
  • Always apply sunblock when you’re out during the day.

What is Retinol Family?

Diagram of a Retinol family tree

A Complete Retinol family tree. All are topical Retinoids except Isotretinoin.

Retinoids are divided into 3 classes for buying purposes

Does Retinol Packaging matter?

Retinol packaging is literally everything, Air Exposure means Retinol death. We don’t want that pls!

There are 4 types of packaging in the market.

  • Tubes (Best)
  • Pump bottles (Better)
  • Serum bottles (Okay)
  • Jars (NAH)

Tubes are undoubtedly the best way & the safest form to use Retinol. Beware of the Jars form, they don’t make sense.

tube packaging of retinol

Tube packaging

How to store Retinol to maintain its shelf life?

Retinol is not a very stable ingredient in nature & perhaps they like staying in cool, dark places. Quite away from Sunlight, to extend & maintain its shelf life. Hence your bathroom cabinets work just fine.

How to handle Glycolic acid and Retinol Irritation?

Girl with a chemical reaction from the careless usage of acids like retinol and glycolic acid

Irritation is caused mostly when you don’t use the ingredient carefully

Don’t Panic, your skin will be back to a normal state within a few weeks.

Just take care of these points

  • Take cold showers or ice your face (wrapped in a thin cloth). Avoid hot showers at any cost.
  • Use Thermal spring water to calm the skin (Try from La Roche Posay)
  • Avoid using scented cleansers or moisturizers.
  • Give a lot of moisture to the skin. Apply moisturizers loaded with Ceramides & Hyaluronic acid.
  • Seal the skin with a light layer of Vaseline. It locks in all the goodies & lets the skin heal faster.
  • Stop using any other exfoliants, acids, AHAs, BHAs, peroxides, and salicylic acid until you are completely healed.
  • Glycerin & Aloe vera, both are great soothing & calming agents for the skin.
  • Product suggestion- Try Avene- Cicalfate + restorative protective cream
  • Apply sunblock before stepping outside.

A picture of a happy healed skin of a girl from retinol/glycolic acid irritations/burns

The Conclusion- Glycolic acid and Retinol 

Which chemical exfoliant is better for your skin?

Both Glycolic acid and Retinol are powerhouse ingredients but their PH levels work completely on different levels hence avoid them using at the same time to avoid adverse reactions.

If you want to exfoliate, remove dead skin & resurface the texture of the skin, go for Glycolic Acid.

If you want to increase collagen production in the skin & are looking for acne treatment, go for Retinol.

Can you use Glycolic acid and Retinol together?

NO. You can’t use Glycolic acid and Retinol at the same time. Use them maybe at different times of the day but not together.

Related Articles

If you loved reading this article, you will probably also enjoy reading:

  1. Can you use Vitamin C with Retinol?
  2. Should you apply Retinol before or After Moisturizer
  3. Can you use Benzoyl Peroxide with Retinol?
  4. Can you use Azelaic Acid and Retinol Together
  5. Can you use Retinol And Hyaluronic Acid Together?
  6. Can you use Niacinamide with Retinol?
  7. Can you use Salicylic Acid and Retinol Together?

Hope this solves some of your skin confusion, Love~ Beauty Stroll

By Aayushi S
By Aayushi S
Aayushi is a New York based freelance writer and a content strategist. She is a computer science graduate, a health and skincare fanatic and is also the founder of “Beauty Stroll “. She aims to make science-backed skincare easy to understand for her readers.

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