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glycolic acid and retinol together

Whether you want some glow or anti-aging for your skin, glycolic acid and retinol will be great additions to your skin care routine. But the question is: can you use glycolic acid and retinol together?

That, my friend, is what we’re going to find out today!

Can you use glycolic acid and retinol together?

Both glycolic acid and retinol can be such game changers for your skin. They offer anti-aging benefits while giving your skin visible glow.

What more when you use them together, right?

But these aren’t exactly ingredients you should use willy-nilly.

So, let’s see if using glycolic acid and retinol together is even possible. 

Will these two together bring us to Glow Town? Or maybe we’re bound to end up in Irritation City?

The short answer is: it depends on your skin type and skin goals.

glycolic acid and retinol together

Glycolic Acid

Glycolic acid is the most researched and most popular alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) out there. Understandably so, since it has an impressive ability to address a lot of skin concerns. 

It’s naturally found in grape, sugar can juice, sugar beet, and Virginia creeper leaves. But it can also be synthesized, which is often what’s used in cosmetics [1].

As an AHA, glycolic acid exfoliates the skin. That means removing dead skin cells to reveal new ones.

You’ll often see AHAs like glycolic acid being used for uneven skin tone, fine lines and wrinkles, and enlarged pores. It can also be useful for treating acne [2].

Retinol

Retinol is a type of retinoid, which is an umbrella term for vitamin A derivatives [3]. 

You can find retinoids in both prescription-only (tretinoin, adapalene, tazarotene) and over-the-counter (retinol) products. Take note how retinol is available OTC. 

That’s because compared to other retinoids, retinol is gentler. In fact, it is the third strongest form of retinoid and still safe to use in OTC products and formulations [4].

The only caveat is that it’s slower to show a difference on your skin.

Despite that, retinol, like all types of retinoids, offers a lot of benefits for our skin. 

It can enhance collagen production, smoothen skin, even out pigmentation, and reduce acne flare-ups and breakouts [4]. 

No wonder retinol can be found in a wide variety of products—from anti-aging creams to acne fighting toners.

Glycolic Acid and Retinol: What do they do to the skin?

glycolic acid and retinol together

So, we now know the benefits of glycolic acid and retinol. And so far, they’re looking pretty similar.

For us to better understand these two, we need to how they function. 

What exactly do they do to the skin?

Exfoliation

The way AHAs like glycolic acid exfoliates the skin is by unsticking the cellular glue that holds our dead skin cells together. That’s how glycolic acid helps prevent build-up [2]. 

Meanwhile, contrary to popular belief, retinol doesn’t exfoliate skin [5].

A lot of people mistakenly take the flaking and peeling that comes with OTC retinol products as exfoliation. But flaking is actually a sign of irritation. It’s your skin telling you that you either need to moisturize some more, reduce your use of retinol, or stop using it altogether.

Anti-aging

When it comes to anti-aging, retinol is probably the most proven OTC anti-aging ingredient out there [6].

Retinol brings age-defying benefits to your skin in two ways. It fights collagen-destroying enzymes. Then, retinol boosts collagen production.

But retinol’s work doesn’t end there. It can also boost other skin elements that make the skin thicker and more compact. 

The result: firmer, smoother, and tighter skin with less wrinkles.

Meanwhile, glycolic acid can deliver similar benefits to retinol. Well, except for fighting collagen-destroying enzymes.

But the problem with glycolic acid, as with all AHAs, is that it can’t penetrate the skin that deep.

To be fair though, out of all AHAs, glycolic acid is the smallest and simplest AHA. A lot of the benefits this acid can give is the result of how it can penetrate the deepest out of all the AHAs [2].

Acne Marks and Scars

Before we proceed, take note that acne marks and acne scars are different things. I wrote about their difference in-depth in this post.

But for now, all we need to know is that: 

Acne marks are discoloration left by acne, appearing flat and either red or brown. 

Acne scars are either raised or indented marks that create irregularities on our skin texture.

Now, both glycolic acid and retinol can thicken the skin and help create new cells. 

Both of these functions can help a lot with acne scars. That’s because they can regenerate new cells where skin failed to while healing acne [7].

But take note that glycolic acid and retinol can only do this for newer, shallower acne scars.

For acne marks, glycolic acid and retinol can help. Though they do so in different ways.

Glycolic acid scatters melanin, the pigment that gives skin its color [1]. 

Too much melanin in one area results in brown spots. By scattering melanin, glycolic acid can be very useful for fading the brownish marks—also known as post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH).

Meanwhile, retinol helps with acne marks by preventing melanin from clumping together [6].

Glycolic Acid and Retinol: A trip to Glow Town or Irritation City?

glycolic acid and retinol together

Let’s first look at the pros of using glycolic acid and retinol together.

Combining glycolic acid and retinol have shown great results according to studies.

One study combined glycolic acid and retinaldehyde (converted form of retinol) [8]. This combo helped in preventing and treating PIH.

Another study combined glycolic acid and retinoic acid (the final converted form of retinol) [9]. Patients saw improvement in their PIH and their acne scars.

So, apart from the benefits each can give, glycolic acid and retinol can work together and boost the benefits your skin will get.

The downside is irritation.

Both glycolic acid and retinol can cause skin purging.

Skin purging or just purging can happen when you use AHAs, BHAs, and retinoids. They hasten skin cell turnover, so you’re impending blemishes are forced to come out faster than normal.

Combining the two in one routine might cause massive purging. You’ll be dealing with a lot of pimples all at once.

There’s also the case of different pH levels.

It’s believed that AHAs and BHAs tend to work best in acidic pH levels, between 3-4. Meanwhile, retinol needs a pH of between 5.5 and 6.

But despite that, they can still work effectively [10, 11].

So, can you use glycolic acid and retinol together?

From what we’ve discussed, we can use glycolic acid and retinol together. They even work beneficially when used together.

The main issue is the irritation.

Let’s say you’re already experiencing irritation (flaking, peeling, stinging) from either glycolic acid or retinol. Then you’ll most likely increase irritation if you use them together.

If that’s the case, what you can do is reduce how often you use either or both of them.

For example, if you’re using glycolic acid or retinol every day, try reducing to every other day or every two days.

If you were perfectly fine using either every day but experienced irritation after adding the other, try using them on alternating nights. 

If you have dry and/or sensitive skin, you will want to ease into using both of them. Just don’t push yourself to accommodate both if your skin can’t really take it. If need be, choose between glycolic acid and retinol depending on what your skin needs most.

So, you can use glycolic acid and retinol together as long as you listen to your skin. 


Do you use glycolic acid or retinol? Or maybe both?

And I’m curious what you’ve noticed they did best to your skin.

Let me know in the comments!

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