Can You Mix Glycolic Acid with Retinol?

Can you mix glycolic acid with retinol?

The answer to this question is very simple. No, you shouldn’t mix glycolic acid with retinol.

But you can use them in separate routines to address skin concerns such as sun damage, hyperpigmentation, uneven skin tone, texture, lines and wrinkles, and even active acne.

Typically, I recommend sticking to retinoids for any skin concerns you want to address, whether that’s acne, hyperpigmentation, signs of aging, or sun damage because retinoids alone can target all that.

But adding glycolic acid in the right way can only boost the effects of retinoids, further improving your complexion and purging any existing skin irregularities.

But as always, and especially when it comes to two very strong actives like these, there could be potential side effects when incorporating actives into your skincare routine.

Therefore, here’s how to use glycolic acid and retinol for best results.

Can You Mix Glycolic Acid with Retinol - The Skincare Culture

NB: If you’re someone with oily/acne-prone skin, you need my new book “The Ingredients Handbook for Acne-Prone Skin“. Download it here.

How Does Glycolic Acid Work?

The Inkey List - Glycolic Acid - The Skincare Culture

Glycolic acid is a substance that belongs to the family of alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs), and it is a naturally occurring compound that can be found in sugar cane, sugar beets, pineapple, papaya, tomatoes, cantaloupe, and unripe grapes.

However, the glycolic acid used in skincare products is synthetically made in a lab due to being more stable and safer overall.

Glycolic acid is the strongest and most potent member of the family of AHAs, and this is due to having the smallest molecular weight, which allows it to penetrate the skin easier and work faster.

Glycolic acid is also a water-soluble substance, which means that it has the ability to work on the surface layer of the skin; however, it cannot cut through the oil and penetrate deeper than that, so it is most useful for superficial exfoliation.

Superficial exfoliation can be super beneficial for targeting various skin concerns, including superficial lines and wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, uneven skin tone, and rough, bumpy texture.

But although salicylic acid is the chief anti-acne ingredient when it comes to exfoliating acids, glycolic acid can also be good for acne-prone skin.

This is because glycolic acid also has antibacterial properties, but regular exfoliation prevents excess dead skin cells from clogging up the pores and contributing to acne.

Some benefits of using glycolic acid are:

  • Brighter complexion.
  • Smoother skin texture.
  • Improved scarring.
  • Improved hyperpigmentation.
  • Improved appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.
  • Evened out skin tone.
  • Decreased acne.
  • Hydrated and healthy skin.

RELATED: How to Use Alpha Hydroxy Acids and Avoid Irritation?

How Does Retinol Work?

1% Retinol – The Skincare Culture

Retinol is a component that belongs to the family of retinoids, which are vitamin A derivatives.

Retinol doesn’t remove dead skin cells from the surface of the skin like exfoliating acids do; but instead, the small molecules encourage rapid cellular renewal from the deeper layers of the skin.

The rapid cellular turnover will inevitably cause the dead skin cells on the surface of the skin to shed faster, which is why it can be said that retinol has an exfoliating-like action, but it’s a little bit different than regular exfoliation.

This action will rapidly clear out and decongest clogged pores and shed superficial hyperpigmentation until the skin tone is completely evened out and uniform.

Other than that, retinol can also neutralize free radicals and boost the production of elastin and collagen, which are the proteins that make the skin elastic and bouncy.

An increase in collagen and elastin production creates a “plumping” effect, which reduces the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and enlarged pores.

Finally, retinol has also been proven to balance your skin hydration levels.

Some benefits of using retinol include:

  • decongested pores
  • getting rid of acne
  • improved wrinkles and fine lines
  • brightening of hyperpigmented spots
  • evening out uneven skin tone and texture
  • getting rid of sun damage
  • improving skin hydration

RELATED: Can You Mix Niacinamide With Retinol?

How to Use Glycolic Acid with Retinol?

The best thing to do is to start off with a low percentage of retinol and allow your skin to build a tolerance to the active ingredient.

This process could last anywhere from four weeks up to three months depending on the product you are using and also how your skin adapts to it.

It doesn’t necessarily mean that your skin is sensitive just because it can’t tolerate retinol. It could simply mean that your skin needs time to get used to retinol and isn’t necessarily sensitive to other actives.

During your time of getting used to retinol, you should very slowly increase the usage from starting from three times a week up to five times a week.

When your skin is able to tolerate retinol up to five times a week, you should then give your skin a short, one-week break before applying a low percentage glycolic acid toner or a serum one evening.

You should then monitor how your skin behaves for the next two days before continuing your regular retinol application.

From there, you will be good to go with applying glycolic acid once or twice a week, and retinol on other nights with at least a day break in between.

This is how you will get the best of both worlds without hurting your skin and potentially damaging its protective barrier.

After using glycolic acid and retinol for a while, you will notice huge improvements in how your skin looks.

Skin issues like sun damage, hyperpigmentation, uneven skin tone, uneven skin texture, lines, wrinkles, and even active acne and post-inflammatory pigmentary changes (or post-inflammatory erythema) will be dramatically improved and your skin will have an overall nice, glowy, and healthy appearance.

Risks of Mixing Glycolic Acid with Retinol

Glycolic Acid Side Effects - The Skincare Culture

When mixing glycolic acid with retinol, you would run a high risk of damaging your skin’s protective barrier.

This is because retinoids will rapidly send new skin cells to the surface of the skin and glycolic acid will rapidly shed them, which means your skin will be left with young and immature skin cells that can’t prevent moisture loss the same way mature skin cells can.

When your skin is unable to retain moisture, it will become dry, dehydrated, and extremely sensitive to external conditions and potential pathogens.

When this occurs, the skin usually becomes red, irritated, or even itchy and uncomfortable when in contact with even everyday chemicals, such as plain water.

Short-term effects of a damaged moisture barrier are peeling, irritation, redness, and discomfort; however, the long-term effects could be extremely sensitive skin and even some permanent conditions such as rosacea or irritant dermatitis.

RELATED: Best Products for Post-Inflammatory Redness.

OILY SKIN PRONE TO CONSTANT ACNE-BREAKOUTS?

simone sydel licensed esthetician

I've coached hundreds of clients just like you helping them tame their oily and acne-prone skin.


I've had my battle with acne. I know what it's like when your skin seems to be conspiring against you


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