Ask any dermatologist the top two skincare ingredients they recommend and they will probably say “Retinol and Acids”. Acids is a broad category and most skincare acids can be divided into alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) and beta-hydroxy acid (BHA) we’ll get up close and personal with those in a moment.
As consumers, we are becoming pretty darn savvy and we know we need vitamin C serum and hyaluronic acid hydrators. We can talk at length about glycolic acid from our niacinamide, but when it comes to retinol and the AHAs and BHAs we have to ask:.
Can you use retinol and AHA/BHA together?
Retinol and AHA/BHA are ‘active’ ingredients. All active ingredients have the potential to cause irritation, sensitivity, and redness. Retinol and hydroxy acids shouldn’t be used together.
Let’s take a quick look under the hood of each of these ingredients in turn. Once you understand how they work you’ll know how to use them in your skincare routine. They all have great skin benefits so using them will keep your skin glowing, smooth and fresh.
The all do similar things to the skin and it will depend on your eact skin issues as to what it the best choice for you.
What is Retinol?
Retinol is more commonly known as Vitamin A, and it has some potent family members namely retinoic acid (Tretinoin) and retinoids. Retinol has a number of great skin-improving qualities such as skin brightening, exfoliating the skin surface and improving hyperpigmentation, dark spots and acne scars. It lowers the overall production of melanin, increases the overall production of collagen in the lower layers of the skin, and assists in boosting elastin fibres within the skin.
It is a rockstar in the skincare world for these reasons. However like all rockstars the brighter you burn the more issues you can have. Retinol and its derivates are some of the most irritating skincare ingredients. Retinol purge/skin purging is one of the major side effects of topical retinol and some people will find it hard to use retinol.
This is where you may choose to use the opening band instead.
What are Alpha Hydroxy Acids?
The hydroxy acids, which are split into two groups alpha-hydroxy acids which come from the sugars found in food. Glycolic acid from sugar, lactic acid from milk and malic acid from berries and grapes.
AHA’s cause exfoliation, or shedding of the surface of the skin. The amount that your skin will exfoliate depends on the type and concentration of the AHA, its pH, and other ingredients in the product.
AHAs are water-soluble which means they are good for sensitive and dry skin. AHA breakdown the bonds between skin cells which can then be easily removed from the skin’s surface without requiring abrasive scrubbing or pulling on the skin.
This is different from how retinol works. Instead of breaking down cells at the surface retinoic acid penetrates deep into the skin and speeds up new cell turn over. These new cells push the old cell off the surface of the skin.
What are Beta Hydroxy Acids?
These are also chemical exfoliants that ‘unglue’ the dead skincells of the epidermis to be removed. They are oil soluble and are well suited to oily and acne prone skin. They clear out clogged pores of excess sebum and slow done sedum production both of which are great things for oily skinned folks and acne-prone people.
The most common BHA is salicylic acid, it can also be called salicylate, sodium salicylate and willow bark extract. It is made from the same ingredient as aspirin.
Because aspirin is also a drug salicylic acid has been reviewed by the FDA and was deemed “safe as used when formulated to avoid irritation and when formulated to avoid sun sensitivity. . . . daily use of sun protection.”
This translates into understandable English as: “When used for its intended purpose salicylic acid is safe. Use it as directed on the label and don’t exceed the recommended applications. It does make you sensitive to sun exposure so wear sunscreen every day.”
Here is a little bit of chemistry knowledge for you. Salicyclic acid is not a true BHA. But because cosmetic companies refer to it as a BHA, most consumers think of it as one. If you’re a real skin nerd you’ll love this little bit of insider knowledge.
What is the Difference Between Alpha and Beta Hydroxy Acids
The soluble nature of these acids is what makes them different. AHA’s are water-soluble so they can’t help clear out oil from your skin. While BHA – Salicylic acid – is great for oily skin because it can penetrate into the pore and clean it out of excess sebum and debris.
AHA like glycolic and lactic acid – are humectants, meaning they hold moisture to your skin, they also boost collagen production which means firmer, plumper skin.
So, both AHA and BHA can be incredibly beneficial when used to meet specific skin issues.
Both of these hydroxy acids work as chemical exfoliators in skincare products. They are often combined in one product for example:
The Ordinaey AHA/BHA Peel.
The fact that they loosen dead skin cells from the epidermis, allowing them to be removed gently as opposed to using physical exfoliators which require friction to loosen dead skin cells.
Why You Shouldn’t Use Retinol and Hydroxy Acids Together.
As well as all of these ingredients being ‘active’ – meaning they cause a reaction in your skin layers, they also do there best work at different pH levels.
Turn the lights down low it’s ’bout to get real nerdy.
Your skin has an ‘acid mantle’ that it the pH that it naturally resets to when you leave it alone. Men tend to have a slightly more acidic skin than woman but humans generally site between 4.0 – 6.5, slightly acidic. This is a good thing as it kills bacteria and fugal invaders.
The pH Levels of AHA, BHA and Retinols
|Best pH Level||4 or lower||4 or lower||5 – 7|
Because the hydroxy acids work at a different pH level than retinol it is not a good idea to not use them together.
This stops them from cancelling each other out, causing an excessive irritation reaction and saves you wasting money on products they don’t like playing together.
How To Use AHA/BHA and Retinol In Your Skincare Routine.
It takes your skin 20 – 30 minutes to return to it neutral state after applying an active ingredient, so if you have time to wait you can use an AHA/BHA and then wait 30 minutes and use retinol.
All 3 of these ingredients increase your skin sensitivity to the sun, so we don’t recommend using any of them in the morning. You should also wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen SPF 30 every day.
The best way to use these products is at night with a 30-minute gap between AHA /BHA and retinol or to use them on alternating nights.
You can also do ‘cycling’. This is possibly the simplest and most effective way to incorporate these ingredients into your routine.
Cycling means that you use retinol for a month or 6 weeks then AHA/BHA for a month.
Because AHA and BHA like the same pH level you can use them together although if you have sensitive skin always patch test them first.
This means applying a small amount of the product onto your wrist first in the morning. If you get to the end of the day and you have forgotten about it, there is no redness or itch then you are probably ok to apply it to your face.
A summary of AHA BHA and Retinol
|Used for||Exfoliating skin surface||Acne, inflammation and oily skin||Reduces acne and signs of ageing|
|What it is||Water-soluble Acid||Oil-soluble Acid||Vitamin A|
|Skin type||Normal to dry||Oily and sensitive||Any skin type|
|Potential side effects||Can be harsh on sensitive skin||May increase UV sensitivity||Can be drying and cause ‘purging’|
|Where it acts||Skin surface||Deep pores||Deep layers of the skin|
|What is does||Exfoliates skin surface to smooth texture and tone||Kills bacteria and exfoliates deep pores||Stimulates cell turnover, brightens skin|
|When to use||At night||At night||At night|
|Avoid use with||Retinol or other harsh acids (it’s better to use these on alternating nights)||Retinol or other harsh acids (it’s better to use these on alternating nights)||AHAs and BHAs, avoid before waxing or laser procedures|
Always treat your skin gently, your skin cells renew every 28 – 30 days so sometimes your skin will look great and sometimes, not so much. You don’t need to be constantly exfoliating and retinizing (I just made that word up, but I think we can all start using it now) your skin.
Allow your skin to recover and nourish it with oils, massage and hydrating masks as well as removing dead skin cells and bumping up cell turn over with retinol.
Your skin needs different care on different days and while consistency is good for your skin giving it a few days off from exfoliating every month or two is a good idea.
Skincare can be hallenging, especially since your skin is unique to you. It will take time, practice and patients to strike the perfect balance.
Listen to your skin and understanding what is being applied to it and when has huge long term benefits.
We always recommended consulting a dermatologist if you have moderate to severe acne, rosacea, dermatitis, unusual moles or raised areas or if you have pigmentation and acne scarring that bothers you.
There is a lot your can do for your skin with a good home skincare routine but some skin conditions are going to require professional help.
Summing Up AHA/BHA and Retinol
These are great ingredients and if your skin can tolerate using them, then they can take your skin to the next level of glowly plumpness. Just use them correctly and don’t push your skin to hard to fast.
Remember, always wear sunscreen.