Using Retinol and Glycolic Acid at the same time

Can You Use Retinol and Glycolic Acid Together?

Retinol and Glycolic acid are both ‘active’ ingredients. Meaning they penetrate your skin and interact with living skin cells. Retinol and glycolic acid can counteract each other when used together. When combined they can increase irritation.

These two ingredients are some of the heavy hitters in skincare. So you might think its a great idea to combine them and boost their effectiveness.

Hold on their little doggy! Glycolic acid and retinol do not always play well together.

It’s actually no big deal because your skin doesn’t gain anything by using them at the same time. They work better in most cases from a distance.

This is because they can inactivate each other and they both can irritate the skin.

Here’s the thing about using glycolic acid and retinol together. They do some similar things to your skin.

How are they the same?

They both help:

  • Resurface the skin and smooth texture
  • Stop pores from getting clogged.
  • Fade dark spots
  • Soften fine lines and wrinkles

They are both exfoliators which means they push the top layer of dead skin off.

Note: Both retinol and glycolic acid are skin exfoliants, but they do it in different ways.

How are they different?

Glycolic Acid

Glycolic acid is a water-based Alpha Hydroxy Acid (AHA) it is a chemical exfoliant. Like salicylic acid which is it’s Beta Hydroxy Acid (BHA) cousin, which shouldn’t be used with retinol either btw. Salicylic acid is oil soluble BHA and best for oily and acne-prone skin its also a chemical exfoliant.

Glycolic acid is soluble with water making it a good choice for dry, sensitive and mature skin. It is small enough to penetrate the top layer of your epidermis. This is called the stratum corneum (SC) and is made up if dead skin cells.

Once in the SC glycolic acid breaks down the lipid matrix – think of the ‘lipid matrix’ like the glue holding skin cells together.

Breaking down the glue allows the dead skin cells to be removed, AKA exfoliated. This process exposes fresh, plump cells underneath.

Over the counter (OTC), glycolic acids products have a mild to moderate effect as they are typically a pH of 3.5 pH or higher. But they can still be irritating if you have sensitive skin.

Glycolic acid like all hydroxy acids works from the top layer of your skin down.


Retinol stimulates new cell growth. This increases the thickness of the skin, particularly in the epidermis. Retinol causes exfoliation by pushing new skin cells to the surface of the skin.

Retinol also stops UV radiation from breaking down collagen. It regenerates and stimulates collagen production. Collagen is one of the main components of the scaffolding of your skin.

The more collagen your skin has the plumper, smoother and more radiant it will be.

Retinol helps tighten and compact the SC. This improves skins texture and ‘crepeiness’.

Skin looks brighter and glowy because retinol encourages blood flow and it improves dark spots, hyperpigmentation and acne scarring.

If glycolic acid works from the top-down, then retinol works from bottom up.

There is no doubt it, Retinol is a skincare wizard.

Here Are 3 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Use Retinol With Glycolic Acid

Retinol doesn’t like skin to be too acidic. Glycolic acid has a pH of 3.5 – 4 (this is considered moderately acidic) Retinol works best in a neutral skin environment of between 5 -7 pH.

Your skin has to turn retinol into retinoic acid before it can start to be effective. This happens easier in a neutral pH environment.

The skin’s surface is slightly acidic between 4.5 – 6. When you use glycolic acid you can drop the pH as low as 3.

It takes about 30 minutes for the skin to return to its natural pH level.

What this means is that if you apply retinol to your skin within 30 minutes of using glycolic acid it can stop the retinol from working.

If you layer retinol which has a high pH over glycolic acid which has a low pH it will neutralise the glycolic and stop it from working.

In other words, you’re wasting your time and money applying these products. They are cancelling each other out.

The most important reason you shouldn’t use them together is irritation. Both are active ingredients, which means they can cause irritation and by combining them you greatly increase the likelihood they will irritate your skin.

What Are ‘Active’ Skincare Ingredients

‘Active’ in skincare means it can penetrate through the tough top layer skin called the stratum corneum and into the epidermis/dermis.

Once an ingredient is through the epidermis it can interact directly with living skin cells.

You want ‘active’ ingredients in your skin care. They are the stuff that helps repair and improve your skin and its issues.

Because they can penetrate the skin they can be irritating.

They are also the ingredients that make products expensive. So if you’re going to spend money on ingredients then you want them to work.

Don’t risk neutralising them by combining them with each other.

FAQ About Using Retinol and Glycolic Acid Together.

Q.How Long, Does It Take For Your Skin To Adjust To Retinol?

If you are new to using retinol, then your skin can purge for about 4 weeks. Your skin has a cell life cycle of around 28 days, and it can take a full life cycle of the skin cell to adjust to retinol.

Q. Does Retinol Thin The Skin?

Retinol doesn’t thin the skin in fact its quite the opposite!

Retinol increases collagen production and elastin and compresses the cells in the stratum corneum. This makes the skin much thicker. As an added bonus retinol also diminishes textured bumps in the skin it smooths it out.

Q. Can you use glycolic acid in the morning and retinol at night?

Glycolic acid and retinol both increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun damage. The best way to use these products is on alternating nights. Active ingredients are best used at night especially is they increase the risk of sun damage.

If you are using a mild glycolic acid (under 10%) you can use it in the morning after cleansing.

This could be useful for removing the dead skin cells that the retinol loosened up from the night before.

Always apply a broad-spectrum SPF in the morning even if you’re not going outside or it is cloudy.

This is very important when using retinol or glycolic acid.

Q. Does Glycolic Acid Remove Sun Damage?

Glycolic acid available OTC will have a very minimal effect on sun damage. Glycolic acid exfoliates the top layer of skin. Sun damage is in the deeper layers of skin where glycolic acid can’t reach.

Retinol is a much better choice if you want to lighten sun damage and hyperpigmentation.

Q.How Many Acid Products Is Too Many In One Session?

You can use up to three acid products one after the other is you have the time.

You need to give each acid 30 minutes to work before applying the next. This allows your skin pH to return to normal before adding another acid.

The exception to this is hyaluronic acid. This can be applied to your skin directly after using glycolic acid or retinol.

If you have sensitive skin use one acid at a time and build up a tolerance before adding in another acid.

You will get much better results by treating your skin gently and giving it time to adjust.

Note: If you have had a medical strength glycolic acid peel, then you must treat your skin very gently. Follow the post-care directions for your dermatologist closely.

How To Use Retinol and glycolic acid together in Your Skincare routine

It best to use these products at night. Its a must for retinol and if you are using a high strength glycolic acid then you should use that at night too.

If you are using a very mild glycolic acid then use that in the morning after cleansing but before moisturizing and applying sunscreen. A maximum of three times a week.

Both of these ingredients can be drying and irritating to your skin, so the main thing is to keep your skin hydrated.

Apply one layer of moisturizer, then go back in and moisturize again 10 minutes later. This allows your skin to soak up the moisturizer and then seal it all in with a hyaluronic acid product as a ‘top coat’.

Always wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen every day, especially when using glycolic and retinol.