Can you use them together?


If you can’t stop, won’t stop buying skin care products, you probably have retinol and glycolic acid products in your medicine cabinet. But how the hell do you choose? And can they actually be used together?

Listen, skin care fanatics: Here’s what the science is saying about the use of retinol and glycolic acid.

Glycolic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) that comes from sugar cane. It acts as a chemical exfoliant and helps resurface your skin by dissolving the bonds between skin cells, making it easier to remove dead skin.

This skin refreshment can help even out skin tone and treat skin discoloration (aka hyperpigmentation) and acne. Glycolic acid may also help other treatments, such as phytic acid, better penetrate your skin to fight hyperpigmentation and give you a luminous glow.

Retinol is a type of retinoid, which is an umbrella term for products derived from vitamin A. It is not as potent as other retinoids, so you can get it without a prescription.

Retinol works by stimulating the production of collagen and a host of other compounds necessary for the growth of healthy skin. This is particularly good for reducing the signs of skin aging, like fine lines and wrinkles. But this skin renewal effect is also effective in unclogging pores and helping to treat acne.

People used to think that using glycolic acid + retinol was a big no-no. But today, most dermatologists agree that it’s a bunch of hokum. The bad advice started with the false belief that AHAs like glycolic acid interfered with the ability of retinol to do its job. (Spoiler: they don’t.)

Indeed, the addition of glycolic acid and retinol in your skin care routine can help treat acne and acne scars better. A 2015 study found that a retinol + glycolic acid combo was effective enough to help minimize the need for other acne scar treatments.

But because both ingredients can irritate your skin, dermatologists don’t recommend mixing them together or using glycolic acid and retinol at the same time. It is best to alternate between glycolic acid and retinol.

If you prefer to use just one product, which is “best” depends on what you are trying to achieve.

Achieve glycolic acid if:

  • You have more sensitive skin. It dries less than retinol and is less likely to cause irritation.
  • You have oily skin, discoloration or texture issues. Because it’s an exfoliant, glycolic acid can help remove dead skin cells and cleanse pores clogged with excess oil.

Achieve retinol if:

  • You want to treat skin aging. Because retinol works by invigorating skin cells rather than removing dead ones, it will help reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.
  • You have sun damage. Retinol can help you have healthier skin where UV rays have taken their toll.
  • You have acne. The retinol boost for skin renewal can also help unclog acne-causing pores.

While they are both considered safe, there are of course some possible side effects when using retinol and glycolic acid.

Some side effects to watch out for:

  • Sensitivity to the sun. It’s important to be strict with your sunscreen use when using glycolic acid or retinol, as both can increase your susceptibility to sunburn and sun damage.
  • Peeling / flaking. This is usually temporary, but it is a good indication that you need to reduce the number of retinol / glycolic acid applications in your routine.
  • Redness. As with all other skin care products, red, raw-looking skin is a significant (literally) unwanted red flag.
  • Itching. The redness is often accompanied by itching and irritation.
  • Hyperpigmentation. It’s rare, but if you have a darker complexion, you may find that glycolic acid leaves traces of color on your skin. To reduce the risk, avoid doubling glycolic acid products in your routine, moisturize regularly, and avoid rubbing / exfoliating your face directly after application.

FYI: Pregnant / breastfeeding women are also recommended to avoid retinol and other topical retinoids.

It can be quite difficult to choose between products that contain glycolic acid or retinol. Start by identifying your #SkinCareGoals, then choose your product accordingly.

An obvious but essential tip is to check the reviews and ingredient lists. Starting with lower doses is also a good idea if you are new to the products or plan to use both.

It is a common misconception that the combined use of glycolic acid and retinol negates their benefits. If you want to use both products, you absolutely can. Just be sure to use them at alternate times of the day or days of the week.

The combined use of glycolic acid and retinol may be ideal for treating acne. But if you want to choose one, retinol is better at treating fine lines and wrinkles, while glycolic acid acts as an exfoliant to help even out skin texture.

As with all skin care products, gradually introduce new products with strong active ingredients. If you notice any side effects, step on the brakes and call your dermatologist.

About Sally Dominguez

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