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How To Use Glycolic Acid and Retinol Together for Skincare

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Most people believe that glycolic acid and retinol are two worlds apart as far as skincare is concerned. There is no disputing that they are both powerhouses in the skincare world, but most people don’t know that they can be used together. To me, combining both ingredients is synonymous with signing your skin’s death warrant- a little exaggerated, maybe, but yes, that’s how scary it sounded to me.

Last year, however, I visited my dermatologist, and she suggested that I combine retinol and glycolic acid in my skincare regimen. To say I was surprised would be an understatement. I mean, these ingredients can cause skin irritations even when used separately, so how then can they be used together? If you have the same thoughts as I did, then you are in the right place. Keep reading to know how to use glycolic acid and retinol together.

What is glycolic acid, and what does it do to my skin?

Glycolic acid is one of the most efficacious anti-aging ingredients used in skincare products. It is an alpha hydroxy acid derived from a fruit plant. Skincare experts often use it to treat skin problems such as acne, wrinkles, pigmentation, uneven skin tones scarfing, and enlarged pores.


Benefits of glycolic acid

  1. It facilitates the shedding of dead skin cells from the dermis and speeds up cell renewal 
  2. It acts as a humectant, drawing in water into the skin to keep it properly hydrated 
  3. It improves the elasticity of the skin
  4. It even-out skin tone
  5. It improves the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.

What is retinol and what does it do?

Retinol is a vitamin A derivative that is popular for its ability to boost collagen production and increase skin cell turnover. Dermatologists recommend topical application of retinol for improving the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles as well as acne. Retinol has a watertight resume as far as treating signs of photoaging is concerned. Retinol, however, has the potential to cause skin irritation.

Benefits of using retinol

  1. It facilitates skin cell regeneration and renewal.
  2. It boosts the production of collagen and elastin.
  3. It improves skin hydration
  4. When combined with other ingredients, it increases the skin’s defense.

Can you use glycolic acid and retinol together?

There has been a long-standing debate on whether it is advisable to use retinol and glycolic acid together. Some argue that combining them will render both ingredients ineffective as they both function at different pH levels. However, research proves that glycolic acid functions well at a pH of 4.4. Although this is still not within the range of the optimal pH for retinol (5.5-6), it makes it easier for both ingredients to work well together. Since the skin is naturally acidic, retinol can function well in the skin at a lesser pH level without any risk of undermining its effectiveness. This means that you can use glycolic acid and retinol together.

In fact, a study published in the Indian Dermatology Online Journal revealed that a combination of glycolic acid and retinol improves the appearance of photodamaged skin better than glycolic acid alone or retinol alone. Joshua Zeichner, MD, Director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, believes that retinol and glycolic acid complement each other in the skincare routine. However, he suggests starting with one of the ingredients and following with the other after a few weeks.

You should note that using both ingredients together can make your skin more sensitive to the sun. As both elements facilitate the removal of dead skin cells and skin cell renewal, it means that you will lose the protective cover provided by the damaged skin cells.

This is why it’s of uttermost importance that you keep your skin well protected with sunscreen while using these ingredients. Applying a moisturizer will also help you lock in enough moisture and reduce the chances of your skin getting irritated.

Tips for using glycolic acid and retinol together 

1. Take things slow

If you are introducing these ingredients to your skincare routine for the first time, don’t be in a rush. It’s advisable to do it gradually; remember that your skin might react to it if it’s very sensitive to new products.


You can begin by applying once or twice a week. Monitor your skin to see how well it tolerates the ingredients. If you are convinced that your skin can handle both ingredients, you can then move on to applying it three to four times a week.

If you notice any negative reaction, you should slow down and seek the help of an experienced dermatologist. 

2. Try using them only in your night routine

If you have sensitive skin, it’s better to use your retinol and glycolic acid on alternate nights. This will help your skin to take enough breaks during the day. It will also greatly reduce the chances of any skin irritation.

You can use products containing retinol for the first night, then apply your glycolic acid on the third night. 

3. Avoid using retinol during the day

Once you decide to combine both products, you might be tempted to use them morning and night for faster results. This might cause you more harm than good. Remember that retinol is a vitamin A derivative, and it tends to break down in sunlight. Once you are certain that your skin can tolerate a higher amount of retinol and glycolic acid, always apply retinol at night and use glycolic acid in the morning.

4. Keep your skin hydrated 

Both retinol and glycolic acid increase epidermal water loss. It’s important to drink enough fluids throughout the day to prevent your skin from becoming dehydrated. Including hyaluronic acid in your skincare regimen is also a smart way to maintain proper hydration as this ingredient traps moisture in the skin.

You can also apply a moisturizer to lock in moisture in your skin.

5. Use a sunscreen

After applying the skincare ingredient, always follow up with sunscreen to keep your skin protected from photoaging. Remember that glycolic acid makes your skin more sun-sensitive; you will only be running around in circles if you use it without sunscreen.



Glycolic acid and retinol are a perfect pair for anti-aging and treating several skin problems such as scarring, hyperpigmentation, acne, and dark patches on the skin. What’s important is to incorporate these ingredients gradually into your routine. Like most skincare products, it may take a little time before you start seeing results. You should be patient and not apply the ingredients too quickly in a bid to see faster results, as this may cause irritations to your skin.

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