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How To Use Glycolic Acid with Retinol Without Irritating Your Skin

The do’s and don’ts of using retinol and glycolic acid together.

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 glycolic acid and retinol 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?

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.

Glycolic acid benefits for skin

  1. It facilitates the shedding of dead skin cells and speeds up cell renewal.
  2. It acts as a humectant, drawing in water into the skin.
  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?

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 found that a combination of glycolic acid and retinol improves the appearance of photodamaged skin better than glycolic acid or retinol alone.

In the same manner, 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 and following with the other after a few weeks, as this allows the skin to build tolerance.

Be aware that both ingredients 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 retinol and glycolic acid together.

Tips for using glycolic acid and retinol together 

1. Take things slow

If you are adding these ingredients to your skincare routine for the first time, be patient and do it gradually. Remember that your skin might react to it, especially if it’s sensitive.

You can start by applying retinol and glycolic acid once or twice a week. Observe your skin to see how it tolerates the ingredients. If you’re convinced your skin can handle both ingredients, you can then move on to applying it three to four times a week.

2. Try using them only in your night routine

If you have sensitive skin, it’s better to use retinol and glycolic acid on alternate nights. It will help your skin to take a break 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, allowing one day in between for the skin to recover. 

3. Avoid using retinol during the day

Once you decide to combine both products, you might be tempted to use them morning and night. 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. So make sure to drink enough fluids throughout the day to prevent your skin from becoming dehydrated. Including hyaluronic acid in your skincare regimen is also a thing you can do to maintain proper skin hydration.

5. Use a sunscreen

After applying retinol and glycolic acid, always follow up with sunscreen to keep your skin protected from photoaging. Remember that both glycolic acid and retinol make your skin more sun-sensitive; you will only be running around in circles if you use them 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.

Who wrote this?
Picture of Ana Vasilescu
Ana Vasilescu
Ana Vasilescu is the founder of Women's Concepts and a certified skincare consultant. She has over five years of experience working in the beauty editorial industry and over a decade as an acne sufferer. With a background in dermatological research, Ana brings a wealth of expertise to a diverse range of topics, from buzzy ingredients to anti-aging and acne advice. She holds a BA in Sociology and Political Sciences. Find her on LinkedIn or Instagram.
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