can use aha/bha and retinol/retinoids together?

Can you use retinoids (like retinol) with AHAs/BHA exfoliants?

The gossip on the grapevine changes every week. Some of us have heard rumours they can’t stand each other. Put them in the same room, they’ll neutralise each other and lose all their antiaging powers.

But there are a few single voices who claim the feud’s made up. Retinoids and the AHAs/BHA families are the best of friends. Put them in the same room (or should I say face?) and they’ll work together to get those pesky wrinkles and red breakouts off your face.

Who’s right? Let’s get to know the families. It’s the only way to find out if AHAs/BHA and Retinoids can really be used together:

the ordinary salicylic acid 2 solution

What The Heck Are AHAs and BHA?


The Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs) family has some famous members, including Glycolic Acid and Lactic Acid (I’m sure you’ve heard of them).

The Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHA) family only has one member currently working in skincare: Salicylic Acid.

These acids all work in the same way: they dissolve the glue that holds skin cells together, so they can slough off and reveal the brighter, smoother, more even toned skin underneath. Their exfoliating action brightens the complexion, fades away wrinkles and dark spots and smoothes out skin.

The main difference between them? Salicylic Acid is oil-soluble so it can penetrate the pores and unclog them from within. Bye bye breakouts! Alpha Hydroxy Acids are humectants: they boost the skin’s moisture content and amp up its collagen production a notch or two.

If Salicylic Acid is a godsend for oily, acne-prone skin, Alpha Hydroxy Acids are best for dry, sun damaged skin.

The catch? AHAs and BHA work better at a low ph (less than 4). They’ll still work a little if the ph is higher – just not as well.

Related: AHAs VS BHA: Which One Is Right For You?

Best Picks:


peter thomas roth retinol infusion pm night serum 01

What The Heck Are Retinoids?

Retinoids are forms of Vitamin A. Retinol’s the most famous member of the family but Retinol Palmitate and Hydropinacolone Retinoate are starting to get more noticed to.

Retinoids are awesome. They’re one of the very few things proven to reduce wrinkles AND they bust acne, too. They work in three ways:

  • Boost collagen production
  • Fight free radicals
  • Speed up cellular turnover (the skin’s natural exfoliating process)

If you’re serious about antiaging, retinoids should be part of your skincare routine. Period.

The catch? Retinol (and most forms of OTC Retinoids – Hydropinacolone Retinoate is the exception) need to be converted into Retinoic Acid for it to work its magic. The optimal ph for this activation is 5.5/6. 

Related: Three Reasons Why You Should Use Retinoids

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the ordinary glycolic acid toning solution

Can You Use AHAs/BHA and Retinoids/Retinol Together?

A serum or cream can only have one ph. If acids need a low ph and Retinoids a neutral one, it makes sense they don’t play well together.

Yet, we have plenty of studies showing just the opposite:

  • A 2008 study tested the efficacy of Glycolic Acid, Retinol and Lactose on photoaged skin and found out the combo helped treat some of the sun damage.
  • A 2015 study tested a skincare regime made up of AHAs, BHA, Retinoids and sunscreen and discovered it’s a “safe and effective for treatment of moderate-to-severe photodamage”.
  • A 2015 study tested the combination of Retinoic Acid and Glycolic Acid to treat acne scars and claims it is an effective alternative to more invasive procedures.

What’s going on here? Why are the families working together when they should be fighting each other?

A lot of it depends on the formula. As Dr. Jeanette Graf, M.D. explains:So much of it depends on the formulation. Retinol converts to its active all-trans retinoic acid form once it has already penetrated the skin, and therefore the pH is more physiologic when the reaction takes place. In today’s formulations with newer delivery systems, which make for more efficient products without the need to irritate the outer layer, I would say they can both be used.”

The old advice about keeping your acids and Retinoids separate may have made sense once but has now become outdated. Now you can use AHAs/BHA together with Retinoids.

Why I Wouldn’t Use AHAs/BHA With Retinoids/Retinol Anyway


If the science says they can be used together, why am I suggesting you don’t?

Because both AHAs and Retinoids can be irritating (BHA is usually fine). If you’ve never used them before, when you finally go for it, you may experience some stinging, peeling and flaking. This is absolutely normal and should disappear after a few weeks, when your skin has finally gotten used to their potency.

Even so, I always recommend you start small with both ingredients. A low concentration a couple of times a week. Then, you slowly build up both dose and frequency.

If your skin is pretty resilient and, like mine, can deal with anything you throw at it, then yes, you could be able to use them both together.

If your skin is more sensitive, you should stick to using acids in the morning and Retinoids at night. If your skin is very sensitive, you may not tolerate any of this stuff at all!

Wondering what other ingredients you shouldn’t mix and match? Click on the image below to subscribe to my newsletter and receive the “How To Combine Actives Like A Pro” cheatsheet.

The Bottom Line

Technology in skincare has progressed by leaps and bounds and now allows us to use AHAs/BHA together with Retinoids without compromising their effectiveness. But all these ingredients are pretty powerful and could irritate skin. If yours is delicate, you may want to keep using them separately to avoid the risk of irritation.

Do you use products with AHAs/BHA and Retinoids? Share your experience in the comments below.