can use aha/bha and retinol together?

Can you use AHAs/BHA and retinol together in the same routine on the same night? They’re all powerful ingredients that help improve the texture of your skin and take a few years off your face. But, like all powerful ingredients, the payoff of using them together could be offset by dryness and irritations.

Critics claims these ingredients are divas that don’t work well together. You should never use AHAs/BHA and retinol together because they deactivate each other. You’ll irritate your skin without reaping any of the anti-aging benefits.

Fans believe these concerns are all made up. These ingredients do wonders on their own. Use them together (in the right way) and you’ll treat both wrinkles and acne faster. Who’s right? Who should you believe? Here at Beautiful with Brains, we’re big fans of letting science settle skincare disputes. Here’s all you need to know about using AHAs/BHA and retinol together.

the ordinary salicylic acid 2 solution

AHAs: What Are They And How Do They Benefit Skin?

AHAs stands for Alpha Hydroxy Acids. It’s a family of exfoliating acid that includes Glycolic Acid, Lactic Acid, Mandelic Acid, Citric Acid, and Tartaric Acid. AHAs exfoliate the surface of your skin by dissolving the “glue” that holds skin cells together, so they can slough off and reveal the brighter, smoother, more-even toned skin underneath. This exfoliating action smoothes out imperfections, makes wrinkles look smaller, and fades away dark spots, and even prevents breakouts.

Alpha Hydroxy Acids are water-soluble, so they only exfoliate the surface of your skin. They treat breakouts by preventing new dead skin cells from falling into your pores and clogging them up, so that your acne doesn’t get worse. But they can’t get inside your pores and remove acne from within. Instead, they have hydrating properties that bind water to the skin to increase its moisture levels and make skin softer and smoother. AHAs are best suitable for dry skin and for fading dark spots.

The catch? AHAs can irritate and dry out skin when used too often. Glycolic Acid is the most effective of all the AHAs, but also the most irritating and drying. Other acids are gentler on the skin, but they work more slowly. If you have sensitive skin, the trade-off is worth it.

What Are The Best AHAs Exfoliants?

  • Paula’s Choice Advanced Smoothing Treatment 10% AHA ($39.00): This super-concentrated exfoliating cocktail contains Glycolic, Lactic, Malic, and Salicylic Acids to smoothen out imperfections, fade away dark spots, and treat acne. Available at Cult Beauty, Dermstore, Paula’s Choice, Selfridges, and SpaceNK.
  • The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution: A simple, no-frills Glycolic Acid exfoliant that brightens the complexion and fades away dark spots. Available at Beauty Bay, Boots, Cult Beauty, Sephora, SpaceNK, The Ordinary, and Ulta.
  • The Ordinary Lactic Acid 10% + HA 2% ($8.90): A simple Lactic Acid exfoliant enriched with Hyaluronic Acid to exfoliate and hydrate skin at the same time. Available at Beauty Bay, Boots, Cult Beauty, Sephora, SpaceNK, The Ordinary, and Ulta.

BHA: What Is It And How Does It Benefit Skin?

BHA stands for Beta Hydroxy Acids, another exfoliating skincare family. The only member of the BHA family currently used in skincare products is Salicylic Acid. Salicylic acid exfoliates the surface of your skin in the same way AHAs do: it dissolves the “glue” that holds skin cells together, revealing smoother and brighter skin. But it’s not as good as brightening skin and fading away dark spots.

But Salicylic Acid is much better than AHAs at treating acne. Unlike AHAs, BHA is oil-soluble, which means it can get through the skin’s lipid barrier and penetrate deeper into your pores, unclogging them from within. This pore-clogging action allows BHA to both prevent and remove blackheads, whiteheads, and pimples. Plus, it has anti-inflammatory properties that calm down redness and irritation.

AHAs are better for dry and sun-damaged skin. BHA is an absolute must for oily and acne-prone skin. Just use it carefully! Like all exfoliants, it can irritate and dry out your skin when used too much too often.

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

What Are The Best BHA Exfoliants?

  • Paula’s Choice Clear Regular Strength Anti-Redness Exfoliating Solution With 2% Salicylic Acid ($34.00): This exfoliant unclogs pores, treats acne (including blackheads), and soothes redness. Its lightweight texture sinks into skin quickly without leaving a tacky residue behind. Available at Dermstore, Paula’s Choice, Selfridges, and SpaceNK.
  • The Inkey List BHA Serum (£11.04): A simple BHA exfoliant with hydrating Hyaluronic Acid to treat acne without drying out skin. Available at Boots, Cult Beauty, Sephora, and The Inkey List.
  • The Ordinary Salicylic Acid 2% Solution: A simple, no-frills Salicylic Acid exfoliant to treat acne and remove blackheads. The texture isn’t the most pleasant to use, but it works. Available at Beauty Bay, Cult Beauty, Selfridges, Sephora, SpaceNK, The Ordinary and Ulta.


peter thomas roth retinol infusion pm night serum 01

Retinol: What It Is And How Does It Benefit Skin?

Retinol is a form of Vitamin A. Members of the Vitamin A family are called Retinoids. They also include retinaldehyde, granactive retinoid, and tretinoin. This article focuses on retinol specifically, but everything in here also applies to all other forms of retinoids.

Retinol (and all retinoids) is the only thing that’s proven to reduce the wrinkles you already have, not just minimise their appearance. It works by boosting the production of collagen, the protein that keeps your skin firm. More collagen = fewer wrinkles. Plus, retinol is also able to fight free radicals, the nasty molecules that destroy collagen in the first place, thus preventing the formation of new wrinkles.

While it’s at it, it also fades away dark spots and treats acne. It does this by speeding up cellular turnover, the skin’s natural exfoliating process. In other words, it prevents dead cells from falling into your pores, clogging them up and causing acne. Plus, it replaces old and dark dead cells with newer and brighter ones, so dark spots fade away more quickly. If you’re serious about antiaging, retinoids should be part of your skincare routine. Period.

The catch? Retinol is irritating. When you first start using it, it causes dryness, peeling, redness and irritation. Your skin needs time to get used to it, so experts recommend you start with a low dose a couple of times a week and increase both % and frequency gradually. Even then, sensitive skin may not be able to use it at all.

Related: Three Reasons Why You Should Use Retinoids

What Are The Best Retinol Products?

  • The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid 2% Emulsion (£8.00): This simple formula contains both retinol and granactive retinoid, another form of retinoid that’s been proven to effectively treat acne. Available at Beauty BayCult Beauty and Feel Unique.
  • Paula’s Choice Resist 1% Retinol Booster ($52.00): A high dose retinol serum infused with antioxidants to prevent premature aging. You can use it on its own for maximum effect. If that’s too irritating for your skin, mix a couple of drops with your moisturiser. Available at Feel Unique and Paula’s Choice.
  • Paula’s Choice Super Antioxidant Concentrate Serum With Retinol ($34.00): A low dose retinol serum perfect for beginners. Plus, it’s infused with any antioxidants you can think of. Available at Paula’s Choice.
the ordinary glycolic acid toning solution

Can You Use AHAs/BHA and Retinol Together?

There’s a rumour going round the internet that you can’t use AHAs/BHA and retinol together because they have different pHs. 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. But 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.

Does that mean that, if you use AHAs/BHA and retinol together, they deactivate each other and become useless, like critics claimed? Not really. I’ve delved into the scientific literature and there’s no research proving that using AHAs/BHA with retinol lowers their effectiveness or makes them useless. On the contrary, there are 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 Real Reason Why You Shouldn’t Use AHAs/BHA And Retinol Together

If the science says they can be used together, why am I suggesting they can’t? Well, you can but I’m cautious of recommending them together because both AHAs/BHA and retinol can be irritating. 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.

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

Who Should Use BHA And Retinol Together?

You should use Salicylic acid/BHA and retinol together if you have oily and/or acne-prone skin. Salicylic acid is an excellent comedolytic ingredient because it is oil-soluble and can penetrate into pores to gently exfoliate and remove excess sebum,” says board-certified dermatologist Hadley King, MD. “Retinoids are also excellent topical ingredients for fighting acne because they increase the turnover of skin cells and decrease their tendency to clog pores.” Together, they tackle acne on multiple fronts, helping it to heal faster.

Who Should Use AHAs And Retinol Together?

You should use AHAs and retinol together if you have dry skin and want to reduce wrinkles or dark spots. Both actives exfoliate skin, helping to fade away dark spots and minimise wrinkles. They just do it in different ways. By using both actives, you get results faster. Just make sure your skin can take both. If it’s sensitive, this may be a recipe for flakiness and irritation.

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.

How To Use AHAs/BHA And Retinol Together

If you want to use retinol and AHAs/BHA together, here’s how to introduce them in your skincare routine, so you can make the most of them while minimising side effects:

1. Introduce One Active At A Time

I don’t recommend you go to Sephora and buy both an exfoliating acid toner and a retinol serum right now. Introducing both products in your skincare routine at the same time can be too much for skin. Instead, start with one active and get your skin used to it before introducing the other. Rachel Nazarian, MD is a board-certified dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology, explains:

For example, one would begin by using a small pea-sized amount of retinoid once a week, and wait to see how the skin reacts before moving to twice weekly and then three times weekly. Once this regimen has been maintained for weeks, you can begin a topical acid once weekly on a night you’re not using the retinoid. And then slowly increase frequency to every other night, alternating with the retinoid.” 

2. Use AHAs/BHA And Retinol On Alternate Nights

Both AHAs/BHA and retinol are best used at night because they can increase skin’s sensitivity to the sun. But layering one after the other may be too irritating for skin. Instead, alternate them. Exfoliate with AHAs/BHA one night and use retinol the following night. Lather, rinse, repeat. Both actives shouldn’t be used more than 3/4 times a week each. Alternating them allows you to get all the benefits without the side effects.

3. Use AHAs/BHA In The Morning And Retinol At Night

Another way to include both AHAs/BHA and retinol in your skincare routine is to use them at different times of day. Retinol must always be used at night: “Retinol makes your skin more sensitive to UV rays and sunlight decreases the efficacy of the product,” says Dr. Whitney Bowe. That means exfoliating in the morning. It’s not ideal, as exfoliation can make skin more prone to sun damage too – unless you’re religious with sunscreen and its reapplication. It’s an option, but not the one I recommend (unless you have no other choice).


Can I use AHAs/BHA and retinol on the same day?

If you have resistant skin that can tolerate both AHAs/BHA and retinol on the same day, you can. Even so, it’s best to use them at separate times of the day, ie. retinol at night and exfoliation in the morning. If you have sensitive skin, don’t use them on the same day.

Should I use AHAs/BHA or retinol first?

If you’re using AHAs/BHA and retinol on the same night, apply the exfoliant first. It’ll give retinol the best chance to penetrate skin and perform its anti-aging magic.

Can I use AHAs/BHA and retinol in the same week?

Yes, you can use AHAs/BHA and retinol in the same week, unless you have very sensitive skin, inflamed skin, or eczema. Retinol may be too much for these skin conditions.

Can I use retinol after an AHAs/BHA peel?

No. You shouldn’t use retinol for a few days before an AHAs/BHA peel. You also not use retinol after an AHAs/BHA peel until all the peeling and flaking has ended. Depending on how strong the peel is, this can take two weeks and, in some cases, even a month.

The Bottom Line

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