Can you use retinol and salicylic acid together?
These two acne fighters are a must to treat breakouts – and keep them from coming back. But, word on the street is they don’t play well with each other. They can cancel each other out or, worse, give you a bad case of irritation.
Is that true? Mmmm…
Any rumour has a kernel of truth, BUT there’s a way to incorporate both retinol and salicylic acid into your acne-fighting routine without doing any harm to your skin (or wallet). Here’s how:
- What Is Retinol?
- What Is Salicylic Acid?
- What Are The Benefits Of Using Retinol And Salicylic Acid Together?
- Do Retinol And Salicylic Acid Deactivate Each Other?
- The Real Reason You Should NOT Be Using Retinol And Salicylic Acid Together
- How To Use Retinol And Salicylic Acid Together
- The Bottom Line
What Is Retinol?
Retinol is a form of Vitamin A, the only thing proven to reduce wrinkles, not just their appearance. Here’s what Vitamin A does for skin:
- Speeds up cellular turnover (the skin’s natural exfoliating process)
- Brightens skin and fades away hyperpigmentation
- Boosts the production of collagen (the protein that keeps skin firm)
- Improves fine lines and wrinkles
- Helps treat acne
The catch? Retinol is harsh on the skin. It can cause dryness, redness, flaking, and irritation when you first start using it. The best course of action is to start with a small concentration a couple of nights a week and increase both dose and frequency slowly.
- Paula’s Choice Resist Wrinkle Repair Retinol Serum ($42.00): 0.1% retinol. Available at Feel Unique, Nordstrom and Paula’s Choice.
- Skinceuticals Retinol 0.3 Night Cream ($62.00): 0.3% retinol Available at Dermstore.
- Paula’s Choice 1% Retinol Booster ($52.00): 1% retinol. Available at Dermstore, Feel Unique and Paula’s Choice.
- Peter Thomas Roth Retinol Fusion PM ($65.00): 1.5% retinol. Available at Beauty Bay, Cult Beauty and Sephora.
Related: The Complete Guide To Retinol: What It Is, What It Does, And How To Use It
Struggling to put together a skincare routine that really works at fighting both acne and premature aging? Download your FREE “Best Skincare Routine For Acne + Aging Skin” to get started (it features product recommendations + right application order):
What Is Salicylic Acid?
Salicylic acid is a member of the Beta Hydroxy Acid family. The fam gives its its nickname, BHA.
BHA is the BEST exfoliant for oily, acne-prone skin – by far. Here’s why:
- It exfoliates skin: Like all chemical exfoliants, salicylic acid dissolves the glue that holds skin cells together, so they can slough off your face instead of falling into your pores, clogging them up. This is how it prevents breakouts.
- It unclogs pores: Salicylic acid is the only oil-soluble exfoliant. In plain English, it means it can penetrate deep inside your pores and remove all the dead cells, excess sebum, and other gunk stuck in there. This is how it gets rid of blackheads, whiteheads, and pimples.
- It soothes inflammation: Salicylic acid has powerful anti-inflammatory properties that reduce the redness that always comes along with pimples.
Salicylic acid is gentle on the skin, BUT like all exfoliants, can cause dryness and irritation if abused. Use it in moderation only (keep reading, I’ll tell you how farther down the post).
- Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum ($90.00): (has both glycolic acid and salicylic acid) available at Cult Beauty, Sephora and SpaceNK
- Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid ($29.00): available at Dermstore, Look Fantastic and Paula’s Choice
- The Inkey List Beta Hydroxy Acid (£9.99): available at Cult Beauty and Feel Unique
Related: Why Salicylic Acid Is Key To Spot-Free Skin
What Are The Benefits Of Using Retinol And Salicylic Acid Together?
Both retinol and salicylic acid fight acne by increasing your skin’s cellular turnover (i.e., your skin’s natural exfoliating process). But, they do it differently.
Retinol boosts the production of new skin cells and orders them to travel to the surface of your skin faster, so they can replace the older, most damaged ones faster.
Salicylic acid dissolves the glue that holds skin cells together on the surface of your skin, so they can slough off faster and reveal the brighter, smoother skin that was laying underneath all along.
The result is the same: brighter, younger-looking, clearer skin. But you get there faster when you use both ingredients in your routine.
Don’t take my word for it. Research shows this combination:
- Improves the signs of sun damage: Using a salicylic acid cleanser followed by a retinol serum improves the looks of wrinkles, fine lines, and hyperpigmentation without irritating skin. I suspect this combo would have worked even better at fighting aging if salicylic acid had been in a leave-on product – but it probably would have been more irritating, too.
- Improves skin texture: Using retinol after a 30% salicylic acid peel improves the texture of your skin and the signs of photoaging.
- Treats acne: Using retinol and salicylic acid together reduces acne lesions within 4 weeks. The catch? In this study, lactic acid was used too, so that may have made a contribution, too.
Related: Adult Acne: Why It Happens And How To Treat It
Do Retinol And Salicylic Acid Deactivate Each Other?
Rumour has that retinol and salicylic acid aren’t pH compatible. Use them together and they deactivate each other. Is that true?
Retinol needs to be converted into retinoid acid into your skin to work its magic. The enzymes that make this conversion happen work better at a pH of about 5.6.
Acids in skincare usually need a much lower pH – less than 3.5. For the longest time, we thought this was true for salicylic acid, too.
Recent research proves otherwise. Studies show that salicylic acid at a pH of 6.5 exfoliates skin as well as salicylic acid at a pH of 3.12 – but was less irritating.
Verdict: retinol and salicylic acid don’t deactivate each other. You can formulate them at a pH that keeps everything functioning properly. Phew!
The Real Reason You Should NOT Be Using Retinol And Salicylic Acid Together
Just because retinol and salicylic acid work well together, it doesn’t mean you should be using them together.
Here’s the deal: both retinol and salicylic acid can be irritating when used on their own. Use them together and there’s a serious chance of experiencing dryness, flaking, and redness .
Especially if you have sensitive skin. Salicylic acid is more than enough for you. No need to cause another flare-up by adding retinol into the mix, too.
All other skin types may eventually build up tolerance to using them together. But, there’s a better way to incorporate both into your skincare routine.
How To Use Retinol And Salicylic Acid Together
Retinol and salicylic acid can easily irritate skin when used together, every day, one after the other. Luckily, there are a couple of workarounds:
- Use them on alternate nights: I like to use salicylic acid on one night, retinol on the next. Lather, rinse, repeat. This way, you can get all the benefits without the irritation.
- Start small: Use the smallest concentration of retinol you can find and slowly build up dose. Smaller doses work more slowly, but they’ll spare you the irritation. After all, you won’t get faster results if you need to interrupt treatments because you damaged your skin pretty badly.
Related: 8 Proven Tricks To Make The Most Of Retinol (Even If Your Skin Is Sensitive)
The Bottom Line
Retinol and salicylic acid both treat acne by speeding up the skin’s natural exfoliating process. Salicylic acid goes a step further: it also gets deep inside your pores and unclogs them from within. The catch? Both ingredients can be irritating when used alone. If you want to incorporate both into your skincare routine, use them on alternate nights.