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 use retinol and salicylic acid together into your acne-fighting routine without doing any harm to your skin (or wallet). Here’s how:
- What Is Retinol And How Does It Benefit Skin?
- What Is Salicylic Acid And How Does It Benefit Skin?
- What Are The Benefits Of Using Retinol And Salicylic Acid Together?
- Can You Use Retinol And Salicylic Acid Together?
- 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 And How Does It Benefit Skin?
Retinol is a form of Vitamin A, the only thing proven to reduce wrinkles, not just their appearance. Retinol works in three different ways:
- Antioxidant: It fights free radicals, the nasty molecules that are responsible for premature wrinkles. By neutralising them, retinol helps prevent premature aging and keeps your skin looking younger for longer.
- Collagen-booster: Collagen is the protein that keeps skin firm. It depletes with age, causing skin to sag and wrinkles. By keeping levels high, retinol reduces the wrinkles you already have and prevents new ones from forming.
- Exfoliant: Retinol speeds up cellular turnover, i.e. the skin’s natural exfoliating process. This has two main benefits. It replaces old and dark dead cells with newer, lighter ones to brighten the complexion and fade away dark spots. Plus, it helps to remove dead skin cells, so they don’t fall in the pores and give you acne.
In other words, retinol prevents and reduces wrinkles, dark spots, and 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.
Best Retinol Picks:
- Paula’s Choice Resist Wrinkle Repair Retinol Serum ($42.00): An anti-aging serum with 0.1% retinol. It also includes antioxidants, like Vitamin E, to prevent premature aging, and soothing ingredients to reduce irritations. Available at Paula’s Choice and Sephora.
- Skinceuticals Retinol 0.3 Night Cream ($62.00): This cream contains only 0.3% retinol but it packs an anti-aging punch. It comes in a moisturising base, but you need to use a separate moisturiser to counteract the dryness of retinol. Available at Dermstore and Skinceuticals.
- Paula’s Choice 1% Retinol Booster ($52.00): This high-strength 1% retinol booster has a moisturising base and plenty of skin-soothers to counteract the irritating effects of retinol. Use it on its own for maximum effect or dilute it with moisturiser if it’s too harsh for you. Available at Cult Beauty, Net-A-Porter, Paula’s Choice and SpaceNK.
- Peter Thomas Roth Retinol Fusion PM ($65.00): A micro encapsulated 1.5% retinol serum in an oily, moisturising base to fight wrinkles and fade away dark spots. Available at Beauty Bay, Cult Beauty, and Peter Thomas Roth.
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 And How Does It Benefit Skin?
Salicylic acid (BHA) is a member of the exfoliating Beta Hydroxy Acid family. 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).
Best Salicylic Acid Picks:
- Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum ($90.00): Don’t let the name fool you. This exfoliant has both salicylic acid to unclog pores and glycolic acid to fade away the dark spots pimples sometimes leave behind. Available at Cult Beauty, Sephora and SpaceNK.
- Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid ($29.00): The cult exfoliant from the brand, it unlclogs pores and treats blackheads and acne. The texture’s a little sticky, but if you can take that, this is one of the best salicylic acid exfoliants out there. Available at Cult Beauty, Dermstore, Net-A-Porter, Paula’s Choice, Sephora, and SpaceNK.
- The Inkey List Beta Hydroxy Acid (£9.99): A simple, no-frills salicylic acid exfoliant for people on a budget. Available at Cult Beauty and Sephora.
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, 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
Can You Use Retinol And Salicylic Acid Together?
Rumour has that retinol and salicylic acid can’t and shouldn’t be used together because they aren’t pH compatible. When you use them together, they deactivate each other and become useless. 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: you can use retinol and salicylic acid together. They 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 science says retinol and salicylic acid work well together, it doesn’t mean you should be using them together. Huh? Here’s the deal: both retinol and salicylic acid can be drying and irritating when used on their own. “Mixing salicylic acid and retinol can lead to increased irritation, especially in someone who is prone to dry or sensitive skin,” board-certified dermatologist and founder of Maei MD Rebecca Marcus, M.D., FAAD, says.
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
I don’t recommend using retinol and salicylic acid together at the same time on the same day, as that may increase irritation. Instead, here are 5 ways to combine retinol and salicylic acid together in your skincare routine:
1. Use Retinol At Night And Salicylic Acid During The Day
One of the easiest way to use retinol and salicylic acid in the same routine is to use them at alternate times of days. Retinol should always only be used at night. “Some retinoids [including retinol] are considered photolabile, which means they may become unstable and break down when exposed to the sun, making them less effective when used during the day,” Marcus explains.
Salicylic acid, like all exfoliant, can make skin more sensitive to the sun, but doesn’t get deactivated by it. For this reason, you an use it during the day, as long as you apply a generous dose of sunscreen afterwards (which you should be doing every day anyway).
2. Use Retinol And Salicylic Acid On Alternate Nights
My fave way to use retinol and salicylic acid in the same routine is to use them on alternate nights. This means that one night, you’ll be exfoliating with salicylic acid to remove dead skin cells from the surface of your skin. The next night, you’ll be using retinol to reduce wrinkles and acne.
At this point, you have a choice. The third night, you can choose to keep alternating between salicylic acid and retinol without a break in between. But, if you have sensitive skin or you’re simply new to retinol and your skin needs to get used to it, you can take a break from both ingredients. It looks like this:
Night one: salicylic acid. Night two: retinol. Night three: break (just use your hydrating serums). Night four: salicylic acid. Night four: retinol. Night six: break. Lather, rinse, repeat. Remember that going slow is going fast. You won’t get faster results if you irritate your skin and need to take a break from these actives anyway.
Related: 8 Proven Tricks To Make The Most Of Retinol (Even If Your Skin Is Sensitive)
Who Should Use Retinol And Salicylic Acid Together?
Using retinol and salicylic acid together is most beneficial for oily and acne-prone skin that’s not sensitive. Together, they help you prevent and treat any form of acne, including blackheads, whiteheads, and pimples.
Who Should NOT Use Retinol And Salicylic Acid Together?
I don’t recommend you use retinol and salicylic acid together if you have:
- Dry skin: Dry skin can use retinol, but will benefit more from glycolic acid than salicylic acid. Glycolic acid is a different exfoliant that also hydrates skin and fades away dark spots. The same application rules apply. Use them on alternate nights.
- Sensitive skin: Sensitive skin can use salicylic acid a couple of nights a week, especially if it’s acne-prone. But retinol may be too much for your sensitive skin type and cause irritation.
FAQ ABOUT USING RETINOL AND SALICYLIC ACID TOGETHER
How long should you wait to use retinol after applying salicylic acid?
You shouldn’t use retinol and salicylic acid at the same time. Instead, use them on alternate days or at different times of the day.
Can I use retinol and salicylic acid on different days?
Yes, this is my fave way to incorporate retinol and salicylic acid into your skincare routine. Alternate them at night, using salicylic acid one night and retinol the next. Every third night, you can also take a break from both ingredients and focus on hydration, especially if your skin is sensitive.
Can I use retinol and salicylic acid on the same day?
You can, as long as you use them at different times of the day. For best results, use salicylic acid in the morning and retinol at night. Both actives can make skin more prone to sun damage, so apply a generous dose of sunscreen afterwards.
In what order should I apply retinol and salicylic acid in my routine?
Both retinol and salicylic acid go straight after cleansing, preferably at night. Applying them on clean skin gives them the best chance to penetrate skin and work their magic.
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 use both retinol and salicylic acid together in your skincare routine, use them at different times of day or on alternate nights.