If you’re into skincare, chances are that you know all about the perks of using glycolic acid and retinol.

Yes, they can work wonders, each ingredient in its own way.

But what happens if you want to use them in the same routine?

Today, I’m here to help you learn whether or not you can mix glycolic acid with retinol. In the following sections, you’ll find:

  • An overview of what glycolic acid is;
  • An introduction to retinol;
  • A comparison between the two;
  • Answers to the question “Can I use glycolic acid with retinol”?;
  • Recommendations on which one goes first – retinol or glycolic acid;
  • A look into applying these ingredients in the morning and in the evening.

Let’s go!

What is glycolic acid?

Glycolic acid benefits for skin

Before getting into the question of whether you can use glycolic acid along with retinol, it’s worth starting with the basics. What is glycolic acid in the first place?

What it is:

In a nutshell, glycolic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) and a chemical exfoliant. In fact, it’s appreciated as the golden standard of AHAs.

It’s derived from sugarcane and is a popular acid used in skincare products such as masks, cleansers, peels, and serums due to its core property of eliminating dead skin and evening out the skin tone.

Glycolic acid is a powerful skin resurfacing agent as it buffers the topmost layer of the epidermis, ensuring quick and easy exfoliation. It’s therefore used as a treatment for skin hyperpigmentation and acne.

Benefits for the skin:
Some of the main reasons why glycolic acid is such a popular ingredient in skincare products are because of the diverse benefits it provides.

It’s an amazing skin exfoliant, that promotes cell turnover, encourages collagen production, and clears the pores. It’s also effective for smoothing out any vivid fine lines and wrinkles, improving the skin tone, brightening the skin, and correcting any dark spots.

It also has moisturizing capabilities, so it won’t dry out your skin and is actually recommended for people with dry skin.

Here is a summary of all of the benefits you need to know about:

  • Minimizes fine lines and wrinkles – the exfoliation by glycolic acid encourages skin cell renewal and collagen production, making the skin more capable of retaining hydration. This leads to fewer fine lines and wrinkles.
  • Offers excellent skin hydration – as a humectant, it replenishes the skin with new moisture.
  • Brightens the skin and improves the complexion – the tiny molecules in glycolic acid separate the bonds between dead skin cells and reveal fresh, “baby” skin that is smoother and brighter.
  • Tackles hyperpigmentation – if you have dark spots, age spots, acne marks, freckles, and melasma, you can see great results from glycolic acid. It exfoliates and eliminates darker dead skin cells from the surface bringing out a new layer of skin, which has an even skin tone.
  • Prevents acne – keeps the bad stuff away from your pores. Due to its keratolytic properties, it breaks down dead skin cells and opens clogged pores. This ultimately reduces acne and prevents future breakouts.
  • Enhances ingredient penetration into the skin – after removing all of the dead skin cells from the surface, it also makes ingredient penetration much better, improving the performance of any other skincare products you use after.
  • Safe for the lipids in your skin – it won’t strip your skin’s lipids, which are essential fatty acids that maintain hydration, a bouncy barrier, and keep the unwelcome stuff off the skin.

Potential side effects:
Although you can derive many positives from glycolic acid, you should keep in mind that it can also cause several negative consequences.

Some people may experience skin redness, itching, irritation, or rashes since it’s an acid. This is especially true if you have sensitive skin or if you’re using a high percentage of a glycolic acid product.

It’s also known to sensitize the skin, especially to sunlight. This means that you should use it in the evening and protect your skin with sunscreen the next morning to prevent any long-term damage.

In addition, glycolic acid is known to often irritate darker skin tones, potentially leading to post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.

In summary, the side effects to be cautious about include:

  • Redness and irritation;
  • Itching and peeling;
  • Flaking;
  • Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation;
  • Temporary purging.

What should you not use glycolic acid with?

As we’re on the side effects topic, I’d also like to mention that glycolic acid is not to be used with Vitamin C in the same routine.

In fact, I recommend being cautious when combining any AHAs with Vitamin C as it is another highly acidic substance. Using many acids at once can lead to irritation and increased skin sensitivity. Vitamin C is also unstable, leading to a pH imbalance when mixing it with glycolic acid.

What is retinol?

Retinol benefits for skin

What it is:

Retinol is an antioxidant and a type of retinoid that is derived from Vitamin A. If you’re new to retinoids – they’re a family of ingredients, with retinol and tretinoin being the main children.

Retinol is converted in the skin to the final form – retinoic acid.

When compared to other retinoids, retinol it’s not considered too strong and irritating.

It’s another powerful exfoliant that is often used in skincare products like moisturizing creams, serums, ointments, and lotions. It’s easily accessible and you can get it over the counter without a prescription.

Benefits for the skin:

Retinol is famous for its anti-aging properties and helps reduce fine lines and wrinkles.

It promotes skin cell production and is also efficient in clearing our clogged pores. Thanks to its powerful exfoliating properties it can stimulate collagen production, making the skin look plump and young.

It’s also often used as a treatment for acne due to its pore-unclogging capabilities.

Some of its other abilities are related to protection against sun damage, the treatment of hyperpigmentation, and more.

In short, the main advantages of retinol are that it can be helpful for:

  • The reduction of fine lines and wrinkles;
  • The reduction of pore size;
  • The treatment of sun spots and other consequences of sun damage or photoaging;
  • The elimination of uneven skin tone and texture;
  • The treatment of melasma and other forms of hyperpigmentation.

Potential side effects:

As with most other potent ingredients in the skincare space, the coin is never one-sided.

Some of the potential side effects of retinol may include irritation, redness, dryness, and peeling.

These negative scenarios often occur if you’re overusing retinol, if you’re new at using retinol, or if your skin type just doesn’t react well to the ingredient.

I’d also like to note that skin peeling is a normal reaction, especially if you’ve just started using retinol for the first time. This is why it’s recommended to start slowly and choose a product that contains lower concentrations of retinol.

Eventually, the peeling will fade and your skin will adapt. If this is not the case, it may be best to seek help or stop using the product completely.

Overall, the side effects you should keep in mind include:

  • Redness;
  • Itching;
  • Peeling.

What should you not use retinol with?

Although not as powerful as other retinoids, retinol remains a strong ingredient that you should be cautious of, especially when mixing it with other substances.

I highly recommend staying away from mixing retinol with Vitamin C or benzoyl peroxide. Benzoyl peroxide can cancel the effects of retinol, while Vitamin C acts in a completely different way – shielding the skin from environmental damage, while retinol repairs and rebuilds.

Skincare experts in the old days were strongly against using retinol with AHAs and BHAs, especially with glycolic acid. But as we’ll find out in some of the following sections, today the attitude towards using glycolic acid and retinol together has changed dramatically.

Glycolic acid vs retinol – ingredient comparison

If I had to compare glycolic acid vs retinol in terms of ingredients, I’d say that the first is a water-soluble AHA that comes from sugar cane, while the latter is a form of Vitamin A. When it comes to stating which one is better, I doubt that anyone can offer an unbiased answer.

It all comes down to your age, skin type, and the presence of any specific skin conditions that you may want to treat.

Both ingredients are potent, both have extensive benefits for the skin, and you will benefit from using both of them.

Can I use glycolic acid with retinol?

So, let’s talk about using glycolic acid with retinol in the exact same routine. Is it a good idea?

When I dived into the topic and did my research, I came across tons of questions that users ask on different platforms. Some of the most popular ones include:

  • Can I use the glycolic acid serum with retinol?
  • Can I use a glycolic acid cleanser with retinol?
  • Can I use glycolic acid toner with retinol?
  • Can I use The Ordinary Glycolic Acid Toner with tretinoin?

Without a doubt, The Ordinary is one of the most popular skincare brands in the space and they certainly have a range of products with retinol and glycolic acid. So I decided to see what they have to say on the topic.

In short, if you’re wondering whether you can use glycolic acid with retinol from The Ordinary, the brand doesn’t advise doing so. Instead, The Ordinary recommends using retinol and glycolic acid in different routines to prevent potential irritation.

This makes perfect sense as TO’s glycolic acid comes in a 7% concentration, which a rather strong. When used simultaneously with retinol it can irritate your skin, which is a bad image for the brand.

However, I want to point out that this is more of a guidance than a written rule. The main reason for this suggestion is that The Ordinary wants to make sure that most people will have positive experiences with their products so they always act with caution (which I personally understand 100%).

The truth is that, in general, you can use glycolic acid with retinol if your skin can tolerate the combo.

Of course, it only makes it better if you already have prior experience with both ingredients instead of diving into deep waters for the first time with both. It’s ideal to use a lower percentage of active ingredients if you’re just starting to experiment with mixing them in the same routine. You want to do so to avoid potential irritation.

If your skin is already used to both of these ingredients, you know how it reacts and you think it can handle a stronger cocktail – you can use higher percentages. Even then, I strongly encourage you to do a patch test first!

The time of day when you apply glycolic acid and retinol as part of the same routine also matters. If you’re going to use both, it’s better to do so in your evening routine.

Why?

Because the skin is exfoliated by both products, where the upper layer is buffered, making the skin extremely sensitive to the sun.

So, can you use glycolic acid and retinol on the same day? You sure can!

Risks and side effects of using retinol and glycolic acid together

The risks of using glycolic acid along with retinol

You may be wondering what the big deal is when it comes to using retinol and glycolic acid together.

What’s the worst that can happen?

Well, there are a few potential side effects to have in mind:

  • Skin peeling – I mentioned that retinol can cause peeling, but so can glycolic acid in some cases. If you have dry skin, watch out for this side effect and take measures if you notice that the reaction isn’t fading.
  • Redness – not only redness but irritation and burning sensations are potential side effects of a combo of retinol and glycolic acid. This is often a result of using more exfoliation than the skin can handle.
  • Itchy skin – itchiness is one of the first signs that your skin is sensitized. You can experience this side effect from combining retinol with glycolic acid. If you do, I recommend taking a step back and placing the two ingredients in a separate routine.
  • Sensitivity to the sun – this shouldn’t be a surprise, as both retinol and glycolic acid sensitize the skin to the sun. The solution? My all-time favorite piece of advice: don’t forget your sunscreen in the morning! Also, do use the combo in the evening.
  • Dark spots – people with deeper skin tones can experience hyperpigmentation and dark marks on the skin. To avoid this, opt for products that contain low levels of glycolic acid, stay away from doubling up on the products that contain GA, don’t forget your sunblock, and stay away from other exfoliating ingredients to prevent over-exfoliation.

Should you apply glycolic acid or retinol first?

So say you decide to give this couple a go and use these two ingredients in the same routine. What goes first, glycolic acid or retinol? Should you use exfoliating glycolic acid before or after retinol?

It depends on the formulation of the products that you have at hand.

The right way to approach your routine is to go from your thinnest products to the thickest ones and from those that are water-based to those with oils.

If we take The Ordinary 7% Glycolic Acid Toner as an example, you should apply it before a retinol-based serum from their range.

When it comes to glycolic acid serums, you should apply them before your retinol serum or cream to improve the penetration of all ingredients involved.

In general, I wouldn’t recommend opting for retinol-containing toners or essences for your main fix of retinol. They’re usually too mild to do a good job. Instead, I’d go for a serum or a cream that will give you a good concentration of the ingredient.

With glycolic acid, the story is in reverse. You’ll get the best results from it when using it as a toner, a peel pad, or in a cleanser form. This will work best with other ingredients in your routine.

This is the best-case scenario, as it naturally means using glycolic acid first and retinol – second.

Can I use glycolic acid in the morning and retinol at night?

It’s best to reverse that order and apply retinol products in the morning and glycolic acid in the evening. Retinol has UV protective abilities that can enhance your SPF protection, while glycolic acid sensitizes your skin to UV rays, so it’s safer to use it in your PM routine.

Moreover, retinol is not only an exfoliant but an antioxidant as well. When used in your morning routine, it will help the skin deal with some of the damage from the sun. You can think of retinol as offering a slightly similar effect to that of Vitamin C in that regard.

I know I’ve said this too many times, but I just can’t stress it enough.

Never forget to apply SPF in the morning, especially if using ingredients that increase cell turnover (yes, both retinol and glycolic acid fall under this category).

Alternatively, you can use both ingredients in the evening but if your skin can’t handle it – alternate the evenings. This is a skincare method recently coined as skin cycling and the goal is to have your active ingredients separated on different days to avoid skin irritation.

Put otherwise, your skincare routine can end up looking like this:

day 1 – exfoliation routine – AHA & BHA use
day 2 – retinol routine
day 3 – soothing/repairing routine with no strong actives (for example)

Depending on how much your skin is used to these two actives, you can either cycle back to day 1, or fill in the rest of the days with your soothing routine (if your skin is just getting started with either of these ingredients).

Do you have any experience using a combo of retinol and glycolic acid in your routine? How did you find it working for you?

I’d love to hear your feedback and learn more about your experience! Use the comments section below and share your stories with me and other skincare enthusiasts.