How to use retinol and exfoliating acids together

From resurfacing the skin to fading dark spots to softening fine lines and wrinkles, active ingredients are our skin’s friends. 

Two of the most proven ones are retinol and acids:

  • Retinol is a member of the retinoid family of vitamin A and vitamin A derivatives. Active vitamin A (retinoic acid) is prescription-only, but retinol is available over-the-counter.
  • Acids are AHA and BHA exfoliants. The AHA (alpha-hydroxy acid) family includes glycolic acid and lactic acid, while there’s just one BHA (beta-hydroxy acid), salicylic acid. There is also PHAs (poly-hydroxy acid) which we will talk about later.

But can you use Retinol and AHAs together?

You may have heard that acids and retinol don’t get along well together—and you’d be right. The common advice is to use these potent skincare actives on alternate days. Advice I recommend you follow, especially if you are new to retinol and exfoliating acids. 

BUT if you’re a well seasoned user and it’s fine to use either an AHA and retinol, or a BHA and retinol in one skincare routine.

However, there is a catch. They MUST be applied at the right times, in the right order, to minimize irritation and get the best possible results. 

But first we need to understand why retinol and exfoliating acids don’t mix.

Why Acids and Retinol Don’t Mix

Or why you shouldn’t use retinol and acids at the same time.

  • Inactivation of acid: Acids penetrate better at a lower pH so if you’re layering a retinol that has a higher pH over an acid, it might neutralize the acid—bring up its pH—and make it less effective. 
  • Impaired conversion of retinol: On the flip side, retinol doesn’t work so well on acidic skin and needs to be applied on skin with a neutral pH
  • Irritation: And of course there’s more risk of irritation when you’re using two strong exfoliators at the same time. This can disrupt your skin’s barrier and leave you inflamed and sensitive.

How to use retinol and acids in the same routine?

If you are going to go ahead and use both of these actives in the same routine, you have two options.

Use retinol and acids at different time of the day.

This is the least risky option. The general rule is to use retinol in the pm they can break down in light and make your skin more sensitive to sunburn. Over-the-counter retinol doesn’t cause the same sun sensitivity, and some of the newer formulations may be photostable enough to wear in the daytime underneath a good sunscreen.​ However, most dermatologists still recommend using retinol at night.

Then in the morning you can use use a AHA or BHA cleanser or toner to get off any flaky dead skin cells caused by your retinoid at night. You can use a leave on acid product (this is one of my favourites) but as they tend to be a higher percentage of acids, I would caution against it. ALSO REMEMBER your spf!!

Wait 30 minutes.

If you do want to go ahead and use a retinol and an acid at the same time, you can… but only if you’ve got time to wait in between layers! 

It doesn’t really matter which one you apply first;  go with the one that has the lightest texture. You’ll probably find this is the acid, especially if you are using it as a cleanser or toner. 

Then, you have to wait a good 30 minutes to allow your skin’s pH to return to normal. You can give it a helping hand with a pH balancing toner like my favourite Holos pre and probiotic spritz. 

I hope this makes how to acids and retinol together easier to under easier to understand.

For me personally I like to use ByWishtrend 5% Mandelic skin water prep in the morning after using retinol the night before. Then if I use an overnight acid treatment or mask – like my beloved The Ordinary 30% AHA + 2% BHA Peeling Solution, I definitely won’t use retinol at the same or acids in the morning to prevent over exfoliation and irritation of the skin.

Let me know how you use acids and retinol in your routine!

Irish Beauty Blogger

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