Medically reviewed by Mary Lucas, MSCIS, MPhil, RN
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 1/28/2022
Glycolic acid and retinol have a reputation — a shared one. Both of these compounds are known for their effectiveness as cosmetic skin health treatments for things like acne and aging.
But they’re also known for their fairly solid history of side effects.
Notably, both can cause irritation depending on their application. The sacrifices we make, right?
So, if glycolic acid can benefit you, and so can retinol, then the obvious question is: “why not both?”
Luckily, it’s a question science has asked and answered for us: glycolic acid and retinol can be used together in certain circumstances, and the benefits can be great.
But there are some things you have to understand about how they work together before you go bathing your face in acids, like what they do.
Glycolic acid is one of the main “face acids” in the cosmetics world. It’s a type of alpha-hydroxy acid — a popular type of cosmetic skin peel.
It’s used as a chemical peel to remove outer, dead and dull layers of skin cells and leave behind a more youthful, fresh and glowy face.
Getting rid of those dead skin cells is important because, as we’ve mentioned, they can contribute to the aged look of your skin, increase the perceived depth of your fine lines and contribute to an increased risk for things like acne and inflammation.
A glycolic acid product removes these hangers-on efficiently, and can also address skin texture problems, including skin discoloration, hyperpigmentation, sun damage or photoaging, dark spots and other “cosmetic” issues with the appearance of your skin.
Retinol belongs to a class of medications called retinoids, and is a popular and effective ingredient in many over-the-counter skin care products. It shares this class with other vitamin A derivatives like tretinoin (retinoic acid) — but more on that in a bit.
These chemical exfoliants are synthetic vitamin A derivative products that, similarly to glycolic acid, boost skin cell turnover and remove the dead skin from the top, outer layer of skin on your face.
Prescription-strength retinoids, like tretinoin (sold under the brand name Retin-A®, are used with folks who have more serious acne problems. In a higher strength, they offer the additional benefit of boosting collagen production at a deeper level, which can help your young-looking skin also look more plump and healthy.
There are, however, side effects to be considered, and in addition to the skin irritation that people experience, you can also increase your risk of exacerbating irritation and existing lesions and pimples.
So, if your acne is inflamed, you may not want to throw retinol on the fire.
People with sensitive skin types are more susceptible to this. So, especially with regards to the prescription options, you’ll want to speak to a healthcare professional about your skin before starting a skin care regimen.
It’s the question of the day: can retinol and glycolic acid be used together? And the answer appears to be a surprisingly simple “yes” here.
Retinol and glycolic acid can be used successfully together in the treatment of cosmetic facial issues.
One study tested the combination in the treatment of acne scars. At the end of 12 weeks, researchers found that more than 90 percent of participants saw a “significant improvement” in the appearance of acne scars.
In these extreme cases, they concluded that retinol and glycolic acid performed well and could supersede the need for other acne scar treatments.
There are a few caveats worth mentioning. The patients were younger — under 35 years of age. And they were all prescribed a moisturizer to reduce the irritation that was expected from this combination treatment.
It’s one of just a small list of studies available, and more research is needed. But the idea that only three out of 35 participants saw no improvement whatsoever is very promising for this dynamic duo.
Both glycolic acid and retinol have their place in a skin care routine for someone who’s trying to keep oil, wrinkles, time and pimples in check. Depending on your needs, there might even be a benefit to using both.
But there’s a bigger skin health picture to be considered here, and we’d be remiss if we didn’t set the record straight.
The truth is, you don’t need some combination acid treatment for most daily skincare needs, and many of the things you worry about can be prevented or minimized by taking care of your skin early on.
What’s more, you might need different acids, like hyaluronic acid, which has been shown to help your skin retain moisture. In fact, it’s a bit of a powerhouse, with research suggesting it can retain 1,000 times its weight in water.
This is useful in helping you combat the effects of dry skin, dehydration and dryness at the source.
If you’re seeing wrinkles or pimples that you don’t like and your current skin care routine isn’t getting the job done anymore, the best thing you can do is ignore the whispers, affiliate blogs and cosmetics chit-chat, and talk to a healthcare professional about your skin concerns.
Talking to a professional is the best way to get personalized, detailed information about what makes your skin unique and what causes those unique problems.
That’s important, because your friends, parents and siblings may not suffer from the same issues — or solve skin problems with the same treatments that will work for you.
A healthcare professional may make suggestions on how to change up your daily skincare routine.
Taking care of your skin is worth the extra effort.