Glycolic acid vs retinol – do I have to pick one in my skincare routine?

If you’re a skincare nerd, chances are you’ve heard of glycolic acid and retinol. These two skincare ingredients are incredibly popular, and you’re probably looking for ways to incorporate them into your skincare routine. But what’s the difference between the two? And what’s the best way to fit both into your skincare routine?

What Does Glycolic Acid Do?

Glycolic acid is an exfoliant derived from sugarcane. It is the smallest alpha hydroxy acid, and it exfoliates the skin by removing the dead skin cells on the surface. This stimulates the skin to build more collagen and elastin, which makes you look younger and firmer. It can also help with breakouts and clogged pores, and it can fade dark spots and sun damage.

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This is a good time to introduce the concept of Alpha-Hydroxy Acids (AHAs).  The fantastic anti-aging weapon Glycolic acid is the most popular alpha-hydroxy acid used in skin care.  Other commonly utilized AHAs include lactic acid, citric and mandelic acid, while salicylic acid is a super popular BHA (Beta-hydroxy-acid).  Both salicylic acid and glycolic acid are very commonly used in peels for treating acne and pigmentation.

These acids help kill acne bacteria, remove dead skin cells from the pore and increase skin cell turnover. If it’s your first time to use Glycolic Acid, we recommend La Roche-Posay Glycolic B5 Dark Spot Corrector, 10% Glycolic Acid Serum.

La Roche-Posay Glycolic Acid Serum with Kojic Acid and Vitamin B5, Reduces Dark Spots and Discoloration, Skin Tone Corrector to Brighten & Even Skin Tone La Roche-Posay Glycolic Acid Serum with Kojic Acid and Vitamin B5, Reduces Dark... @ Amazon Amazon Prime

The La Roche-Posay serum has 10% concentration.  It’s an extraordinarily high concentration of the acid, but it’s not too much for your skin to handle.

This product is a great option for treating acne and acne scars. It helps to exfoliate your skin so that your pores appear smaller and your skin tone appears even.

This is another great option:

Mario Badescu Glycolic Gel for Oily or Congested Skin, Oil-free Skin Resurfacing, Retexturizing & Refining Gel that Helps Boost Clarity, Pack of 1, 2 Fl Oz Mario Badescu Glycolic Gel for Oily or Congested Skin, Oil-free Skin... @ Amazon Amazon Prime

The Mario Badescu Glycolic Gel improves the appearance of oily, uneven skin tone by reducing the appearance of large pores and decreasing the visibility of enlarged pores.

Murad Vita-C Glycolic Serum - Environmental Shield Skin Brightening Vitamin C Face Serum - Hyperpigmentation Treatment Backed by Science, 1 Fl Oz Murad Vita-C Glycolic Serum - Environmental Shield Skin Brightening Vitamin C... @ Amazon Amazon Prime

Vita-C Glycolic Brightening Serum A gold-stabilized vitamin C and glycolic acid serum that gives skin a substantially brighter, healthier appearance. It helps to prevent hyperpigmentation, dullness, and uneven skin tone. After using Vita-C Glycolic Brightening Serum, apply a moisturizer to your face, neck, and chest.

Glo Skin Beauty GlyPro AHA Resurfacing Cleanser | Smoothing, Refining Gel Cleanser, Targeting Texture, Dullness, Clogged Pores, and Uneven Skin Tone Glo Skin Beauty GlyPro AHA Resurfacing Cleanser | Smoothing, Refining Gel... @ Amazon Amazon Prime

The GlyPro AHA Resurfacing Cleanser is one of the more powerful cleansers, with 10% glycolic acid that addresses dullness, hyperpigmentation, blocked pores, and acne prone skin, sloughing away dead skin cells to reveal younger, radiant cells and a retextured, smoother surface.

What Benefits Does Retinol or Retinoic Acid have?

Retinol is a derivative of Vitamin A, and it can also exfoliate the skin. When topically applied, it increases collagen production in deep layers of skin and skin cell turnover, reduces the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, and evens skin tone.

Retinoic Acid is a form of vitamin A that the skin uses.

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The retinoid family includes retinol and other Vitamin A derivatives, though the term “retinol” is now used commonly to refer to OTC retinoids, and the word “retinoid” is used to talk about prescription-strength variations, including retinoic acid (also known as tretinoin), adapalene (like Differin) and tazarotene.

Retinol can help with acne by decreasing oil production and unclogging pores. Retinol users can achieve younger, clearer-looking skin with fewer fine lines and wrinkles.

Think of retinol as the big sister of glycolic acid. Retinol can do everything that glycolic can, but it’s a lot stronger. For example, a glycolic acid peel at the dermatologist might be anywhere from 10 to 50 percent. Retinol more commonly starts at 1.0 and goes up to 2.0. These are used nightly, and anything above 1.0 is considered a prescription.

Some of the newer retinol may not cause sun sensitivity, but most dermatologists still recommend that people use retinol at night time only.

The Vichy LiftActiv Retinol is a really good retinol serum.

Vichy LiftActiv Retinol HA Anti-Wrinkle Concentrate Retinol Serum with Hyaluronic Acid, Plumps Skin to Reduce Signs of Aging, 1.01 Fl Oz (Pack of 1) Vichy LiftActiv Retinol HA Anti-Wrinkle Concentrate Retinol Serum with... @ Amazon

Winkles are noticeably reduced and filled with this anti-aging retinol serum. Skin looks smoother and plumper right away, and facial expressions appear more relaxed. Ingredients also have Hyaluronic Acid to hydrate and plump skin to reduce aging.

Sale Peter Thomas Roth | Retinol Fusion PM Night Serum | Hydrating Retinol Facial Serum, 1.5% Microencapsulated Retinol for Fine Lines, Wrinkles, Uneven Skin Tone, Texture and Radiance Peter Thomas Roth | Retinol Fusion PM Night Serum | Hydrating Retinol Facial... @ Amazon Amazon Prime

Peter Thomas Roth Retinol Fusion PM Night Serum is a vitamin C serum with retinol. It does skin hydration deeply, leaving it looking very smooth and soft.

SkinMedica Retinol 1.0 Complex, 1 Fl Oz SkinMedica Retinol 1.0 Complex, 1 Fl Oz @ Amazon Amazon Prime

This is a highly concentrated solution that is appropriate for anyone who has previously used retinol. This retinol product promotes cell turnover, resulting in younger, healthier skin. Improves the colour, texture, and resilience of the skin. Fine lines and wrinkles appear to be less noticeable.

Sunday Riley A+ High-Dose Anti Aging Retinol Serum Sunday Riley A+ High-Dose Anti Aging Retinol Serum @ Amazon

A+ High-Dose Retinoid Serum is a high-performance retinoid serum that penetrates the skin with a 6.5 percent solution of stabilised retinoid blends and botanical, retinol-alternative extracts. It does well to improve the appearance of congested and UV-damaged skin by fighting the indications of ageing (wrinkles, enlarged pores).

Sale StriVectin Multi-Action Super-C Retinol Brighten & Correct Vitamin C Face Serum with Acerola Cherry Extract, 1 Fl Oz StriVectin Multi-Action Super-C Retinol Brighten & Correct Vitamin C Face Serum... @ Amazon Amazon Prime

Vitamin C’s brightening power and Retinol’s corrective capabilities combine in one supercharged, lightweight serum. This product is effective. Skin has a lot more radiance after two weeks of usage – it has a softer, more even tone. If you have dry skin, you should apply a moisturizer over this serum.

Which One is Better?

If you’re looking for the best bang for your buck, you can’t go wrong with using glycolic acid regardless of your skin type. There are currently several studies to help prove this.

And a study done on people with acne found that glycolic acid reduced acne with twice-a-day application.

Both can help with hyperpigmentation as well as smoothing out the skin texture. But a study done on both combined ingredients found that glycolic acid helped to lighten hyperpigmentation better than retinol.  Use them together for a really good treatment for your skin. One study even showed an increased efficacy of glycolic acid used with retinol over either alone.

On the other hand, retinoic acid has been proven to improve different skin conditions, in a short time period, due to the horny layer renewal effect.

Which One Should I Choose?

Generally speaking, glycolic acid is a gentler exfoliant and is better suited for sensitive skin. Glycolic acid tends to be ideal if your skin concerns are more focused on dull or tired-looking skin. If you have oily skin, then retinol might be more suited for you. Retinol is less harsh and less likely to cause skin irritations.

They’re both good at promoting collagen production. When it comes down to it – whether you prefer to use glycolic acid vs retinol will depend on whether you value retinol’s “age-defying” benefits or glycolic acid’s exfoliating capabilities more.

Using retinols and glycolic acid separately or together?

With glycolic acid, you can focus on exfoliation, and with retinol, you can focus on anti-aging. If you’re looking for skin care products that can help you both exfoliate and fight wrinkles, then you have to consider a glycolic acid-retinol product.

Both of them are useful for treating acne and acne scars. Glycolic acid helps to exfoliate your skin so that your pores appear smaller and your skin tone appears even, while retinol helps to fade acne scars and prevent acne.

So how do you incorporate both into your skin care routine?

They can work very well together, for all skin types.  But if you have drier or more sensitive skin, you have to go slowly.  Start introducing acid treatments into your skincare routine and give your skin time to adjust (at least a week).  Only if you’re doing well with it have no irritation, then you can add in the retinol gradually. If you have sensitive or dry skin, start at an even slower pace.

Experts always recommend applying the product at night and starting with a lower concentration OTC retinols come in different strengths, ranging from 0.1% to 1.0% and increasing slowly.

If you see flaking and peeling, then reduce the frequency of either/both. Or what’s simpler, use them on alternate nights instead (see below for more).

But if your skin says it’s ready, then apply your glycolic acid underneath your retinol products. Just a small amount of the acid will do. The AHA will help to balance out the skin and give it a smooth foundation to work on.

Should I alternate retinol and glycolic acid?

Depending on your skin type, you might not need to alternate retinol and glycolic acid.  The glycolic acid exfoliates your skin, while the retinol helps to provide anti-aging benefits.  Start both of them slowly and if you do not get any skin irritation, then you are good to go.

But if you want to be more careful, then it doesn’t hurt to give it a little bit of time between applying the two products.  The conversion of retinols to their active retinoic acid form requires a chemical reaction called hydrolysis, which is generally believed to be better at neutral pHs (which would have impacts for layering with a glycolic acid product).

Ultimately there is still not enough evidence that using retinols right after you’ve applied a layer of acidic skin care product like an AHA or BHA may reduce conversion to the active retinoic acid.  So listen to your skin and if both products work together then there’s no need to worry.

Tip:  Some products will advertise AHA etc in the label for their cleansers, serums and other skincare products, but when you look closely at the ingredient list, you may find that acid may not be listed as an active ingredient near the top at all.  If you are specifically looking for an ingredient to be added to your skincare routine, then you want to find a product with a higher concentration of it.

What Not to Do

Here are some things you should avoid when using glycolic acid and retinol:

  • Do not forget to hydrate.  The most important thing to keep in mind when using glycolic acid and retinol is hydration, hydration, hydration. Perhaps add a hyaluronic acid step for some bonus moisture.
  • Do not buy a product that contains more than 2% or 3% retinol. This is the maximum concentration of retinol you can get from a skincare product.
  • Do not go with products with retinol and benzoyl peroxide in them. There are currently some products on the market that contain both, and they contain a lot of benzoyl peroxide. I would avoid these products, because they are very irritating.
  • Do not over-exfoliate or abuse your skin. Glycolic acid treatment is a strong exfoliant, so you don’t have to use it all over every day.
  • Because retinols may be drying for some people, you’ll need to go easy based on what kind of skin you have.
  • It’s generally not a good idea to apply retinoids and salicylic acid together in fear of irritation and dryness.

Source: Retinoic acid and glycolic acid combination in the treatment of acne scars

Jen Roberts Glowing Gorgeous

Jen Roberts

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About our Chief Editor

Jen Roberts, is a passionate beauty specialist and blogger with a deep love for skincare and wellness. More about me here.


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