Can You Use Glycolic Acid and Retinol Together?

Can You Use Glycolic Acid and Retinol Together?

Combating skin discoloration, signs of aging, and an overall drab skin appearance is what I’ve spent my career doing. I know a lot about keeping your skin healthy, and I know which ingredients work and which don’t. 

“Using both together can double the restorative benefits, as well as target dark spots and even minimize visible signs of sun damage.”

  • Shani Darden, esthetician

Two ingredients I frequently recommend are glycolic acid and retinol. Both are powerhouse ingredients that can help improve skin texture and skin tone, as well as address other skin concerns. 

I’ll tell you what you should know about using them and how to use them together to get the best of both worlds.

Glycolic Acid

As hands-down one of the best chemical exfoliators, glycolic acid products can help restore the skin’s natural glow. You can find it in products that I formulate and in ones that I recommend. 

What Is Glycolic Acid?

Glycolic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid, or “AHA.” It’s the smallest of the alpha hydroxy acids, which means it’s better able to dive into your skin and work not only on the surface but also in the layers deep below the epidermis. Most AHAs and BHAs have trouble working deeply, which is what makes glycolic acid so special. 

This active ingredient is a natural acid that is primarily harvested from sugar cane. You can get it from other sources, like beets or pineapples, but sugar cane is the most common source. 

It can also be produced synthetically in a lab. The glycolic acid I use in my products is sourced from cruelty-free, vegan sources so that you can get results you feel good about.

Is Glycolic Acid Safe?

Glycolic acid is generally recognized as safe. It’s possible to use high concentrations of this ingredient, but you’ll mostly find these types of highly concentrated formulas in use in treatments given by your esthetician or dermatologist. 

At-home or over-the-counter formulas can be incredibly effective and shouldn’t cause much skin sensitivity if you use them correctly. 

What Does Glycolic Acid Do?

Glycolic acidexfoliates by binding to the top layer of dead skin cells and literally dissolving them right off the surface of the skin. It does this by breaking the bonds between the dead skin cells so they can easily be removed. No abrasive exfoliant can do this because it simply can’t produce that type of chemical reaction. 

Glycolic acid can also support skin cell turnover and collagen production, supporting more youthful-looking skin.


Retinol is my favorite skincare ingredient and can be used to address a myriad of skin conditions while supporting youthful and radiant-looking skin.

What Is Retinol?

Retinol is a derivative of vitamin A. It’s a natural and highly-studied ingredient that is often added to skin care products for anti-aging benefits, to minimize the appearance of breakouts and blemishes, and to support sebum production in oily skin. 

Antioxidants are necessary for protection against free radicals, which are molecules that can damage the DNA in our skin cells. Free radicals come from sources like pollution, the sun, and cigarette smoke. Luckily, retinol can also act as an antioxidant, protecting your skin from the inside out.

Retinolcan be tricky because it is often sourced from both plants and animals. The retinol you’ll find in my products and the ones I recommend are all vegan and cruelty-free, sourced from plants and not animals. The most common plant types that are used to produce retinol are carrots, spinach, and broccoli. 

Is Retinol Safe?

Retinol is safe, but it’s also incredibly powerful. Many people experience skin sensitivity when they use retinol products, with the most common reaction being skin flaking or dryness. To make sure everyone can enjoy the benefits of retinol, I’ve created a retinol product that is safe for all skin types and doesn’t cause sensitivity. 

My Retinol Reform ® uses encapsulated retinol, which is released much more slowly onto your skin. I’ve also included aloe and niacinamide in my formula, which can help soothe any potential irritation, even for sensitive skin.

What Does Retinol Do?

Like glycolic acid, retinol can support skin cell turnover and collagen production, as well as help skin feel firmer and look brighter. It can help fade the appearance of dark spots, minimize visible signs of aging like fine lines and wrinkles, and restore a more youthful and bright appearance. 

Can You Use Both Ingredients Together?

You can use both glycolic acid and retinol together as long as you do it correctly — and I’ll tell you exactly how. It’s also important you’re using a gentle retinol formula, which you can find in my Retinol Reform ®

Using both together can double the restorative benefits, as well as target dark spots and even minimize visible signs of sun damage. 

How To Use Both 

Adding glycolic acid and retinol to your skincare routine should be done incrementally over time. I like to start my clients with retinol and then add glycolic acid on a bimonthly basis. Here’s the basic recipe. 

Begin With Retinol Reform

Retinol Reform Serum can be used daily, but until you know how your skin will react, it’s best to use it every other day, building up as tolerated. Once your skin is thriving on Retinol Reform, you can begin to add in glycolic acid treatments — my favorite is a peel. 

Glycolic Acid Peels

My Triple Acid Signature Peel contains a blend of lactic acid, glycolic acid, and mandelic acid to resurface and brighten the skin in an easy-to-use, two-step process. You’ll want to use this twice a month to restore a healthy and bright skin tone and then use it weekly to help keep skin looking youthful, tighten pores, and relieve congestion caused by dead skin cells. 

On the days when you use the peel, skip the Retinol Reform. Make sure you’re taking proper steps to care for your skin post-peel, and make sure your skin stays properly hydrated. 

Alternating Serums

I typically recommend a routine that involves alternating Retinol Reform and Lactic Acid Serum for the ultimate antioxidant protection and skin-brightening ingredients. However, if you have blemish-prone skin, I recommend using a glycolic acid serum on Retinol Reform rest nights. 

One I love is the iS Clinical Active Serum. This serum contains a botanical blend of glycolic acid that can help clear congested pores, provide support against future breakouts, and help minimize the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. Make sure you do not use Retinol Reform on the same night as you use this serum. 

Helpful Tips

When using both glycolic acid and retinol, it’s important to make sure your skincare routine is on target. 

Stay Hydrated

It’s crucial to ensure your skin’s moisture levels are balanced. Preventing dry skin while using these products can help support your skin barrier and ensure that you don’t experience any flaking or peeling. Skincare ingredients like hyaluronic acid and squalane are great for supporting hydration.

I recommend my Hydration Peptide Cream, which contains a blend of peptides, ceramides, and my proprietary blend of deeply hydrating ingredients, Hydrosella™, to keep skin hydrated for up to 72 hours. 

Use Sunscreen

Both of these ingredients can increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun, so I recommend wearing an SPF of 50. I love Supergoop! CC Screen because it gives you protection and light coverage that won’t congest your pores or leave your skin feeling weighed down. In one simple step, you can get everyday coverage and a smoother-looking complexion.

Load Up on Antioxidants

Protection against free radicals pays dividends when it comes to the long-term health of your skin. My Sake Toning Essence is packed with antioxidants and niacinamide (vitamin B3) to help keep skin looking bright and pores looking tight, as well as ensuring your skin is safe against external aggressors. 

The Dynamic Duo

Yes, you can use glycolic acid and retinol together, but it’s important you use high-quality products that are formulated to account for the sensitivities these ingredients can cause. 

It’s also essential to make sure you aren’t using both glycolic acid and retinol together on the same days — it’s too much for your skin, and it isn’t going to give your skin any additional benefits. Instead, it could lead to redness and irritation. 

Combining glycolic acid and retinol should be done carefully and on separate days. Start off slowly, building up to regular use as your skin tolerates and making sure you allow time for your skin to fully recover if you’re doing a peel. 

If you have more questions or want more suggestions, you can always schedule a virtual consultation with one of the Shani Darden skincare professionals. They’ll have advice, information, and tips to help you get radiant, glowing skin safely.


Glycolic Acid - an overview | ScienceDirect Topics

The effect of glycolic acid on cultured human skin fibroblasts: cell proliferative effect and increased collagen synthesis | PubMed

Retinol: Cream, Serum, What it is, Benefits, How to Use | My Cleveland

Vitamin A (Retinol) Information | Mount Sinai - New York


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