Salicylic Acid and Retinol Uses & Benefits

Have you ever had a hard time finding products that work for your combination skin? It can be difficult since you’re working with both dry and oily skin. To set your skin up for success, you need a product that stops your skin from flaking while keeping your pores clear of oil.

That’s a lot for just one product to do by itself. But, two products combined can get the job done. 

“Both retinol and salicylic acid are powerfully effective ingredients. Using each of them can bring you amazing results when you do it right!”

  • Shani 

Salicylic acid and retinol are two products that can both work to manage both oily and dry skin so that your skin stays glowing and beautiful. Read on to learn more about these ingredients and get some tips on using each of them.

What Is Retinol, Anyway?

Retinol is one of the gentlest retinoids on the consumer market. In fact, it’s one of the only retinoids that you can readily get over-the-counter. Most other retinoids are clinical strength and only come with a prescription.

Like all retinoids, retinol is derived from vitamin A. This concentrated form of vitamin A soaks into your skin and targets visible signs of aging like wrinkles, spots, and blemishes. 

Retinol is one of the most versatile forms of retinoid. While other retinoids are designed to target specific skin issues, retinol is a one-stop-shop for all things glowing skin.

What Is Salicylic Acid?

Salicylic acid belongs to a group of substances called keratolytic agents. These agents are known to break down dry and scaly skin to reveal softer and smoother skin textures.

Interestingly, salicylic acid comes from willow tree bark. The scientific name for willow trees is Salix, which is where salicylic acid gets its name. 

This acid is a form of beta-hydroxy acid (BHA), not to be confused with alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs), which include lactic acid, glycolic acid, and citric acid. Although a dermatologist can prescribe prescription-strength salicylic acid, this skin-balancing ingredient is also available in many over-the-counter skincare products.

What Are the Benefits of Retinol?

You may have seen retinol touted as skincare’s most effective anti-aging breakthrough to date. I am here to tell you that this ingredient lives up to the hype. Read on for some of our favorite ways that retinol can take your skincare routine to the next level.

Youthful-Looking Skin

If you’ve spent any time out in the sun, around town, or even laughing with friends and family, the chances are you’ve noticed some visible signs of aging. These can include fine lines and wrinkles, especially around your eyes, mouth, and on your forehead.

Fine lines and wrinkles are a natural part of aging, but not everyone wants to keep them around. Thankfully, retinol can help even out those wrinkles and restore your skin to a youthful glow. 

Retinol can help reduce the appearance of wrinkles by supporting healthy cell turnover in your skin. This means that wrinkles have less time to set into your skin.

Retinol also encourages collagen production, which helps your skin stay firm and elastic. Skin elasticity is vitally important to prevent signs of aging. When your skin is able to bounce back from stress and damage, you’ll likely see less visible wrinkles and lines.

Even-Toned Glow

When your skin is stressed, it may overproduce melanin in the affected areas. This is why you may develop freckles after a day out in the sun. 

As your skin ages, it’s bound to develop some hyperpigmentation. Hyperpigmentation refers to dark spots, freckles, age spots, blemish-related scars, and discoloration. Usually, these come about if your skin is stressed due to sun damage, using the wrong products for your skin type, or other environmental factors.

If you’d like to fade your hyperpigmentation, retinol can help with that.

Retinol helps reduce the appearance of dark spots and hyperpigmentation by increasing skin cell turnover rate. The faster your skin sheds old cells and replaces them with new ones, the faster your spots will fade.

What Are the Benefits of Salicylic Acid?

Salicylic acid is a common ingredient in most blemish-reducing skincare products, and for a good reason. This product works wonders for those who get blemishes because of dry, flaky, and irritated skin. Here are just some of the ways that salicylic acid can help.

Gentle Exfoliation

One of the peskiest parts of dry skin is dead skin cell buildup. This buildup typically presents as visible flakes of skin. If you have combination skin, you’ll notice these areas primarily on your cheeks and chin.

Salicylic acid can help smooth out these scaly patches of skin by dissolving the dead skin cells. Not only does this help keep your skin fresh, but it also helps your serums and moisturizers absorb better.

Breaks Down Blemishes

Blemishes come in all shapes and sizes, from red pimples to whiteheads and blackheads. There’s nothing worse than a poorly timed pimple, but thankfully salicylic acid helps target blemishes at their source.

Overactive sebaceous glands can cause blemishes on your skin. If you have oily skin, your oil glands are naturally overproductive and respond to stress by creating even more oil. This oil sits on top of your skin, creating the bright sheen that is characteristic of oily skin.

In oily skin, blemishes are caused by oil buildup. However, dry skin does not produce much oil in general. This lack of oil is what results in flaky and irritated skin.

When the skin is too dry, dead skin cells can build up on the skin's surface and even begin to clog up pores. When this happens, you’ll notice blemishes and visibly flaky patches of skin.

To solve this issue, it’s important to use a gentle exfoliator like salicylic acid to remove dead skin cells regularly. Salicylic acid can also dig into clogged pores and remove plugs of dead skin so that your blemishes have a chance to breathe.

Salicylic acid can also soothe irritation and calm redness to help reduce the appearance of blemishes.

Fade Dark Spots 

One thing that both salicylic acid and retinol can agree on is brightening the appearance of dark spots. Just like retinol, salicylic acid increases cell turnover through exfoliation and thus encourages dark spots to lighten up.

Although it’s not as well known for addressing dark spots, studies show that salicylic acid can be effective at reducing their appearance. More research is needed in this area, but current results are very promising.

You Can Have Both!

Online search results are mixed, but I am here to put the rumors to rest: you can use salicylic acid and retinol together. These are both very powerful ingredients, so it’s important to introduce them into your skincare routine slowly. If you suddenly start both at once, you may run the risk of dry skin.

I recommend starting with a salicylic acid serum like iS Clinical’s Active Serum, which uses salicylic acid and other AHAs to clean and soothe blemish-prone skin. Alternate nights with a retinoid formula like my Retinol Reform, which combines retinol and lactic acid for an even and easygoing glow. One to two nights a week, on nights not using Retinol Reform or Active Serum, exfoliate with the Dr Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Peel Pads which combine AHAs along with Salicylic Acid to exfoliate the skin and dissolve congestion in the pores. 

To help keep your skin hydrated while using these products, invest in a hydration-infusing moisturizer like iS Clinical’s Reparative Moisture Emulsion. This emulsion works by filling in the microscopic cracks in dry skin to help nourish and rebuild.

Both retinol and salicylic acid can cause your skin to be more sensitive to sunlight, so applying a broad-spectrum sunscreen of at least SPF 30 every morning is important. You should also reapply as directed to get the full benefits of sunscreen. 

Bring It All Together

Retinol and salicylic acid are both big names in skincare right now. Retinol is known for smoothing skin and targeting blemishes, while salicylic acid is primarily used as an exfoliator that unclogs pores. Used together, these two ingredients work together for smooth, clear, glowing skin. 


Salicylic Acid | American Chemical Society

Retinoids, Topical | American Osteopathic College of Dermatology (AOCD)

Effectiveness, Safety, and Effect on Quality of Life of Topical Salicylic Acid Peels for Treatment of Postinflammatory Hyperpigmentation in Dark Skin | PubMed Central