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Glycolic acid and retinol are well known as powerful skincare ingredients on their own. Both ingredients have distinct features but are favoured to target visible signs of ageing and acne-prone skin. Because these ingredients target similar skin concerns, many people ask which is better, retinol or glycolic acid?

Both ingredients are highly effective and differ in their mode of action. In fact, these ingredients can complement each other despite the perception that you shouldn’t use glycolic acid and retinol together in the same daily routine. Read on to learn the distinct features of retinol and glycolic acid, as well as how to best integrate them both into your routine for optimal benefits.


Learning how to use glycolic acid is enhanced by an understanding of where this ingredient is derived from and how it works on the skin. Glycolic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) found naturally in the sugar cane plant, beetroot and several fruits. It can also be synthesised. AHAs such as glycolic acid are effective for targeting acne-prone skin as well as visible signs of ageing such as fine lines and wrinkles. Glycolic acid works by dissolving the bonds between dead skin cells, allowing them to be easily sloughed away to reveal a fresh layer of skin beneath. These dead skin cells can otherwise go on to form comedones (blemishes) by combining bacteria with excess sebaceous matter to plug pores.


In order to understand how to use retinol, it’s important to first discover retinol’s benefits and how it works. Retinol is a form of vitamin A that falls under the umbrella category of retinoids. This synthesised ingredient is incredibly powerful and works by binding to retinoic acid receptors within the skin to prompt faster skin cell turnover and increased collagen production. These dual physiological processes create powerful benefits by reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, tightening the skin and helping to prevent blemish formation. Retinol is known as one of the most effective ingredients in skincare due to the way it works on a cellular level.


Glycolic acid and retinol are both highly effective ingredients targeting acne-prone skin and the visible signs of ageing skin. However, these two ingredients target similar skin concerns via different physiological processes and at different levels of the skin.

Glycolic acid works at a more superficial level by removing dead skin cells on the outermost layer of the skin. In contrast, retinol targets collagen production deeper within the skin as well as enhancing turnover at a cellular level. Lastly, glycolic acid is a milder and gentler ingredient overall, so may be more suitable for people with more sensitive skin.


Understanding the powerful yet distinct benefits of both glycolic acid and retinol, it’s natural to want to use both these ingredients within the same daily skincare routine. However, can you use glycolic acid with retinol? These two ingredients work best at significantly different pH levels. This means that if you apply glycolic acid immediately after applying retinol, the second ingredient may have altered the skin’s pH to a level that may hinder the efficacy of the first product. However, retinol and glycolic acid have benefits that complement each other and can be used in the same daily skincare routine as long as they are separated at either ends of the day.


Even though the answer to ‘can you mix glycolic acid and retinol?’ is no, it’s worth noting that using these two ingredients as part of a daily skincare routine can still be beneficial to target visible signs of ageing skin and acne-prone skin. However, a planned approach is required to ensure that products containing glycolic acid and retinol aren’t applied immediately before or after one another. SkinCeuticals recommends using cleansers and serums formulated with glycolic acid in the morning and reserving retinol creams for your nightly regime. Utilise the easy to follow product recommendations below to gain optimal benefits from all ingredients in your routine.


Our Blemish and Age Toneris a dual purpose cream cleanser intended for acne-prone skin with blemishes. Formulated with 7% concentration of glycolic, lactic and salicylic acids, this cleanser clarifies and purifies the skin, effectively removes dead skin cells from the skin’s surface and helps dissolve congestion within the pores. With consistent use, skin will appear smoothed and brightened with fewer blemishes. Ensuring skin is thorough clarified is an essential first step before applying other active skincare products. This cleanser ensures ingredients in your serums and moisturisers can properly penetrate the skin layers as needed.

SkinCeuticals recommends this cleanser for once daily use. If including retinol in your night-time routine, use the Clarifying Exfoliating Cleanser in the morning to avoid any possible ingredient interactions. To apply, massage a small amount of this cream cleanser onto the face and neck while the skin is wet. Use a gentle circular motion before rinsing the entire area thoroughly with warm water and patting dry with a clean towel.


Although acne-prone skin is sometimes perceived as an adolescent skin concern, blemishes commonly persist into adulthood. Our Blemish + Age Defense serum has an oil-free formula intended for ageing skin prone to blemishes. This corrective serum contains a tailored first-to-market formula combining dioic acid with glycolic acid and other complementary hydroxy acids. This powerful, targeted anti-ageing serum serves dual purposes to address adult acne-prone skin as well as the appearance of wrinkles, fine lines and uneven pigmentation. With consistent use, this serum can regulate serum production, reduce pore congestion, even out skin tone and diminish visible signs of ageing.

SkinCeuticals recommends applying Blemish + Age Defense either once or twice daily, depending on your individual skin needs and routine. If you’re seeking to incorporate both glycolic acid and retinol into your skincare routine, using Blemish + Age Defense in the morning and a retinol cream each morning. Retinol in the evenings is recommended as best practice. To apply, pat 4-5 drops onto freshly cleansed skin, before smoothing over the face while avoiding the immediate eye area.


Our range of highly concentrated pure retinol creams are formulated with advanced delivery and stabilisation technologies to ensure retinol is delivered to the skin optimally overnight. This ultra-stable slow release technology minimises the potential for dryness or flaking while maximising efficacy for optimal anti-ageing and anti-congestion benefits.

Our Retinol 0.3 is a less concentrated formula intended for first-time retinol users. This concentration is gentle enough to minimise dryness and sensitivity but can still create effective anti-ageing benefits and reduce blemishes. More experienced retinol users can opt for our Retinol 0.5 or Retinol 1.0 creams as tolerated by your individual skin type for skin preconditioner with the lower concentrations.

To apply your chosen concentration, smooth a pea-sized amount of this powerful cream to the skin after cleansing at night. When starting retinol for the first time or switching to a higher concentration, SkinCeuticals recommends limiting use to once or twice a week. Gradually increase the frequency of use as your skin tolerates the retinol, working towards using this cream daily at night.

Remember that when using products with glycolic acid and retinol, always use high SPF protection during the day as both ingredients can make the skin more sensitive to the sun.

Now that you’re fully informed on how to use retinol and glycolic acid safely and effectively as part of the same daily skincare routine, it’s also important to understand how retinol interacts with other powerful skincare ingredients. Read our ‘Guide to Using Retinol and Vitamin C’ Together to learn how retinol interacts with one of the most popular antioxidant anti-ageing ingredients in skincare.




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