Acids and retinols are any skincare lover’s best friends. These ingredients, also referred to as “actives,” play a huge role in achieving beautiful, smooth, and blemish-free skin.
However, you’ll want to incorporate these ingredients into your routine gradually and with care. Overusing them or applying them incorrectly can damage your skin, making it harder to reach your skincare goals. But, with the tips in this blog post, you’ll be able to maximize the effectiveness of the acids and retinols in your skincare routine like a seasoned pro.
In order to do that, though, first you’ll want to learn what retinol and acids do for your skin. This will help you determine which ingredients are best for your specific skin type as you build up your new skincare regimen.
The Difference between Retinol and Acids
Retinol: The Queen of Anti-Aging Ingredients
Retinol is a vitamin A derivative commonly used in skincare. A powerhouse active used in many anti-aging products, vitamin A restores the look of your skin by stimulating the production of new skin cells. Whether you want to treat sun damage, hyperpigmentation, fine lines, or acne scarring, this active ingredient takes care of business below the surface of the skin.
The result? Healthy skin that looks smoother, healthier, and younger.
If you’re interested in adding this active to your skincare regimen, you’ll also want to distinguish between retinol and retinoid products, two terms that are used frequently in the skincare industry. Retinol typically refers to products available over-the-counter, while retinoids are stronger formulations that are usually available by prescription only.
Acids: What are AHAs and BHAs?
In comparison, acids exfoliate the surface of the skin and remove dead skin cells to reveal the glowing skin underneath. Because of their unique molecular structure and qualities, each one will work best for different skin types and concerns.
The AHA (alpha hydroxy acid) group includes powerful acids like glycolic, lactic, and mandelic that loosen the top layer of skin. They help smooth out any texture irregularities and boost collagen production too. AHAs add moisture back into the skin, so they’re a great option for people with dry or damaged skin.
Meanwhile, salicylic acid makes up the only BHA (beta hydroxy acid) used in skincare. This ingredient goes deep into the pores and sweeps away the dead skin cells and built-up oil inside. Salicylic acid’s anti-inflammatory properties also make it ideal for acne-prone skin types.
Can You Use Acids and Retinol at the Same Time?
Retinol and acid products offer a wide range of benefits, so it makes sense that you’d want to incorporate as many of them as possible in your skincare routine.
But remember: actives are potent. Introducing too many products too quickly can do more harm than good. After all, retinols and acids have a high irritation factor when they’re used on their own. If you combine them in the same routine, your skin may feel inflamed and sensitive afterward. In worst case scenarios, you can even give yourself a mild chemical burn.
Don’t worry, though. It’s certainly possible to use acids and retinol in your routine without putting your skin in harm’s way. Keep reading for four tips on how to add active ingredients to your skincare routine safely.
How to Use Acids and Retinol in Your Skincare Routine
Introduce new products to your routine gradually.
Your skin will be particularly sensitive to any new ingredients or formulations you add to your routine, so make sure to introduce them over the course of several weeks. Apply new products once or twice a week to gauge how your skin will react to it first. Once you know for sure that your skin won’t react negatively to it, you can start gradually using them more often.
If you’re concerned about your skin’s sensitivity, you can also apply a layer of an acid-free toner first before layering an acid or retinol on top. The toner acts as a protective barrier between your skin and the active ingredient.
Try using actives on alternating nights.
If you’re just starting out with actives or if you have sensitive skin, you’ll want to try this method out first. Using active ingredients only in your nighttime routine allows your skin to take a break during the day.
For example, you can alternate between using your favorite glycolic acid product one night and a new retinol cream the next. You can also use a retinol two nights in a row and swap it out for an acid on the third day, or vice versa.
If your active ingredient lineup includes a product with a stronger formulation, you may want to consider skipping all actives the day after you use it. This will lower your chances of irritating your skin.
Apply acids in the morning, and retinol at night.
Once your skin has built up a tolerance and you’re ready to ramp up your routine, you can work acids into your mornings and stick to retinols at night. Avoid applying retinol products during the day. Vitamin A formulations tend to break down in sunlight, which decrease their effectiveness.
This method will make your skin more sensitive to sun damage, so make sure to apply sunscreen every day if you don’t already do so.
Make sure your skin stays hydrated.
Acids and retinols are notorious for drying out skin, so you’ll want to hydrate your skin every morning and night.
Consider adding products that are high in hyaluronic acid to your daily regimen. This superstar ingredient retains up to 1,000 times its molecular weight in water, which means that all of that moisture goes directly to your skin. Just make sure to spritz your face with water before applying hyaluronic acid -- otherwise, it will pull moisture from your skin instead.
Add one to two layers of your favorite moisturizer to lock in all of that hydration, and you’re good to go.
How to Calm and Soothe Irritated Skin
Skin irritation is an all-too-common side effect of experimenting with new actives. So if this happens to you, don’t worry -- it happens to the best of us more often than we’d like to admit.
For most people, irritated skin will flush red and may feel sensitive or dry to the touch. If you feel any painful tingling while applying your go-to routine, that’s another sign that your skin may need some TLC.
Thankfully, a few simple steps will go far in repairing your skin’s moisture barrier.
First and most importantly, when you see signs of irritation, caring for your skin is the number one priority. That means removing all actives from your regimen until your skin improves. Don’t apply any products that could aggravate your skin even further.
Focus on adding hydrating and soothing products to your routine instead. Hydrating serums or cleansers with hyaluronic acid, ceramides, or glycerin will work wonders here. A combination of ceramides, cholesterol, and fatty acids will help fix and regulate your skin’s moisture levels.
And, of course, drinking lots of water every day won’t hurt either. Once your skin is fully healed, slowly ease your actives back into your routine.
There isn’t one tried-and-true method that works for everyone when it comes to skincare. Everyone’s skin types, concerns, and budgets are different, and that will reflect in the products in your repertoire.
Keep experimenting with different products and different application methods until you find the core routine that works for you. Once you have a foundational regimen down, you can begin to branch out with new products and continually improve your skincare baseline. Your skin will thank you for it.
Not sure where to start? No problem! Ask one of our experts to find out the best actives for your unique skin type and skincare goals.
Clinical Interventions in Aging, December 2006, Volume 1, Issue 4, pages 327-348.
Clinical, Cosmetic, and Investigational Dermatology, 2010, Volume 3, 135-142.
Archives of Dermatology, 1993, Volume 129, Issue 6, pages 728-738.