How Do I Use a Retinoid and AHAs/BHAs Together?

Skin Care
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Using retinoids and an AHA (e.g. glycolic acid) or BHA (e.g. salicylic acid) actually diminishes the effectiveness of both ingredients. So how can you benefit from the potential anti-aging effects of each ingredient? To find the answer, I consulted with the site of Dr. Leslie Baumann, M.D., a practicing dermatologist and the co-founder and chief of the Cosmetic Dermatology department at the University of Miami School of Medicine. According to Dr. Baumann:

“Your question about order is a great one. Retinoids should not be mixed with BHA (i.e., salicylic acid) or AHA (i.e,. glycolic acid) because the BHA and AHA can inactivate the retinoid. Always use retinoids at night because the sun can also make the retinoid less effective.”

Dr. Baumann suggested as skin care routine using AHA/BHA products exclusively in the morning under a broad-spectrum UVA/UVB sunscreen, and retinoids exclusively at night.

Of course, as would be expected from Dr. Baumann, this makes perfect sense.

Daytime AHA/BHA Products

Since AHA/BHA make your skin more sensitive to the sun, and so more susceptible to UV damage, you should always use AHA/BHA under a broad-spectrum UVA/UVB sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30. You should reapply it frequently and, if you can swing it, avoid the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

These are some AHA or BHA products I like:

MD_formulations

MD Formulations Daily Peel Pads (with 10% of the AHA glycolic acid, $49.50, amazon.com)

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DermaDoctor Ain’t Misbehavin’ AHA/BHA Acne Cleanser ($25, amazon.com)

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Paula’s Choice Exfoliating 2% BHA Lotion ($19.95)

[RELATED: Spotlight On: Alpha-Hydroxy Acids]

Nighttime Retinol Products

Some nighttime retinol products that I like from lowest concentration to highest:

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Neutrogena Healthy Skin Night Cream (with a 0.025 concentration of retinol, $13.99, amazon.com)

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Afirm 2x (with a 0.3 concentration of retinol, $58.86, amazon.com)

FutureDerm_Retinol

FutureDerm Time-Release Retinol 0.5 (with a 0.5 concentration of retinol, $54.95, shop.futurederm.com)

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Green Cream Level 6 (with a 0.6 concentration retinol, $44.65, amazon.com)

skinceuticals_1.0

Skinceuticals Retinol 1.0 (with a 1.0 concentration of retinol, $60.00, amazon.com)

Remember, the higher the concentration of retinol, the higher the risk of skin irritation. Studies show that 0.5 is the ideal concentration to start at for minimum irritation with maximum benefits. Start with a small application every two to three nights, working up tolerance to using it nightly. Ask you develop a tolerance, you can use higher concentrations of retinol. And remember, it’s always best to consult your dermatologist before you start using any new product or ingredient.

[RELATED: What is Retinol Metabolism?]

Bottom Line

Using retinoids and AHA/BHA products at the same time can lower the effectiveness of both ingredients. But if you use them at separate times during your routine — AHA/BHA in the morning and retinoids at night — you can get the benefits of both without decreasing the effectiveness of either.

Check our bestsellers!

26 thoughts on “How Do I Use a Retinoid and AHAs/BHAs Together?

  1. Emma says:

    THANK YOU! I can stop searching! Finally some solid advice on how best to use these two treatments in a regular skincare routine. I have read lots of info (on various sites) on why not to use them together but until now I have been unable to find any info on how to use them both in a regular routine. Very much appreciated.

  2. Joyce says:

    Thank you for this post! I have been using a toner with salicylic acid every morning and evening. At night, I alternate between a 5% benzoyl peroxide gel and Differin 0.1% gel. Now, I know that I should use Differin all by itself at night. Can I still use salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide at the same time? Thank you again!

  3. KG says:

    To answer the question about Salicylic acid and Benzoyl Peroside. Yes you can use them together in the morning. For example, the Obagi Clenziderm normal/oily skin kit has them in together which is what i use.

  4. sofi76 says:

    Great info but there is so much contradictory stuff out there. My derm actually tells me it’s ok to use my Retin-A with the AHA cleanser he’s recommended. I even asked him about my research about diminished effect when using together and he just scoffed and said it wasn’t true. I prefer not to use them together because my skin can’t take them both- yet!

  5. mu2 (name on makeupalley) says:

    PS….can you also post what articles/scientific research journals that you read that support your position…I am sure the makeupalley group will want to know

  6. Ramona says:

    I use Retin A every night and I use a AHA/BHA exfoliating cleanser about 2-3 times a week in the morning. Is this okay or is it diminishing the effects of both the Retin-A and the exfoliater? Thanks!

  7. BD says:

    First off, great blog…very informative!

    My nightly routine is cleanse, tone, serum, vitamin K spot treatment and moisturize my skin every night, religiously. I use Jason Vitamin K on my cheeks and under eye areas and it have helped my broken capillaries and dark circle considerably…love it! Btw, you can visit my blog for review on this (beautifulcanvas.blogspot.com). Anyway, I want to add Vitamin A eye cream to address the lines under my eyes. I feel like this is a lot of layering…something gotta give. Should I drop serum when I use retinols OR keep the serum and alternate between the Jason Vitamin K and retinols?

  8. Dr. Mathew Smith says:

    There are newer companies launching salicylic acid products mixed with retinol that are stable and eqaully active in the skin. What Leslie talks about above was quite a while ago.

  9. Divine says:

    I use AHA facial wash every morning and before bedtime. After washing in the morning with AHA I apply rejuvenating cream and sunscreen. In the evening I wash my face with AHA again and applied retinoid acid cream. Is their any side effect to used both of them everyday? Are their effectiveness in the affected or less effect to the skin? Thank you …

  10. Jamie says:

    First, I want to say that I really like your blog. I enjoy reading your article posts all the time. Thank you very much for your service.
    I have question for you, regarding using Tazorac, Glycolic acid serum and C serum.
    I start using Tazorac about 3 weeks ago because I start breaking out crazy after stop taking birth control pills. As reading all the posted from you site, it seems like that I can still use Glycolic acid serum in the day time and use Tazorac at night, if I am correct. Could I also switch with Glycolic and C serum in the daytime? Also, could I use Beta Hydroxy acid during the time I use Tazorac? I did it couple days ago only about 2 mins. and my face have many little brown scabs all over!! Oh man oh man, it scared me. I really need some answer from you. Thank you!

  11. Catia says:

    Hello,

    Since you are saying you should never use together retinoids and AHA/BHA what do you think about peter thomas roth unwrinkle nihgt (wich combines them both)? Is it worth my money or will it not work or worse will it damage my skin?
    P.S: I love your blog, It’s really helpfull.

  12. sean says:

    hi,i been use vichy normaderm (cleanser,toner,moisturizers) ,i been so concern if product above is safe to use with retin-a at night?thank you

  13. Kelly says:

    Hi,

    If I use AHA for a week at night and use salicylic acid on the alternate week at night. Will this make either treatment less effective?

    Thank you!

  14. Nicki says:

    @Sean – Just saw this comment now, sorry. Vichy Normaderm is fine to use with Retin-A. Truth be told, AHAs/BHAs still work with retinoids and vice versa, just not as well as if each were used alone.

    @Kelly – Nope! :-) That’s an ideal strategy :-)

  15. Lauren says:

    Using a face wash with AHA in it is pretty pointless since it just gets washed down the drain, however, those types of ingredients need to be on the skin for a longer period of time to actually do their job. The upside of using that type of face wash (the only upside) is that you can use your retinol products with it, since the AHA is not left on the skin to interact with the retinoid.

  16. Kelly C. says:

    Hi,
    I am currently using Peter Thomas Roth glycolic acid 10% moisturizer and i got some retin-a 0.025%. I am not sure if I should use them in combination since it seems that it will diminish their effectiveness? What are your takes on that?

    Also, will certain face washes make my face a bit itchy in combination of PTR moisturizer?

    Thanks!

  17. John Su says:

    @Kelly C.

    I wrote a post on using acidic products with retinol here: http://thetriplehelixian.com/2012/09/10/part-ii-retinol-metabolism-contd-retinol-degradation-and-strength-combination-use-of-hydroxy-acids-and-retinol-v-0-03/ I’d recommend reading it. It should give you a much clearer understanding of this topic.

    Also, because the PTR moisturizer does thin the stratum cornuem due to the 10% GA content, you may be more prone to irritation. However, a cleanser could be irritating your skin all by itself depending on which ingredients are present in the formulation.

    I hope that helps. Thanks for reading!

  18. christina says:

    I’m sorry but your information regarding the use of retinoids and AHA/BHA’s is out of date-Paula’s Choice Website Cosmeticcop.com –has the most up to date information regarding this subject-I’ve pasted the link: http://www.paulaschoice.com/expert-advice/beauty-buzz/_/six-retinol-myths-busted

    I urge you to update your information as people are following your advice. For what it’s worth, I am in no way affiliated with the site-I’ve just researched this topic and her explanation is the easiest to read and understand. Cheers.

  19. Nicki Zevola says:

    Hi @Christina,

    I’m sorry, but I disagree with this article. It does not address the same issue that I am.

    Here is a quote from the article you cited: “In the end, this single study was used only to compare how animal and human skin metabolizes the form of vitamin A naturally present in skin, not about how topical vitamin A benefits (or functions in) skin. Its conclusions were not intended to be used to make decisions about skin care. Topically applied vitamin A does not replace or substitute the body’s development or the function of retinoic acid. ”

    The argument is not that topically-applied vitamin A replaces or substitutes the body’s development of retinoic acid. One has absolutely nothing to do with the other.

    The argument is that topically-applied retinol needs to be converted to its active form (retinoic acid) in the skin, which takes place optimally at a neutral pH.

    Retinol is sold as an over-the-counter product for one reason: It is not in active form. Therefore, it is not a drug. Retinoic acid, on the other hand, is a drug.

    Within the skin, retinol must be converted to its active form, which is retinoic acid.

    This process of retinol conversion to retinoic acid is optimized at a neutral pH, not a highly acidic one.

    Furthermore, acidic products accelerate exfoliation of the skin, as do all forms of vitamin A. You’re increasing the risk of irritation if you’re using both.

    I sell both AHA products and retinoids. Paula’s Choice sells both as well. I personally would never tell a reader or a customer to mix them, but that company seems to think it is fine.

    Someday I should do an experiment/case study, but in the meantime, it’s up to you.

    All the best,
    Nicki

  20. Michelle says:

    Hello Nicki

    Thank you so much for the informative posts on AHAs, Retinoids and the forms of Ascorbic Acid. I’ve done quite a bit of my own research while trying to re-jig my skincare routine and I’ve also come across Paula’s article on the topic. From a completely objective point of view, I am more inclined to believe your point of vew, because it makes an extremely sound argument and is backed up by the explanations of the chemical reactions of the compounds. I have yet to come across similarly backed-up explanations for the other side of the coin, and until then, I will split my usage of AHAs and Retinoids as you have suggested.

    One question though, I note that the FutureDerm Retinoid 0.5% is time released for up to 8 hours – does this mean that I need to apply it relatively early on in the night for it to not interfere with my acids in the morning? I’ve recently placed my order for one, and my concern is that since the coversion from the Retinol to Retinoic Acid will still be taking place 8 hours later, if I apply my acids in the morning, it will counter the effect of both the remaining Retinoids and the newly-applied acids?

    Also, I aim to be able to weave all 4 actives (AHAs, Retinol, L-Ascorbic Acid and Niacinamide) into my skincare routine. I am aware that AHAs and Retinols shouldn’t be used together, L-Ascorbic Acid and Retinol shouldn’t be used together, and Niacinamide and L-Ascorbic Acid shouldn’t be used together. Where does this place the Niacinamide in the skincare routine then? Can it be used in the same PM leg as the Retinol, and if so, should it be used before or after the Retinol is applied?

    Your kind reply is much appreciated and I enjoy your extremely informative posts. Please keep it up! I have learnt a lot from you.

    Regards
    Michelle

  21. Nicki Zevola says:

    Hi Michelle,

    Wow, what a thoughtful and insightful question! I’ll break down your questions, and then answer below:

    Q: I note that the FutureDerm Retinoid 0.5% is time released for up to 8 hours – does this mean that I need to apply it relatively early on in the night for it to not interfere with my acids in the morning?

    A: With a time-release product of any kind, you start off with the greatest release of product in the beginning. Think of this as a surge and then a trickle-down effect. By hour 6, you aren’t getting nearly as much of the retinol release that you were in hour 1. It’s just the nature of the beast — some of the microencapsulation capsules will inevitably break open from mechanical stress and heat when you apply it, but the rest will be a slow, sustained release.

    Q: I’ve recently placed my order for one, and my concern is that since the coversion from the Retinol to Retinoic Acid will still be taking place 8 hours later, if I apply my acids in the morning, it will counter the effect of both the remaining Retinoids and the newly-applied acids?

    A: Thanks for your order! I appreciate it!

    It should not (please see above).

    Q: Also, I aim to be able to weave all 4 actives (AHAs, Retinol, L-Ascorbic Acid and Niacinamide) into my skincare routine. I am aware that AHAs and Retinols shouldn’t be used together, L-Ascorbic Acid and Retinol shouldn’t be used together, and Niacinamide and L-Ascorbic Acid shouldn’t be used together. Where does this place the Niacinamide in the skincare routine then?

    A: I like the following:
    AM: Cleanse | Vitamin CE Serum | Sunscreen
    PM: Cleanse | Retinol | Moisturizer with Niacinamide
    Once per week, I use a concentrated AHA treatment instead of the Retinol at night.

    Q: Can Niacinamide be used in the same PM leg as the Retinol, and if so, should it be used before or after the Retinol is applied?
    A: Niacinamide is more basic, and hence does not pull Retinol out of its optimal pH range to be converted to retinoic acid in the skin. I like applying niacinamide afterwards; you can find it at 4% (the highest available) in our FutureDerm Anti-Aging Moisturizers.

    Hope this helps! Thanks for commenting!

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