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[Ask The Expert] Can I Use Retinol and Salicylic Acid Together?

By Kaitlyn McNab, she/her

Dr. Michelle Henry is a New York City-based board-certified dermatologist and Harvard-trained Mohs surgeon. Dr. Henry’s expertise was tapped here to settle a strong point of contention in the skincare world, involving two of the most popular, highly-effective ingredients: retinol and salicylic acid.

Question: Can I Use Retinol and Salicylic Acid Together?

Answer: Retinol and salicylic acid (also known as beta-hydroxy-acid, or BHA) are both active ingredients, meaning that they both promote change within our skin as opposed to passively participating in the skin barrier. BHA actively penetrates and unclogs the pore to reduce comedonal acne and inflammation. Retinol promotes cellular turnover, actively changing and speeding up the processes of our skin cells.

Salicylic acid is a tiny molecule that, immediately upon entering the skin, can directly penetrate the pores and start encouraging exfoliation. As a result of its rapidity, BHA is often the hero ingredient of many acne spot treatments, since it goes beyond superficial exfoliation. Though it’s an impressive ingredient, especially for acne-prone skin, BHA can also be somewhat aggressive, depending on the formulation. 

Retinol, which is one of the purest forms of vitamin A, ranges in aggression. Retinol is an over-the-counter version of retinoic acid that requires enzymes to become completely active, reducing some of its potency. Retinoids are already active in their state, giving them a bit more power and efficacy. Once it enters the skin, retinol promotes the transcription of genes necessary to increase skin cell turnover and the stimulation of collagen, which unclogs pores and improves hyperpigmentation. Retinol is a very labile ingredient that can become inactivated by factors such as improper formulation or sunlight, which is often why it’s recommended for nighttime use. Dr. Henry stresses that the formulation of retinol is critical to its performance. This is why what she calls “mixing and matching” at home and possibly introducing an ingredient into your routine that doesn’t play well with retinol can lead to harmful effects. 

Both retinol and salicylic acid are marvel ingredients for those with acneic skin types, those experiencing hyperpigmentation, or those looking to address ne lines and wrinkles. So that means when used together, their effects are supercharged, right? Not exactly.

Dr. Henry typically doesn’t recommend the use of retinol and BHA together, as it is only safe depending on one’s skin type. Independently, both ingredients already hold the capacity to make the skin more sensitive, cause over-exfoliation and irritation, and potentially complicate the skin concerns you were originally hoping to treat. When used together by layering or in one product, the potential for irritation grows. And in some cases, depending on how the two ingredients were formulated together, they may inactivate each other.

Combining use of retinol and BHA is only efficacious if the ingredients are formulated elegantly, in a way that allows synergy and not chaos. This synergy could be most beneficial for those with very oily skin types that are experiencing acne but are not sensitive. But if your skin type falls outside of those margina, then sensitized skin and intense irritation are a likely outcome.

If you are planning to use retinol and BHA together, to maintain optimal skin health and pH, Dr. Henry recommends alternating use of the two ingredients: salicylic acid in the morning and then retinoic acid at night. Being aware of overuse is crucial to avoid disrupting your skin’s protective barrier. Dr. Henry suggests using the products slowly and gradually: use every other night, wear sunscreen daily, and always use moisturizer. Both ingredients can make skin dry and sensitive to sunlight. Hydration is key—when your skin barrier is healthy and intact, your skin can better tolerate treatments and ingredients that are high in potency, like retinoic acids and BHA.

For a powerful daytime dose of BHA, try the Superclay Purify + Clear Power Mask.

If you still have questions about customizing your own routine, book a free 15-minute skincare consultation with one of our education experts.

Written by Kaitlyn McNab for Youth To The People