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Can I Use Retinol and Mandelic Acid Together?

By Celia Shatzman, she/her

Sometimes you actually can have too much of a good thing when it comes to ingredients in skincare. Though some pair up to make quite a power couple, others need to fly solo—or at least with the right mix. That’s typically the case for retinol and mandelic acid, two potent players that shouldn’t mingle.

First, a bit of intel about each, starting with retinol, which has long been hailed as one of the most effective and multitasking skincare saviors. 

“Retinol is a form of vitamin A that is considered a gold standard in skincare for anti-aging benefits as well as treatment and prevention of acne and hyperpigmentation,” explains Blair Murphy-Rose, MD, FAAD, a board-certified cosmetic and medical dermatologist in NYC and the Hamptons. “Retinol speeds up the turnover of skin cells, improving texture and tone, and potently stimulates new collagen formation. By boosting collagen production, retinol improves fine lines and increases elasticity.” 

As for mandelic acid, it’s an AHA (which stands for alpha hydroxy acid—you can read more about them here,) that’s derived from bitter almonds. 

“Mandelic acid is less strong compared to many other hydroxy acids due to its larger molecular size—it penetrates the skin slower and therefore exfoliates more gently,” Dr. Murphy-Rose says. “Mandelic acid is a great choice for exfoliation of sensitive skin for this reason. Mandelic acid can be used to treat and prevent acne, to improve texture and tone, and to improve hyperpigmentation.”

But put both mandelic acid and retinol together and that can be exfoliation overload.  

“We often recommend avoiding the use of alpha hydroxy acids and retinol together due to the risk of over-exfoliation and skin irritation,” Dr. Murphy-Rose says. “Many people can tolerate using a low concentration of a gentle alpha hydroxy acid like mandelic acid and retinol in the same skincare regimen. The best way to incorporate both is to use mandelic acid in the morning and retinol at night.” 

Ultimately, it’s all about paying attention to your skin and seeing how it reacts to determine your mandelic acid and retinol schedule, especially those who are new to retinol. 

"When in doubt or if you're quite sensitive, apply them at a different time or an alternate day rather than layering an AHA with retinol,” advises Laura Cline, Director of Education at Youth To The People. “These ingredients can actually complement the benefits of each other and have a place on the same shelf. There are different derivatives of retinol and different types and percentages of acids, so it's not a hard and fast rule. Listen to your skin. I alternate retinol with the Mandelic Acid + Superfood Unity Exfoliant in the evening. I have combination skin that is prone to congestion, so I like to use retinol three times a week and the Unity Exfoliant four times a week.” 

No matter how and when you work mandelic acid and retinol into your skincare routine, it’s important to adjust the rest of your regimen accordingly, specifically by always slathering on moisturizer and sunscreen—a true must! 

“Though they have great skin benefits, retinol and AHAs can cause skin irritation, redness, peeling, and increased sun sensitivity,” Dr. Murphy-Rose says. “It is important to use sun protection and to manage adverse effects by decreasing the frequency or amount of product used, starting slow and gradually increasing as tolerated (and adjust as tolerated), and pairing with a moisturizer.”

Written by Celia Shatzman for Youth To The People