Glycolic acid and retinol are two of the most popular anti-aging ingredients featured in skincare, but how do you decide which one is right for you? More to the point, is it ok to use both at the same time? Can you use glycolic acid and retinol together? Or would it just be one giant skin disaster waiting to happen?

The short answer is that it really depends on your skin type and what you are trying to achieve! Let’s look at why this is…

Glycolic Acid

Glycolic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) that is made from the sugar cane plant and weakens the bonds between dead skin cells on the surface of the skin, enabling exfoliation to take place. It has the lowest molecular weight of all the AHAs which means that it is better able to penetrate the skin and can be more effective. However, this means that it also has the potential to cause more skin irritation.

AHAs, such as glycolic acid, are commonly used to treat the signs of sun-damage, such as pigmentation, fine lines and wrinkles, enlarged pores, and uneven skin tone. In addition, they can be useful in the treatment of acne


Retinol is a derivative of vitamin A that can increase the rate of skin cell turnover and renewal, reduce sun damage, boost collagen production, improve the appearance of wrinkles, reduce pigmentation, and increase skin hydration. However, initially, retinol can cause irritation and dryness of the skin by damaging the skin’s protective barrier which increases the amount of water lost from the skin.

Can You Use Glycolic Acid and Retinol Together?

Glycolic Acid and Retinol Optimum pH Levels

Working out which skincare ingredient’s can and can’t be combined together can be utterly headache-inducing. Are differing pH levels an issue? Are you going to end up with angry irritated skin?

To make matters worse, the relationship between glycolic acid and retinol is a complicated one. In theory, the pH levels at which they are optimally effective are different and they are both ingredients that have the potential to cause skin irritation – even separately!

For starters, the optimal pH for retinol activation is somewhere between 5.5 and 6, while glycolic acid is most effective at a much lower pH (less than 3.5).

So what happens to glycolic acid at a higher pH? Well, some research suggests that glycolic acid is still effective at a pH of 4.4 [1], which is still lower than what is apparently optimal for retinol.

However, the skin’s surface pH is naturally acidic anyway, with pH levels ranging from anywhere between 4.7 and 5, which means that retinol is always used at a pH level that is less than optimal without its effectiveness being reduced.

This suggests that it is a myth that glycolic acid and retinol render each other useless due to differing pH levels.

But what about irritation potential?

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