During a certain pandemic when people were in lockdown trying to “repopulate the Earth” with their loved ones, I decided that it was a great time to get my skincare act together and do something about my smile lines. I know, single life is so fabulous! Anyways, that’s how I ended up using salicylic acid together with retinol. Actually, it was tretinoin. And I’m here to tell you what happened. But first things first, can you use salicylic acid with retinol? Yes, you can. But there’s a proper way to do it.
I’m happy with what over-the-counter retinol and its many forms have done to my skin over the years. And I finally upgraded to prescription retinoid, which I left untouched until the lockdown. By the way, also called retinoic acid, tretinoin is the pure form of vitamin A.
I have oily skin and I deal with rosacea flareups. My dermatologist had prescribed a tretinoin cream (0.1%) for nighttime use. And she’d made me get a salicylic acid cream prepared at the drugstore.
It was salicylic acid formulated into Vaseline. It was disgusting and I was supposed to use it during the day as if I didn’t have a life. Even if I didn’t, she didn’t know that!
I skipped the Vaseline and stuck with tretinoin until the peeling became too much. My daily moisturizer helped with the tight feeling, but flakiness and peeling were still there. I needed the salicylic acid cream.
But instead of using it during the day, I layered it on top of tretinoin even though I read/heard/watched many times that it’s a big no-no for your skin!
As my smile lines were plumping up, my frown lines were smoothing out, and my skin was clearing up, I wondered if this big no-no was simply a product of fear-mongering or if there was some truth to it.
Nothing new came up. It was mostly about irritation. I already know these individual ingredients can irritate the skin. Well, they didn’t!
But there’s a reason why no dermatologist or skincare expert is openly and enthusiastically encourages you to mix the two. Let’s put a pin on this.
Salicylic Acid vs Retinoids
Retinoids (1), whether it’s over-the-counter retinol or prescription tretinoin, regulates epidermal skin turnover. It means that it speeds up the growth of new skin cells. And this causes the dead skin cells on the outer layer of your skin to shed off more rapidly.
New cells are pushing up and the old ones shed off. In doing so, retinoids improve your skin texture, even out your complexion, and reduce pigmentation. This whole retexturizing of the skin is beneficial in dealing with acne as well as wrinkles.
Salicylic acid (2), a beta-hydroxy acid, thrives on oily skin and easily penetrates the pores. It exfoliates the skin by dissolving the trapped up dead skin cells, dirt, and sebum inside the pores and eliminates acne-causing bacteria.
In doing so, it reduces acne and congestion and improves the visibility of enlarged pores. As an exfoliant, it’s also effective in stimulating skin turnover to reveal smoother skin. Again, salicylic acid is beneficial both for acne and wrinkles.
Both retinol and salicylic acid have the potential to cause irritation and redness on the skin. And both of them make the skin more prone to sunburn.
Is It Safe to Use Retinol and Salicylic Acid Together?
Technically, yes. Realistically, maybe not. The propaganda against the use of retinol together with salicylic acid boils down to a couple of things: irritation, dryness, and pH levels. And my personal experience was a complete exception to every single rule.
We’ve established that each of them has the potential to cause irritation. But this argument stops making sense when you actually put both of them on your skin and no irritation occurs. Well, nothing happened to me and I left it on overnight several times. Mixing the two doesn’t always cause irritation.
My tretinoin is in cream form. And the salicylic acid I used was mixed with Vaseline; the mother of all occlusives! Petroleum jelly reduces transepidermal water loss (dehydration) by about 90%! A regular moisturizer reduces it by about 30%. My skin never felt dry even after I washed my face. So, mixing the two doesn’t always cause dryness.
Conflicting pH levels
There’s no way I can test if the two products cancel each other out because one is too acidic and the other one “requires” a neutral pH. It turns out, neither can you! There’s no actual study claiming that these two cancel each other out!
Why You Shouldn’t Mix Salicylic Acid with Retinol
The problem, the one you should actually worry about, is the formulation of the products you’re using. That’s why there is no right answer to whether you should use salicylic acid together with retinol.
Retinol is an unstable active ingredient. Brands jump through a ton of hoops to stabilize it. When you layer it with salicylic acid or any other active ingredient, you introduce new potential complications. You don’t only mix retinol with salicylic acid.
You also mix the preservatives, the stabilizers, the buffers, the additional ingredients in both products. That’s why it becomes risky. Not because it causes “dryness” or “redness”. As we’ve established, that’s not always the case.
But simply because of the fact that brands cannot consider every single scenario when formulating a retinol serum or a salicylic acid serum. So, when you mix the two separate products, you use them at your own risk. It may work out great or it may not.
Most people use the two actives in serum form, meaning that there’s no moisturizing and stabilizing emollient base to deliver the actives.
It’s not the same as using two creams as I did. So, even if you can technically use them together, you should ask yourself if it’s worth the risk.
How to Safely Use Retinol with Salicylic Acid
Avoiding peeling and flaky skin is the most legit reason why people want to layer retinol together with salicylic acid. Even though it makes total sense and you’re free to try it at your own risk, there are safe ways that ensure you get the most out of each ingredient.
Below are three ways you can use retinol with salicylic acid.
1. Use one product that contains both.
Obviously, there are serums that combine both exfoliants and retinol. The whole idea is to achieve smoother skin while skipping the whole peeling process. This method is safer than using different products. Because the active ingredients are both taken into account during formulation.
And the product is designed to deliver the effects of each ingredient. But retinol is more commonly paired with glycolic or lactic acid as opposed to salicylic acid. Even so, it’ll get the job done perfectly well.
2. Retinol for PM and salicylic acid for AM.
This is also very effective and very safe. You use your retinol serum or cream at night and use your exfoliant in the morning. As you cleanse your skin in the morning and before bed, the formulations don’t mix.
3. Alternate between the two.
If you’re using a product that’s made to use only at night or something that doesn’t feel comfortable on the skin during the day, you can keep your active ingredient for your evening skincare routine.
This way, you follow a basic skincare routine in the morning where you cleanse, hydrate, moisturize and apply sunblock. And for the evening routine, you alternate between your retinol and salicylic acid serum. A better option would be to use retinol 3 nights in a row followed by 1 night of salicylic acid. Either way, you get flake-free skin.
Both salicylic acid and retinol are effective in achieving clear and smooth skin. We need exfoliants. We need them more if we’re using a retinol product. But not mixing the two will help you better observe the efficiency of your products and ensure you’re not wasting your money.
Nobody, other than your own health care provider, can tell you how to go by using retinol together with salicylic acid. And remember, the instructions of your products and your doctor override everything you read online.
Read Next: The Best Retinol Serums
- Leyden, J., Stein-Gold, L., & Weiss, J. (2017). Why Topical Retinoids Are Mainstay of Therapy for Acne. Dermatology and therapy, 7(3), 293–304. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13555-017-0185-2
- Lu, J., Cong, T., Wen, X., Li, X., Du, D., He, G., & Jiang, X. (2019). Salicylic acid treats acne vulgaris by suppressing AMPK/SREBP1 pathway in sebocytes. Experimental dermatology, 28(7), 786–794. https://doi.org/10.1111/exd.13934
Featured Image: 20th Century Fox