If you know even a little bit about skincare, chances are you’ve heard of glycolic acid and retinol. In fact, you may have even already used products that contain these skincare superstars. But these aren’t just ingredients you can use casually: you need to learn about their effects, and have a plan for incorporating them into your regimen.
Glycolic acid and retinol are both active ingredients that exfoliate and promote skin cell regeneration in different ways. They’re some of the most popular and effective ingredients in skincare, and part of the reason for that is because they’re so powerful—which also means they can be potentially irritating if used incorrectly. That’s why it’s important to understand how they work, and how they can be used together to safely achieve clearer, more youthful-looking skin.
In this post, we’ll break down what these ingredients are, what they can do for your skin, and the right way to work them into your routine.
What is Glycolic Acid?
Glycolic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) that’s derived from sugar cane. It’s a chemical exfoliator that works by breaking the bonds between skin cells so that the outer layer of dead skin can be sloughed away to reveal the fresh, glowing layer beneath.
Glycolic acid has an impressive list of benefits for your complexion. It’s great for acne-prone, oily skin types, as it helps to clear out and visibly minimize pores and prevent breakouts. It can also help to fade hyperpigmentation and even skin tone and texture, as well as reducing the look of fine lines and wrinkles, and helping skin to look smoother and brighter overall.
What is Retinol?
Retinol is a type of retinoid, which are products derived from vitamin A that are converted into retinoic acid for use on the skin. Retinoids come in many forms and strengths, but retinol is the most popular kind used in skincare. (You may have even used it as a teen if you had acne.)
Like glycolic acid, retinol also exfoliates and speeds cell turnover, which slows as we age. Regular use of retinol can help keep your skin cells turning over at the faster pace of younger skin.
The list of retinol benefits is equally long: it helps to stimulate collagen production, which in turn can improve the look of fine lines and wrinkles by making skin look plumper. It helps to unclog pores and control oil to prevent acne, and is also effective at evening discoloration from sun damage and lessening the look of acne scarring.
What’s the Difference Between Glycolic Acid and Retinol?
As you may have noticed, there are many similarities between these two powerhouse ingredients: both are exfoliators that aid in skin cell renewal, and both can offer incredible anti-aging, acne-fighting and overall brightening and evening benefits. So what’s the difference?
It’s mainly in the way they do their job. While glycolic acid works on the surface of the skin to remove dead skin cells and debris, retinol helps to encourage cellular turnover deep beneath the skin while boosting collagen and elastin production.
Glycolic is also milder overall, and is often incorporated into skincare routines earlier than retinol, which is a great addition once natural cell turnover slows in your late 20s.
Which is better, retinol or glycolic?
Generally, glycolic acid is usually the top choice to improve uneven texture, oiliness, clogged pores, and dullness, while retinol is the gold standard for anti-aging and sun damage. However, both have wide-ranging benefits that are worth exploring for your skin.
Can You Use Glycolic Acid and Retinol Together?
People used to believe that these two ingredient powerhouses couldn’t be combined because AHAs like glycolic acid would interfere with retinol’s effectiveness. That myth has since been debunked, and now we know that their complementary actions can actually be very beneficial when paired, especially for acne and acne scarring.
In fact, glycolic acid and retinol are often used together in highly effective in-clinic chemical peels to treat combination skin, the most famous of which is the ZO Peel. When used together in a ZO Peel, these two ingredients work synergistically to improve skin tone and texture and reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. Because glycolic acid exfoliates the outer layer of dead skin, it helps to prep the skin and allow retinol to penetrate even more deeply for maximum efficacy.
However, medical-strength chemical peels like the ZO Peel are done under professional supervision and require a 5-7-day healing time. When using glycolic acid and retinol at home, it’s very important to pair them properly. We call them powerhouses for a reason: these ingredients are potent, and overuse can cause adverse reactions like irritation, peeling, flaking, and redness, especially on sensitive skin. That’s why you should never mix glycolic acid with retinol or use them both at the same time.
So, what’s the best way to team them up? Skincare experts recommend that you start slowly with an alternating schedule and work your way up to more frequent use. A good plan of action would be to start using retinol once a week to see how your skin reacts, and gradually increase to every other day if you can tolerate it. Then, add glycolic acid on a day you’re not using retinol, and gradually increase that to every other day as well, so you’re alternating between the two. If you don’t experience any issues, you can even work your way up to using glycolic acid during the day, and retinol at night.
How Does Salicylic Acid Compare to Glycolic Acid?
Another popular acid used in skincare is salicylic acid, which is often used as an acne treatment. If you’re already using it in your routine or just considering it, you may be wondering how it compares to glycolic acid.
By now you know that glycolic acid is an AHA, or alpha hydroxy acid. AHAs are water-soluble and work on the skin’s surface. Salicylic acid is a BHA, or beta hydroxy acid, which is oil-soluble and works beneath the skin’s surface within the pores.
Both ingredients are great at exfoliating and treating acne-prone skin, but work in different ways. Glycolic acid has smaller molecules and works by breaking the bonds between dead skin cells so they can be sloughed off. Salicylic acid has larger molecules and works by dissolving sebum (or oil) to clear out clogged pores.
What About Salicylic Acid and Retinol?
You may also be curious if you can combine the exfoliating, oil-dissolving, pore unclogging benefits of salicylic acid with the age-defying, skin-smoothing, tone-evening benefits of retinol. Both ingredients can be beneficial for clearing up acne-prone skin—and similar to glycolic acid, salicylic acid’s exfoliating effect can actually help retinol penetrate more effectively.
However, both salicylic acid and retinol are very powerful actives, which means they can cause dryness and irritation in the skin if they’re not used properly. The key to pairing them is to make sure you’re not over-doing it.
Droplette’s Glycolic Acid & Retinol Routine for Radiant, Detoxified Skin
Now that we’ve established that you can pair these A-list ingredients together, let’s talk about the best way to deliver them. Topicals like creams and serums are everywhere, but there’s a better way to maximize the effectiveness of glycolic acid and retinol.
The Droplette Micro-Infuser device uses fluid physics to transform the active ingredients in our skincare capsules into a fine mist that’s clinically proven to get them 20x deeper into the skin than topicals, where they’ll be up to 90% more effective.
Not only that, our glycolic acid and retinol capsules are formulated with soothing ingredients that help to counteract any potential irritation:
Droplette Glycolic Illuminator Capsules
Our 8% glycolic formulation contains a trifecta of AHA, BHA, and PHA exfoliants combined with skin-restoring niacinamide, which is known to be anti-inflammatory.
Droplette Retinol Renewer Capsules
Our 0.15% retinol formulation also features a soothing blend of rose oil and collagen, chosen for its anti-inflammatory and moisturizing properties.
The Radiant Detox Regimen: Droplette’s Glycolic Acid and Retinol Routine
The ultimate glycolic acid and retinol routine is our Radiant Detox Prescriptive Regimen, a pre-packaged set that contains an optimal blend of our glycolic and retinol capsules, plus our collagen capsules for another dose of soothing hydration.
They’re arranged in a biweekly schedule so you know exactly when to use each capsule, helping to eliminate any guesswork about how to best combine them:
- Week 1 contains 9 collagen, 3 retinol, and 2 glycolic capsules
- Week 2 contains 8 collagen, 5 retinol, and 1 glycolic capsule
This dermatologist-approved skincare trio targets imperfections at all stages, and can deliver major results in just two weeks.
Note that despite the soothing additions to our formulas, glycolic acid and retinol are still intensive ingredients, and we recommend starting out by using them once every 2-3 days until you’re sure your skin can handle them daily.
Radiant Detox Regimen - Clinical Study Results
- 100% - Subjects Improved in Skin Elasticity
- 86% - Subjects Improved in Skin Firmness
- 100% - Subjects Improved in Skin Hydration
- 90% - Subjects agree "made my skin appear less tired/fatigued"
Frequently Asked Questions About Glycolic Acid and Retinol
- Should I use glycolic acid before or after retinol?
- Again, you should always alternate use of these ingredients, and never use them at the same time. If your skin can tolerate them and you work your way up to using both on the same day, a good rule of thumb is to use glycolic acid in the morning, and retinol at night, as retinol’s effectiveness can be affected by UV exposure.
- Do I need to use SPF while using these products?
- Definitely. Both glycolic acid and retinol can make your skin more sensitive to the sun, so be sure to always apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 before heading outside.
- Can you use vitamin C serum with glycolic acid and retinol?
- Yes, you can combine vitamin C with these ingredients. But since it is also a powerful active ingredient, the same advice applies: alternate its use with glycolic acid and retinol, as applying it at the same time can cause irritation.
- Is it safe to use glycolic acid and retinol indefinitely?
- Yes, continued use is not only safe, but beneficial in the long-term—especially when used with Droplette, which helps to reduce irritation. However, as with any skincare ingredient, if you start to notice adverse effects, take a break.
The Bottom Line: Retinol and Glycolic Are a Powerhouse Pair
Retinol and glycolic acid can be two of the most powerful tools in your skincare arsenal for improving texture, acne, brightness, fine lines and wrinkles, and more. The key is to respect their potency and use them properly: it’s all about starting slow, alternating use, and not over-doing it.
Using them with the Droplette micro-mister is an ideal way to deliver these ingredients gently, safely, and effectively, and the Radiant Detox Set is the perfect place to start. This biweekly subscription kit includes a Droplette device, and puts a prescriptive regimen at your fingertips with a pre-set capsule schedule that has been carefully designed to maximize results and minimize irritation.
Pair Droplette with glycolic acid and retinol and see just how transformative these iconic ingredients can be for your skin.