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The Difference Between a Retinol and Glycolic Acid

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Both active ingredients are practically essential to a good skincare routine. But which is the one for you?

When it comes to taking care of one’s skin, there are a lot of rules, particularly when it comes to slowing down the aging process. First and foremost, wear an SPF. Probably slather on vitamin C from time to time. Hyaluronic acid is great for keeping your skin hydrated and plump. But when it comes to using active ingredients that slough, exfoliate, and cause skin cell regeneration, things can get a bit more confusing.

Case in point: a lot of people don’t know whether they should be using something like a glycolic acid versus a retinoid. We reached out to Dr. Corey L. Hartman Founder of Skin Wellness Dermatology, Dr. Michele Koo, Board Certified Plastic Surgeon and founder of Private Practice by Dr. Koo, and Dr. Elyse Love, Board Certified dermatologist to get the answers.

What skin type is best suited for glycolic acid?

Acne prone, oily skin responds well to treatment with glycolic acid since it breaks the bonds between skin cells. “This increases exfoliation and makes skin smoother and more even. It is also more humectant than most other active ingredients for acne, so it reduces dryness and irritation,” explains Dr. Hartman.

Glycolic acid also works well for mature skin too, increasing collagen production and thickening the skin.

But much like anything else in this world, too much is not necessarily a good thing. Dr. Koo warns of over exfoliation, remarking that not only can it be irritating to the skin, but cause damage to the skin barrier as well.

How does retinol work and what is it used for?

Retinol and retinoids are vitamin A derivatives and are among the most studied ingredients in skincare. As Dr. Hartman sees it, “The benefits are numerous and unparalleled—it’s arguably the most important step that you can take for overall skin health and anti-aging, after sun protection factor.” Retinols help regulate cell turnover, promote effective exfoliation, prevent acne, even out discoloration, control oil, smooth fine lines and wrinkles, unclog pores, and so much more.

As a preventative skincare active, which is better and how do they function differently?

According to Dr. Koo, retinol and glycolic (as well as other AHAs) have different functions. While glycolic effectively removes debris from the skin, retinol stimulates cell regeneration as well as the production of collagen and elastin, which lessens the appearance of wrinkles. “Make no mistake, retinols and glycolics are not the same. I don’t typically recommend any acids for wrinkle prevention.”

But Dr. Hartman also notes, “Overall, if you want to improve uneven texture, oiliness, and clogged pores, turn to glycolic acid. If you want to prevent and address fine lines, wrinkles, and sun damage, retinol is your best choice.” In other words: the mechanisms of action or retinol and glycolic acid are distinct yet complementary.

Can you use retinol and glycolic acid at the same time?

Yes and no. You can use them at different times on the same day if your skin can tolerate it, but generally speaking it’s best to alternate days to avoid sensitivity.

How can glycolic acid and retinol be used over the longterm to promote a youthful appearance?

When used appropriately, glycolic acid will peel or exfoliate away the outer layer of dead skin, explains Dr. Koo. Used periodically in conjunction with retinol (at separate times of the day or on separate days), glycolic acid will help the penetration of the retinol into the deeper layers of the skin, allowing the retinol to do its work increasing collagen and elastin. The typical results: smoother and more radiant skin.

How often can you use a retinol throughout the year? And what age should you start?

Ideally, retinol should be used once daily, but it’s ok to introduce it to your skin slowly, especially if irritation occurs. “As long as a consistent regimen is followed, it’s okay to start using it 1-2 times per week and work your way up to every night, as tolerated, over three to six months,” says Dr. Hartman.

Most patients who have struggled with acne as teenagers have used a retinoid as an important part of their regimen. “A retinoid is also the best method to maintain acne-free skin once clear, so I recommend that patients stay on it forever for the anti-aging benefits.”

But if you didn’t have acne as a teen, as rule, Dr. Love suggests starting in your mid ’20s. “This is when our skin’s production of collagen naturally slows. And since retinols work best over time, you should try to use them throughout the year.”

At which age should one start using an AHA like a glycolic?

Typically, a great age to consider adding a glycolic acid to your routine is in your early 30s. Dr. Love adds that glycolic acid can be used at any point to achieve a smoother, more even skin tone.

Is glycolic acid or retinol better for acne scarring?

Simply put: retinols. They work at a deeper level than glycolic acid to stimulate collagen and elastin production to smooth the skin’s surface and improve texture and tone.