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How to Use Salicylic Acid and Retinol in Your Skincare Routine to Clear Your Skin and Fight the Signs of Aging

Acne and aging skin? You need these in your arsenal.
Salicylic acid and retinol

Want to know one of life’s cruelest jokes? You can start experiencing the first signs of aging—like fine lines and wrinkles—while you’re still battling the acne breakouts that started in your teenage years.

Fortunately, there are two skincare ingredients that can help: salicylic acid and retinol.

One is a chemical exfoliator, and the other is a vitamin A derivative. They’re both potent—so you may have heard that you can’t safely use them together, or that you need to choose one or the other.

But is that really true? In this tutorial, you will learn all the ways that salicylic acid and retinol can help your skin, how to incorporate them into your routine, and the best products to try now.

What Does Salicylic Acid Do for Your Skin?

Here’s what salicylic acid does for your skin: 

  • Exfoliates dead skin: By dissolving the intercellular cement material that causes skin cells to stick together,[1] it loosens dead skin cells on the surface so that they are easily sloughed off.
  • Improves texture and pores: This surface exfoliation creates smoother skin and an improvement in its texture.[2] It also helps pores to look smaller.[3]
  • Reduces excess oil: It not only dissolves skin lipids, it also suppresses the cells that produce excess sebum.[4]
  • Reduces inflammation and bacteria: It has mild anti-inflammatory properties and can help to prevent the growth of acne bacteria.[5] 
  • Unclogs pores: Clogged pores occur as a result of abnormal skin-cell shedding (hyperkeratinization), excess sebum production, inflammation and the proliferation of P. acnes bacteria.[5] Salicylic acid unclogs pores by normalizing keratinization,[2] dissolving oil,[4] and reducing inflammation and bacteria.[5]
  • Brightens and fades pigmentation: By removing the old, darkened dead skin cells, it can help skin to look brighter and fade hyperpigmentation, melasma and sun damage.[2] It can also safely treat acne-induced post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (a.k.a. post-acne marks), even in darker skin tones.[6]
  • Thickens and firms: At higher concentrations, it can thicken the epidermis and improve the density of collagen and elastin fibers.[7]

What Does Retinol Do for Your Skin?

Here’s what retinol does for your skin:

  • Reduces wrinkles: It can produce improvements in both fine and deep wrinkles,[8] whether caused by sun damage[9] or natural aging.[10] A double-blind study comparing retinol with tretinoin (retinoic acid) actually found that retinol was equally if not more effective, and better tolerated.[11]
  • Smooths texture: It smooths the skin texture, and with continued use, even improves symptoms of dryness.[12]
  • Brightens and fades pigmentation: Regular use typically results in brightening of the skin[13] and a reduction in hyperpigmentation. One study found that most participants using 1% retinol experienced improvements in brightness and hyperpigmentation (as well as overall sun damage) after 60 to 80 days.[9]
  • Thickens and firms: It has been found to thicken the epidermis as effectively as retinoic acid, but with much less irritation.[14][15] It also stimulates the skin’s production of hyaluronic acid, which helps to boost moisture and increase elasticity for a firmer look.[16]
  • Reduces acne: Although retinoic acid is most effective, topical retinoids can help to clear and prevent breakouts by inhibiting the development of microcomedones, normalizing skin-cell shedding, and blocking inflammatory pathways.[17] 

Should You Use Both Salicylic Acid and Retinol?

This is because they are each known as a “gold standard” ingredient—salicylic acid for treating acne, and retinol for treating the signs of aging. 

If your routine only includes retinol, then your skin might not be as clear as it could be... and if it only includes salicylic acid, then you won’t be fighting wrinkles as effectively. But together? You’ll tick off all the boxes.

For certain skin issues, you may even double your benefits. You may have noticed an overlap in the conditions that salicylic acid and retinol can treat, such as abnormal skin-cell shedding, blocked pores, pigmentation and inflammation. Since they work through different pathways, you’ll be targeting problems in two different ways for a faster, better outcome.

To date, combination therapy has not been as well-researched as the two ingredients individually. However, one study did find that salicylic acid and retinoic acid were more effective than either one alone for the treatment of post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, with fewer side effects.[18]

Can You Mix Salicylic Acid and Retinol?

Higher Risk of Skin Irritation

There’s always a greater chance of irritation whenever you’re putting two strong ingredients on your skin at once. Both salicylic acid and retinol have a reputation for being drying, especially when you’re just starting treatment and your skin hasn’t built up a tolerance. Applying them together could disrupt your skin barrier and leave you flaky, inflamed and sensitive.

Decreased Absorption of Salicylic Acid

To work as it should, salicylic acid is formulated at a low (acidic) pH, typically around 3.0-4.0. Research comparing different pH levels (pH 2.0, pH 5.0 and pH 7.0) has found that the higher the pH, the less the skin absorbs.[19]

Retinol, in contrast, has a higher optimal pH of 5.5-6.0.[20] So if you mix the two ingredients together, the retinol is going to raise the pH of the salicylic acid so that it becomes less acidic. Your skin won’t absorb it as well, and your results will be diminished.

Impaired Conversion of Retinol

As a derivative of vitamin A, retinol has to be converted by the body into active vitamin A in order for your skin to be able to use it.[11] This conversion process towards retinoic acid (known as the hydrolysis reaction) is greater at a neutral pH. Conversion in the opposite direction, away from retinoic acid (known as the esterification reaction) is greater at an acidic pH.[21] 

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From The Skincare Edit Archives

This means that salicylic acid, with its acidic pH level, could impair the conversion of retinol if the two ingredients are applied together. It won’t convert as well as it should to retinoic acid, and may not even work much at all.

How to Use Salicylic Acid and Retinol Together

1. Apply Salicylic Acid in the Morning and Retinol at Night 

The easiest way to incorporate salicylic acid and retinol into your routine is to apply them at different times of day. 

Most dermatologists recommend using retinol at nighttime only. “Retinol makes your skin more sensitive to UV rays and sunlight decreases the efficacy of the product,” says Dr. Whitney Bowe.[23] 

Then you can apply your salicylic acid in the morning. Although daytime sunscreen application is always essential, it’s worth noting that salicylic acid has not been found to be photosensitizing, and even has some photoprotective properties.[22]

2. Apply Salicylic Acid and Retinol on Alternate Nights 

Another option is to only use these active ingredients at night, alternating between them. So, one night you would apply your salicylic acid to bare skin after cleansing. The next night, you would apply your retinol instead. 

You can even change up the frequency depending on your goals and what your skin can tolerate. So your routine might look like one of these:

  • Salicylic acid and retinol on alternate nights.
  • Salicylic acid for two nights, and then retinol on the third night.
  • Retinol for two nights, and then salicylic acid on the third night.
  • Salicylic acid for one night, a “night off” on the second night, retinol on the third night, and then another “night off” on the fourth night.

This is the ideal way to approach actives if you have sensitive skin, or if you’re new to using stronger products and need to gradually build up a tolerance. Start at a low dose of each and increase the frequency and/or concentration slowly.

3. Apply Salicylic Acid and Retinol 30 Minutes Apart

What if you want to apply salicylic acid and retinol at the same time of day? You actually can—but only if you’ve got time to wait in between layers.

Start with the most acidic product first, which will be your salicylic acid. Apply it as directed and then wait a good 30 minutes. You want to give it sufficient time to work at its intended pH level (around 3.0 to 4.0), where it penetrates best.

After the waiting period is up, go ahead and apply your retinol. By this time, your skin’s pH will have returned to its usual, more neutral value, which we know is optimal for retinol conversion.

Now, I don’t recommend trying this if your skin is not already used to salicylic acid and/or retinol, since it could still increase the risk of irritation. The main benefit of adding the waiting period is that you’ll maintain the effectiveness of each ingredient, without inadvertently reducing the absorption or conversion. 

The Best Salicylic Acids to Try

Farmacy Deep Sweep 2 BHA Pore Cleaning Toner
Paula's Choice Skin Perfecting 2 BHA Liquid Exfoliant
The Ordinary Salicylic Acid 2 Solution
The Inkey List Beta Hydroxy Acid
Peach Slices Acne Exfoliating Toner
First Aid Beauty FAB Pharma White Clay Acne Treatment Pads
Juice Beauty Blemish Clearing Serum
COSRX BHA Blackhead Power Liquid

The Best Retinols to Try

Shani Darden Retinol Reform
First Aid Beauty FAB Skin Lab Retinol Serum
The Ordinary Retinol 1 in Squalane
Drunk Elephant A-Passioni Retinol Cream
Alpha-H Vitamin A Serum
La Roche-Posay Redermic R Dermatological Anti-Aging Treatment Intensive
A313 Cosmetic Cream with Retinyl Palmitate
Verso Super Facial Serum

Conclusion + Further Reading

Hopefully, I’ve clarified any confusion about using salicylic acid and retinol together.

I know you want all the skin benefits—and trust me, I’m the same way. But in the spirit of protecting your skin barrier (and not wasting your money by reducing your products’ effectiveness), it’s important to use these ingredients the right way.

That means applying them at different times of day, on alternating nights, or 30 minutes apart. Doing so allows each one to work the way it was intended, at the proper pH level, so that you’ll get the best results. 

Personally, the daily use of salicylic acid and retinol has been a total game-changer for my skin. Sure, there was an initial adjustment period during which I got a little bit drier from introducing the vitamin A, but I never experienced significant irritation. Rather, I credit my trusty COSRX and A313 for keeping my skin plump, smooth and clear!

Further Reading

  1. Davies, M. & Marks, R. (1976). Studies on the effect of salicylic acid on normal skin. The British Journal of Dermatology. 1976 Aug; 95(2): 187-92.
  2. Arif, Tasleem. (2015). Salicylic acid as a peeling agent: a comprehensive review. Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology. 2015; 8: 455–461.
  3. Decker, Ashley & Graber, Emmy M. (2012). Over-the-counter Acne Treatments. The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology. 2012 May; 5(5): 32–40.
  4. Lu, Jin, Cong, Tianxin, Wen, Xiang, Li, Xiaoxue, Du, Dan, He, Gu & Jiang, Xian. (2019). Salicylic acid treats acne vulgaris by suppressing AMPK/SREBP1 pathway in sebocytes. Experimental Dermatology. 2019 Jul; 28(7): 786-794.
  5. Fox, Lizelle, Csongradi, Candice, Aucamp, Marique, du Plessis, Jeanetta & Gerber, Minja. (2016). Treatment Modalities for Acne. Molecules. 2016 Aug; 21(8): 1063.
  6. Grimes, P. E. (1999). The safety and efficacy of salicylic acid chemical peels in darker racial-ethnic groups. Dermatologic Surgery. 1999 Jan; 25(1): 18-22.
  7. Abdel-Motaleb, Amira A., Abu-Dief, Eman E. & Hussein, Mahmoud Ra. (2017). Dermal morphological changes following salicylic acid peeling and microdermabrasion. Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology. 2017 Dec; 16(4): e9-e14. 
  8. Kikuchi, Katsuko, Suetake, Takaki, Kumasaka, Naka & Tagami, Hachiro. (2009). Improvement of photoaged facial skin in middle-aged Japanese females by topical retinol (vitamin A alcohol): a vehicle-controlled, double-blind study. The Journal of Dermatological Treatment. 2009; 20(5): 276-81.
  9. Gold, Michael H., Kircik, Leon H., Bucay, Vivian W., Kiripolsky, Monika G. & Biron, Julie A. (2013). Treatment of facial photodamage using a novel retinol formulation. Journal of Drugs in Dermatology. 2013 May; 12(5): 533-40.
  10. Kafi, Reza, Kwak, Heh Shin R., Schumacher, Wendy E., Cho, Soyun, Hanft, Valerie N., Hamilton, Ted A., King, Anya L., Neal, Jacqueline D., Varani, James, Fisher, Gary J., Voorhees, John J. & Kang, Sewon. (2007). Improvement of naturally aged skin with vitamin A (retinol). Archives of Dermatology. 2007 May; 143(5): 606-12.
  11. Draelos, Zoe Diana & Peterson, R. Scott. (2020). A Double-Blind, Comparative Clinical Study of Newly Formulated Retinol Serums vs Tretinoin Cream in Escalating Doses: A Method for Rapid Retinization With Minimized Irritation. Journal of Drugs in Dermatology. 2020 Jun 1; 19(6): 625-631.
  12. Zasada, Malwina & Budzisz, Elżbieta. (2019). Retinoids: active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatments. Advances in Dermatology and Allergology. 2019 Aug; 36(4): 392–397.
  13. Zasada, Malwina, Budzisz, Elzbieta & Erkiert-Polguj, Anna. (2020). A Clinical Anti-Ageing Comparative Study of 0.3 and 0.5% Retinol Serums: A Clinically Controlled Trial. Skin Pharmacology and Physiology. 2020; 33(2): 102-116.
  14. Mukherjee, Siddharth, Date, Abhijit, Patravale, Vandana, Korting, Hans Christian, Roeder, Alexander & Weindl, Günther. (2006). Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clinical Interventions in Aging. 2006 Dec; 1(4): 327–348.
  15. Duell, E. Al, Derguini, F., Kang, S., Elder, J. T. & Voorhees, J. J. (1996). Extraction of human epidermis treated with retinol yields retro-retinoids in addition to free retinol and retinyl esters. The Journal of Investigative Dermatology. 1996 Aug; 107(2): 178-82.
  16. Li, Wen-Hwa, Wong, Heng-Kuan. Serrano, José, Randhawa, Manpreet, Kaur, Simarna, Southall, Michael D. & Parsa, Ramine. (2017). Topical stabilized retinol treatment induces the expression of HAS genes and HA production in human skin in vitro and in vivo. Archives of Dermatological Research. 2017 May; 309(4): 275-283.
  17. Leyden, James, Stein-Gold, Linda & and Weiss, Jonathan. (2017). Why Topical Retinoids Are Mainstay of Therapy for Acne. Dermatology and Therapy. 2017 Sep; 7(3): 293–304.
  18. Ali, Basma Morad Mohamed, Gheida, Shereen Farouk, El Mahdy, Nageh Ahmed, Sadek, Shery Nashaat. (2017). Evaluation of salicylic acid peeling in comparison with topical tretinoin in the treatment of postinflammatory hyperpigmentation. Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology. 2017 Mar; 16(1): 52-60.
  19. Leveque, N., Makki, S., Hadgraft, J. & Humbert, P. (2004). Comparison of Franz cells and microdialysis for assessing salicylic acid penetration through human skin. International Journal of Pharmaceutics. 2004 Jan 28; 269(2): 323-8. 
  20. Törmä, H. & Vahlquist, A. (1990). Vitamin A esterification in human epidermis: a relation to keratinocyte differentiation. The Journal of Investigative Dermatology. 1990 Jan; 94(1): 132-8.
  21. Gao, Jay & Simon, Marica. (2005). Identification of a novel keratinocyte retinyl ester hydrolase as a transacylase and lipase. The Journal of Investigative Dermatology. 2005 Jun; 124(6): 1259-66.
  22. Kornhauser, Andrija, Coelho, Sergio G. & Hearing, Vincent J. (2010). Applications of hydroxy acids: classification, mechanisms, and photoactivity. Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology. 2010; 3: 135–142.

Other sources: [23] 

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