can you use retinol with salicylic acid?

retinol, salicylic acid, dermalogica, mecca, skincare, active skincare, cosmeceutical skincare

Yes! Contrary to popular belief, you can use Retinol with Salicylic Acid!

story highlights

  • Retinol helps reduce visible skin aging while Salicylic Acid clears up breakouts, but using them at the same time can cause irritation.
  • Truth is, you CAN use them together – if you use the right product and follow our expert tips.


    It may come as a surprise to discover that it is both safe and effective to use Retinol with Salicylic Acid to treat breakouts and help reduce the appearance of skin aging, without causing irritation. But proceed with caution when you’re using a leave on treatment. Read on to learn how you can use Retinol and Salicylic Acid together.

    retinol vs. salicylic acid for acne

    If you’re dealing with the ups and downs of adult acne, you likely want the best ingredients available in your skin care arsenal: Retinol is the gold standard for reducing the appearance of skin aging, including the marks left behind from breakouts, while Salicylic Acid is one of acne’s greatest enemies. In theory, this dynamic duo is exactly what you need to beat adult acne. But traditional Retinol and Salicylic Acid formulas can irritate skin when used together – forcing you to complicate your skin care regimen by applying them at different times of day or sacrifice one skin care benefit for another. Here’s why:

    how retinol works on skin

    Retinol works by going into the follicle and communicating with cell receptors to help stimulate skin renewal and increase cell turnover. This helps reduce visible signs of skin ageing by firming the skin and fading hyperpigmentation, such as post breakout marks.

    is retinol safe?

    Retinol has earned critical acclaim because it delivers on results. Put simply, it’s a powerhouse of an active. But being almighty and powerful has its setbacks, that being the potential for irritation if not formulated or used in a skin friendly manner. A high concentration of Retinol does not equate to better results. In fact, too much Retinol is where skin challenges arise. Using a lower concentration of Retinol that is stabilised and/or time released will provide desired, visible results, without causing irritation. For users new to Retinol, build up slowly, using your Retinol treatment a couple of times a week, before moving onto nightly use (if applicable). Minimise exfoliation too, allowing your skin to adjust to the potent renewing effects of Retinol.

    how salicylic acid works

    Salicylic Acid removes skin cells superficially (on the skin’s surface), helps kill breakout-causing bacteria. It’s an extremely effective Beta Hydroxy Acid (BHA’s) that helps clear blockage in follicles, such as excess oil and debris. What’s more, Salicylic Acid is considered one of the gentler BHA’s and has anti-inflammatory effects, helping calm the redness associated with breakouts.

    how to use retinol and salicylic acid together

    Traditional Retinol formulas can be extremely unstable: they break down upon exposure to light. Furthermore, they don’t play well with Salicylic Acid on skin because the combined effect can be too harsh (think redness, dryness and flaking). To get around this problem, most skin experts recommend using acids only during the day if you’re using Retinol at night. But with Dermalogica’s new Retinol Clearing Oil, we’ve cracked the code so that you can incorporate Retinol and Salicylic Acid together.

    you now have two options to treat adult acne + premature skin ageing with retinol and salicylic acid:

    One is Retinol Clearing Oil. It has a soothing oil base, and combines the benefits of both powerhouse ingredients, while helping keep irritation at bay. To maximise results and minimise irritation, the Retinol featured is time released for a controlled delivery into the skin. In addition, the oil base mimics skin lipids, helping to deliver actives deeper into the skin’s surface and trap moisture. This makes it ideal for breakout-prone adult skin, which is often susceptible to dryness and sensitivity. 

    Or, you can continue to use separate Retinol and Salicylic Acid products. If you choose this route, try not to apply them at the same time. Use Salicylic Acid in the morning and Retinol at night. Those with more sensitive skin may need to use these products on alternate days, or reduce Salicylic Acid use to once a week or on an as-needed basis. 

    what about mixing Retinol with other hydroxy acids?

    The same rules apply when using other Hydroxy Acids alongside Retinol. If not carefully formulated together, avoid using them in the same sitting, to prevent overstimulating the skin. Glycolic Acid in particular is the most powerful of Hydroxy Acids and so mixing it with Retinol would not generally be advised. Again, your option would be to alternate, either morning and evening, or on different days. Every skin is unique and has varying tolerance levels, so listen to your skin to find the right routine for you. A professional skin therapist can analyse your skin and provide personalised recommendations on how and when to use your active ingredients.

    do you need to wear sunscreen when using retinol and salicylic acid?

    Last but not least: Retinol and Salicylic Acid, or any Hydroxy Acid, can increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun, so always wear sunscreen. If your current sunscreen feels like it’s generating too much heat (i.e. if you feel a burning sensation), switch to a physical or mineral-based sunscreen such as Invisible Physical Defense SPF 30

    retinol clearing oil

    Back to blog