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 ageing 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 application tips.
  • But you may not NEED to use both of these actives in your skincare regimen - your unique skin and skin goals will determine your collection of skin actives.


    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 ageing, however it's important to know how and when to use these ingredients together. 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 ageing, 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 – resulting in a compromised skin barrier, that can hinder your results and slow down your journey to clearer skin.

    how retinol works on skin

    Retinol (also known as Retinal or Retinoid) works by stimulating skin renewal and increasing cell turnover. This helps reduce visible signs of skin ageing by firming the skin and fading hyperpigmentation, such as post breakout marks.

    things to consider when using retinol

    Retinol has earned critical acclaim because it delivers visible results. Put simply, it’s a powerhouse active ingredient. 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 encapsulated, and stabilised 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). When you're new to using Retinol, pull back on your exfoliation, allowing your skin to adjust to the potent renewing effects of Retinol.

    how salicylic acid works on skin

    Salicylic Acid is one of the best breakout-fighting active ingredients, it's an extremely effective Beta Hydroxy Acid (BHA) that helps clear blockages in follicles, such as excess oil and debris. Salicylic Acid chemically exfoliates dull, dead skin cells on the skin's surface, as well as un-gluing the bonds that hold together those dead skin cells. 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.

    things to consider when using salicylic acid

    Even though you may want to incorporate Salicylic Acid into every step of your routine, it's important to stick to using 1-2 products containing lower concentrations of Salicylic Acid, so you are not over-exfoliating the skin and compromising your skin's natural lipid barrier.

    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). That being said, at Dermalogica we have a unique targeted treatment that combines the benefits of both powerhouse ingredients: Retinol Clearing Oil. Fusing Retinol and Salicylic Acid together for the first time, Retinol Clearing Oil. provides a unified solution for adult breakouts and skin ageing. Formulated in a soothing, plant-based oil, Retinol and Salicylic Acid are delivered over time as the skin is nourished back to health. Retinol Clearing Oil is designed for nighttime use only, smoothing 6-10 drops onto a clean skin prior to moisturiser application.

    PRO Tip: Begin using every couple of nights for the first two weeks to build up skin tolerance, before progressing to nightly use, should this suit your skin.

    You may prefer to use Retinol and Salicylic Acid separately. If opting for this, our Skin Experts recommend only using Retinol products at night, and using Salicylic Acid products either in the morning or on alternating nights to your Retinol. A great combination for this approach would be Clearing Skin Wash as your morning cleanser, and using Dynamic Skin Retinol Serum as your serum at night.

    what if I only want to use retinol?

    If you're looking to incorporate Retinol into your routine to help address signs of skin ageing, Dynamic Skin Retinol Serum is our formula of choice. This lightweight gel-like serum is designed to reduce and improve the appearance of wrinkles, large pores, rough texture and uneven skin tone fast. It combines a potent 3.5% Retinol complex with hydrating and soothing Squalene and Oats, enabling results without compromise.

    To use, apply a thin layer over face, typically 1 pump is enough for a full face, over clean skin at night. Allow the serum to absorb and follow with your moisturiser. It can be introduced gradually if you're new to Retinol, or use nightly for more experienced users.

    PRO Tip: Use caution around the delicate eye and lip area - the serum should not be applied to these areas of the face. If you're after a Retinol treatment for the eye area, we have you covered with Age Reversal Eye Complex.

    what if I only want to use salicylic acid?

    If you're purely concerned with breakouts, congestion and/or oily skin then Salicylic Acid should be on the top of your skincare ingredient list! As mentioned, it's been blessed with the ability to unclog pores, all the while having a calming and antibacterial effect on the skin. AGE Bright Clearing Serum is our hero Salicylic Acid formula. This lightweight, hydrating serum pairs Salicylic Acid with our patented AGE Bright Complex, working with the skin's natural microbiome (bacteria community) to reduce breakout causing bacteria and oil production, whilst balancing skin tone. Niacinamide is also paired with Shiitake Mushroom for added skin brightening and clarity.

    AGE Bright Clearing Serum can be used both in the morning and at night. Apply a few drops onto a cleansed skin. Once dry, finish with your moisturiser and SPF in the daytime.

    PRO Tip: If you experience breakouts/congestion only in certain regions of your face, just apply to those areas.

    what about mixing Retinol with Glycolic Acid?

    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.

    Glycolic, like Retinol is known to boost collagen production and cell renewal, so you may want to combine these two actives to ramp up your skin ageing strategy. If you have resilient skin, and are a savvy skincare user, you could try using Liquid Peelfoliant a few times a week, and Dynamic Skin Retinol Serum on the nights you aren't using Liquid Peelfoliant. Say goodbye to uneven skin tone, fine lines and wrinkles and hello to brighter, firmer skin!

    Liquid Peelfoliant is formulated with a potent blend of acids and enzymes, that work at different layers within skin's surface including a 10% blend of Glycolic and Lactic Acid, plus 0.5% Salicylic Acid

    PRO Tip: To ensure results whilst respecting your skin health, introduce one product at a time, using for a minimum of 4-6 weeks. Although Liquid Peelfoliant can be built up to daily use, when combining with retinol, we recommend using it 3-4 times a week in the morning or alternate days.

    Every skin is unique and has varying tolerance levels, so listen to your skin to find the right routine for you. As mentioned, 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.

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