Retinol, Acids, or Both? How to Use the Best Anti-Agers

The dermatologist-approved way.

aha serum

When it comes to anti-aging, certain truths are just accepted (and proven). One: hydration, hydration, hydration. Two: Sun protection is key. And three: Active ingredients are your friends, particularly retinol and AHAs and BHAs. There’s just one giant caveat to these heavy-hitter ingredients: they don't play well together. Because we hate to settle for just one, however, we asked Dr. Rachel Nazarian. Group to tell us how to use both and get all the benefits. 

Meet the Expert

Rachel Nazarian, MD is a board-certified dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology. She specializes in general and cosmetic dermatology, as well as dermatological surgery.

Scroll through to find out how it’s done.


Resurfacing Glycolic Acid Pads
Malin + Goetz Resurfacing Glycolic Acid Pads $44.00

Acids, both alpha hydroxy and beta hydroxy, exfoliate skin. “Glycolic acid and salicylic acid work better in terms of chemical exfoliation—helping to resurface skin, lighten sunspots, minimize discolorations, and even out skin texture,” Dr. Nazarian says. When you think chemical exfoliation with acid, think peel pads like Malin + Goetz Resurfacing Glycolic Pads ($52)—they’re a favorite because they’re effective.

To prevent skin damage, use an AHA every other day, at maximum.


RoC Deep Wrinkle Serum $28.00

Key Ingredients

Retin-A (tretinoin) is a form of vitamin A that helps the skin renew itself by encouraging cell turnover. It's commonly prescribed for acne, fine lines, and sun damaged skin.

“Retinol works by decreasing melanin (or pigment production in skin) and decreasing sunspots, but is also capable of increasing collagen production in deeper layers of skin and helping to maintain the collagen and elastin already there,” Dr. Nazarian says. Retinols, like RoC Retinol Correxion Deep Wrinkle Serum ($25), remain the most dermatologist recommended anti-ager because of the scientifically proven benefits (it’s the most studied skincare ingredient to date).

What Not to Do

T.L.C. Framboos™ Glycolic Resurfacing Night Serum
Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum $90.00

It’s agreed upon: These two categories of products are heavy-hitters in the anti-aging game. And they target different facets of aging. So, it only makes sense that you’d want to use both. But you can’t. At least that’s what the popular opinion has been—and it’s right, to a certain extent. You can’t use both at once. Really. We mean it. “These ingredients should not be mixed and applied at the same time,” Dr. Nazarian says. Applying retinol and AHA/BHA in one evening is a recipe for irritated, dry skin. If it’s a Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum ($90) night, skip any products with vitamin A derivatives (retinol) in them.

Try an Oil

Evening Primrose + Green Tea Algae Retinol Oil
MARA Evening Primrose + Green Tea Algae Retinol Oil $120.00

Key Ingredients

Green tea is a botanical derived from the leaves and buds of the tea plant Camellia sinensis. The active components of green tea are polyphenols (also called catechins) that are believed to benefit the skin due to their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

“To ensure each product is being used and maintained in its most stable form, apply only one product to your face nightly,” Dr. Nazarian says, adding that the best way to reap the benefits of both retinols and acids is to add them in one at time, allowing time to adjust to each one before switching to the other. “For example, one would begin by using a small pea-sized amount of retinoid once a week, and wait to see how the skin reacts before moving to twice weekly and then three times weekly. Once this regimen has been maintained for weeks, you can begin a topical acid once weekly on a night you’re not using the retinoid. And then slowly increase frequency to every other night, alternating with the retinoid.” If you’re new to active ingredients like these, look for oil formulas, like the Instagram-famous MARA Evening Primrose + Green Tea Algae Retinol Oil ($120), which also help soothe skin.

Keep scrolling for two more of our favorite products to incorporate in any BHA/AHA-retinol duo!

Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid
Paula's Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Lotion Exfoliant Lotion $32.00

With a lower concentration of BHA, this lotion (which has a consistency more like a serum) is the perfect choice for sensitive skin and anyone easing into exfoliating acids. 

Chantecaille Retinol Intense+ In Botanical Microspheres $140.00

Despite the name Retinol Intense (it does have double the retinol of the previous version), this product is surprisingly gentle on the skin. You can thank vitamin E and primrose oil for the hydration benefits. 

sunday riley luna sleeping night oil
Sunday Riley Luna Retinol Sleeping Night Oil $105.00

Sunday Riley have garnered a good reputation for their anti-aging products, key among them this retinol oil created to be comfortable on the most easily irritated skin.

Herbivore prism exfoliating glow potion
Herbivore Prism 12% AHA + 3% BHA Exfoliating Glow Serum $54.00

Key Ingredients

Alpha-hydroxy acids are a group of acid compounds, most often derived from plant-based sources. There are a variety of different ones out there, some of which include glycolic (derived from sugarcane) and lactic (derived from sour milk). While they all act on the surface of the skin as chemical exfoliants, they differ in size, and subsequently penetration and potency.

Exciting news: Herbivore has doubled the concentration of AHAs in their best-selling Prism serum. It's more potent, but the important things stayed the same: the fact that the acids come from fruit and willow bark, and that a dollar from each sale goes to The Trevor Project.

Article Sources
Byrdie takes every opportunity to use high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial guidelines to learn more about how we keep our content accurate, reliable and trustworthy.
  1. Tang SC, Yang JH. Dual Effects of Alpha-Hydroxy Acids on the Skin. Molecules. 2018 Apr 10;23(4):863. doi: 10.3390/molecules23040863

  2. Zasada M, Budzisz E. Retinoids: active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatments. Postepy Dermatol Alergol. 2019 Aug;36(4):392-397. doi: 10.5114/ada.2019.87443

  3. Zasada M, Budzisz E. Retinoids: active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatmentsPostepy Dermatol Alergol. 2019;36(4):392-397. doi:10.5114/ada.2019.87443

  4. OyetakinWhite P, Tribout H, Baron E. Protective mechanisms of green tea polyphenols in skin. Oxid Med Cell Longev. 2012;2012:560682. doi: 10.1155/2012/560682

  5. Tang SC, Yang JH. Dual Effects of Alpha-Hydroxy Acids on the Skin. Molecules. 2018 Apr 10;23(4):863. doi: 10.3390/molecules23040863.

Related Stories