Glycolic acid and Retin A (tretinoin) are both powerful anti-aging skin care ingredients that make very noticeable improvements to the appearance of skin. I have used them together in my dermatology practice for over 30 years. I also use them both on my own complexion.
Here’s a question I was recently asked by a reader:
Hi Dr. Bailey, I am 49 years old. I would like to try the combination of tretinoin and glycolic acid use. I currently use Tretinoin 0.05% for sun damage and aging purposes. Is it possible to add Glycolic acid to my routine also? I am wondering if there is a glycolic face cream I can add? During the day I am currently using Daily Moisturizing Face Cream and (your zinc oxide) sunscreen. Thanks so much! Heather
Below I answer Heather’s question and other questions I’m frequently asked about combining these two powerhouse ingredients to fight skin aging and sun damage.
Anti Aging Skin Care Treatment
- Can I combine glycolic acid and Retin A?
- How do I combine glycolic acid and tretinoin (Retin A)?
- Why do I need to be careful using Retin A and glycolic acid?
- Is there a substitute for Retin A?
- My skin can’t tolerate glycolic acid and retinol – what can I do?
- How can I combine Retin A with glycolic acid and vitamin C?
- How important is it to use sunscreen when combining glycolic acid and Retin A?
- How do I start a powerful anti-aging skin care routine with the combination of tretinoin, glycolic acid and vitamin C?
- How should I layer products in my anti-aging skin care routine?
Can I combine glycolic acid and Retin A?
- Lightening age spots.
- Giving skin a smoother, luminous appearance.
- Reversing wrinkles by building new collagen just beneath the surface of the skin.
However, you need to apply these products carefully, as I explain below.
How do I combine glycolic acid and tretinoin (Retin A)?
I recommend starting with either glycolic acid or tretinoin, then letting your skin adjust for a month or two before adding the second product.
Once your skin has adjusted:
- Use the second product a few days a week to begin with.
- Gradually, as your skin adjusts to the second product, start using it every day.
If parts of your face do well with the combination but other areas become slightly irritated, then don’t apply the second product to sensitive areas.
Should your skin become more irritated, stop using the products until your skin is back to normal. Then reintroduce the products as described above over a shorter period.
Why do I need to be careful using Retin A and glycolic acid?
Retinoids such as retinol and Retin A (tretinoin) are very exfoliating. Glycolic acid also exfoliates the skin which is why it’s tricky to combine these wonderful and effective anti-aging ingredients.
Exfoliated skin has a more refined and luminous appearance, but it also absorbs things faster. Glycolic acid has an acid pH that can be irritating to exfoliated skin. This means only people with tolerant skin can combine glycolic acid and a retinoid (although sometimes those with sensitive skin can tolerate retinol – see below).
People with sensitive skin (especially people with rosacea, eczema or facial seborrheic dermatitis) typically have to pick either a retinoid OR glycolic acid and retinoids are often better tolerated because they don’t have a highly acid pH.
Those who can’t tolerate using a retinoid with glycolic acid can sometimes tolerate using just one of these ingredients with a topical antioxidant such as vitamin C product. This is because vitamin C does not exfoliate.
However, vitamin C has a highly acid pH so it too can be irritating to exfoliated skin, which makes it still a little tricky.
Is there a substitute for Retin A?
Retin A can cause a ‘break in’ rash (called retinoid dermatitis) when a person first starts using it. The skin adjusts in about a month and retinoid dermatitis usually clears up.
However, skin with retinoid dermatitis can become more irritated from the acid pH of glycolic acid or vitamin C products.
For those unable to overcome the retinoid dermatitis, retinol can be a substitute for Retin A because it offers similar benefits whilst being much easier to tolerate. Retinol also does not require a prescription. My medical-grade Retinol Anti Wrinkle Night Cream provides the highest allowed concentration of retinol (1%) formulated with soothing green tea antioxidants in an FDA regulated laboratory. This combination allows even the most sensitive complexions the opportunity to include a retinoid in their anti-aging skin care routine.
My skin can’t tolerate glycolic acid and retinol – what can I do?
It’s important to first try using a product that helps fight skin irritation if you are initially unable to tolerate glycolic acid and retinol (or another retinoid). Green tea EGCG polyphenol antioxidants help quiet irritation and inflammation. I have found that adding a high concentration green tea product into the skin care routine is often all it takes to help skin tolerate glycolic acid and a retinoid together.
Green tea antioxidants are formulated with retinol in my Retinol Night Cream. A proprietary high concentration of them are present in my Green Tea Antioxidant Skin Therapy which can be applied in the morning and layered under Retin A at night.
If you are still unable to combine these ingredients, then I recommend using vitamin C in place of glycolic acid. Try using the retinoid at night and vitamin C during the day.
In my dermatology practice I sometimes recommend intermittent glycolic acid peels in the place of daily glycolic acid. It is important that this treatment is carried out by an experienced professional because the peel may be too deep and unpredictable on exfoliated skin and may damage the skin, potentially causing scarring.
How can I combine Retin A with glycolic acid and vitamin C?
Combining a retinoid like Retin A or retinol with glycolic acid and vitamin C brings strong anti-aging benefits. Each of these ingredients works to rejuvenate the skin by a different mechanism. Therefore, combination therapy yields more age reversal benefits than using just one alone.
Retinoids, glycolic acid and vitamin C stimulate collagen production which improves the elasticity of the skin. They also even out skin color, helping age spots to fade. Glycolic acid penetrates skin well, hydrating and brightening the skin quickly. Both glycolic acid and retinoids increase skin’s production of hyaluronic acid to give skin a supple, dewy and youthful glow.
Pro-tips to combine vitamin C with a retinoid and glycolic acid:
- Use the retinoid at night layered with glycolic acid (if using Retin A, clear this with your prescribing medical care provider). Wash your face in the morning and apply the vitamin C alone because it does not combine well with glycolic acid or retinoids.
- Alternatively, if you don’t want to layer a retinoid and glycolic acid at night, you can alternate vitamin c and glycolic acid during the day.
How important is it to use sunscreen when combining glycolic acid and Retin A?
Of course, any person following an exfoliating anti-aging skin care routine must use a broad-spectrum facial sunscreen 365 days a year or there will be no anti-aging benefits!
Exfoliation of any type enables damaging sun rays to penetrate your precious skin more easily. Sunscreen is vital to prevent skin cancer and it’s also critical for anti-aging skin rejuvenation to be effective. - Dr. Bailey
In my 30+ years of clinical experience, I’ve observed that broad spectrum zinc oxide sunscreens offer the greatest and most reliable UV skin protection. My patients MUST wear a zinc oxide sunscreen with a minimum of 5% or more zinc oxide.
My Sheer Strength Pure Physical SPF Sunscreens give the best protection available today and are weightless on your skin. They look great too, without giving the skin a white tone.
Personally, I use my Sheer Strength Matte Tinted SPF 30+ Creme Sunscreen on my face daily and my Sheer Strength Pure Physical SPF 50+ Spray Sunscreen on my neck, chest, ears and the back of my hands and arms, if exposed. These are pure mineral sunscreens free from chemical UV filters. The Matte Tinted SPF also contains iron oxide to help block visible light that can darken pigment problems.
Ideally, it is important that you also wear a hat to keep your face out of direct sunlight as much as possible. Find my favorite hat as well as my Sheer Strength Sunscreens in my Sunsavvy Around Town Kit.
How do I start a powerful anti-aging skin care routine with the combination of tretinoin, glycolic acid and vitamin C?
I recommend starting with tretinoin. Use tretinoin at night for at least 2 months (as described below).
Once your skin has adjusted, add glycolic acid to your skincare routine. My top choice is my robust medical-grade Glycolic Acid 15% Face Cream made with ultra-pure pharmaceutical grade glycolic acid.
In my practice, I have patients apply it during the day under sunscreen or at night before their Retin A.
When your skin can tolerate the combination of tretinoin and glycolic acid every day, start applying a vitamin C serum in the morning under moisturizer at least twice a week.
Pro-tip: The half-life of vitamin C in skin is 4 days so you don’t need to use it daily to benefit your skin. For the first week, apply vitamin C daily. After that, I usually recommend applying it every 4 days alternating with glycolic acid or Green Tea Antioxidant Skin Therapy which provides better antioxidant benefit and helps to calm any retinoid dermatitis or glycolic acid skin irritation.
How should I layer products in my anti-aging skin care routine?
Because combination therapy is complicated and involves layering products on the skin, I write out the order of product application for my patients. I also make sure that all the products they use are compatible and support their skin as it adjusts to their anti-aging routine.
This is an example of a product application regimen, but you need to follow a routine specifically designed for your skin.
My Ageless Rejuvenation Skin Care Kit contains all the products you see below for Complete Skin Care to fight skin aging.
CLEANSE: Wash with a gentle cleanser such as my Extremely Gentle Foaming Facial Cleanser (my personal favorite cleanser to use with my glycolic acid and retinoid anti-aging skin care routine).
HYDRATE: Apply my Daily Moisturizing Face Cream
PROTECT: Always use an SPF with 5% or more zinc oxide sunscreen. My personal favorite is my Sheer Strength Pure Physical Matte Tinted SPF 30+ Sunscreen.
CLEANSE: Wash with the gentle cleanser as above
Pro-tip #1: It is important to wait 15 minutes after cleansing your skin before applying tretinoin to help skin tolerate tretinoin with less peeling and retinoid dermatitis drama! Also, to begin with, apply tretinoin every third night and gradually work up to every night.
Pro-tip #2: If you are using retinol instead of tretinoin, the order is reversed; apply my Retinol Ultra Intensive Night Cream followed by my Daily Moisturizing Face Cream. Eventually, your skin may allow you to layer the Glycolic Acid Face Cream on top of the Retinol Night Cream in place of the Daily Moisturizing Face Cream - this simple nighttime routine is my favorite way to combine a retinoid and glycolic acid!
Complete Skin Care Routine™ for the best anti-aging results.
Know that it's important that all the products in your skin care routine support your glycolic acid and retinoid products so that you have success; from your facial cleanser, moisturizer, antioxidant product and sunscreen the formulations need to be compatible and prevent skin irritation. My Ageless Rejuvenation Anti-Aging Skin Care Kit is the skin care routine that I've created to successfully combine medical grade glycolic acid and retinol with supportive and compatible products to achieve success with this powerful age-fighting combination. Cleanse, Correct, Hydrate, Protect™ in a single routine that targets skin aging.
Be sure to talk to your tretinoin prescribing doctor about what you’ve learned here. This information is general, and I can’t promise it is appropriate for your specific skin. I wish you the best of luck.
Heather, I hope you found this helpful and informative. Thanks for sending me your question.
Cynthia Bailey MD, Dermatologist
Disclaimer: Please realize that availing yourself of the opportunity to submit and receive answers to your questions from Dr. Bailey does not confer a doctor/patient relationship with Dr. Bailey. The information provided by Dr. Bailey is general health information inspired by your question. It should not be a substitute for obtaining medical advice from your physician and is not intended to diagnose or treat any specific medical problem (and is not an extension of the care Dr. Bailey has provided in her office for existing patients of her practice). Never ignore your own doctor’s advice because of something you read here; this information is for general informational purpose only.
Author: Dr. Cynthia Bailey M.D. is a Board Certified dermatologist practicing dermatology since 1987. She has done well over 200,000 skin exams during her career and authors the longest running physician written skin health blog in the world.