Retinol and Salicylic Acid – What They Are and How They Work

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Retinol and salicylic acid are active ingredients that work as exfoliants to remove dead skin cells from the surface of the skin. When it comes to treating acne, both ingredients work similarly to help rid the skin of breakouts.

Both ingredients work to enhance the skin’s epidermal turnover rate to unclog the pores. Each of these ingredients is capable of drying out the skin, and using them together can have serious side effects. 

Are you trying to treat acne? Are you wondering if you can incorporate the use of both ingredients in your skincare routine? This is the guide for you. Read ahead to find out answers to several questions concerning using both ingredients. 

Are Retinol and Salicylic Acid the Same?

Even though they are both active ingredients and work similarly, retinol and salicylic are two different ingredients. Retinol is a form of vitamin A that falls under the retinoid category, while salicylic acid is a Beta Hydroxy Acid (BHA).

What Is Retinol and What Does It Do? 

Retinol is a vitamin A derivative that is touted to be the gold-standard skincare ingredient. It is popularly known for its ability to treat skin aging, as well as other skin concerns such as acne and so on.

Retinol is one of the artificial forms of vitamin A that is used in formulating skincare products used to treat acne. It is a star ingredient among dermatologists because of its effectiveness in treating skin issues. 

Retinol is a skincare ingredient that works wonders in treating and protecting the skin from environmental damage. It also works on your skin by penetrating your follicles to communicate with your cell receptors to boost epidermal turnover. 

This helps to stimulate skin renewal and causes the skin cells to act younger. It aids the production of protein fibers in your skin to reduce the appearance of aging signs, as well as promote even skin tone and texture.

“Retinol efficiently works on the skin to treat other skin concerns aside from wrinkles and aging signs. It also helps in the reduction and clearing of acne breakouts,” says Dr. Jody Levine, a board-certified dermatologist.

It contains exfoliating properties that work to slough off dead and flaky skin cells from the surface of your skin. These properties also work to shrink your pores, thereby restricting your sebaceous glands from secreting oils into them. This helps to keep your pores safe from oils blocking them. 

It also regulates oil production in your glands. The unavailability of dead skin cells and oil to block your pores keeps your skin safe from acne breakouts. All these only happen due to the turnover rate of the skin cells that retinol promotes.

What Is Salicylic Acid and What Does It Do?

Salicylic acid is a Beta Hydroxy Acid (BHA), which is an oil-soluble formula that helps to exfoliate and unclog pores. This is a highly recommended ingredient for acne-prone skin to help reduce acne breakouts. It is derived from the bark of a willow tree.

It helps to reduce the level of sebum(oil) production in the skin. This helps your skin produce just enough oil to keep it from getting dry. Just like retinol, It also helps to enhance and speed up the epidermal turnover in the skin.

It is mostly recommended for adult acne treatment because it contains skin-soothing properties that will help to soothe acne inflammation. It works well on all forms of acne, ranging from cyst acne to hormonal acne. 

When oil, dirt, and dead skin cells clog your pores, breakout-causing bacteria may gain access to it. This causes inflammation in your skin tissues along with acne breakouts. 

Salicylic acid penetrates rapidly into the clogged pores to dissolve and release all the dirt and debris clutching the follicles. This ultimately helps to reduce and clear out acne breakouts from the skin.

This makes salicylic acid a star ingredient in treating acne breakouts in the skin. It attacks and kills bacteria in the skin, and it is also keratolytic.

Can You Use Salicylic Acid With Retinol?

Both ingredients work amazingly for those with acne-prone skin, those experiencing hyperpigmentation, and those looking to address aging signs. Using both ingredients may yield amazing results but this depends on your skin type.

They are both active exfoliants and using the two ingredients without caution can cause serious side effects. Even when you use them separately, they can make the skin more sensitive, dry, and can even cause over-exfoliation of the skin. 

It is most likely to irritate your skin when you use both ingredients by layering them in a routine or when you use a product that contains both products. They may even cancel out and deactivate each other. 

However, using both ingredients cautiously will help to reduce the risk of excess irritation and over-exfoliation. Therefore, using both ingredients in your skincare routine is possible as long as you use them separately. 

If you have sensitive skin, salicylic acid is enough to treat your acne breakouts. There is no need to add retinol to the mix as it can badly irritate your skin. Other skin types may be able to tolerate using both ingredients gradually. 

Should You Alternate Between Using Salicylic Acid and Retinol?

The smartest and safest way to use both ingredients on your skin is by alternating between use. This allows your skin to get back its pH balance and restore its natural moisture. This will help to prevent the skin from getting overly dry.

Simply use one of the ingredients one night and the other the next. This will help to enjoy the benefits of both ingredients while lessening the side effects and irritation.

How to Use Retinol and Salicylic Acid

Since it has been established that both ingredients can be drying and irritate sensitive skin, you need to learn to use both ingredients in a way that won’t irritate your skin. 

Using both ingredients together at the same time in your skincare routine is a big NO as it could cause redness and flakiness on your skin. However, you can use them separately in your skincare routine. 

You can find salicylic acid in cleansers and exfoliants, while retinol is often available in cream, serum, lotion, or gel. If you have oily skin that is not sensitive, you may be able to layer your salicylic acid and retinol. 

You can use a cleanser that contains salicylic acid first before applying your retinol product. However, you have to ensure that these two products only contain low concentrations of the ingredients. 

You can also use salicylic acid in your morning routine and retinol at night. Retinol is best applied to treat skin concerns at night, because of its side effects of retinol. It increases the skin’s vulnerability to the sun’s ultraviolet radiation.

Exposing your skin to the sun after using it can also deactivate the ingredient due to its photosensitivity. Therefore, retinol works best with complications at night. 

Hydration is key to enjoying the benefits of the two ingredients. Both ingredients are active ingredients that can mess with the skin’s pH balance and cause the skin to dry out. Therefore, it is very important to hydrate your skin using a gentle moisturizer that works for your skin type.

Wearing sunscreen as a layer of protection on your skin is also very important. This will help to keep your skin safe from UV rays damages as you go about your everyday life.

When Should You Use Retinol and Salicylic Acid?

To keep your skin healthy and maintain a minimal pH balance, use salicylic acid in the morning and retinol at night. This is the best choice for you if your skin falls in the normal to dry skin category. 

However, If your skin is oily and can deal well with the layering of the two ingredients in a skincare routine, you should use it at night.

Where Should You Apply Salicylic Acid and Retinol to Your Skin?

Apply the ingredients to the problem areas of your skin to treat your skin concerns rapidly. If you are battling skin aging, you are most likely to have most of the appearance on your face and neck. Therefore, apply a little amount to your ingredient to tackle aging signs.

Acne can appear on the chest, face, back, and so on. Apply either or both of the ingredients to the problem areas of your skin to treat and reduce acne breakouts.

Can You Use Retinol and Salicylic Acid When Pregnant?

According to a board-certified dermatologist, Blair Murphy-Rose, FAAD, says that there are no malformations or birth defects confirmed to be caused by using retinol by pregnant women. 

However, it is best to be cautious while using this ingredient or avoid it altogether. “The major reason why you should avoid it is that the ingredients in a skincare product can find their way into your bloodstream. This can be passed to the baby through the placenta,” she explains further. 

Research also confirms that retinol can be transferred to the baby through breastfeeding 60 times more than the transition through the placenta. Likewise, the American Academy of Dermatology lists retinol as an unsafe ingredient to use during pregnancy. 

Therefore, pregnant and breastfeeding mothers should stay away from using retinol till they are past the stages of breastfeeding their babies.

As for salicylic acid, not much research or study has been carried out to highlight the effects of using it when pregnant or looking to conceive. However, it will be best to avoid using too many of the ingredients on your skin. 

Doctors recommend using a low-concentration product, as that is considered safe. 

Frequently Asked Questions 

Should you use salicylic acid or retinol first?

Salicylic acid should come first before retinol. If you are layering both ingredients in a routine, you can apply a low-concentration salicylic acid cleanser first and use retinol later in the routine. 

If you are using them separately, you should use salicylic acid in the morning and retinol at night. Either way, salicylic acid should come first before retinol.

Can you use salicylic acid with retinol and niacinamide?

Yes, you can. You can use salicylic acid with either of the two ingredients. However, you can’t use the three ingredients together as they have different pH levels.

Alternate between using salicylic acid and either retinol or niacinamide to enjoy the full benefits of the ingredients.

Can you mix salicylic acid with retinol?

No, you can’t. Mixing salicylic acid with retinol will deactivate both ingredients. Therefore, you should not mix the two ingredients before use. 

Follow the right usage method of using both ingredients in your routines.


Retinol and salicylic acid are two different ingredients that work similarly on the skin to treat acne. Using both ingredients in your skincare routine is possible. However, you have to be cautious about it. 

The safest way to use both ingredients is to switch between them each night. This method is suitable for oily to normal skin. If you have sensitive skin, using just one of the two ingredients is enough to help you treat acne. 

Thanks for reading.

Visit Serum101 for a more enlightening guide to help you use your skincare products without irritating your skin.