What Happens if You Use Salicylic Acid and Retinol Together?

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Retinol and salicylic acid are two popular acne-fighting ingredients with decades of studies confirming their efficacy. But rumor has it that the two ingredients don’t actually mix well, and could potentially leave your breakouts looking even worse.

Don’t worry, while there may be some truth to this, there’s also a way to safely include the two in your skincare routine – here’s everything you need to know.

What is Retinol?

Cosmetic oil serum in a brown bottle

Retinol is a form of vitamin A. It’s a popular ingredient because of how it addresses multiple skin concerns, such as:

  • Speeds up the production of new skin cells to increase skin cell turnover, which unclogs pores to prevent breakouts
  • It boosts collagen production, which keeps the skin looking firm and tight, reducing the visibility of fine lines and wrinkles. This is why it’s one of the most loved active ingredients in anti-aging products
  • It helps to fade dark spots and hyperpigmentation
  • Can help to regulate oil production, which again prevents breakouts

What is Salicylic Acid?

Salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid derived from willow bark. It’s a fantastic ingredient for oily skin types because of how it:

  • Works just like chemical exfoliants by clearing away dead cells to prevent clogged pores, which also increases cellular turnover.
  • Being an oil-soluble exfoliant means that it removes excess sebum from both the pores and the surface of the skin
  • Has powerful anti-inflammatory properties that calm redness and irritation

What’s the Problem with Using Salicylic Acid and Retinol Together?

As you can see, retinol and salicylic acid have a few things in common. Primarily, they both increase cellular turnover, but do so in different ways. Salicylic acid does this through its exfoliating actions, while retinol encourages the production of new skin cells that’ll replace the old ones.

Either way, if they’re both doing this at the same time, then chances are that your skin will end up dry, flaky, and redder than ever. Your skin will be majorly over-exfoliated, severely compromising your skin barrier in the long term. This is something that applies to every skin type.

The Benefits of Using Both Retinol and Salicylic Acid to Target Acne

So, is the solution to choose between retinol and salicylic acid? You could, but that would mean that you’d miss out on the benefits to be had by including both in your skincare routine.

Together, they’re able to:

  • Improve the appearance of sun damage [1]
  • Improve skin texture faster than if you were only using one of the ingredients [2]
  • When lactic acid is added into the mix, the three can reduce acne lesions in just four weeks [3]
Woman on bed with pretty face

How to Safely Include Both Retinol and Salicylic Acid in Your Skincare Routine

Clearly, using retinol and salicylic acid together can enhance the effects of each ingredient. However, how can you do so without having to deal with the skin irritation that follows?

Here’s the secret – rather than using them both at the same time, save one for the morning and one for the night. Retinol works best at night, so save your salicylic acid products for morning use.

Another option would be to use them on alternate days. Use retinol one day and then salicylic acid the next.

When it comes to the retinol product you’re using, make sure that you’re starting off with a low concentration. It may be tempting to go for something stronger and more powerful, but this will also be far more likely to irritate acne-prone skin.

It’s important to keep in mind that both ingredients increase the skin’s sensitivity to the sun, making it vital to wear sunscreen daily.

Woman enjoying her healthy meal


Can you use retinol and salicylic acid together?

You shouldn’t use retinol and salicylic acid together at the same time, but there’s nothing wrong with using one in the morning and one at night.

What can you not mix with retinol?

Don’t mix retinol with vitamin C, alpha-hydroxy acids (such as glycolic acid), or benzoyl peroxide.

What can you not mix with salicylic acid?

Retinol is the only ingredient that shouldn’t be mixed with salicylic acid.

Can I use salicylic acid with retinol and niacinamide on sensitive skin?

Salicylic acid shouldn’t be mixed with retinol, so use this in the morning and save your retinol and niacinamide for your evening skincare routine.


Trying to decipher which skincare ingredients should and shouldn’t be used together can seem a little confusing, but it needs to be done if clearer skin is your goal.

When it comes to two of the most popular acne-fighting ingredients out there, just about every board-certified dermatologist would agree – retinol and salicylic acid shouldn’t be used at the same time, but strategically alter their use and your skin will reap even more benefits than if you were to just use one.


[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4633208/
[2] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27050699/
[3] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27050699/

Avatar for Megan Foley

Megan has been a freelance writer and editor since 2016. In that time, she’s penned a diverse collection of articles for online publication, with a focus on skincare and beauty. From in-depth product reviews to concise marketing content, Megan is passionate about developing content that informs, entertains, and inspires.