Retinol & Exfoliating Acids: The Unexpected Duo That Can Optimize Your Anti-Aging Routine

5 min
by Ben Gentzler
January 26, 2022

Can you exfoliate and use retinol in your routine? The short answer is yes. 

Both a chemical exfoliant and retinol help to resurface the skin, fade dark spots, clear pores and soften fine lines and wrinkles. But they don’t always play nice together. Layering retinol on top of AHA/BHAs can lead to redness, flaking, dryness, sensitivity and irritation. 

But the good news is that this is not always the case, and you can in fact use both retinol and exfoliating acids. The key to avoiding irritation is to ensure that the products you are using are formulated to be gentle on the skin. 


Why You Need Both Retinol & AHAs/BHAs In Your Routine 

While retinol and AHA/BHAs have a lot of common benefits, they work differently in skin. Retinol works from the bottom-up, stimulating cell turnover via new cell proliferation which thickens the epidermis. 

AHA/BHAs in exfoliation products work from the top-down, dissolving the glue that holds dead skin cells to the surface so that they can be sloughed away, revealing the new, radiant skin underneath. Chemical exfoliation also helps stimulate cellular turnover. When an old cell is removed, a signal is sent deeper into skin to encourage cell proliferation.

Both ingredients stimulate collagen production – the key to healthy skin. 

While AHA/BHAs and retinol work differently, their skin benefits are similar in many ways. 

When you add both of these ingredients to your skincare routine, you will see cumulative benefits.

However, you must ensure that your acid and retinol products are specifically formulated to be gentle on skin. Do not attempt to mix retinol and acids on your own. Instead, research reputable clinical brands that cocktail their formulas with soothing and active and ingredients that strengthen your moisture barrier. 


I believe you shouldn’t have to pick one active over another. All actives have their own unique benefits that contribute to healthy skin. When I’m formulating, I ensure that the actives being used compliment the other products in my line to avoid causing any sensitivity or irritation,"
Dr. Gross says.


Top 3 Tips For Pairing Retinol & AHAs/BHAs: 

  • What to look for in retinol & AHA/BHA formulations: In a retinol product, look for ingredients like bakuchiol, ferulic acid, and rambutan, all of which can be found in our Phyto-Retinol Blend at the core of our Advanced Retinol + Ferulic collection. Bakuchiol strengthens the moisture barrier and ferulic acid and rambutan help to soothe irritation and redness. For AHA/BHAs, look for a two-step chemical peel that features multiple acids at low concentrations. It’s important for the peel to have two steps – an acid and a neutralizer. The neutralizing step shuts off the acids in step one and reduce the risk of irritation.  

  • Split up the two ingredients/use one in the morning and the other at night: If you have sensitive skin and/or are worried about irritation, you can use the peel in the morning and the retinol at night. If you are new to retinol, you can start by adding retinol to your routine once or twice a week and gradually work your way up to everyday use. When you’re trying new skincare it’s important to start slow and introduce one product at a time to let your skin acclimate to the new ingredients. 

  • Use your SPF: Retinol and AHA/BHAs can make skin sensitive to the sun. Be sure to apply a sunscreen of at least 30 SPF every day. Properly and consistently applying sun protection will prevent UV damage which will ultimately undo the rest of your skincare routine. 

  • Discover Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare for All Your Skincare Needs

    Try the Dr. Dennis Gross collection of retinol skincare products and our acclaimed collection of peels for expert exfoliation at home. For more skincare tips from the experts at Dr. Dennis Gross, check out our blog’s newest content today. Shop the collection of Dr. Dennis Gross bestselling skincare backed by dermatologists.

    Written By

    Ben Gentzler

    Ben is an Education professional with 16 years of experience in prestige/professional skincare and beauty. Brand, retail, and professional/spa education & training.

    MORE FROM Ben Gentzler

    Layering 101: How to Layer Skincare Products

    Read More

    Written By

    Ben Gentzler

    Ben is an Education professional with 16 years of experience in prestige/professional skincare and beauty. Brand, retail, and professional/spa education & training.

    MORE FROM Ben Gentzler

    Layering 101: How to Layer Skincare Products

    Read More