Can You Use Salicylic Acid with Retinol: Risks and Benefits

Can You Use Salicylic Acid with Retinol: Risks and Benefits

Twice the risk or twice the reward? That’s the dilemma that seems to face anyone looking to use two powerful skincare products in tandem. While most skincare routines involve multiple products, there are certain combinations that should be avoided or at least only attempted with great caution.

Salicylic acid and retinol are cornerstones of many skincare routines, and it’s therefore unsurprising that some people look to combine the two. This article looks at the logic and possible benefits of using salicylic acid with retinol, as well as the risks and possible side effects. It also looks at an alternative combination for those whose skin doesn’t tolerate salicylic acid.

Salicylic acid plus retinol

Salicylic acid is used to treat a variety of skin conditions and its use dates back more than 2000 years. Widely used as a chemical peel, it is also used for enhancing cosmetic appearance.

Retinol is a member of the retinoid family, a group of compounds made up of Vitamin A and its natural and synthetic derivatives. Retinoids are necessary for a large number of biological processes and have proved effective in the treatment of acne as well as for managing the appearance of aging skin. We’ve looked in detail at the two most popular retinoids in a previous article: tretinoin vs retinol.

Salicylic acid vs retinol for wrinkles

Both salicylic acid and retinol can improve skin texture and smooth the skin, making them effective in reducing wrinkles. Salicylic acid peels cause ‘controlled injury’ to the skin, resulting in improved texture and smoothness when the skin rejuvenates. Retinol can improve the appearance of fine and coarse wrinkles in a similar way.

Salicylic acid vs retinol for acne

Salicylic acid has a number of features that make it helpful in acne management. It decreases sebum secretion and is also comedolytic. As an exfoliant, it can remove superficial lesions and make way for healthier new skin tissues.

The management of acne and related scarring was the first application of retinoids in dermatology. Effectiveness for anti-aging was only observed as a beneficial side effect of this use. Like salicylic acid, retinoids are comedolytic, and they are also anti-inflammatory.

What is better salicylic acid or retinol?

There is no definitive answer to which is better. Whether salicylic acid or retinol is more appropriate for an individual will depend on their skin, what they are seeking to achieve and how their body reacts. While salicylic acid and retinol can both be used for acne and anti-aging, they work in different ways and deliver different results.

Both salicylic acid and retinol have commonly reported side effects that can make continued use unpleasant or even damaging. Side effects may be more pronounced for some individuals than others, and this may decide which is a more suitable option for the individual concerned.

Can you use salicylic acid with retinol?

Recently it has become very popular to use a chemical exfoliant and then to apply a topical retinoid the following night. These two nights are then followed by a number of days of ‘recovery’. This pattern, and variations of it, is known as skin cycling. We have covered this trend in depth in another article. Salicylic acid is a popular choice for the chemical exfoliant element of this routine, and retinol is the most common option for the retinoid night.

Many dermatologists recommend variations of this skin cycle. The recovery days are an express acknowledgement of the fact that these are powerful ingredients, the combination of which requires a careful approach. 

Benefits of using salicylic acid with retinol

While there have been no direct studies of skin cycling in the form that has gone viral on social media, some dermatologists suggest that the cycle allows you to get more out of each product. Because salicylic acid and retinol work in different ways there is some appeal to using them in harness. Salicylic acid is known to enhance the penetration of other topical agents, potentially making retinol more effective.

There are examples of in office salicylic acid peels combined with topical retinol application improving the effects of photoaging. There are also studies showing an improvement in acne with the use of a serum combining retinoids and salicylic acid. These are very specific application methods however, and don’t necessarily lend evidence to the safety and efficacy of more everyday at-home use.

Risks of using salicylic acid and retinol together

Both salicylic acid and retinol are strong products that often cause harsh side effects when used in isolation. These include skin irritation such as dryness, burning and peeling, as well as photosensitization. Some dermatologists have identified an increased chance of skin irritation if the products are used together, and extra recovery days are often recommended to those with sensitive skin who are trying skin cycling. Another risk is that the products may simply be less effective when combined.

If you’re considering using salicylic acid with retinol it’s sensible to get advice. This could be as simple as reading the instructions provided with the products you wish to use, but your best option may be discussion with your dermatologist or doctor.

Can you use salicylic acid with tretinoin?

Tretinoin and retinol are both retinoids. Tretinoin is a metabolite of retinol, which means it is essentially a more concentrated form of retinol and its uses are similar. The considerations outlined above for using salicylic acid with retinol are even more important when considering the use of tretinoin instead. 

Tretinoin is a prescription only treatment. You should speak with the doctor or dermatologist who prescribed tretinoin for you about whether it is safe and appropriate for you to use in conjunction with salicylic acid.

Salicylic acid plus retinol alternatives

Salicylic acid and retinol are most common in combination for the treatment and prevention of acne, but there is some limited evidence of efficacy for photoaging too. Individuals looking for anti-aging solutions should consider other products that don’t have the potentially harsh side effects of salicylic acid and retinol. Short term side effects tend to be more acceptable to those suffering acne than to those looking for a long term regime for skin aging.

Revela’s scientists set out to find a new ingredient that would rejuvenate aging skin without any of the unpleasant side effects often seen with other products. They used a cutting-edge AI engine to sift through millions of compounds, screening for safety, efficacy and specificity. Through this process they discovered Fibroquin, a pro-collagen molecule discovered with one purpose in mind: being a pro-collagen molecule.

In a clinical study, Fibroquin improved skin elasticity by 21%, which is 2x compared to a leading gold standard 0.5% retinol product. 

Skin elasticity is a key but often overlooked element of skin-aging that plays a direct role in skin tightness, lift and tone. 

It’s not necessary to stop your retinol routine in order to start using Fibroquin, if you don’t wish to do so. Fibroquin Essence can be used in conjunction with retinol, making it far easier to integrate into your daily skincare routine than many other products.
Profile photo for Enzo Benfanti

Reviewed by: Enzo Benfanti, MEng

Enzo is a chemical engineer and data enthusiast with a background in industrial chemicals. His previous experience is in developing catalysts and designing industrial chemical processes to produce the precursors to detergents, polyester fibers, and other specialty materials. He received his bachelor’s degree from the University at Buffalo [Go Bills!] and his master's degree from Columbia University, both in chemical engineering.

Written by: Revela Editorial Team

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