Benzoyl peroxide and retinol are two of the most effective ingredients dermatologists have in their arsenal for managing breakouts — particularly the deep, red, and often painful variety known as inflammatory acne. It’s no wonder, then, that people are often tempted to combine the two, to really maximize their treatment efforts.
So is it OK to combine benzoyl peroxide and retinol? Probably not: but that doesn’t mean you can’t still use them both. Read on to see exactly what we mean.
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How benzoyl peroxide works
We’ve talked in-depth about the benefits of benzoyl peroxide, but here’s a brief recap of what it does for acne-prone skin:
- Kills bacteria: BP excels at destroying the C. acnes bacteria that helps create inflammatory acne
- Exfoliates: studies indicate that the ingredient has keratolytic properties
- Reduces sebum: may help control excess oil production in some patients
- Decreases inflammation: some research shows that benzoyl peroxide can kill inflammatory cells
Like salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide is oil soluble, so it’s capable of penetrating down into oil-and-skin-filled pores. There, it breaks down, creating free radicals that kill bacteria (like C. acnes) through oxidative reactions. For the vast majority of patients, fewer bacteria means fewer acne breakouts.
How retinol works
Retinol belongs to a group of vitamin A derivatives called retinoids. Retinol is a fat-soluble molecule that penetrates skin cells and breaks down into retinoic acid — which binds to special cell receptors. This has a variety of skin benefits, including:
- Unclogs pores: studies show retinoids reduce epithelial hyperkeratinization (aka dead cell buildup)
- Speeds up cell turnover: vitamin A tells skin cells to regenerate more quickly
- Boosts collagen: retinoids help increase the production of type I collagen in the dermis
- Stimulates blood flow: studies show retinoids stimulate new blood vessels in skin
How to combine benzoyl peroxide and retinol
If you’ve been paying close attention, you already know why most dermatologists don’t recommend applying benzoyl peroxide and retinol at the same time: BP is an oxidizing agent, while retinol is an antioxidant. In theory, the two may react chemically and cancel each other out. While real-world data has shown mixed results (it may depend on the type of retinoid used), the idea alone is enough to suggest that the two be applied separately.
So how can you use retinol and benzoyl peroxide in your routine? According to Dr. Sandra Lee (aka Dr. Pimple Popper), the best thing to do is stagger your product application. She suggests using benzoyl peroxide in the morning, and retinol at night.
Benzoyl peroxide and retinol products that work together
Fortunately, alternating between benzoyl peroxide acne treatments and retinoids is easy to do, especially given what we know about the benefits of only using vitamin A derivatives at nighttime. When managing acne, look for products that are lightweight and non comedogenic, meaning they won’t clog your pores.
For morning, benzoyl peroxide is typically available in cleansers, lotions, and spot treatments. Dr. Lee’s SLMD favorites include:
- Benzoyl Peroxide Acne Lotion: part of the SLMD Acne System, follow up this step with Facial Moisturizer to help prevent any potential drying effects of treatment.
- BP Acne Spot Treatment: a targeted solution for inflammatory pimples, formulated with maximum strength benzoyl peroxide.
- BP Body Wash: part of the SLMD Body Acne System, this foaming cleanser helps manage body acne and can be used daily.
After cleansing in the evening, Dr. Lee recommends using SLMD Retinol Resurfacing Serum, which has a time-released formula to work consistently and gently overnight.
Dr. Lee's Last Word
Benzoyl peroxide and retinol are two of the most important — and well-studied — ingredients dermatologists have to treat acne. They’re both part of my 3-step SLMD Acne System: I recommend using benzoyl peroxide in the morning, and retinol at night, to maximize their benefits and not overwhelm your skin with treatment products.