A young woman applying skincare in mirror similar to Retinol Serum by SLMD Skincare

Can You Combine Salicylic Acid & Retinol in Your Skincare Routine?

Dr. Pimple Popper explains how to take advantage of these two potent active ingredients.



2 minute read

Combining skincare ingredients can be daunting — especially powerful, acne-fighting actives like salicylic acid and retinol. Here’s the good news: you can use a BHA like salicylic acid and retinoids together in the same skincare routine — as long as you know what you’re doing. In this guide, we break down the basics of these popular ingredients and how the two can work together for maximum results.


What does salicylic acid do for skin?

The most commonly used BHA, salicylic acid was originally derived from the bark of the willow tree. It’s an oil soluble exfoliant, which means that it can penetrate into the sebum on your skin and break up dead skin cells and oils trapped in pores.

Salicylic acid’s primary benefits:

  • Exfoliant: sloughs away dead cells
  • Pore purifier: breaks down oil trapped in pores
  • Anti-inflammatory: calms redness
  • Anti-bacterial: kills microbes
  • Keratolytic: breaks down keratin

What does retinol do for skin?

Derived from vitamin A, retinol is a potent, water-soluble antioxidant that speeds up the cell turnover process, encouraging fresh, new cells to replace older, dead cells. Less buildup of dead cells means less chance of those cells clogging up your pores.

Retinol helps with several skin concerns, including:

Dr. Pimple Popper's SA + Retinol Picks

How to safely combine salicylic acid and retinol

Combining potent acne-fighting ingredients requires caution — but using salicylic acid and retinol together is perfectly safe and can be highly effective. Exfoliating with salicylic acid can help retinol reach deeper layers of the skin, enhancing its effectiveness. Here’s a step-by-step skincare routine:

Morning routine

Night routine

  • Cleanse your face to remove impurities.
  • Apply a retinol product with a time-release formula that includes skin-soothing ingredients, such as SLMD Retinol Serum, with hyaluronic acid.

Dr. Pimple Popper’s tips for minimizing irritation

You can expect some initial redness and flaking during the first few weeks of using retinol, says Dr. Lee, particularly when combining it with an exfoliant like salicylic acid. Here’s how to cope:

  • Start slowly: To avoid shocking your skin, gradually increase your frequency of application as tolerated, while heeding the instructions on your products’ packaging.
  • Alternate days: If you experience minor irritation, or if you have sensitive skin, consider using salicylic acid and retinol on alternate days.
  • Sun protection: Since you’re sloughing away a protective layer of older skin cells, you might become more sensitive to the sun. Apply a minimum SPF 15 daily to avoid UV damage.
  • Monitor your skin: Always keep an eye on how your skin reacts and adjust your routine accordingly.
Dr Sandra Lee

Dr. Lee's Last Word

One of the most common questions I get from patients is, “How do I combine different skincare ingredients?” It can be confusing, especially when dealing with potent acne and anti-aging ingredients. Two of my favorites — salicylic acid and retinol — CAN be used together, as long as you pay attention to your skin. Start slowly and be sure to wear sunscreen daily.


Shop the Article