Is It True You Can’t Mix Salicylic Acid with Retinol?

The idea of combining skincare ingredients can be daunting — especially when it comes to combining powerful, acne-fighting actives like beta hydroxy acid and retinol. Let’s cut to the chase: you can use a BHA like salicylic acid and retinol together in the same skincare routine — as long as you know what you’re doing.

Here, we break down the basics of these popular ingredients, and how the two can work together for maximum results.

A woman applying skincare similar to Retinol Serum for acne by SLMD Skincare

3 minute read


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 include:

  • 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 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:

    How to combine salicylic acid and retinol

    It’s smart to be cautious about combining potent acne-fighting ingredients — but using salicylic acid and retinol together in your routine is perfectly safe. In fact, exfoliating with salicylic acid can help retinol reach deeper, making it more effective.

    Try using a cleanser containing BHA, like SLMD Salicylic Acid Cleanser, which is formulated for all skin types and gentle enough for daily use. After your nighttime cleanse, apply a retinol with a time-release formula that also includes skin-soothing ingredients, like SLMD Retinol Serum. This potent treatment contains hyaluronic acid, vitamin C and allantoin to help minimize irritation.

    While some initial redness and flaking is typical for the first few weeks of retinol use, prolonged irritation could be a sign that you need to ease into this combo. Try using BHA in the morning, and/or reducing your retinol use to every other night and build up as tolerated. Always keep an eye on how your skin reacts.

    SLMD Dream On Retinol Night Cream is a nourishing formula that's suitable for normal, combination or dry skin, with added squalane. Night Light Retinol Eye Cream is ideal for using on the more delicate skin around the eye area.

    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 for people, especially when we’re talking about the potent acne and anti-aging ingredients. Two of my favorites are salicylic acid and retinol, which CAN be used together, as long as you’re paying attention to your skin. Start slowly, and try your salicylic acid in a cleanser, which is rinsed off, then apply your topical retinol. As always, only use retinoids at night and be sure to wear sunscreen daily.

    —Dr. Sandra Lee


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