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Glycolic Acid vs Retinol: Which Is Better for Your Skin?

by Yu-Jun Park 07 Jul 2024

Glycolic Acid vs. Retinol: Which Is Better for Your Skin?

Navigating the skincare aisle often feels like wading through a jungle of promises, slick packaging, and a blur of unfamiliar ingredients. 

Today, we’re slicing through the noise to answer one of the most pressing questions: 

Glycolic acid vs. retinol—which one reigns supreme for your skin? 

Whether you’re aiming to combat acne, soften fine lines, or achieve that lit-from-within glow, understanding these potent ingredients is key. Let's dive in.

Glycolic Acid and Retinol: The Basics

Before pitting these skincare titans against each other, let's break down what they are and why they're so venerated in the beauty community.

Glycolic Acid

Glycolic acid is a type of Alpha Hydroxy Acid (AHA) derived from sugar cane. Known for its exfoliating properties, it's a favored choice for brightening and resurfacing the skin.


  • Exfoliation: Dissolves dead skin cells, revealing fresher skin underneath.
  • Brightening: Improves skin tone and reduces the appearance of dark spots.
  • Anti-Aging: Stimulates collagen production, helping to diminish fine lines.


Retinol, a derivative of vitamin A, falls within the retinoid family. It's often hailed as the gold standard in anti-aging skincare for its ability to accelerate cell turnover.


  • Cell Turnover: Promotes quicker renewal of skin cells, effectively smoothing texture.
  • Anti-Aging: Reduces wrinkles and fine lines by boosting collagen production.
  • Acne Treatment: Helps unclog pores and prevent future breakouts.

The Great Debate: Glycolic Acid vs. Retinol

When choosing between glycolic acid and retinol, it doesn't have to be a battle royale. Each ingredient offers unique benefits that, when used correctly, can transform your skin.

For Acne-Prone Skin

Both glycolic acid and retinol are excellent for acne, but they tackle breakouts differently.

  • Glycolic Acid: Exfoliates the surface layer, making it easier to clear away dead skin cells that clog pores.
  • Retinol: Works on a deeper level, reducing sebum production and inflammation which are key in combating acne.

Verdict: For immediate surface-level improvement, glycolic acid works wonders. For more stubborn, cystic acne, retinol is your go-to.

For Anti-Aging

When it comes to battling Father Time, both ingredients pack a punch.

  • Glycolic Acid: Stimulates collagen production while removing dead skin cells, resulting in a smoother complexion.
  • Retinol: Promotes skin turnover and improves skin elasticity, significantly reducing wrinkles over time.

Verdict: Retinol is generally more effective for deep-set lines, while glycolic acid is great for keeping the skin smooth and radiant.

For Skin Brightening

Achieving that coveted glow often boils down to ridding your skin of dull, dead layers and promoting an even tone.

  • Glycolic Acid: Great for brightening up dull skin by exfoliating dead skin layers.
  • Retinol: Helps fade dark spots and hyperpigmentation over time by enhancing cell regeneration.

Verdict: For quick radiance, glycolic acid wins. For long-term brightening and even skin tone, retinol is unmatched.

How to Use Them Together

Ah, the age-old query: Can you use glycolic acid and retinol together? 

The answer is a resounding YES, you can indeed use glycolic acid and retinol together. That is, with a sprinkle of caution and a dash of strategy.

The Dream Team Protocol

  1. Alternating Nights: Begin by using glycolic acid and retinol on alternate nights. This practice helps your skin adjust and reduces the risk of irritation.
  • Night One: Apply your glycolic acid product after cleansing. Start with a toner or serum.
  • Night Two: Use your retinol post-cleanse. A pea-sized amount is usually sufficient.
  1. Layering Wisely: Once your skin has built up some resilience, consider layering.
  • Cleanse
  • Apply Glycolic Acid: Use a toner or serum form first.
  • Wait It Out: Give your skin 20-30 minutes to absorb the glycolic acid and balance its pH.
  • Apply Retinol: A thin layer will do the trick.
  • Hydrate, Hydrate, Hydrate: Seal in your efforts with a gentle, moisturizing cream (bonus points if it’s infused with glycolic acid!) to prevent dryness.
  1. Morning Protocol: Your morning routine needs to be tight.
  • Gentle Cleanser: Wash off the night’s residue.
  • Hydration Station: Use a deeply hydrating serum or moisturizer.
  • Sunscreen: SPF 30 or higher—no ifs, ands, or buts. Both glycolic acid and retinol make your skin more susceptible to sun damage.

The Balancing Act

It’s like juggling fireballs—super cool, but it requires practice and finesse. Start slow with non-consecutive nights, observe how your skin reacts, and make adjustments accordingly. 

Listen to your skin. If irritation kicks in, scale back. There's no heroism in overdoing it.

Troubleshooting: When Things Go Sideways

Even skincare experts have slip-ups, so don’t sweat it if your skin starts throwing a tantrum. 

Here are some quick fixes:

  • Irritation & Dryness: Cut back on usage frequency — OR use a gentler form of retinol (skincare ninja move right there!). Go back to alternated nights, or reduce the concentration.
  • Barrier Repair: Use ceramide-rich moisturizers, hydrating masks, and avoid additional exfoliating products while your skin heals.
  • Redness & Sensitivity: Use calming ingredients like aloe vera, chamomile, or centella asiatica.

Personal Stories: Real People, Real Results

You’re not alone in this quest for better skin. Let’s sneak a peek into some juicy testimonials from others who’ve danced the glycolic acid-retinol tango.

Eva, 34

“I started with glycolic acid because my skin was duller than dishwater. After a month, I added retinol for those pesky fine lines. At first, it was rough—red and peeling. But oh boy, after sticking to it and moisturizing religiously, my skin has never looked this good. Now, alternating nights is my jam.”

Jared, 27

“Adult acne is the worst. Glycolic acid helped clear out the surface gunk, but retinol did a number on those deep, cystic spots. It’s been a game-changer. Pro tip: Patience and sunscreen are everything.”

Mia, 45

“I was skeptical about using both. My skin is sensitive, like a diva. But by listening to my skin and not rushing, I got the best of both worlds. Glycolic for glow, retinol for age-defying action—total win.”

Your Personalized Skincare Routine

Let’s talk lifestyle – you’re busy, we get it. Incorporating these active ingredients doesn’t have to be a headache. 

Here’s a sample routine:


  1. Cleanser: Mild, hydrating cleanser. Cleans without stripping your natural oils.
  2. Toner: Optional, but look for something soothing.
  3. Glycolic Acid: Start 2-3 times a week and work up.
  4. Serum: Hydrating or antioxidant, like vitamin C.
  5. Moisturizer: Choose based on your skin type.
  6. Sunscreen: SPF 30 or higher. No exceptions.


  1. Cleanser: Remove makeup & grime.
  2. Retinol: Start slow – 1-2 times a week.
  3. Moisturizer: Lock in hydration.

Ingredient Stories: What You Didn’t Know

Myths Debunked:

  • Glycolic Acid Thins the Skin: It doesn’t thin your skin; it actually thickens the dermis by stimulating collagen production.
  • Retinol Can’t Be Used with Exfoliants: They can be used together with caution. Introduce them gradually.

Unexpected Benefits:

  • Glycolic Acid for Scars: Helps lighten acne scars over time.
  • Retinol for Stretch Marks: Can improve texture.

Glycolic Acid vs. Retinol vs. Your Skin Goals

Choosing between glycolic acid and retinol shouldn’t be a battle royale. Each has its own set of superpowers that can transform your skin. 

Whether you’re here to glow up, defy time, or banish acne, understanding how to use these ingredients to your advantage is the key.

If you find that one works better than the other, awesome! If you can gracefully incorporate both, even better. The trick is to be in tune with your skin’s needs, start slow, and give it some TLC along the way.

Ready to revolutionize your skincare regime? 

Grab your glycolic acid, snag that retinol, and let your skin embark on its best glow-up journey yet.

Keep glowing, you skincare superstar!

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