I’ve always believed that retinol and glycolic acid are like the N’Sync and Backstreet Boys of the skin-care world: You’re either a fan of one or the other, but never both. So, you can imagine my surprise when, within a week’s time, a neatly-wrapped retinol from Drunk Elephant—which I’ve come to think of as the clean brand for alpha-hydroxy acids or AHAs—landed on my desk, followed by a super causal mention from a dermatologist that rotating the powerhouses could have my skin writing me thank you notes.
Now, first some background. The two ingredients are often compared to one another, because they’re some of the most efficacious skin-care solutions out there, but they’re actually entirely different. “Glycolic acid is a fruit acid that unclogs the pores and exfoliates the dead layers of the skin,” explains Virginia-based dermatologist Lily Talakoub, MD, noting that glycolic or AHAs melt away dead skin cells to resurface and smooth things out. Retinols, on the other hand, work to “re-epithelialize” the skin from beneath the surface, increasing the enzymes that produce collagen and elastin, which in turn, decreases wrinkles and helps the skin become more plump over time.
But you can also think of it like this: Glycolics work from the top down, while retinols do their thing from the bottom up. “Working them in together is complicated because they can both dry out the skin,” explains Dr. Talakoub, so you’re going to want to up your dose of hydration and really tune into what your skin is telling you. While those with normal-to-oily skin are fine to give the coupling a go, if you’re on the drier or more sensitive side, start with a glycolic acid and give your skin time to adjust. “If you’re doing great with that and have no irritation, then you can add in the retinol,” she explains.
The timing of this revelation couldn’t be better, because as of today, Drunk Elephant, is now adding a retinol to their line. Initially, I was nervous about having to choose between my beloved AHA serum and the shiny new A-Passioni 1.0 Retinol Cream ($74), but according to the brand’s founder Tiffani Masterson, there’s no need. “It can be used alongside AHAs, which is really exciting to me,” she says. “They work together and compliment each other and they allow each other to work better and do their job.”
Shop now: Drunk Elephant A-Passioni™ Retinol Cream, $74
In fact, Masterson herself rotates between them, mixing glycolic acid with marula oil one night and coupling a retinol with a mega-dose of hydration the next. “Because the retinol is loaded with such great bioavailable, nourishing oils that can be absorbed easily, I was finding that it was the hydration part that I needed alongside this moisturizing retinol,” she says. “So I started mixing it with the B-Hydra, and I just had such great results.”
As Masterson proves, the most important thing to keep in mind when using two ingredients, is hydration, hydration, hydration. Dr. Talakoub notes that you should slather your skin with two coats of moisturizer (your usual followed by a second helping 10 minutes later after it’s soaked in), and add a hyaluronic acid step for some bonus moisture.
Sure, sure, doubling down on glycolic acid and retinol might make your routine longer and pricier (and take up slightly more space in your medicine cabinet), but for the sake of a true skin-deep, inside-out glow, I’m officially calling it “worth it.”
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