Dear dermatologists: Is retinol or glycolic acid better at keeping skin youthful?


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Pick up any magazine, click on any beauty article regarding “active ingredients,” or better yet ask a dermatologist what they’d recommend to hit the pause button on aging skin, and you’ll undoubtedly hear that in the morning, you should slather on  sunscreen…and lots of it. As for the nighttime, things get more divided because the pros recommend the powerhouse ingredients retinol and glycolic acid in equal measure…so much so that I wondered which of the two is actually queen of the skin-care aisle.

What I found out was that the reason that they’re named equally among dermatologists is that the answer is kind of a toss-up. Things like skin type, your skin age, and overall #skingoals hugely come into play here, so knowing the resumes for each could help you find your best skin on repeat. Here, dermatologist share how to use the two star players and how to determine which one is right for your regimen.

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How do glycolic acid and retinol work?

Okay, so to kick things off: It’s important to understand what each of these active ingredients is doing for your skin. Let’s start with glycolic acid. “It’s one type of alpha hydroxy acid and a chemical exfoliant that removes dead skin cells by loosening the ‘glue’ that holds the dead cells to the top layer of skin,” explains Dennis Gross, MD, a New York City dermatologist and founder of Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare. “Once these dead cells are removed, new youthful cells are revealed.”

By consistently removing the top layer of dead skin cells, you uncover the new ones which is good for a number of reasons. First off, your treatment products like peptides, for instance, penetrate the skin more deeply without having to first traverse a layer of over-it skin cells. They, also, he says help to speed up cell turnover—which slows down as you get older—in order to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.

Retinol, on the other hand, is a vitamin A derivative that does a ton of different things. It’s often used to treat acne because it, too, helps to speed up cell turnover, keeping dead cells from chilling on your complexion and plugging your pores. As an anti-ager, it offers the benefit of stimulating collagen production as well. This is super important, because, as we age, we produce less and less collagen, which can often lead to skin laxity.

“It can improve the texture of your skin some too, but it’s really known for decreasing fine lines and wrinkles,” says Jeanine Downie, MD of New Jersey’s Image Dermatology. “And it does that by boosting collagen and elastin, which are building blocks of your skin.”

What else can the two ingredients do?

Helping you prolong fine lines and wrinkles isn’t the only thing these products are good for. “Glycolic acid tends to be more mild than a retinol, and is ideal if your concerns are more focused on dull or tired looking skin,” says Dr. Gross. “It gives skin a radiant glow, reduces the appearance of pores, fades discoloration, helps prevent and treat breakouts and improves overall texture.” So, in short, if you’re looking for a quick way to bring a glow to your complexion, look no further.

For its part, retinol does work overtime to help with zits. “I’ll put prescription Retin-A on [a zit] three days in a row and just deal with the flaking, because I want the zit gone,” says Dr. Downie. “They work great as an anti-acne remedy.” Retin-A is the prescription-strength iteration of retinol so you can get an even more of an impact if your dermatologist deems it necessary.

It’s important to note that both glycolic acid and retinol can make skin more photosensitive, or in other words, more likely to get burned by the sun. If you add either to your routine, make sure to glob on the SPF in the mornings to make sure that you’re protected.

So, which one should you be using?

Turns out, it’s not really an “either/or” decision with retinols and glycolic acids.  “The key is to use both ingredients as part of your overall anti-aging skin-care regimen,” says Dr. Gross.  “They work differently yet join forces to provide a wholesome healthy rejuvenating treatment for your skin.” He suggests starting with an AHA at around age 24, then adding a retinol in your mid- to late- 20s when cell turnover and collagen production start to slow down.

Look for a glycolic acid that contains other AHAs and BHAs at low concentrations, which allows you to target multiple skin-care concerns at once and won’t be as irritating as a hardcore glycolic peel. Avoid layering them along with prescription retinoids, like Retin-A, benzoyl peroxide, and instead use on at morning and one at night.

Because retinol generally tends to be drying, you’ll need to taper your use based on what kind of skin you have. If you’re on the oilier side, you should be good to go 7 days a week, but if you have dry or combination skin, you should only be applying one to three times a week to keep you skin from getting aggravated. Take note: since retinol’s job is to speed up cell turnover, that can mean that you might get some degree of peeling. It’s normal. No, seriously everyone goes through it. If it seems excessive, check in with your derm, who can problem solve it by switching up how many days a week to use your product. Otherwise, slather on your way to better skin.

BTW, if you’re down to check up on the ingredients more, we’ve got tons of intel. Check out what to know about retinol and here’s a quick explanation of the differences between AHAs and BHAs.


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