Alpha Hydroxy Acids Or Retinol: Which Is Best?

Reducing the effects of aging on your skin requires a combination of ingredients including broad spectrum sunscreens, exfoliants, antioxidants, emollients, and cell communicating ingredients. Vitamin A derivatives such as tretinoin and retinol are widely recommended by skin care professionals for their ability to help reverse sun damage, reduce the appearance of wrinkles, boost collagen production and increase skin cell turnover. While many individuals cannot tolerate tretinoin because it is highly irritating to skin, retinol is an over the counter alternative that is effective and better tolerated.

Yet another skin beneficial ingredient are alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), which work to exfoliate and stimulate collagen production. So, which is best for your skin – retinol or AHAs? In truth, both are beneficial and work in different ways. Today, I’ll describe the advantages of using both ingredients, including how to incorporate both into your skin care regimen.

What Do They Do?

Retinoids, including retinol, are vitamin A derivatives. Originally, they were used mainly to treat acne. Over time, many patients began reporting that retinoids also improved the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, smoothed skin tone, and cleared away blocked pores. Plus, when topically applied, retinol has antioxidant properties, which helps to fight free radical damage.

AHAs, including glycolic acid, mandelic acid, lactic acid and malic acid, are sugar derivatives. They’re used to exfoliate the skin, removing layers of dead cells. In doing so, AHAs encourage new cells to rise to the surface, giving the skin a fresher, healthier, more vibrant look. Also, through routine application, they can reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.

It’s important to note that topical application of retinol and alpha hydroxy acids can make your skin more susceptible to damage from the sun’s UVA and UVB rays. So, you should use a well formulated sun protecting agent like Anthelios sunscreens whenever you’re treating your skin with either ingredient.

Your Daily Skin Care Regimen

Even though both retinol and AHAs have similar anti-aging effects on your skin, they work differently to deliver them. For example, retinol is not an exfoliant while AHAs are. On the other hand, retinol has antioxidant properties. Both ingredients can smooth skin tone and reduce wrinkles, but also provide unique benefits that the other lacks.

Ideally, your skin care regimen should include a retinol treatment each night after using a cleanser. An AHA should be applied during the day once or twice each week. And, if you can’t tolerate a retinol product, then consider using an AHA preparation in its place.

Following are 2 solutions that can improve the visible signs of premature aging:

MaMa Lotion – a 20% concentration of two AHAs, mandelic and malic acids, MaMa Lotion is an exfoliating serum ideal for treating acne, scars as well as hyperpigmentation, particularly in sensitive skin types.  

Green Cream – Sun damage from UVA and UVB rays can lead to wrinkles and other signs of aging. Green Cream is available in a range of concentrations to encourage exfoliation, stimulate growth of collagen fibers, and rebuild the skin’s underlying cellular structure.

Credentials Glycolic Serum 8% - This 8% blend of AHAs contains the added benefits of Vitamins A and E. Use under moisturizer or without if you have oilier skin.

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Annika said,

February 22, 2011 @ 11:12 am

I am using a aha cleanser with sylicatic in it,and a intence vitamin moistirizer
with vitamin a b and c in it.
My skin seems to tingle and burn a little.
Tell me why please?

Sharmani said,

February 22, 2011 @ 1:42 pm

Hi Annika,
Your skin is tingling upon application of your alpha hydroxy acids because the product is penetrating the epidermis, or top layer of your skin. This is a normal side-effect and should diminish with continued use. A tingling, burning sensation can also occur when you have sunburn, allergies, a cold or fatigue. If the tingling sensation is bothering you, gently rinse the product off. If you have especially sensitive skin, you may find the aha cream Green Cream Level 3 works well for you without irritating your skin. See our advice on using retinol creams.

Ria said,

June 6, 2011 @ 9:19 pm

So would this be a correct routine, on a clean face nightly retinol(.05 or .01) then twice a week in the morning glycol acid of %10 ? This is my routine, does it seem correct, and why is the aha used in the morning ?

Sharmani said,

June 7, 2011 @ 1:06 pm

Hi Ria, Thanks for asking about incorporating AHAs and retinol in your skincare regimen. Your routine sounds good — the only change I would make is to move your 10% glycolic acid treatment to the evening as well. This is because of the sun sensitivity cause by using AHAs. You would then, for instance, be applying your retinol product for three nights, then the AHA one night, back to the retinol for two or three more nights, then back to the AHA. However, if you are using a good sunscreen such as Anthelios, you could continue to apply the glycolic acid twice a week in the morning. Thanks for your question! Sharmani

Janice said,

January 28, 2012 @ 2:11 pm

I have M2 20%, SkinCeuticals Retinol 1%, and NIA24 Niacin spf30 sunscreen. It took a while for my face to get used to the sunscreen, on it’s own. Now it’s winter and I dropped the sunscreen and just use M2 twice a week and retinol every night, which my skin is tolerating. I guess I need to go back to using sunscreen, but I’m concerned about how my skin’s going to tolerate it, with the other products. It is too much to bring a 3rd anti-aging product into the mix?

Sharmani said,

January 30, 2012 @ 2:59 pm

For Janice, If your skin is tolerating your present regimen well, I think you shouldn’t have too much difficulty in adding sunscreen. In fact, I recommend the sunscreen wholeheartedly — there is nothing better you can do than prevent damage. You can make it easy for yourself by using a physical sunscreen like Keys Solar Rx, which is well tolerated by sensitive skin types. Or, I also like the Anthelios line by La Roche Posay, which like the Keys is highly photostable and won’t break down releasing free radicals into your skin. Using multiple products shouldn’t be a problem for most skin types — just do a test first to be sure you don’t have a reaction. And it’s good to introduce products gradually, alternating nights you use treatments. At night I alternate using the M2 and Green Cream .9% high potency retinol. By day, it’s apothekari Antioxidant Serum with C, E and Ferulic Acid followed (20-30 minutes later) by Anthelios SPF 50+ melt in cream. Read more about layering treatments here. And if you click this link, you can read about an ideal nighttime skin care routine. Best wishes, Sharmani

nance said,

March 7, 2012 @ 2:14 pm

Hi sharmani,
i am 36 yo.When I was a teenager I had acne and oily skin .But now I guess with age My skin has become drye and sensitive .It’s ben almost year now that i’ve been using moisturiser with spf 50 and at night sometimes i use olay regenerist’s night elixir.I think it has almost 30% of glycolic acid in it.It’s ben working for me so far but I want to incorporate retinol in my routine too . How do i do it.
thanks
nance

Sharmani said,

March 7, 2012 @ 2:52 pm

Nance, Thanks for asking about how to incorporate retinol. I would suggest beginning with Green Cream Level 6. (Use a Level 3 if you have very sensitive skin.) If you’ve never used retinol before, introduce it slowly. Begin by applying on not-too-perfectly clean skin as the natural oils in your skin will help you to ease the transition into retinol use. I like to reccommend applying in late afternoon, and then washing it off before bed. As with introducing any new product or ingredient, begin with a patch test: apply a little of the product in an unconspicuous area like the neck, underneath the earlobe. Allow 24 hours from the time of application to allow for signs of undue irritation. (A certain amount of tingling and dryness are to be expected with retinol, however.) If the product seems compatible with your skin, begin by using retinol every third night, working your way up to more frequent use. Use a good sunscreen by day. For more details, see our article on Green Cream. Thanks for asking — Sharmani

Nicole said,

March 20, 2012 @ 10:07 am

Hi! I’ve been using Retinol and porcelana ( to lighten sunspots ) …but want to use a product containing alpha hydroxy acid as well. I’ve heard that alpha hydroxy acid will inactivate the porcelana if mixed.any suggestions on how to use all three effectivly? My skin seems to tolerate the retinol with no problems. Thanks for your advice!

Sharmani said,

March 20, 2012 @ 11:37 am

Hello Nicole, the best way to use alpha hydroxy acids and retinol is alternately. Both are effective treatments in resurfacing the skin, but together they may cause undue irritation. I should imagine the same to be true of AHAs and Porcelana. I would advise you to use them alternately. If you wish to try layering, proceed with caution: do a patch test first on an inconspicuous area and wait 24 hours for any symptoms to appear. Hope this helps, Sharmani.

Mia said,

April 27, 2012 @ 5:22 am

I find that AHAs or Retinol really make my skin sensitive to the sun. I use mineral powder makeup which provides some protection but I have never been able to find a liquid sunscreen that doesn’t either make me greasy and cause breakouts or doesn’t really dehydrate my skin after a few weeks of use. I’m looking for something with water resistance (so not the Keys Rx) as I swim a lot in the Summer. Any suggestions? Should I stop using retinol and AHAs in the Summer?

Sharmani said,

April 30, 2012 @ 10:20 am

For Mia, The only way to know for certain whether there is a liquid/cream sunscreen which suits your needs is to try it. As you seem to have very sensitive skin, I can imagine this is a frustrating process. Anthelios sunscreens are non comedogenic and many are tested on sensitive skin. When you make any purchase with us, we are able to provide a small sample of Anthelios XL SPF 50+ Fluide Extreme (formulated for oily skin) for an additional cost of $2.00. Samples of SPF 20 primers made by Colorescience are also available, free of charge with a purchase. To answer your question more specifically, if you are not able to find a sunscreen which suits your needs, you may find it best to give your skin a rest from retinol and AHAs during the summer months. Best wishes, Sharmani

Carla said,

June 2, 2012 @ 4:59 am

Hi, I was wondering if I can mix my moisturiser with my Retin A- .5% cream of a night?

Cecelia said,

June 17, 2013 @ 9:08 am

I am using Mary Kay now and have used Loreal, OLay, Avon, I’ve tried so many! My skin feel dry and tight imeadiately after cleansing. I get tiny blackheads on nose and my face is always peeling and flaky, wearing foundation looks awful!HELP PLEASE!

Sharmani said,

June 20, 2013 @ 2:34 pm

For Cecelia,
To start, you may want to consider a more gentle cleanser that won’t leave your skin feeling tight and dry, like the Apothekari Cloud Nine Foaming Cleansing Creme or La Roche Posay’s Physiological Cleansing Gel. If you haven’t done so already, incorporating a gentle exfoliant, like MaMa Lotion, into your weekly routine will help remove the dead skin cells from the surface of your skin and reveal the newer, healthier-looking skin underneath.
Best, Sharmani

Dima said,

July 27, 2013 @ 3:45 am

Hello I have 2 products one using aha(filorga skin and peel) and one with Retinaldehyde (0.05%) (avene ulage) any recommendations on how to use both? Should I use one untill its finished then follow by the other? If yes which comes first? Any other suggestions? And finally once the creams are done should I buy the same or follow with a nourishing moisturiser or maybe the miso therapy line from filorga?
Thanks for your help
Ps: im 30 with no major wrinkles but mostly brown spots from past acne and a random pimple especially on forhead.

Sharmani said,

July 29, 2013 @ 11:10 am

For Dima:
In general, AHA and retinoid products should not be used on the same day in order to minimize skin irritation. Both are potent active ingredients and instructions on each product should be followed closely. Your skin’s unique response will dictate whether or not you should continue using either product. As for a nourishing moisturizer, this should be included in your daily skincare routine.
Regarding acne scarring, our customers have told us that they have had great success with MaMa Lotion, containing malic & mandelic acids.
Best, Sharmani

judy said,

September 24, 2013 @ 7:53 pm

hi sharmani, I recently bought a moisturizer called kiss my face 4% alpha hydroxy peaches and cream its all natural but I been using a serum with retinol that serum is called skin effects advanced brightening complex… How can I use both in my skin care regimen?? plz help

Sharmani said,

September 25, 2013 @ 10:52 am

For Judy:
Both retinoids and alpha hydroxy acids are great as part of your anti-aging skin care routine. We would suggest that they be used on alternating nights in order to minimize any possible irritation. And because both can make you more sun sensitive, daily application of a good, broad spectrum sunscreen like Anthelios is essential.
Best, Sharmani

Juanita said,

October 28, 2013 @ 6:50 am

Hi. Iv been using a neutrogena Product containing AHA and iv been using it every day, not just a few times a week, but rather every am and pm both. I recently in the past year got really bad hyer pigmentation, so I turned to AHAs again to help w it since it has worked well in the past…but is this really bad bad to use every day? My face only tingled first couple uses. I am not sensitive in have very normal skin. Is this AHA product ok to use REGULARLY or not? And I also had planned to add a retinol product from the same skin care line to my daily return as well. And, I had planned doing AHA am and retinol pm everyday. As I said my hyper-pigmentation is pretty bad, so I do want to treat this as quickly as possible and iv already started to see progress just n Th e last week of using the AHA. So can I use this like I hav been? At.least

Juanita said,

October 28, 2013 @ 7:01 am

So sorry I didnt get last part typed.
Is it ok to use the AHAs like I hav been at least till I see very noticable improvement and, then back off to just a couple times a week for maintenence? Please help!! I want to do whats best for my skin, but while still being able to treat this issue efficently and effectively! And as I mentioned iv noticed improvement already and im only on my 7th day of using this AHA an already its faded some! So this AHA stuff really dose what it says it will but could using it everyday be damaging to my skin later on? Any ADVICE!!??

Sharmani said,

October 28, 2013 @ 1:09 pm

For Juanita:
Ideally, AHA’s and retinoids should be used on alternating evenings in order to minimize potential irritation. And because both active ingredients can make your skin more susceptible to sun damage, we strongly suggest using a stable, broad spectrum sunscreen like Anthelios every day, rain or shine. Cutting back your use of your AHA treatment twice a week while slowly introducing a retinol product is a great idea.
Best, Sharmani

Ash said,

November 20, 2013 @ 10:47 am

What precautions are to be taken while trying to get pregnant ?

Sharmani said,

November 21, 2013 @ 2:10 pm

For Ash:
Retinoids and vitamin A products should be avoided if you are pregnant, trying to get pregnant or breastfeeding. As for alpha hydroxy acids, they are generally considered safe but it would be best to consult with your doctor.
Best, Sharmani

Ehra said,

December 19, 2013 @ 5:59 am

Hi, I use an AHA at night but apply moisturizer over it because my skin still feels dry after applying. Does this cause it to be less beneficial? I’ve done the same with the retinol cream since I only apply it to certain areas of my face where fine lines are. Thanks in advanced

Sharmani said,

December 19, 2013 @ 6:29 am

For Ehra,
AHA and retinol treatments can indeed be drying to the skin. Applying a moisturizer over top of your AHA product does not interfere with its efficacy. However, we would suggest waiting a few minutes to allow the AHA to sink in before using a hydrating moisturizer that does NOT contain additional exfoliating agents such as glycolic acid.
Best, Sharmani

Michele said,

April 8, 2014 @ 11:32 pm

Hi. I am 32 with acne prone skin and use proactiv repairing lotion every night. I want to start incorporating both retinol and aha into my skincare regime but not sure how to do it effectively. I started using Roc Retinol at night, followed by Proactiv a half hour later, but I recently read somewhere that benzoyl peroxide (the active ingredient in proactiv) deactivates retinol. I really want to start regularly using retinol because i am starting to see signs of aging but afraid if I stop proactiv that I will breakout worse. i dont want to use proactiv in the day because its drying and causes sensitivity to sun. Do you have any tips on how I can effectively & correctly use all 3 products: retinol, aha, & proactiv? Thank u so much for your help! : )

Sharmani said,

April 25, 2014 @ 1:11 pm

For Michele,
Thanks for your question. Retinol, AHA’s, and other skin treatment products that contain potent active ingredients are best used on separate nights to minimize any possible irritation. For example, alternate using your retinol and Proactiv treatments. Then, one night a week, use an AHA for exfoliation. Always test the combination and be careful not to overdo it.
Best, Sharmani

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