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Can You Exfoliate If You're Already Using A Retinol? Derms Explain 

Image by Leandro Crespi / Stocksy
April 12, 2021

Both retinoids and exfoliants (like AHAs and BHAs) are very potent actives—and when used incorrectly, they can cause major damage to the skin barrier. But retinoids do function differently than AHAs and BHAs, as they promote faster skin-cell turnover rather than exfoliating off the surface layer of excess dead skin cells, the latter of which can feel more immediate and gratifying. 

Because of this, many are tempted to try both—they're doing different things for your skin, no?

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We sent the question over to derms, and, well, it's not that simple. They weigh in below with pro tips to use them safely. 

Can you add an exfoliant if you're already using a retinoid? 

Short answer: Assuming your skin has fully adjusted to the retinoid (no itching, peeling, or burning), you can fold in a mild exfoliator. But if you've just embarked on your retinoid journey, you might want to hold off and stick to one active as you ease into regular use. "Otherwise, you may see dry, red, flaky, irritated skin develop in the next day or two," notes board-certified dermatologist Flora Kim, M.D., FAAD

But let's say your skin can fully tolerate the product, with no signs of "retinoid reaction" or retinoid-induced dermatitis—in this case, you can include a gentle exfoliant in your regimen, so long as your skin type can handle it. "They have different functions so both can be beneficial as part of your healthy skin routine," says Kim. You just have to use them correctly. 

Tips to use both. 

If you choose to use both, here's how to make sure you're not compromising your skin barrier:

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Find your exfoliation sweet spot. 

"With exfoliation, there is such a thing as too much," Kim notes. "If you use too harsh of an exfoliant and too often, you will strip, irritate, and damage your skin instead of helping it." 

Ultimately, everyone's skin is different, so there's not one cut-and-dried answer to give—but just know that you don't want to overdo it. And when you incorporate a retinoid into the regimen, you'll want to be extra cautious: Since they do promote cellular turnover, you might not be able to get away with as much exfoliation as you had before. 


Don't layer them on the same night. 

On the night(s) you do exfoliate, stow the retinoid. You don't want to use an AHA or BHA product and then apply a retinoid right after (be it prescription-strength or OTC)—not only can it lead to irritation, but the ingredients may also inactivate each other. 

"Antioxidants should never be combined with acids or acne treatments like benzoyl peroxide, which can make them ineffective," board-certified dermatologist Jennifer Herrmann, M.D., tells us about layering serums. Considering retinoids are vitamin A derivatives, you don’t want to mix them with other harsh actives and potentially mess with their efficacy. 

Plus, as board-certified dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, M.D., notes, "More products are not necessarily better. Mixing two potentially irritating products can be overly harsh on the skin."   

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Take nights off for recovery. 

Exfoliation does offer a gratifying, highlighter-like glow, yes, but your skin doesn't need to shed skin cells that consistently. In fact, your skin is supposed to have dead skin cells—they help lock in moisture and keep the precious water from seeping out. It's the buildup of those skin cells that can cause dullness, clogged pores, and the like. You don't want to slough them off over and over again before they're ready to go—immediate glow be damned. 

That said, you might want to take some recovery time, even more so if you do incorporate a retinoid and exfoliator into your routine. "It's like when you go to the gym, you need days to recover. The same thing holds true for the skin barrier and the microbiome," says board-certified dermatologist Whitney Bowe, M.D., on the mindbodygreen podcast. "You want to use a retinol? Go for it. You want to use an AHA, like glycolic acid? Go for it, but give yourself two nights off when you're just using nourishing, hydrating ingredients." 

For example, she suggests prebiotics, jojoba oil, sunflower seed oil, glycerin, hyaluronic acid, and aloe on recovery nights to replenish the skin barrier. 

The takeaway. 

We're all for exfoliating responsibly, whether you use a retinoid or not. But if you do use one, you might want to proceed with extra caution. It's not unheard of to use both (assuming your skin can fully tolerate the retinoid), but it's important to keep your skin barrier top of mind.

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