When it comes to skin care, more is not always better. Trust us: We’re all too familiar with the temptation to slather on a million and one products in the hope that your skin will be brighter, smoother, and softer than ever. But that could inadvertently lead to irritation, which is why certain product combos, such as benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid, aren’t usually recommended.
However, one pairing can actually work very well together. Salicylic acid (also known as beta hydroxy acid, or BHA) and retinol can do serious magic for skin, and there’s no better time to pair them together — for a few reasons. Here, we get into the why and the how, and whether it’s a good idea for your skin’s particular needs right now.
How BHA and Retinol Work Together
There’s a common myth that BHA can inhibit the effects of retinol, but that’s just not the case. In fact, BHA and retinol work synergistically, meaning each makes the other work even better. BHA is an exfoliant, meaning it removes the dead skin cells on the surface of the skin. In doing so, it basically clears a pathway for other active ingredients to penetrate. So, if you’re using retinol after applying BHA, it may be even more effective than it would without BHA.
In turn, retinol can boost the effects of BHA, too. “Because the retinoid increases cell turnover and decreases the tendency of dead skin cells to clump together and clog pores, this may allow the salicylic acid to be more effective at exfoliating,” says board-certified dermatologist Hadley King, MD. It’s basically a win-win for your skin.
Let’s dismantle another myth, while we’re at it: BHA, though an acid, does not lower skin’s pH to the point where it renders retinol less effective. There’s minimal research to back up that claim, whereas a number of studies cite the efficacy of pairing retinol and acids.
Who Should Use BHA and Retinol Together?
Not surprisingly, the pairing of BHA and retinol is a go-to for anyone with oily skin, breakouts, or clogged pores. “Salicylic acid is an excellent comedolytic ingredient because it is oil-soluble and can penetrate into pores to gently exfoliate and remove excess sebum,” says Dr. King. “Retinoids are also excellent topical ingredients for fighting acne because they increase the turnover of skin cells and decrease their tendency to clog pores.” Using them together is like a one-two punch of skin-refining, pore-clearing power.
Even if you don’t necessarily have congested skin, the combination of BHA and retinol may also help with uneven skin texture. In keeping those dead skin cells on the move, they can work together to deliver smoother, softer skin over time.
Is It Safe to Use BHA and Retinol at the Same Time?
In short, yes. “For those with oily skin that’s not particularly sensitive, this combination may be tolerated on a daily basis,” says Dr. King. If you’re prone to breakouts, consider using our Strawberry Smooth BHA+AHA Salicylic Serum, which pairs 2% salicylic acid with a blend of gentle AHAs to smooth and clear skin, before applying retinol (and, of course, follow with a moisturizer). If that sounds intense, no sweat: The serum includes hydrating hyaluronic acid and soothing allantoin to keep skin comfortable.
For those with dry or sensitive skin, you just might have to rethink your timing, particularly if you notice any redness or peeling. If that’s the case, you can make your own schedule accordingly: Consider using BHA in the morning and retinol at night, applying them on alternating days, or using retinol every night and incorporating BHA into your routine two to three times a week.
One easy way to do this is with the Strawberry BHA Pore-Smooth BHA Blur Drops, which may be especially helpful during the daytime; it doubles as a makeup primer, thanks to its gentle blend of tapioca and rice — which blot excess oil and create a smooth canvas for foundation.
However, if your skin can tolerate it, this hybrid formula can also be used in the evenings alongside your retinol to blur and refine pores over time. It’s infused with the namesake strawberry enzymes and BHA, and is clinically proven to reduces excess oil, shine, and visible pores* in two weeks.
*Based on testing on 35 subjects when used as directed
Finally, another option for adding BHA to your retinol regimen is our Watermelon Glow PHA + BHA Pore-Tight Toner, which actively minimizes pores while drenching skin with hydration (courtesy of cactus water, hyaluronic acid, and cucumber). Translation: It’s incredibly gentle. That makes it a great prep step no matter what else you’re using in your routine.
Why You Should Use BHA and Retinol Right Now
People naturally tend to spend more time indoors during cooler weather, which makes it a very good time to get annoying (but necessary) skin-care adjustments out of the way. Exhibit A: If either BHA or retinol are new to your routine, you might experience skin purging — that annoying phenomenon in which the increased rate of cell turnover causes a pile-up of dead skin cells on the skin’s surface, which then clog pores. Not only that, but dormant zits underneath the surface also rise to the top at a faster pace. So, for several weeks as your skin gets adjusted, you may notice small red bumps accompanied by either whiteheads or blackheads.
Secondly, retinol often gets called out for making skin more sensitive to sunlight, so some recommend holding off on using it in the spring and summer. And while that increase in sun sensitivity is indeed true, consider this: All skin is pretty sensitive to sunlight, retinol or not. After all, it’s not as though avoiding retinol will make your skin magically more resistant to photoaging or burns. So long as you’re using a sunscreen with at least SPF 30 or higher (and reapplying throughout the day), retinol — along with its new pal, BHA — is fair game. And if you’re staying inside, consider that all the more reason to try it.
Read more about BHA and retinol: