Glycolic Acid and Retin A– What’s The Difference?

Q&A logoGlycolic acid and Retin A are two of the most popular and effective skin care ingredients  that are used  in two very different skin problems– aging and acne. Gycolic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid ( AHA) derived from sugar cane.  There are other AHA’s from  milk ( lactic acid), apples ( malic acid) and citric acid ( lemons), but glycolic acid is considered  just about the most effective.  AHA’s  help the skin exfoliate the top, dead, dry layer of cells that are clogging pores and dulling the complexion.  When the layer of dead cells are removed, it signals new growth of fresh healthy skin cells. In oily and acne troubled skin, glycolic acid cleans up clogged pores.  Skin growth in older skin is slowed down and can look dull and  dotted with brown spots and patches. Glycolic acid  can trigger  a better rate of growth  and this activity  will also help clear skin of darkened areas.

You can find glycolic acid products online and in drug and department stores.  It works well  in cleansers, moisturizers, masks, and toners.  The better products  actually give you the percentage of glycolic acids to let you know the potency. Most experts believe  that to be effective you need at least 10- 12% glycolic in the skin care formulation.

Stronger glycolic acid treatments are available in office based  treatments. Glycolic peels with 30-70% concentrations are applied to the skin for 3-5minutes,( it stings  a bit), then is neutralized and rinsed off.  The skin may look a bit red and peel slightly.  It  is wonderful for acne control and  the better dermatologists  use it to jump start an anti-aging program.

Retin A– the Turbo Powered  Exfoliator  

Retin A  is derived from vitamin A and acts in a somewhat similar fashion but on a much bigger scale.  Retin A ( which is a trade name for tretinoin) has three important features– its slows down  oil production, increases circulation, and agressively peels off top layers of  old discolored skin cells.  Dozens of  clinical trials have shown that it can truely rebuild collagen.  Unless used carefully  and cautiously, it  can make  the face very red and flaky.  There are more than  six different Retin A brands to be used at night  but they are all only available by prescription. You can get a more complete game plan for using  at  Retin  A–  Five Top Retin A Questions.

To bottomline it, glycolic acid and Retin A has similar  effects on the skin.  Gycolic acid is  kind of a baby step Retin A  and a great way to prevent signs of aging in  your twenties and thirties.  When you hit the forties its  a good time to switch to Retin A.

One final thought:  When starting Retin A  it can be irritating  to use it with glycolic acid.  After about six months on Retin A and your skin no  longer over reacts, adding a glycolic cleanser or tonic several times a week can boost Retin A results.


17 thoughts on “Glycolic Acid and Retin A– What’s The Difference?

  1. Hi Pam, I use Retin A (Tazorac) on my face at night and have been for years, Can you recommend how I might incorporate Glycolic Acid into my facial regimen? And maybe offer a few brand names?

  2. I have a number of patients like you whose skin allows them to combine glycolic acid and tretinoin skin care products on a regular basis. Usually I have them try to get up to the highest tretinoin cream first which is the 0.1%. We hold there for 2 years and then begin the alternate night treatment with glycolic acid. In the interim we either try to use glycolic acid peels to get the glycolic acid benefits, or we try to add the glycolic during the day if there skin will allow it. If they’re using a glycolic product during the day I usually have them also use a vitamin C product (always C/R/S because I believe it is the best Vitamin C product) every 2nd or 3rd day in place of the glycolic acid product to reap the benefits of Vitamin C too.

  3. Hi there,

    Can you please help me out, I suffer from acne for the last 10yrs, tired everything that the doctors gave me.

    Listening to retin A tretinoin cream which helps with acne, I was wonder how do I measure the percentage of glycolic acid to the cream.

    For example. 10-15% how many drop would I use to make to that percentage. Also which vitamin c is the best to buy to make your own vitmain c serum.

    What ingredient would I need to make my own vitamin c n what measurements of the products I would need.

    Thank you and I look forward to your reply.

    Warmest Regards

    • When you are using Retin A, it is not a good idea to also use glycolic acid or even vitamin C serum because they can be irritating. If you tell me what you are using Retin A for– eg hyperpigmentation, acne or signs of aging– I can recommend additional products.

      • Hi Deb, thank for so much for returning my email regarding the enquiring about the above.

        I am using tretinoin cream for acne, hyperpigmentation n aging, so I can have even clear skin too. Is there any cream that can bleach the skin at the same time.

        Thank you

  4. Hi ~ I’m really starting to notice how wrinkled my skin is becoming. I’m 33 years old and have lived in Hawaii for the past 12 years. Unfortunately I have not been careful in the sun. I have the crows feet around my eyes, lines in my forehead and neck and also my chest is looking wrinkled. I do not have an acne problem.
    What is an OTC cream you would recommend? If possible something that is reasonable in price.
    Thank you

    • For affordable over the counter products I would recommend the Oil of Olay Regenerist line. I would also start to use an effective sunscreen with at least a 30SPF. You’re still very young and its never to late !

  5. Hi Deb, i have heard Vit C oxidizes in contact with air / light, and most of the products containing vit C will actually won’t work coz of the oxidation before acting upon skin.
    I have googled a lot about Indian brands containing vit C…there are many but, which one will truely give result? Is there any medicated version of vit C available in pharmacy, as i belive pharma products are better than cosmetics ones.

    • Yes, you are absolutely right. Very few of the commercial vitamin C products are truly active. However Skinceuticals vitamin C products do contain the most effective form of vitamin C and is combined with vitamin E and ferrulic acid for greater value. It is sold in small dark brown glass bottles to preserve potency.

  6. Deb- I started using retin a .5% and hydroquinone 4% for melasma for two weeks now but I notice that the patch got darker and is afraid to use further. I am thinking about trying glycolic acid and retin a but is afraid it will darken my melasma too. Any thoughts on how to go about using this to lighten up the patch. I currently have glycolic 15% and retina a .5%. I would appreciate the help.

      • While they can be effective for melasma, retin a, hydroquinone and even glycolic acid can actually increase pigmentation in darker skin tones. To avoid this problem I suggest using just the hydroquinone and make certain you cover your face with a 50SPF SUNBLOCK. Stop using other products for a month. If the skin tone is stabilized, I would start using .025% retin A twice a week. If this does not cause problems, you can increase it to 3x a week. You are currently using the strongest form of a Retin A, too intense for your skin.
  7. Hi Deb,
    I am 38 yrs old and have started having pigmentation/ brown spots right under my eyes, temples and cheeks from past 3 years. I also have some hormonal acne which leaves large brown spots on my face. I do not have any significant age lines yet. My skin is turning very dark, dull and rough by the day . I am reluctant to try Retin A since I don’t want to use it long term. I believe in applying the least chemicals on my face and believe more in natural products.

    I have heard about Vitamin C treatments and Garniers new Glycolic Acid night time treatment for skin. Can you please advice which product is the best for my skin and concern i.e hyper pigmentation and brown acne marks. My dermatologist asked me to start using Retin A though.

    Please help!

    • I have to agree with your dermatologist. Retin A would be the best treatment. and actually in terms of chemicals Retin A products are derived from vitamin A and actually has far fewer chemicals than commercial products. If you really don’t want to use Retin A, you can try a gentler form called a retinol, but you need to,use a strong formulation .I recommend the 1% Retinol from Skinceuticals.You can also ask your dermatologist about a glycolic peel.

    • Get Neutrogena healthy skin face lotion with sunscreen 15, it has glycolic acid high on the ingredients list and it literally says smooths dull, rough, damaged, uneven skin and that’s exactly what you wrote. I’ve repurchased this twice and it works sooo good at making my skin baby soft and even and radiant…. it’s 10.99 at target. And it boosts the effects of retin a if you’re using that. Just apply retin a at night and the Neutrogena face lotion with spf during the day.

      • I love most Neutrogena products and this lotion has one of my favorite ingredients. However I huts wish it had a higher SPF, especially since glycolic acid makes the skin more sensitive to the sun. I would top your Neutrogena lotion with another 50SPF LOTION.

        • Awesome, glad you’ve used this before. I found it by shopping ingredients lists and noticed the glycolic acid. And it’s cheaper then all the other skincare with glycolic acid. I forgot to mention to use another spf over the lotion. I use 100 just to be safe. I just wanted to stress to get the one with spf because the other one doesn’t have the glycolic acid.

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