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The Dos and Donts of Mixing Skincare Acids

“Can I use more than one acid in my routine?” is a question we get a lot. The answer is, well, complicated, but we’re breaking it all down below. 

Diving deep into the depths of skin care can be pretty confusing, especially if you’re working with acids. A wrong move could render both your products useless or cause skin sensitivities. But a right move could increase effectiveness and yield great results.  To find out how to layer acids the right way, we spoke with Dr. Joshua Zeichner, dermatologist and director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City and Dr. Michele Farber, a dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group. 

Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs) and Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHAs): Mostly a “Do” 

Both Dr. Zeichner and Dr. Farber recommend the use of AHAs and BHAs together, especially if you have acne or are currently dealing with breakouts. The two types actually have different properties (even though many people seem to use them interchangeably), and can be used together for increased effectiveness. “Generally speaking, alpha hydroxy acids are great for treating dull, dry, and aging skin because they are water soluble,” says Zeichner. “Beta hydroxy acids are soluble in oil and can penetrate deep into the [pores] so they are effective in treating conditions like acne.” Dr. Farber reiterates Dr. Zeichner’s point: “An alpha hydroxy acid like glycolic acid helps exfoliate and even out skin tone, and beta hydroxy acids like salicylic acid help to reduce oil production.” A lot of products contain both AHAs and BHAs, but you can also combine the two from different products.

Hyaluronic Acid and AHAs/ BHAs: A Definite “Do” 

Hyaluronic acid is one of the most popular ingredients in skin care, and for good reason. It plays a key role in both hydrating the skin and retaining moisture. Despite the word “acid” in its name, the ingredient is not an exfoliant. Dr. Zeichner explains that it’s great to use with AHAs and BHAs because the combination “helps to hydrate the skin and reduce the risk of irritation.” AHAs and BHAs can be pretty strong, so combining them with hyaluronic acid is a great way to replenish the skin at the same time to make sure that the acids aren’t too harsh on the skin.

Hyaluronic Acid and Retinoic Acid (a Form of Retinol): Another “Do”

Retinol is the queen bee of the beauty world, and as skin care royalty, she doesn’t mix with just anyone. Retinol is often name-dropped as the cure to a ton of skin concerns including hyperpigmentation and signs of aging. Retinol and hyaluronic acid are both powerful at improving skin, so using them together can really amp up their effectiveness. Since retinol can be drying especially on dry or sensitive skin types, following up with hyaluronic acid is definitely a great idea, since hyaluronic acid is super hydrating.

Hydroxy Acids and Retinoic Acid: A Solid “Don’t”

AHAs and BHAs as well as retinoic acid are pretty powerful skin treatments and they should be used sparingly. Combining hydroxy acids and retinoic acid together can cause some serious irritation if used in tandem. In a similar vein, we don’t recommend combining these products with ascorbic acid (vitamin C).  This doesn’t mean you can’t use all of these ingredients in your routine. Try staggering usage – i.e. applying vitamin C in the morning and retinol at night, or applying retinol 3 days a week and hydroxy acids two – and see if this works for your skin.

Acne Treatments: Mostly a “Don’t”

Benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid are two of the most well known acne treatments in the skin care game, but generally shouldn’t be used together. Dr. Farber tells us that both “can be very drying and irritating when applied together,” so it’s better to use them separately. However, there are some prescription-grade medications that contain both benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid. It’s best to consult with your dermatologist if you’re interested in mixing these two. Also, be careful mixing benzoyl peroxide and retinol. There are medications that contain both of these ingredients (Differin), but this combination has the potential to be highly irritating, so if you’re thinking of doing it, consult a dermatologist first.

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