5 Retinol Myths Busted!


In this article:

We're asked a lot of questions about the dos and don'ts of using retinol on skin. People hear misleading claims such as AHA and BHA exfoliants "deactivate" or reduce retinol's effectiveness, or that retinol products can't be used during the day, or that retinol shouldn't be paired with products containing vitamin C because of pH incompatibility. Simply stated, none of those claims are true and we've seen no scientific research indicating otherwise.

There's also the fear that retinol may be too strong and aggravate skin but just like any skincare ingredient, not everyone can use everything. You have to monitor what works for you but also choose from the best options that really work. That means ignoring the assortment of misleading claims and poorly formulated products with problem ingredients you should never put on your face.

Because our only desire is to help you achieve the best skin of your life, we know the only way to start getting those results is with accurate information. As always, we turn to the research to bring you the myth-busting facts and put an end to the worry and confusion.

Myth #1: You can't use retinol with an AHA or BHA exfoliant

No research anywhere has ever demonstrated or concluded that AHA or BHA exfoliants deactivate or make retinol any less effective when used in the same skincare routine.

In fact, whenever we see a comment or recommendation about not using retinol with AHA or BHA exfoliants, the information is never supported by research demonstrating this incompatibility. It's one of those myths that gets repeated so often, people, even those we consider skincare experts, tend to believe it rather than question it.

It turns out that the claim of retinol not working with AHA or BHA exfoliants involves a misunderstanding around how skin-care ingredients work together and how each has its own unique benefit that work in harmony, not in conflict. The research shows that when retinol products are used with an effective AHA or BHA product, the benefits increase, not decrease.

Myth #2: The pH of AHA & BHA exfoliants reduce retinol's effectiveness

The confusion about using a product containing retinol with an AHA or BHA exfoliant has to do with concern over whether the BHA or AHA product's low pH (which makes it more effective) disrupts the retinol's ability to work its gentle skin-smoothing magic.

The reasoning behind this notion is that if the pH of the skin is made lower than normal due to the application of the AHA or BHA exfoliant, then the retinol won't be as effective, but that's not what happens. Just like most skincare rumors, this one sprang from a misunderstanding about the research.

Only one study mentions this issue of pH effecting retinol, but that study was not done on real skin. Rather, it was done in a petri dish containing proteins, not skin. The study even concluded that it was unknown if this was related in any way to real, live skin.

If anything, because AHA or BHA remove dead skin that prevents vitally important ingredients from absorbing into skin, they actually help ingredients like retinol to have a better chance of infusing skin's uppermost layers with their unique benefits.

Myth #3: Retinol exfoliates skin, so don't use it with an AHA or BHA

Retinol and AHA or BHA exfoliants work very differently to improve skin, but complement each other when paired in a complete skincare routine. It's a popular misconception that the way retinol works is by exfoliating skin, so we understand why this issue has become confusing. Here's what you need to know:

  • Retinol is an antioxidant and an important skin-restoring ingredient. This effect enhances every aspect of helping to turn skin around so it looks healthier, smoother, and vibrant.
  • Retinol does this by impacting skin on many levels while AHAs and BHA only effect dead skin. The surface of skin is where AHA or BHA step in to help shed unhealthy, dead skin. Retinol does not do this.
  • Retinol can cause a flaking reaction for some people, but this side effect (which is often temporary) isn't the same as exfoliation. Don't mistake flaking for exfoliation. When healthy, normal exfoliation is taking place, you shouldn't see it or feel it. If you do experience flaking, it means you either have to reduce frequency of using the retinol product or the frequency of using the AHA or BHA exfoliant.

Myth #4: You can't use retinol during the daytime

Retinol products work perfectly fine when applied during the day. Research has shown that retinol and vitamin C work well under SPF-rated products to protect the skin from UV light, and that vitamins A, C, and E, even when in combination, also remain stable and effective under an SPF-rated product. That's excellent proof of retinol's stability when paired with a sunscreen.

Sunscreen is the foremost formidable defense to help rebuff signs of aging such as wrinkles, uneven skin tone, and a loss of firmness and to help reduce the risk of early signs of aging. Retinol plays its part and it can work during the day—just don't forget your sunscreen—and make sure it's labeled "broad spectrum" and rated SPF 30 or greater.

Myth #5: You shouldn't combine retinol with vitamin C

Vitamin C is another ingredient often cited as a problem to combine with retinol. As with the AHA and BHA myth, this one is also based on the pH/acidity issue.

Vitamin C, especially ascorbic acid, requires a low pH (or no pH at all if no water is present) to remain stable. But acidity does not deactivate retinol. We know retinol works in an acidic environment especially considering skin's pH is naturally acidic.

Research has shown that a combination of vitamins in cosmetics is the way to achieve the best results, including the combination of vitamins A, C, and E. In a double-whammy myth-buster, retinol proved to be not only effective when paired with vitamin C, but the two also worked beautifully to help defend skin against environmental assault when applied under a sunscreen!

Vitamin C actually helps retinol work better by stabilizing it, making it more effective longer. It turns out that not using retinol with vitamin C or some other potent antioxidant could keep your skin from getting all the benefits of the retinol. Talk about "C-ing" the light!


Hopefully what we've shared will help you make great decisions about the skincare products with retinol you choose to use. It's well known that retinol is an anti-aging superhero and when combined with an AHA or BHA product, or worn during the day under a sunscreen, or when combined with potent additional antioxidants. These tactics ensure you will be doing what is best for skin based on proven research, not misleading information.

The Best Skin of Your Life Starts Here: The same type of in-depth scientific research used to create this article is also used to formulate Paula’s Choice Skincare products. You’ll find products for all skin types and a range of concerns, from acne and sensitive skin to wrinkles, pores, and sun damage. With Paula’s Choice Skincare, you can get (and keep) the best skin of your life! See Paula's Choice Retinol Treatments.

References for this information:

The Journal of Investigative Dermatology, January 1990, pages 132 – 138

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About the Experts

Paula Begoun is the best-selling author of 20 books on skin care and makeup. She is known worldwide as the Cosmetics Cop and creator of Paula's Choice. Paula's expertise has led to hundreds of appearances on national and international television including:

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The Paula's Choice Research Team is dedicated to busting beauty myths and helping you solve your skincare frustrations with research-supported expert advice—so you'll have the facts you need to take the best possible care of your skin.

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