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5 Retinol Myths Busted!

5 Retinol Myths Busted!

We're asked a lot of questions about the dos and don'ts of using retinol. 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 a pH incompatibility. Simply stated: None of those claims are true, and we've seen no scientific research to indicate otherwise.

There's also a common 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, while also making sure you choose from options that really work. That means ignoring the misleading claims and the poorly formulated products with problem ingredients that you should never put on your face.

Our aim is to help you achieve the best skin of your life, and we know that the only way you can 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 if 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 any research demonstrating that incompatibility. It's just 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 about how skincare ingredients work, separately and together. Each ingredient has its own unique benefits, but, in combination with others (each with their own unique benefits), they work in harmony, not in conflict. Research shows that using retinol products with an effective AHA or BHA product increases the benefits; it doesn't decrease them. What's more, this combination can be an effective approach to deal with those stubborn, tiny, hard white bumps that occur primarily on your cheek bones but can show up in other areas too. It's even suitable for milia-prone skin.

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 AHA or BHA product's low pH (which makes it more effective) disrupts retinol's ability to work its gentle skin-smoothing magic.

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

Only one study mentions the issue of pH affecting retinol's activity, but that study was not performed on real skin; rather, it was performed on proteins in a petri dish. The study even concluded that it was unknown if this was related in any way to what would occur on skin.

If anything, because AHAs and BHA remove the dead skin that limits the absorption of vitally important ingredients into skin, they actually help ingredients, like retinol, infuse into skin's uppermost layers, delivering their unique benefits.

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

It's a popular misconception that retinol works by exfoliating skin, so we understand why there is confusion. Here's what you need to know:

  • Retinol is an antioxidant and an important skin-restoring ingredient. Its effects enhance multiple aspects of skin, so it looks healthier, smoother, and more vibrant.
  • Retinol impacts skin on many levels, while AHAs and BHA affect only the skin surface, helping to shed unhealthy, dead skin. Retinol does not exfoliate skin.
  • Retinol can cause a flaking reaction for some people, but this side effect (which is often temporary) is not the same as exfoliation. Don't mistake flaking for exfoliation. When healthy, normal exfoliation is taking place, you don't see it or feel it. If you do experience flaking from using retinol, it means you either should reduce the frequency of using the retinol product or the frequency of using the AHA or BHA exfoliant. You may also be using a retinol product that's too potent for your skin, so switching to a lower strength could solve the problem.

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, and that vitamins A, C, and E, even in combination, 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 first and most formidable defense in helping skin rebuff signs of aging, such as wrinkles, uneven skin tone, and loss of firmness, and in reducing the risk of early signs of aging. Retinol plays its part, too, and it can work during the day. But, 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 mentioned as a problem for combining 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, as mentioned, acidity does not deactivate retinol. We know retinol works in an acidic environment, especially when you consider that skin's pH is naturally acidic and retinol naturally occurs in skin.

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 study, not only did retinol prove effective when paired with vitamin C, but also the two worked beautifully together to 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 using retinol alone, without vitamin C or another potent antioxidant, could keep your skin from reaping all the benefits of the retinol. Talk about "C-ing" the light!


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

References for this information:
Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, March 2016, pages 36–42; and April 2004, pages 73–75
Dermatology, July 2014, pages 314–325
International Journal of Cosmetic Science, June 2008, pages 175182
Skin Pharmacology and Physiology, March/April 2005, pages 81–87
The Journal of Investigative Dermatology, January 1990, pages 132–138

About the Experts

Paula Begoun is the best-selling author of 20 books about skincare and makeup. She is known worldwide as The Cosmetics Cop and creator of Paula’s Choice Skincare. Paula’s expertise has led to hundreds of appearances on national and international radio, print, and television including:

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The Paula's Choice Research Team is dedicated to busting beauty myths and providing expert advice that solves your skincare frustrations so you can have the best skin of your life!