How to Use Salicylic Acid Before Retinol

Salicylic acid and retinol are medications that can help clear acne. According to Elle magazine, dermatologist Jenny Kim says that while salicylic acid works to kill pimple-causing bacteria, retinol removes the upper layers of skin to get rid of pimples and scars and smooth your overall complexion. However, dermatologist Patricia Wexler says that layering harsh products like these can cause irritation or even make acne worse. To get the most out of your acne-fighting routine, apply these medications at different times of the day and complement them with gentler products.

Young man applying product to his face while looking in a mirror. Credit: Mike Watson Images/moodboard/Getty Images

Step 1

Wash your face in the morning with a blemish-fighting cleanser that contains 2 percent salicylic acid. Allure magazine says that this will help to clear your pores of the dead skin, oil and impurities that can lead to breakouts. Wet your face and hands, and work the product onto your skin using a circular motion. Rinse it off thoroughly, and pat dry.

Step 2

Apply a mild, oil-free moisturizer that contains SPF 30 or higher. Acne medications can be drying and make your skin more likely to get sunburned. Sun damage can also lead to brown spots or make your pimples look worse, according to Allure. Smooth the moisturizer onto your face and neck as often as you need to, and apply it more frequently throughout the day if you stay outside.

Step 3

Wash your face at night with a gentle face wash that does not contain acne medication. Select a creamy cleanser that will wash off your makeup and skin impurities without overdrying your face. Use the same massaging motion from Step 1, and rinse the cleanser off when you finish.

Step 4

Apply a cream or lotion that contains retinol before you go to bed. Kim says that retinoids help increase cell turnover, which will rid your face of the dead skin that can clog pores and cause zits. If your skin is sensitive or prone to irritation, select a product that contains a low percentage of retinol, or one that has been formulated with moisturizers. Place a dab of the product on your finger, and smooth it over your face.

Things You'll Need

  • Salicylic acid cleanser

  • Moisturizer with SPF

  • Gentle face wash

  • Retinol cream


Talk to your doctor or dermatologist before you start using any new products. These ingredients may interact with other types of medication or cause excessive skin irritation.

Look for over-the-counter products with these ingredients. You can also ask your doctor about prescription options if you feel they are necessary.

Is This an Emergency?

If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, seek emergency treatment immediately.
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