Retinol? Glycolic Acid? What's right for your skin?
Retinol vs Glycolic Acid
Both are serious skin care ingredients that have the potential to help your skin. Properly used, they can reduce wrinkles, age spots, and other signs of aging. Because the benefit claims can be confusing -- and because both are powerful medications -- you might want to consult your dermatologist about how to use them. In the meantime, here's a quick overview, starting with why our skin looks the way it does:
Two types of skin damage
Roughly speaking, there are two basic types of skin damage:
- Age-related: As we grow older, the skin on our body gets thinner, more fragile, and less elastic. These changes are caused by the gradual loss of two vital substances: (1) collagen, which consists of proteins that protect and strengthen various organs, including the skin; and (2) elastin, a protein that helps the skin stay flexible. This form of aging is unavoidable, though its effects can be softened by surgery, injections, and topical treatments.
- Lifestyle-related: This kind of damage can happen, but doesn't have to. Sources can include too much exposure to the sun, poor hygiene, poor diet, smoking, drinking, accidents, infections, and so on. Damage from these sources is often responsive to treatment, depending on the degree of damage and the kind of skin you have.
What each does
Oversimplifying a bit, and depending on skin type, retinol may be better for age-related damage, while glycolic acid may be more appropriate for lifestyle-related damage. But since we all have both kinds of damage, your dermatologist is the best person to advise you.
Retinol is a form of vitamin A that is able to penetrate to the lower layers of skin where it helps rebuild collagen and elastin, which is why it's helpful with age-related damage. It also helps unclog pores, fade age spots, thicken skin tissues, and increase the nutrition of blood cells -- all of which work to improve your complexion.
Retinol strength varies from product to product. You might start with a mild retinol product and build up gradually to avoid causing skin irritations. Pre-test a new product on a small area of your skin before starting general usage, and then be sure to follow the manufacturer's instructions. Retinol also comes in prescription strengths, which can be expensive. In using prescription strength retinol, follow your doctor's treatment instructions.
Glycolic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid made from the sugar cane plant. It works by breaking down dead skin cells that contribute to clogged pores and dull skin. Over time, glycolic acid can help smooth uneven facial tones, and diminish lines, wrinkles, age spots, and scarred tissue. At up to 10% concentration, it can be applied to the face in a base cream or lotion and then rinsed away with water. Glycolic acid strength varies from product to product. Test your new product on a small area of your skin before starting your skin care program, and then follow the manufacturer's instructions. If you have sensitive skin, be especially careful.
In high concentrations—20% to 70%—glycolic acid is used for "peels," which essentially remove top layers of skin, so new skin can take their place. This process should include a special neutralizer followed by a restorative moisturizer. A specially trained aesthetician may perform a "peel" using a concentration of up to 30%. "Peels" using 30% to 70% concentration must be performed by a physician. Glycolic acid chemical peels are not right for every skin type and need to be performed correctly to avoid damaging your skin. The most effective glycolic acid treatments include a complete line of skin care products and can be quite expensive.
Both retinol and glycolic acid make your skin more vulnerable to harmful sunrays. After a retinol or glycolic acid treatment, you should avoid the sun for 48 to 72 hours (consult your dermatologist). Thereafter, apply a broad spectrum sunblock with an SPF of 30 or more to protect your skin from both UVA and UVB rays as a regular part of your daily grooming routine. Don't leave home without it.
This article has been reviewed by Amy Wolthoff, MD, Dermatologist.