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Best Skincare Ingredient For Your Skin. Glycolic vs. Retinol

By: Dr. Richard Bottiglione, M.D.  

Board Certified Dermatologist and Founder of Dermatologist’s Choice Skincare

Skincare ingredients glycolic vs. retinol

While practicing dermatology for nearly fifty years, it has always been my goal to educate my patients and customers so they understand the differences between the products and ingredients they apply to their skin. Many ask me about the difference between retinol and glycolic acid. When we compare these two ingredients, we need to start by talking about the FDA-approved prescription Retin-A (tretinoin acid), as this is a common point of comparison for both glycolic acid and retinol in clinical studies and over-the-counter skincare products.

In the 1970s, around the time I started my dermatology practice, the FDA approved the prescription Retin-A (tretinoin acid). This worked effectively, though it was difficult to obtain because it required a prescription. As Retin-A grew in popularity, we noticed other ingredients touted in the market claiming similar benefits. The ones we still hear about today are glycolic acid and retinol. 

Soon after the FDA approved the prescription Retin-A, we saw retinol become popular in over-the-counter skincare products. Though the two sound similar, they’re not the same product - retinol is the chemically inactive form of Retin-A. Though it’s easier to obtain than Retin-A due its over-the-counter availability, its chemically inactive nature makes it ineffective for treating skin concerns. Retinol provides minimal to no anti-aging and acne benefits. Retinol has the chemical structure of an alcohol; it’s derived from Retin-A’s active tretinoin acid but you will not get the same potency as you would with Retin-A or glycolic acid. When choosing skincare products, you must understand not all products are made equal. What I mean is retinol is not Retin-A, so it won’t give you the anti-aging or acne results you may think. 

For nearly 50 years, I’ve treated my patients with acne, wrinkles, and pigmentation concerns by using chemical peels, mostly commonly utilizing glycolic acid. When I first started in dermatology, there were very few studies on glycolic acid, but we had used other acids and so we knew acids are an effective treatment in dermatology. As the years went by, glycolic acid became the standard acid for chemical peels, a favorite among dermatologists and patients alike, proving its effectiveness and value through several clinical studies which showed acne, aging, and pigmentation benefits. In my office, I use non-neutralized glycolic acid at a powerful concentration you can’t find in most over-the-counter skincare products. 

Similar to Retin-A, chemical peels were less accessible because the treatments were provided in a dermatology office. When regularly treating patients with glycolic acid chemical peels, I quickly noticed that patients were getting the same, if not better, results as with Retin-A. I found that glycolic acid is typically less irritating than Retin-A on some patients' skin. Glycolic acid, unlike Retin-A (tretinoin acid), can be used in over-the-counter skincare products. This means no prescription is needed to get a glycolic chemical peel at home. Glycolic acid’s effectiveness and accessibility made it the perfect ingredient for my Dermatologist’s Choice Skincare products. Even better, this made it easier for my patients who wanted Retin-A and chemical peel results at home.

With my skincare line, Dermatologist’s Choice,I seek to develop products my patients can use at home and receive very similar results as an in-office chemical peel treatment and Retin-A. This cuts out the time and effort of having to go to a dermatologist’s office to get a chemical peel or Retin-A prescription. As I gathered feedback from my patients to develop a glycolic acid product tolerable for at-home use, patients reported noticeable benefits and, in many cases, less irritation compared to when they used Retin-A. My first and now flagship product, the Facial Enhancement Cream daily moisturizer+ with non-neutralize glycolic acid, is the product that changed the way my patients could obtain dermatologist-strength solutions easily at home. After that initial launch, my patients continued to ask for more and celebrated how their skin had significantly improved. Still to this day, glycolic acid is the #1 over-the-counter competitor to Retin-A. 

In my decades of experience, I’ve had repeated success with glycolic acid and Retin-A.That’s why I developed Dermatologist’s Choice with non-neutralized glycolic acid. In the medical profession, when I treat a patient, I need to know the treatment works - and I just haven’t seen the same results from retinol. Every day, we hear about new ingredients and skincare products entering the market and promising life-changing anti-aging and acne results, only to fall out of favor several months later. However, glycolic acid has stood the test of time and remains a favorite of dermatologists and patients. Even though retinol is making a comeback in new and trendy products, it’s the same ingredient that came and went decades ago. People will find out that it doesn’t work, and then another trendy ingredient will take its place. Clinically, it doesn’t have the strength to penetrate deep into the skin like Retin-A and glycolic acid do. Again, when we compare retinol and glycolic acid, retinol is inactive and doesn’t penetrate past the topical layer of skin. Glycolic acid, on the other hand, penetrates deeply to break the “glue” holding together dead, damaged, and dull layers of skin, resulting in old skin shedding and new, clear, skin shining through. When my patients want to decrease their wrinkles, acne, and pigmentation, I use glycolic acid. It’s been used for decades and has stood the test of time. 

Shop Dr. B.’s glycolic skincare, Dermatologist’s Choice, at

Shop Facial Enhancement Cream or Ultra Anti-Aging Cream

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