One of the big no no’s of skincare layering is combining benzoyl peroxide and retinol together. However, it’s not quite as simple as it’s made out to be. There are a few ways that you may be able to layer these two acne-fighting ingredients together despite what you may have read.
So, what’s the truth? Can you layer benzoyl peroxide and retinol together? Or will your face fall off?
Let’s find out…
Benzoyl peroxide is an acne medication that can be found over-the-counter or by prescription. When you apply it to your skin, it breaks down into benzoyl radicals and benzoic acid.
Benzoyl radicals are a type of free radical that create oxygen in your skin. The bacteria that cause acne (c.acne) prefer an oxygen free environment (which is why they only really become an issue when your pores are clogged).
No oxygen = Increased c.acnes growth
By releasing free oxygen radicals in this way, benzoyl peroxide is able to kill the acne-causing bacteria in your skin.
Benzoic acid is thought to work in a similar way to salicylic acid and helps to exfoliate and unclog your pores.
Benzoyl peroxide may also target the inflammatory immune cells in your skin which prevents them from releasing the inflammatory molecules that can make acne look red and angry and sometimes feel painful.
Overall, benzoyl peroxide is:
- Oil controlling
However, it’s generally considered to be less effective at treating acne than retinoids and salicylic acid unless it’s combined with other ingredients.
Because it produces free radicals, benzoyl peroxide has been shown to deplete your skin levels of vitamin E, so using it alongside an antioxidant serum or moisturizer is recommended.
(Note that there is no evidence to suggest that the free radicals produced by benzoyl peroxide contribute to skin aging – there is also no evidence that they don’t but the anti-inflammatory effect of benzoyl peroxide may have anti-aging benefits)
Retinol is a form of vitamin A that converts to retinoic acid (its active form) when it penetrates your skin. It helps treat a wide-range of skin conditions and is one of the only skincare ingredients that’s clinically proven to alter your skin on a cellular level.
It’s an antioxidant that increases the rate that your skin makes new skin cells and moves them to the surface of your skin in order to be shed. It also:
- Boosts collagen production
- Reduces inflammation
- Helps prevent acne scarring
- Helps unclog pores and treat acne
- Reduces pigmentation by preventing melanin production as well as getting rid of existing pigmentation by increasing skin cell turnover
- Improves the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.
Unfortunately, retinol is renowned for causing skin irritation – particularly when you first start using it. It can also damage your skin barrier if used improperly which can make a lot of skin conditions worse and take a long time to correct.
However, as it requires a few conversions to reach its active form, it’s less irritating than other retinoids (e.g. tretinoin, retinal, differin).
Benzoyl Peroxide vs Retinol
As you can see, there are a few similarities in the skin benefits offered by benzoyl peroxide vs retinol but there are also a number of ways that they differ.
One example is how they treat acne. For example, benzoyl peroxide targets all four of the main causes of acne which are dead skin cell build-up, overproduction of oil, bacteria, and inflammation.
Retinol increases cellular turnover and renewal which can help prevent dead skin cell build-up (although it’s not exfoliating) and reduces inflammation but there is limited research on its ability to reduce c.acne bacteria (although retinal can) and control oil production.
However, retinoids, like retinol, are generally considered to be a more effective acne treatment than benzoyl peroxide, particularly when it comes to unclogging pores.
Retinol would also be the better option if you’re looking to treat other skin concerns, like fine lines and wrinkles and/or hyperpigmentation, alongside acne as it has a much wider variety of skin benefits.
Can You Use Benzoyl Peroxide and Retinol Together?
If you can’t decide between benzoyl peroxide and retinol, the good news is you don’t have to!
However, there are a few things to bear in mind when using benzoyl peroxide and retinol together.
The main issue with layering the two ingredients is that benzoyl peroxide creates oxygen in your skin and retinol is easily degraded by oxygen (oxidized). For this reason, it’s usually recommended to use benzoyl peroxide in the morning and retinol at night (retinol is also easily degraded by light).
Research suggests that a skincare routine of 2.5% benzoyl peroxide in the morning and a stabilized retinol in the evening was particularly effective at reducing the number of acne spots and pimples and also improved overall skin appearance and complexion.
If you were hoping to layer benzoyl peroxide and retinol together then you may still be able to – depending on the type of retinol you use.
Some skincare ingredients can be stabilized through a process called ‘microsphere-encapsulation’ which delays the release of the ingredient when it enters your skin. This also helps reduce irritation as the ingredient is released at a slower rate.
Not only can microsphere encapsulation help prevent retinoids, like retinol, from being degraded by light, it can also prevent their oxidation by benzoyl peroxide.
Most of the research has been performed using tretinoin (retinoic acid – the active form of retinol) which, like retinol, is easily degraded by light and oxygen.
One study found that, when combined with benzoyl peroxide and exposed to light, tretinoin degraded by 50% within 2 hours and by 95% within 24 hours – not ideal.
However, when microsphere-encapsulated tretinoin was combined with benzoyl peroxide and exposed to light, it only degraded by 1% within 2 hours (99% was recovered) and 13% (87% was recovered) within 24 hours. That’s in comparison tretinoin gel (not encapsulated) which degraded by 89%.
So, is it the same deal with encapsulated retinol?
There’s no research investigating the degradation of retinol vs encapsulated retinol when combined with benzoyl peroxide. However, there is research to suggest that encapsulated retinol with added butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), an antioxidant that’s often used as a preservative in retinol products, is effective at protecting retinol from being degraded by oxygen.
(BHT may also be the reason that this study found that non-encapsulated tretinoin gel was not degraded by benzoyl peroxide – an observation by KindOfStephen)
Furthermore, a clinical study found that the combination of benzoyl peroxide and encapsulated retinol was a well-tolerated and effective acne treatment.
In addition to BHT, other antioxidants have also been shown to help stabilize retinol.
Overall, you may be able to layer benzoyl peroxide and retinol together if:
- The retinol is encapsulated
- The retinol has added antioxidants (particularly BHT)
- Both of the above
If you’re still unsure, one retinoid that is definitely ok to layer with benzoyl peroxide is adapalene (Differin).
When compared to tretinoin, adapalene is less irritating, more stable, and is better able to penetrate your oil glands – making it a particularly suitable option for treating acne.
(It’s even fine to use in the day, although I personally think it’s better used in the evening as your skin’s natural renewal process peaks overnight)
You can use the two in a multi-ingredient product, like Epiduo (usually requires a prescription) or you can layer benzoyl peroxide and adapalene together in separate products.
Research has demonstrated that benzoyl peroxide and adapalene are more effective at treating acne when combined together than either ingredient used alone.
The combination of benzoyl peroxide and adapalene has also been found to be effective at improving pitted acne scarring – although this was over 24 weeks which is a pretty long time to patiently wait for results.
How To Use Benzoyl Peroxide and Retinol Together
Benzoyl peroxide can be used 1-2x per day, although if you have sensitive skin you can use it less frequently. Retinol can be used nightly, however, to begin with you may find that your skin is better able to tolerate retinol if you build up slowly. This can reduce the risk of irritation and the severity of the ‘purging’ that can often be experienced when commencing retinoid treatment.
‘Purging’ refers to the acne flare-ups that are often experienced when starting a treatment that increases the rate of skin cell turnover. This can bring your usual break-outs to the surface of the skin faster which may make acne appear more severe. Purging can last from weeks to months but will eventually subside.
The risk of irritation and purging is higher when using benzoyl peroxide and retinol together because both ingredients increase cellular renewal.
To reduce this risk, you can begin by building up tolerance to retinol by using it once a week for one-to-two weeks, then increasing use to twice a week for one-to-two weeks, then three times a week, and so on. Continue this pattern until you are able to use retinol every night without irritation.
It’s also better to introduce one ingredient at a time to allow your skin time to adjust and to make it easier to identify if either ingredient is not reacting well with your skin.
If you’re not sure whether your retinol is encapsulated, use it at a different time of day to benzoyl peroxide. You can also check with the products manufacturer whether they advise using their retinol product alongside benzoyl peroxide.
For example, CeraVe have previously mentioned on their Instagram that their retinol resurfacing serum containing encapsulated retinol is fine to use alongside their benzoyl peroxide products like their Foaming Cream Cleanser.
Make sure that you’re wearing the correct amount of sunscreen everyday as both benzoyl peroxide and retinol can increase your skin’s sensitivity to sunlight which means a higher risk of sunburn and premature skin aging.
The Bottom Line – Can You Use Benzoyl Peroxide and Retinol Together?
It depends! This one’s not a simple yes or no answer as it’s hugely dependent on the formulation. Benzoyl peroxide and retinol may be fine to layer together if the retinol is encapsulated and contains additional antioxidants but if not, or if you are unsure, use benzoyl peroxide in your morning routine and retinol in your evening routine. Alternatively, you could alternate between the two.