Skinceuticals Retexturing Activator: A Glycolic Acid Alternative?

Does Skinceuticals Retexturing Activator have the exfoliating power of a daily 20% glycolic acid treatment? If it’s true, it’s the answer to all our skincare prayers. 20% Glycolic acid exfoliates skin, reduces sun damage, and fades away dark spots and hyperpigmentation. But that high % is so harsh, it’ll strip your skin raw and irritate it like hell. Ouch! If there’s something that gives you the same benefits without any of the side effects, I’m so here for it. Does this deliver? I’ve put it to the test to find out:

Key Ingredients In Skinceuticals Retexturing Activator: What Makes It Work?
Hydroxyethyl Urea is the star of the show. It’s the little molecule that’s supposed to exfoliate your skin as well as 20% daily glycolic acid peels. Skinceuticals also claims it’s as hydrating as glycerin. But what does science says?
Urea works in the same way as Glycolic Acid. Like it, it softens and dissolves the keratin that holds skin cells together, so they can slough off on their own. So, urea can exfoliate skin well. But I couldn’t find any proof (yet!) that Hydroxyethyl Urea has the same benefits as plain old urea, let alone 20% daily glycolic acid peels.
That doesn’t mean it doesn’t. Maybe it does, but no one has bothered to do a study on it. But for now, we have to take Skinceuticals’ word for it. That’s not good enough for me. Personally, knowing how well plain urea exfoliates skin, I’m willing to give Hydroxyethyl Urea the benefit of the doubt. If your skin is so sensitive, it can’t tolerate Glycolic Acid, this may be worth a try.
But what about its hydrating properties? This time, science agrees with Skinceuticals. Research shows hydroxyethyl urea delivers “moisturization efficacy comparable to glycerin, while offering some advantages in terms of sensory perception in skin care products.” So, it works just as well as glycerin and feels more pleasant on the skin. Me likes that.
Related: Everything You Need To Know About Urea In Skincare

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Hydroxyethyl Urea and Glycerin aren’t the only hydrating ingredients here. Skinceuticals Retexturing Activator also has Hyaluronic Acid. It’s a moisture magnet that draws water from the environment and binds it into your skin. It’s so powerful, it can hold up to 1000 times its weight in water! Extra moisture = plumper, softer and brighter skin.
Related: Why You Need Hyaluronic Acid In Your Routine, No Matter Your Skin Type
The Rest Of The Formula & Ingredients

NOTE: The colours indicate the effectiveness of an ingredient. It is ILLEGAL to put toxic and harmful ingredients in skincare products.

Green: It’s effective, proven to work, and helps the product do the best possible job for your skin.
Yellow: There’s not much proof it works (at least, yet).
Red: What is this doing here?!

Aqua / water / eau: The main solvent in the product, it helps to dissolve other ingredients.
Hydroxyethylpiperazine ethane sulfonic acid: It’s used to adjust the pH in water-based formulas.
Pentylene glycol: It attracts moisture into your skin to increase its hydration levels and helps active ingredients better penetrate skin.
Saccharomyces/xylinum/ black tea ferment: Derived from the fermentation of black tea by the microorganism, saccharomyces and xylinium, it makes skin softer and smoother.
Glycerin: A popular humectant. That’s a fancy way of calling ingredients that draw moisture from the air into your skin, increasing its moisture levels and keeping it softer and plumper for longer.
Methylparaben: A preservative that inhibits the growth of bacteria and fungi in your skincare products, helping them last longer.
Phenoxyethanol: Another preservative that prevents bacteria from growing into your skincare products, so they’re safer for longer.

This exfoliant has a light and fast-absorbing texture that doesn’t leave a greasy residue behind.
It’s fragrance-free. I like it. It may not smell like a meadow in full bloom, but fragrance is the most irritating ingredient in skincare. Any brand who loves skin will leave it out. Just saying…
How To Use It
Skinceuticals tells you to use it twice a daily, but you’re not supposed to exfoliate that much! Exfoliating too often will irritate your skin. Instead, use it 2 or 3 nights a week after cleansing. Avoid using it on nights you use retinoids.
This exfoliant comes in a see-through bottle with a dropper applicator that makes it easy to apply and use.

Performance & Personal Opinion
Skinceuticals Retexturing Activator isn’t lying about its hydrating properties. Just three or four drops are enough to cover my entire face and make it plumper and softer.  Now that the weather is getting colder, I feel like this extra hydration is helping my moisturizer keep my skin hydrated all day and prevent dry and flaky patches (although, I’m sure this could help them heal, too).
After a couple of weeks, I’ve also noticed that my skin looks a bit smoother and is definitely a bit brighter. Basically, it just makes my skin look healthy. Does it work as well as glycolic acid? It’s hard to say, even after a month of use. It does a great job, but I have to say, I’m sticking to glycolic acid simply because there’s way more evidence it works.
Related: How Often Should You Use Glycolic Acid?

How Does Is Skinceuticals Retexturing Activator Compare To Other Skinceuticals Exfoliants?
Skinceuticals has a gazillion exfoliants. Half of them are exfoliating cleansers and I’m not a fan of those. They don’t exfoliate skin as well as something that stays on its surface for several hours. So, I’ll leave them out. Instead, lets compare how Skinceuticals Retexturing Activator compares to the other leave-on exfoliants from the brand to find out which one is best for your skin type and needs:

Skinceuticals LHA Toner ($40.00): A glycolic acid toner with a little Salicylic acid and LHA (Caproloyl salicylic acid) thrown in to brighten the complexion, reduce skin roughness, and prevent acne. It’s best for aging skin prone to breakouts. Available at Dermstore, Skinceuticals, and Skin Store
Skinceuticals Blemish + Age Defense ($106.00): A serum that treats both acne and the signs of aging thanks to its blend of 0.3% LHA (Caprolyol Salicylic Acid), 1.5% Salicylic Acid, 3.5% Glycolic Acid and 0.5% Citric Acid. It’s best for oily and aging skin. Available at Dermstore, Skinceuticals, and Skin Store
Skinceuticals C + AHA ($145.00): A daytime antioxidant serum with exfoliating properties. It has 15% L-Ascorbic Acid (the pure form of Vitamin C) to fight wrinkles and a 10% blend of AHAs (Alpha Hydroxy Acids) to exfoliate. It’s most suitable for people with dry skin who want to simplify their routine. Available at Blue Mercury, Dermstore, Look Fantastic, Skinceuticals, and Skin Store
Skinceuticals Glycolic 10 Renew Overnight ($90.00): A Glycolic acid exfoliant in cream form that removes dead cells, hydrates skin, smooths out wrinkles, and helps to fade away dark spots. Most suitable for dry and sun-damaged skin. Available at Blue Mercury, Dermstore, Look Fantastic, Skinceuticals, and Skin Store
Skinceuticals Cell Cycle Catalyst ($115.00): An exfoliant with a 7.7% multi-acid complex: 2% Phytic Acid, 1% Mandelic Acid, 0.2% Salicylic Acid, 2% Lactic Acid, and 2.5% Glycolic Acid. It brightens the complexion and smoothes out wrinkles but there’s not enough salicylic acid here to fight acne. Best for people with dry skin and hyperpigmentation. Available at Skinceuticals

What I Like About Skinceuticals Retexturing Activator

Lightweight, fast-absorbing texture.
Makes skin softer and smoother.
Brightens the complexion.
A little hydrating.

What I DON’T Like About Skinceuticals Retexturing Activator

There’s no proof it works as well as 20% Glycolic Acid yet.

Who Should Use This?
Sensitive skin that can’t tolerate glycolic acid. Everyone else, you’re still better off with Glycolic Acid.
Does Skinceuticals Retexturing Activator Live Up To Its Claims?


This oil-free serum simultaneously exfoliates skin and replenishes moisture for radiant, smooth, skin.

This oil-free serum has the resurfacing power of daily 20% glycolic acid treatment.
There is NO scientific proof this is true.

Diminishes the appearance of surface lines and smoothes skin.

Increases the look of overall radiance.

Balances moisture levels.
Yes, it hydrates skin.

Price & Availability
$90.00 at Blue Mercury, Dermstore, Skinceuticals, and Skin Store
The Verdict: Should You Buy It?
If your skin’s so sensitive it can’t tolerate glycolic or you’re simply curious to try an alternative, you may want to give this one a go. But for most people, exfoliating acids are still the better option.
Dupes & Alternatives

Cetaphil Daily Hydrating Lotion ($20.99): An oil-free lotion with deeply hydrates and smoothes out skin. It has the same active ingredients, but costs a lot less. Available at Boots, Look Fantastic, Sephora, Superdrug, and Ulta
Hada Labo Skin Plumping Gel Cream ($20.99): A plumping moisturiser that makes wrinkles look smaller and deeply hydrates. Available at Superdrug and Target.

aqua / water / eau, hydroxyethyl urea, hydroxyethylpiperazine ethane sulfonic acid, pentylene glycol, saccharomyces/xylinum/ black tea ferment, glycerin, sodium hyaluronate, methylparaben, phenoxyethanol

About Gio
Hi, I’m Gio. I’m a no-nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is skin coach and writer on a mission to help you achieve your best skin day ever – every day. I bust skincare myths and debunk marketing jargon to help you figure out what’s worth the splurge and what’s best left on the shelf – using science, not hype. I also offer skincare consultations to help you create the best skincare routine for your unique needs.

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