Planning a skincare routine is now more challenging than ever. With endless products and ingredients, no surprise women are perplexed when they have to build one that works for their condition. But that doesn’t stop us from aiming for flawless skin, so we got to make sure we do everything correctly without compromising our skin’s health. That’s why we always try to seek active ingredients that can bring our skin one step closer to perfection. Retinoids, antioxidants, AHAs, BHAs, sunscreens, and moisturizers are what people usually look for. They can pretty much solve anything, from photoaging, dryness to even more severe conditions like dermatitis and acne.
If before we used just pick one and go for it, now the trend is to combine more ingredients into a single routine for greater efficiency. This makes building a routine a nightmare because even dermatologists can’t reach the same consensus about what ingredients can and cannot be combined. While mixing two or more ingredients may have good results, it can also cause skin issues, like irritation or dryness. “Mixing ingredients without proper knowledge of how these ingredients work and what other ingredients they may interact with will be not only a waste of money but also time. It can also lead to frustration if no results are seen,” explains Dr. Shari Marchbein, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City, in an interview for InStyle.
Today, one of the most controversial trends is the combination of retinol and vitamin C. As they are among the most powerful ingredients for skincare, it’s understandable why people want to use them together. For any mixture to work, the components have to complement each other. That means they should require the same pH level (or similar) and should not cause skin irritation, over-drying, or over-exfoliating. Let’s see if that’s the case when you use vitamin C and retinol together.
Yes, yes, everyone knows retinol. It holds the title of skincare miracle ingredient and is praised by most experts and dermatologists. Retinol is a form of vitamin A used because it simply does a lot of good things: it improves the appearance of wrinkles, fine lines, uneven skin texture, dark spots, and even acne. Studies also point out that retinol increases collagen production, epidermal thickness, and smooth the skin’s outer layer. If that isn’t enough, research proved that retinol helps increase hyaluronic acid levels, which will make the skin appear more hydrated and healthy.
Retinol can do all of that due to its exfoliating effect on the skin’s surface that sheds old skin cells and replaces them with new and stronger cells. However, the exfoliating effect of retinol has its downsides. These newly developed cells are situated in the outermost skin layer, which protects the skin. When the cells are rapidly produced (due to retinol), they lack the necessary protection to actually protect the skin. That’s why it’s common to experience peeling and irritation after retinol.
Vitamin C, also known as l-ascorbic acid, is an antioxidant that protects your skin cells from the damaging effects of UV exposure. It practically helps to neutralize the effects of free radicals — unstable molecules that can cause damage to our cells. Free radicals are unstable because they miss electrons from their outer shell. “In order to stabilize themselves, free radicals try to bond to other atoms or molecules. This process results in oxidative stress, which can damage DNA and other parts of the cell,” explains Dr. Sejal Shah for Today. Research found that oxidative stress can affect skin cells and tissues, which may cause wrinkles and dryness.
Antioxidants help by binding to free radicals, which prevents them from attaching to your healthy cells. So yes, you need antioxidants, especially when so many factors (UV exposure, smoking, alcohol) can cause an increase in free radicals. Studies have shown that vitamin C may also help against photoaging due to its ability to neutralize free radicals.
Can you use retinol and vitamin C together?
While retinol and vitamin C are mainly associated with anti-aging agents, they work differently, so using them together is not that simple. In fact, adding these two ingredients together may bring no results and can actually reduce both the effectiveness of retinol and vitamin C. That’s unfortunate, I know, but don’t quit yet! There’s still a way to use vitamin C and retinol together, but not at the same time.
Let’s first see why it isn’t a good idea to use retinol and vitamin C one after another or mixed together. When you want to combine two or more ingredients, you need to look at their pH. An unbalanced pH can cause a lot of trouble for your skin, and absolutely everything you do on your skin can affect its pH — including retinol and vitamin C.
While the pH scale ranges from 1 to 14, studies suggest that skin’s optimal pH value lies between 4.7 and 5. “This pH is necessary for proper skin cell turnover and functioning of enzymes needed to maintain skin hydration, antimicrobial defenses, and barrier function,” explains Joshua Zeichner, MD for Real Simple. If your pH balance is too high, your skin will appear tight and dry, leading to irritations, and if it’s too low will cause a loss of natural oils that help maintain hydration. Dermatologists’ verdict is to follow a pH-balanced skincare routine consisting of products of the same pH (or similar) to your skin. Unfortunately, that’s not the case with vitamin C and retinol.
Retinol and vitamin C have their own unique pH, which can greatly affect your skin’s pH. While retinol has a pH between 5.0 and 6.0 (source), vitamin C must be formulated at pH levels less than 3.5 to enter the skin (source). Because vitamin C and retinol don’t work at the same pH level, mixing them will make retinol less effective and also reduce vitamin C’s absorption power. In the worst-case, it can affect your skin pH leading to other skin issues.
How to use retinol and vitamin C together
While it isn’t advisable to mix vitamin C with retinol, you can definitely use them separately—more precisely, vitamin C in the morning and retinol at night. Most dermatologists recommend using retinol at night because it increases the sensitivity to sunlight. That way, you’ll get the antioxidants benefits of vitamin C and the anti-aging effects of retinol without letting the two ingredients interfere with each other.
You can also get a serum that has both vitamin C and retinol — like Eva Naturals’ product (shop on Amazon).
Retinol and vitamin C together: YES or NO?
Although one study found that the topically applied retinol-vitamin C combination may be able to reverse skin changes induced by chronologic aging and photoaging, there’s still not enough data to draw a conclusion. Dermatologists won’t recommend it because of the high chances of messing with your skin’s pH balance. Besides, applying vitamin C in the morning and retinol at night, you’ll get almost the same results.
Looking for other ingredients to combine? Take a look here: