- How to Use Retinol and Vitamin C in Your Skincare Routine: The Right and Wrong Way to Apply Them
- Can You Apply Retinol and Vitamin C at the Same Time?
- ✘ The pH Levels May Change
- ✘ They May Not Dissolve or Penetrate
- The Best Ways to Apply Retinol and Vitamin C
- ✔︎ Vitamin C in the Morning, Retinol at Night
- ✔︎ Vitamin C and Retinol on Alternate Nights
- ✔︎ Vitamin C and Retinol at Night, 30 Minutes Apart
- ✔︎ Vitamin C Derivative and Retinol at Night
- The Best Retinol and Vitamin C Products to Try
- Retinol Treatments
- L-Ascorbic Acid Treatments
- Vitamin C Derivatives
- Conclusion + Free Cheat Sheet
- Shop Editor’s Picks
- The Weird Way You Might Be Sabotaging Your Own Skincare Routine
- Shop Retinol
- Three Ingredients Experts Say You Shouldn’t Mix With Retinol
- Vitamin C
- Benzoyl Peroxide
- Alpha and Beta Hydroxy Acids
How to Use Retinol and Vitamin C in Your Skincare Routine: The Right and Wrong Way to Apply Them
Retinol and vitamin C are two of the most powerful ingredients for your skin. Both are known to fight wrinkles, build collagen and fade dark spots and pigmentation.
But fitting them into your skincare routine can be tricky. Should you layer one on top of the other? Which one goes on first? Do you need to wait in between them? And what about mixing them together?!
In this tutorial, you will learn:
- Whether you can apply retinol and vitamin C at the same time
- Why you need to consider pH and solubility
- The best ways to use retinol and vitamin C in your skincare routine
- My top retinol and vitamin C product picks
I've also got a free cheat sheet for you to download at the end of this article!
Can You Apply Retinol and Vitamin C at the Same Time?
Adding both retinol and vitamin C to your skincare routine is unfortunately not as simple as layering one ingredient over the other, or just mixing them together.
In fact, doing either of those things could be a waste of your time and money.
If you're going to get the most these ingredients, you NEED to be aware of two factors: pH and solubility.
Here's what happens to them when you use retinol and vitamin C at the same time, and why it matters.
✘ The pH Levels May Change
All skincare products that are water-based (aqueous) have been formulated to work at a certain pH. Skincare products that don't contain water, known as anhydrous solutions, don't have a pH.
- Retinol typically has a pH between 5.0 and 6.0, as research has shown that's where it operates best. The same goes for other over-the-counter retinoids such as retinaldehyde and retinyl esters.
- L-ascorbic acid, the active form of vitamin C, needs to be at pH 3.5 or lower in order to effectively penetrate your skin (as this study proves).
Since retinol and L-ascorbic acid have a big gap in pH, using them at the same time will lower the retinol's pH and raise the vitamin C's pH.
The result? The retinol will become less active, and the vitamin C will have a reduced ability to get into your skin. Essentially, they will both become less effective!
✘ They May Not Dissolve or Penetrate
The next thing to think about is whether the ingredients are oil-soluble or water-soluble.
- Retinol is oil-soluble, so it will only dissolve in oil.
- L-ascorbic acid is water-soluble, so it will only dissolve in water.
Oil and water don't mix. So if you're adding a water-soluble vitamin C (for example, an L-ascorbic acid powder) into an oil-soluble retinol, it will not dissolve. That means it won't penetrate your skin, and you won't get any of the vitamin C's benefits.
Another thing to keep in mind is that oils can create a barrier on the skin that blocks the absorption of water-based products—another reason not to mix oil-based and water-based solutions.
The Best Ways to Apply Retinol and Vitamin C
Fortunately, there are a few ways to incorporate both vitamin C and retinol in your skincare routine without sacrificing any of the benefits.
You've got four options:
✔︎ Vitamin C in the Morning, Retinol at Night
Your easiest course of action is to separate vitamin C and retinol from each other and apply them at different times of day. This ensures that each ingredient can work at its correct pH.
✔︎ Vitamin C and Retinol on Alternate Nights
Most dermatologists believe that retinol should always be applied at night, away from UV light. But did you know that you can apply vitamin C at night, too? This study found that DNA damage continues for hours after exposure to UV light, and suggests it could be prevented with a nightly antioxidant, vitamin C.
By using retinol and vitamin C on alternate nights, you'll get the benefits of both, without having to worry about interactions.
✔︎ Vitamin C and Retinol at Night, 30 Minutes Apart
If you must use retinol and L-ascorbic acid at the same time, separate them by 30 minutes. Apply your vitamin C first, since it has the lower pH of the two. Then, wait half an hour before you apply your retinol.
Incorporating the waiting period allows your skin's pH to return to normal, so each ingredient can work at its intended pH.
✔︎ Vitamin C Derivative and Retinol at Night
If you don't have time for the 30-minute waiting period, but you still want to use retinol and vitamin C at the same time, then your best bet is a vitamin C derivative.
Vitamin C derivatives have to be converted into the active form of vitamin C, L-ascorbic acid, in your skin. So they're not as potent as L-ascorbic acid itself. However, they tend to be more stable and less irritating, and offer many of the same benefits (including protection from free radicals, brightening and in some cases, even boosting collagen production).
As long as you choose a vitamin C derivative that is close in pH to your retinol, then you can use them at the same time, since they will not destabilize each other.
Choose formulas with one or more of these vitamin C derivatives:
- Ascorbyl glucoside (pH 5.0 to 7.0)
- Ascorbyl tetraisopalmitate (pH 4.0 to 6.0)
- Ethyl ascorbic acid (pH 4.0 to 5.5)
- Magnesium ascorbyl phosphate (pH 6.0 to 7.0)
- Sodium ascorbyl phosphate (pH 6.0 to 7.0)
Which ingredient goes on first? In general, you want to apply your products in order of lowest to highest pH. However, be mindful of textures. Lighter, water-based solutions must be used before more occlusive, oil-es—otherwise, they won't penetrate.
Again, since there's not a huge gap in pH, you shouldn't have to wait in between layers. As soon as the first product absorbs, you can apply the second. (The only exception where you'd probably want to wait is if two products are more than 1.5 to 2.0 apart.)
What if your vitamin C treatment is anhydrous (water-free)? Anhydrous solutions will contain oils, silicones or oily solvents that the retinol may not be able to penetrate through. In this case, I'd apply the retinol first, let it absorb, and then apply the vitamin C. You can also use them at different times of day or on alternating nights.
The Best Retinol and Vitamin C Products to Try
Now that you're familiar with the different ways you can use retinol and vitamin C, here are my top product recommendations:
Retinoids from The Ordinary, Drunk Elephant, A313 and Shani Darden.
L-Ascorbic Acid Treatments
L-ascorbic acid treatments from SkinCeuticals, Paula's Choice, Timeless and Drunk Elephant.
Vitamin C Derivatives
Vitamin C derivatives from Mad Hippie, Skin Inc Supplement Bar, Joanna Vargas and The Ordinary.
- Mad Hippie Vitamin C Serum is a gel- serum with sodium ascorbyl phosphate, a vitamin C derivative that brightens, fades pigmentation and helps to treat acne.
- Skin Inc Supplement Bar Vitamin C Serum stars magnesium ascorbyl phosphate, a vitamin C derivative that's good for brightening, lightening pigment, hydrating and boosting collagen.
- Joanna Vargas Rescue Serum is minimalistic serum featuring ascorbyl tetraisopalmitate, a vitamin C derivative that is used to brighten, even skin tone and increase collagen production.
- The Ordinary Ascorbyl Glucoside Solution 12% (reviewed here) contains ascorbyl glucoside, a vitamin C derivative that's best for brightening and lightening dark spots.
- Dermadoctor Kakadu C 20% Vitamin C Serum with Ferulic Acid & Vitamin E is made with ethyl ascorbic acid, a vitamin C derivative that not only brightens and evens out skin tone, but also reduces inflammation and increases collagen.
- Omorovicza Daily Vitamin C is a sodium ascorbyl phosphate serum with a milky texture.
- Youth to the People Superfood Firm and Brighten Serum has magnesium ascorbyl phosphate along with peptides and hyaluronic acid.
Conclusion + Free Cheat Sheet
I hope this guide helps you to make the most retinol and vitamin C in your skincare routine!
The key takeaway is that you always want to be using ” with .” In other words, products that are close in pH, with a similar consistency, can be used together with no waiting.
It's when they're dissimilar—whether in pH and/or texture—that you need to be more careful about when you apply them, and in what order. Otherwise, you may not get the results that you're after.
For those of us looking to use retinol and vitamin C at the same time, we're lucky to have so many vitamin C derivatives to choose from. However, they can be a lot to remember…
which is why I created the Types of Vitamin C Cheat Sheet. Just click below to download it so you have a handy reference for all the different versions of vitamin C, what they do, and where to find them.
Personally, I actually prefer vitamin C derivatives to L-ascorbic acid, even if they aren't quite as powerful. I find the ones that have a neutral (not acidic) pH are easier to incorporate into my routine, and gentler on my skin. They also have a much longer shelf life, whereas I struggle to finish L-ascorbic acid serums before they oxidize.
But no matter which type of vitamin C you choose, using it in combination with a retinol is a surefire way to get your skin glowing, firm and even-toned. Let me know what results you experience!
Shop Editor’s Picks
Does your skincare routine include retinol and vitamin C?
What results have you noticed so far?
If you buy something through our links, we may earn a commission. See our Disclosure for more information.
The Weird Way You Might Be Sabotaging Your Own Skincare Routine
We all know there's an abundance of skincare products on the market, but even worse is the abundance of skincare routines.
It's easy to pluck an acne tip or a serum recommendation from a r or an Instagrammer, but if you're incorporating new products into your routine without adjusting how you use your existing ones, you might not be doing yourself any favors.
That's the case with retinol and vitamin C, which are the gold-standard for wrinkles and dark spots, respectively. You might be wonder if you can you use retinol and vitamin C together — and the answer is a bit complicated. But according to derms, just learning the basics of the ingredients will help to understand how to use them together.
To start, vitamin C helps reducse complexion concerns dullness, uneven skin tone, acne scars, and texture. “Vitamin C is an essential part of skin health. It’s an antioxidant and a critical factor for collagen synthesis,” Dr. Hadley King M.D., F.A.A.D.
, a clinical instructor of dermatology at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University, tells TZR. Underneath the skin, vitamin C decreases photodamage (a fancy word for dark spots) and is essential for healing wounds. “It also protects the skin from free radicals from sources pollution,” she says.
With regular and correct use, you’ll see noticeable results brighter skin and fading dark spots that resulted from U.V. radiation.
Next, take a look at retinol — it still holds the title as beauty’s miracle ingredient. vitamin C, retinol has some coveted benefits: It can heal cystic acne, get rid of dark spots, soften wrinkles, and lighten hyperpigmentation.
“Retinoids are vitamin A derivatives that work by binding to retinoic acid receptors, which then act as transcription factors and affect gene expression,” Dr. King explains.
They increase the turnover of skin cells, reduce the tendency of cells and keratin debris to clump together and clog up pores, increase collagen production, and decrease discoloration, Dr. King notes.
It only seems right that you should use two powerful ingredients in tandem, but that's not quite the case — not only because retinol and vitamin C increases skin irritation if used on top of one another, but also the effectiveness of the products can become compromised if layered together.
Previously, doctors thought that the acidic pH needed for vitamin C absorption contributed to the degradation of retinol, according to Dr. King. But new “studies show that combining retinol with vitamin C or another antioxidant may help stabilize it,” Dr. King says.
Still, this doesn’t mean to layer the two: Though the products don’t lose their effectiveness when paired together, it could cause issues irritation and sensitivity.
“I generally don’t recommend layering these two products, but they work very well with alternating use. Dr. Anna Guanche, M.D., F.A.A.D.
, a board-certified dermatologist at the Bella Skin Institute says to choose a vitamin C for the morning and be sure to apply SPF over it.
Dr. King also suggests alternating retinol and vitamin C between your AM and PM routines. “At bedtime, I recommend applying a retinoid. Some retinoids are degraded by sunlight, so it is best to use them at night,” she says.
Now that you know you can indeed use retinol and a vitamin C together — ahead, see serums, creams, and treatments that allow the two to play nicely together.
We only include products that have been independently selected by The Zoe Report’s editorial team. However, we may receive a portion of sales if you purchase a product through a link in this article.
Three Ingredients Experts Say You Shouldn’t Mix With Retinol
Scroll To See More Images
You’ll be hard-pressed to find skincare advice on the Internet that doesn’t namedrop retinol at least once. The vitamin A derivative is often touted as a cure-all for bumpy texture, recurring breakouts and a dull complexion.
For those who want to see less wrinkles and lines on their face (or prevent it from happening sooner than later), it’s an absolute must-have.
Rightfully so, I can personally attest to its exfoliating powers, but knowing what not to mix with retinol is arguably as important as the ingredient itself.
Before we get down to brass tacks, it’s important to know that there is no one way for all of us to take care of our skin. Sure, most experts will tell you it’s important to at least cleanse, tone and moisturize (with SPF) every day.
But even some of those steps are debated in lengthy threads and Instagram comments. Ultimately, you have to take social media advice with a grain of salt and simply find a routine that works specifically for you.
With that being said, experience and plenty of group chats have taught me that multi-step routines still reign supreme, leaving plenty of room for error if it includes retinol.
Because I don’t want any of our money to go to waste—retinol can be affordable or expensive, depending on your preference—I asked board-certified dermatologist, Dr. Hadley King, for a quick refresher on the other commonly used ingredients I should keep far from my night serum.
There are a handful of ingredients that can brighten and even out your complexion, but vitamin C is definitely the most popular.
After a months-long experiment with pineapple enzymes, I recently transitioned back to a vitamin C product—specifically the Vitabrid C12 Dual Drop Serum (obsessed BTW!)—and my skin is thanking me for it. Up until recently, Dr.
King says there had “been some concerns that the acidic pH needed for vitamin C absorption could contribute to the degradation of retinol.”
However, recent studies have shown that retinol maintained its effects when paired with vitamin C. “Plus, some studies have shown that combining retinol with vitamin C or another antioxidant may help stabilize it,” says Dr. King.
Retinol and vitamin C combo products are still relatively scarce, albeit some well-known formulas Kate Somerville’s moisturizer.
So what should you do if you don’t have a combo product, but still want two separate ones in your routine?
“I recommend using a vitamin C serum, the GoodJanes Face Latte Serum, in the morning, followed by a product with SPF, the ALASTIN HydraTint Pro Mineral Sunscreen,” says Dr. King.
“This helps protect the skin from the damaging effects of UV radiation, as well as from free radicals from other sources such as pollution.
” Save your retinoids for the night routine, especially since they are usually degraded by sunlight.
salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide is a widely-used and recommended ingredient for targeting blemishes and various types of acne.
If you regularly visit a dermatologist, you may have been prescribed medication with BZ in it or perhaps you have an OTC spot treatment or acne dot that utilizes its anti-inflammatory benefits.
Retinoids are equally beneficial for acne-prone skin, but you risk deactivating its formulation if you mix with apply with benzoyl peroxide.
“It is ok to use both of these ingredients if your skin tolerates them, but use the benzoyl peroxide in the mornings and use the retinoid at bedtime,” says Dr. King. “There are some combination products that contain both benzoyl peroxide and a retinoid and these have been specially formulated for stability (eg Epiduo).”
It’s also worth mentioning that both are potentially irritating, depending on how sensitive your skin is, so there’s a chance you won’t even be able to tolerate both. Again, everyone’s skin is different, so if something doesn’t feel right…something is probably wrong.
Alpha and Beta Hydroxy Acids
vitamin C and benzoyl peroxide, there are over-the-counter products that include both retinol and alpha or beta-hydroxy acids. However, keep in mind that these have been specially formulated for stability. If you’re working with two separate products, they will need to be used at different times.
“Alpha and beta hydroxy acids may make some topical retinoid formulations less effective because of the pH.
It is ok to use these products if your skin tolerates them, but use them in the mornings and use the retinoid at bedtime,” says Dr. King.
“If you are using a topical retinoid regularly, you may notice that your skin is sensitive and you may not be able to tolerate other potentially irritating or exfoliating products alpha and beta hydroxy acids.”
If you’re not completely satisfied with your current retinol product, here are some newer formulas to peruse.
The retinol in this luxe night treatment is microencapsulated to prevent irritation and the remaining formula contains a complex that helps further stabilize the retinol so it can be as effective as possible.
Exuviance Retinol Concentrate $80
Kate Somerville made waves when she debuted this rich moisturizer, infused with both vitamin C and retinol for brighter and smoother skin.
Kate Somerville +Retinol Vit C $90
This affordable, fragrance-free option has also been specially formulated with retinol, vitamin C and hyaluronic acid. Just be sure to layer with an SPF when applying in the morning.
L'Oreal Revitalift Moisturizer $24.99
In addition to the brand’s exclusive Retinol Tri-Active technology, this just-released moisturizer is also enriched with peptides, another powerhouse ingredient proven to firm and smooth-out skin.
Murad Retinol Youth Renewal Cream $82
The brand’s latest face patches are infused with retinol, vitamin C and peptides to diminish fine lines with continued use. Just place over any part of your face, go to sleep and remove in the AM.
Our mission at STYLECASTER is to bring style to the people, and we only feature products we think you’ll love as much as we do. Please note that if you purchase something by clicking on a link within this story, we may receive a small commission of the sale.