With a new skin care launch (seemingly) popping up almost daily, it can be tempting to simply purchase everything and lather it on your face with little thought about whether the products you've chosen will actually work well together. The reality is, no matter how great a product is when used by itself, that doesn't necessarily mean it will play well with others. In fact, it could be detrimental when incorporated into the wrong beauty routine. That's often the case with vitamin C and retinol, two ingredients that essentially tackle the same thing — dark spots and wrinkles, but don't always do so when used together. You might be wondering if you can use retinol and vitamin C together, and the answer can't be summed up with a simple yes or no. That said, according to derms, just learning the basics of the ingredients will help you better understand how to use them together.
Things get even more complicated when you consider the varying forms each of these ingredients come in. Both vitamin C and retinol can be found in several different formulations — serums, moisturizers, oils, sunscreen, cleansers, makeup, and so on — which can make using the both of them even more confusing, especially because your personal skin needs will help determine which formula is best for you. While it might make intuitive sense to not use a retinol serum and vitamin C serum on your skin at the same time, things get murky when you have a different combination of skin care products, such as a vitamin C serum and a retinol moisturizer. For all you need to know about the two ingredients and how they affect each other in your skin care routine, read on.
Benefits Of Vitamin C
To start, vitamin C helps reduce complexion concerns like 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, 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 like pollution,” King says.
With regular and correct use, you’ll see noticeable results like brighter skin and fading dark spots. “Vitamin C is a great skin care ingredient because it's safe to use on any skin type and has a ton of incredible anti-aging, hydrating, and brightening benefits,” Dr. Shuting Hu, a cosmetic scientist, formulator, and founder of skin care brand Acaderma, previously told TZR. “Vitamin C contains magnesium ascorbyl phosphate, which helps your skin retain moisture and stay hydrated. [And] because vitamin C decreases transepidermal water loss while also promoting the production of collagen, the vitamin can help smooth fine lines and wrinkles.”
Serums are the most common way to introduce vitamin C into your skin care routine, and they’re often the most potent, too, as Dr. Ashley Magovern, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in Manhattan Beach, CA, previously told TZR. “They’re also easy to use,” she said. “They can be applied in the morning under your makeup and sunscreen to help boost your sun protection, or at night under a moisturizer to help fight the free radical damage from the day.”
However, vitamin C face oils and makeup are also great ways to incorporate the antioxidant into your routine. What is most important when selecting a vitamin C product is to find one that is well formulated (the sweet spot for concentration in terms of efficacy is between 10% and 20%) and stable, meaning it can maintain efficacy and skin penetration when exposed to air, heat, and light. “Vitamin C comes in different forms: L-ascorbic acid, tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate, ascorbyl palmitate, and sodium ascorbyl phosphate, among others,” Magovern said. “If you’re using a stable form of vitamin C in a well-balanced product, it is generally effective.”
L-ascorbic acid, for example, is the most potent form of the antioxidant, but it also incredibly unstable. So, if your pure vitamin C product begins turning brown or orange over time when exposed to light, it’s oxidizing and losing efficacy. Choosing a product that has airtight packaging can help keep your vitamin C shelf stable for longer so that you can reap the ingredient’s benefits for your skin.
Benefits Of Retinol
Next, there's retinol — it still holds the title as beauty’s miracle ingredient. Like 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,” King says.
Dermatologists agree that basically everyone, even those with sensitive skin, can benefit from a dose of retinol. “Retinol is thought by dermatologists to be the most effective cosmeceutical rejuvenating ingredient,” Dr. Craig Kraffert, a board-certified dermatologist, previously told TZR. “The benefits are scientifically proven via rigorous studies and include improving conditions associated with chronological aging, such as wrinkles and fine lines. It alters the behavior of aged epidermal and dermal cells so they act in a more youthful manner, while preserving and enhancing skin’s supportive blood vessel network.” In layman's terms, 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, as King adds.
When it comes to using retinol, there are two main factors to consider in formulation: percentage of concentration and encapsulated versus traditional retinol. Percentages of retinol typically range from .025% to 1% depending on whether or not it’s a prescription formula. A lower percentage means it’s gentler, and it’s typically recommended that you begin with smaller doses as you introduce it into your routine. If you are unsure what amount would work for your skin needs, consult a dermatologist.
Recent innovations of the ingredient have resulted in many companies turning to encapsulated retinol formulations. “When retinol is encapsulated, it means that the active ingredient has been enclosed in a protective ‘shell,’ which allows it to better absorb into the skin, penetrating the deeper layers of skin before going to work,” Dr. Geeta Yadav, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Skin Science Dermatology, previously explained to TZR. “Because of this, many refer to it as ‘time-release’ technology; the retinol takes more time to start working rather than immediately releasing its benefits on the surface of the skin upon application.”
That being said, although micro-encapsulated retinols work in the deeper layers of the skin, Yadav believes you also need to treat the surface layers as well. “Your skin needs to be treated both at the surface layer and within the deeper layers to receive comprehensive treatment, whether you’re using retinol to improve the signs of acne, aging, or just your general skin health,” she said. “There are formulas on the market that combine both encapsulated and traditional retinol, which allow for both surface-level and deeper treatment. However, for those who are first-time retinol users or are prone to irritation, it’s not a bad idea to ease into retinol use with an encapsulated formula.”
Like vitamin C, retinol also has to be stabilized to provide any real benefit. “Retinol is extremely unstable and has a tendency to destabilize in presence of oxygen, light, and even at certain pH formulas,” Krupa Koestline, clean cosmetic chemist and founder of KKT Consultants, previously told TZR. “Losing stability can reduce efficacy and also cause more irritation.” For this reason, it’s important to choose retinol products that have proper packaging. “Like other ingredients that are unstable (such as vitamin C), retinol should be kept in a cool, dark place and packaged in opaque, airless packaging,” Yadav said.
Can You Use Retinol & Vitamin C Together?
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 increase 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 King. But new "studies show that combining retinol with vitamin C or another antioxidant may help stabilize it,” 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 like irritation and sensitivity. “I generally don’t recommend layering these two products, but they work very well with alternating use,” says Dr. Anna Guanche, M.D., FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist at the Bella Skin Institute. Gaunche says to choose a vitamin C for the morning and be sure to apply SPF over it.
King also suggests alternating retinol and vitamin C between your a.m. and p.m. 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 TZR’s editorial team. However, we may receive a portion of sales if you purchase a product through a link in this article.
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