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 out of 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.
✘ 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, like 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-based ones—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 for Your Skin
Now that you're familiar with the different ways you can use retinol and vitamin C, here are my top product recommendations:
- The Ordinary Retinol 1% in Squalane (reviewed here) is the most affordable retinol, at the highest strength available. The brand also has a milder 0.2% and 0.5%.
- Drunk Elephant A-Passioni Retinol Cream (reviewed here) is a strong one percent retinol with other ingredients to minimize irritation. Avoid this one if you are acne-prone.
- A313 Vitamin A Pommade (reviewed here) is the most potent over-the-counter retinoid I've tried, even though it contains retinol esters, which are milder than retinol. I find it's actually comparable to a prescription product.
- Shani Darden Retinol Reform (reviewed here) was recently reformulated and now features 2.2 percent encapsulated retinol and two percent lactic acid.
- Lixirskin Night Switch Retinol 1% is a light, watery serum with the maximum one percent retinol. Don't be scared off, though—I find this one is actually quite gentle.
- Dermalogica Overnight Retinol Repair 1% can be used either on its own or with the accompanying buffer cream to prevent irritation. There's also a 0.5% version.
- Skin Regimen 1.5 Retinol Booster Wrinkle Concentrate is a new retinol on the block, made with 100 percent natural ingredients.
L-Ascorbic Acid Treatments
- SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic is the original L-ascorbic acid serum and still one of the best, featuring a 15 percent concentration along with ferulic acid and vitamin E to improve efficacy and stability.
- Paula's Choice C15 Super Booster also has 15 percent L-ascorbic acid, plus ferulic acid and vitamin E.
- Timeless 20% C + E + Ferulic Acid Serum contains the highest level of L-ascorbic acid, at 20 percent.
- Drunk Elephant C-Firma Day Serum (reviewed here) has 15 percent L-ascorbic acid with ferulic acid, vitamin E and marula oil. Because of the latter, be cautious if you are acne-prone.
- Dr. Dennis Gross Clinical Grade IPL Dark Spot Correcting Serum is a milder 10 percent L-ascorbic acid serum with ferulic acid and vitamin E. It also has lactic acid and kojic acid to further target dark spots.
- True Botanicals Vitamin C Booster, The Ordinary 100% L-Ascorbic Acid Powder (reviewed here), Good Molecules Vitamin C Booster Powder and Philosophy Turbo Booster C Powder are all L-ascorbic acid powders that you can mix with water-based serums. (Don't mix them into your retinol or anything oily!)
Vitamin C Derivatives
- Mad Hippie Vitamin C Serum is a gel-like 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 out of retinol and vitamin C in your skincare routine!
The key takeaway is that you always want to be using "like with like." 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. (It's FREE!)
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!
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