Vitamin C and retinol are two of the most potent over-the-counter anti-agers available. Vitamin C is a potent antioxidant that can help protect your skin from free radical damage and maintain healthy collagen levels. Retinol exfoliates the skin to promote cell turnover and decrease wrinkle formation, so together, they double down on anti-aging benefits.
But if they are such great anti-agers, can you use vitamin C and retinol together? Do the two cancel each other out?
The answer is that it is possible to use vitamin C and retinol together, just not at the exact same time. It’s best to apply vitamin C, then wait for about 30 minutes before applying retinol. This gives the vitamin C enough time to absorb into your skin and for your skin’s pH to return to normal before retinol is applied.
Even better, apply vitamin C in the morning and retinol at night or use these two actives on different days of the week. Let’s take a look at why these two all-star actives deserve a spot in your skincare routine in the first place.
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The Benefits of Vitamin C for Skin
Vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid or l-ascorbic acid, is one of the most powerful antioxidants in skincare, and it continues to gain popularity with skincare enthusiasts everywhere. If you’re wondering how vitamin C can benefit your skin, here’s a quick look at some of its top benefits:
Vitamin C protects the skin from sun damage with its powerful antioxidant properties. (That is why I love to use vitamin C products during the day under my sunscreen).
UV damage is one of the main causes of visible signs of aging like fine lines and wrinkles, so using an antioxidant like vitamin C can help prevent this type of damage. It also protects against other environmental aggressors like pollution.
This study demonstrated that ferulic acid doubles the photoprotective abilities of vitamin C and vitamin E, so that’s why you’ll often see these three actives in the same formula.
Boosts Collagen Production
Ascorbic acid can boost collagen production, keeping skin firm, tight and toned, while helping to reduce wrinkles and fine lines. Collagen helps our skin look firm and plump, something that’s especially important as we age.
Fades Age Spots and Hyperpigmentation
Vitamin C helps fade hyperpigmentation, dark spots, and uneven skin tone. It interferes with the enzyme tyrosinase, which produces melanin, the pigment in our skin. Vitamin C can also help fade acne scars or what’s also known as post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. They are those pesky dark spots that are leftover from old acne breakouts.
The Drawbacks of Vitamin C
Along with these benefits of Vitamin C, there are some drawbacks. Vitamin C can be sensitizing and cause irritation and redness when used at higher concentrations. Those with sensitive skin may want to stick to concentrations under 10% or use a vitamin C derivative.
Another drawback of vitamin C is that it is notoriously unstable. Vitamin C oxidizes when exposed to air, light, and heat, which reduces its effectiveness. When using a vitamin C product that contains ascorbic acid, it’s most effective when used within three months of opening.
Luckily, many vitamin C derivatives are formulated to be stable and non-irritating. Even better, many have a pH that is compatible with retinol, so you can use them at the same time as retinol in your skincare routine.
The Benefits of Retinol for Skin
Retinol is arguably the most powerful over-the-counter anti-ager available. Retinol encourages cell turnover to remove dead skin cells and encourage new, healthy growth.
Retinol is a type of retinoid and form of Vitamin A. It is commonly used in anti-aging skincare products to improve the signs of photodamage, including fine lines, hyperpigmentation, blackheads, and dull skin tone.
Retinol is converted to retinoic acid when applied to the skin. It takes two conversions to transform retinol to its active form of retinoic acid. Retinoic acid is available in prescription form as tretinoin.
While not as potent as prescription retinoids like tretinoin, retinol effectively addresses the signs of aging with less irritation, dryness, and peeling. The benefits of retinol include:
Boosts Collagen Production
Retinol increases epidermal thickness and stimulates collagen production, helping to smooth fine lines and wrinkles. It improves skin smoothness, firmness, and elasticity.
Per the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), retinoids are an effective treatment for acne. Retinol inhibits the formation of comedones, is anti-inflammatory, and normalizes keratinization, which keeps your pores from getting clogged. Clogged pores can eventually lead to breakouts and acne.
Fade Hyerpigmentation, Age Spots and Sun Spots
Retinol increases cell turnover, which means it brightens dull skin and helps fade hyperpigmentation, uneven skin tone, age spots, sun spots, and other discoloration. It also helps to improve skin texture as newer, fresher cells are revealed.
The Drawbacks of Retinol
Depending on your skin type, retinol can cause irritation, peeling, redness, and dry, flaky skin. When first starting out with retinol, it is important to slowly incorporate it into your skincare routine. Start using it once a week for a week, then twice a week for two weeks, then increasing usage to three times a week for three weeks. Then increase usage to every other day or daily as your skin can tolerate it.
It is important to note that retinol and retinoids can make your skin sensitive to and degrade in sunlight, so they are best used in your evening skincare regimen. You should apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher when using retinol and retinoids and for a week after.
Can You Use Vitamin C and Retinol Together?
When discussing mixing actives, the topic of pH often comes into play. PH measures how alkaline or acidic a solution is. A pH below 7.0 is considered acidic for facial products, while a pH above 7.0 is considered alkaline. (Water is neutral at pH of 7.0.)
The ideal pH for a vitamin C serum is between 3.0 and 3.5, while the optimal pH of retinol falls between 5.5 and 6.0. Traditionally, the assumption was that applying a vitamin C product and following with retinol would degrade the actives, making them less effective.
Since retinol performs optimally at a pH of 5.5-6.0, and vitamin C should be formulated at a pH under 3.5 for the best absorption, using vitamin C and retinol together would logically reduce the effectiveness of both. But there are conflicting opinions on this.
This clinical study suggests that using vitamin C with retinol is effective at treating photoaging. Regardless of pH concerns, if you have sensitive skin, using vitamin C and retinol together at the same time may be too irritating for your skin.
How to Use Vitamin C and Retinol Together
✅ For best results, consider applying vitamin C in the morning when its antioxidant properties will protect the skin from ultraviolet rays and damage from radicals, and use retinol at night.
✅ You can also alternate days and use vitamin C one day and retinol the next day.
✅ If you really want to use them in the same skincare routine, apply vitamin C and let it absorb for about 30 minutes, and then apply retinol after your skin’s pH has had a chance to normalize.
Vitamin C Derivatives
✅ One other option is to use a vitamin C derivative with retinol (or another retinoid). Vitamin C derivatives are usually formulated at a higher pH than pure vitamin C, making them more tolerable when used with retinol. However, they still provide many of the same benefits of vitamin C.
Vitamin C derivatives like tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate (found in Acure Brightening Vitamin C & Ferulic Acid Oil Free Serum below) are less acidic than pure Vitamin C. They can be applied directly to the skin without causing irritation or stinging. You can use it at the same time as retinol without interacting adversely with it.
TIP: Don’t forget about your neck and chest when applying your vitamin C and retinol products. Just like the rest of your face, these areas also show signs of aging and need some extra love through skincare. Just be aware that your neck and chest may be more sensitive than your face, so be sure to patch test before trying new products for the first time.
Vitamin C Products to Try
Paula’s Choice C15 Super Booster Serum is a water-based serum that provides a 15% dose of pure vitamin C to smooth the look of fine lines and brighten and tighten uneven skin.
Its also loaded with antioxidants like ferulic acid and vitamin E to double the photoprotective benefits of vitamin C. Panthenol and bisabolol soothe the skin, while sodium hyaluronate (the salt form of hyaluronic acid) plumps and hydrates the skin.
One of the best things about this serum is its extremely lightweight consistency. It almost feels like water going on your skin. It absorbs quickly and does not interfere with other skincare products, makeup or foundation. This thin consistency makes it easy to mix in with other compatible serums or moisturizers.
CeraVe Skin Renewing CeraVe Vitamin C Serum contains 10% pure vitamin C (l-ascorbic acid) to brighten the skin, even out skin tone, and provide antioxidant protection. The vitamin C serum is enriched with CeraVe’s proprietary three essential ceramides, which help the skin retain water and support a healthy skin barrier.
Sodium hyaluronate (hyaluronic acid) hydrates the skin, while panthenol (pro-vitamin B5) soothes and moisturizes the skin. The serum uses CeraVe’s proprietary MVE technology that continually releases moisturizing ingredients for extended hydration. It’s allergy-tested, fragrance-free, paraben-free, and non-comedogenic, so it won’t clog pores.
Acure Brightening Vitamin C & Ferulic Acid Oil Free Serum is a 100% vegan serum that contains vitamin C, ferulic acid, pineapple extract, and matcha tea to brighten dull complexions. The serum contains vitamin C derivative tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate, which is oil-soluble, stable, and converts to ascorbic acid in the skin. While it may not be as potent as pure vitamin C, it does not come with the typical irritation of pure vitamin C either.
Ferulic acid offers antioxidant benefits while doubling the photoprotective abilities of pure vitamin C. Pineapple fruit extract gently exfoliates and brightens the skin, while green tea extract (Camellia sinensis leaf extract) provides antioxidant benefits.
Related Post: Innisfree Green Tea Seed Serum Review
Klairs Freshly Juiced Vitamin Drop Serum is a Korean vitamin C serum that contains 5% pure ascorbic acid to improve a dull skin tone, enlarged pores and treat dead skin cells. This low concentration of pure vitamin C will appeal to those with sensitive skin while still providing all of the benefits of pure vitamin C.
The serum contains actives to soothe the skin, like antioxidants Centella asiatica extract and Skullcap root extract. This award-winning vitamin C serum is lightweight, non-greasy, and easy to incorporate into your morning skincare routine. Please note that this serum contains essential oils.
Retinol Products to Try
Olay Regenerist Retinol 24 Max Night Hydrating Moisturizer is a silky and lightweight retinol moisturizer that works to improve fine lines and wrinkles, firmness, clarity, and skin texture. It contains Olay’s Retinoid Complex that contains two retinoids: retinol and retinyl propionate. Retinyl propionate is a retinol ester that is less irritating than pure retinol and slightly less effective.
The moisturizer also contains niacinamide (vitamin B-3) to brighten the skin, support a healthy skin barrier and smooth the look of wrinkles and fine lines. Niacinamide is a favorite of those with oily and acne-prone skin, as it helps to balance sebum (oil) production in the skin. This retinol night cream also contains palmitoyl pentapeptide-4, a peptide that helps smooth wrinkles and fine lines.
Related Post: Retinol vs Peptides
The Ordinary Retinol 1% in Squalane is The Ordinary’s strongest retinol serum. It contains 1% pure retinol. The serum targets fine lines, photodamage, and the visible signs of aging. It comes in a lightweight squalane base that sinks into the skin quickly without any greasiness.
The serum also contains Solanum lycopersicum (tomato) fruit extract, an antioxidant that helps balance sebum production, and Rosmarinus officinalis (rosemary) leaf extract, an antioxidant that has anti-inflammatory benefits. This is a great choice for a potent retinol serum at an affordable price.
Paula’s Choice 1% Retinol Treatment is a 1% over-the-counter retinol treatment that contains a controlled-release delivery system that provides consistent absorption of actives. This high retinol concentration reduces the look of wrinkles, fine lines, and uneven skin tone and improves skin firmness.
This retinol treatment also contains licorice extract, oat extract, and other plant-based extracts that soothe the skin to calm irritation and redness. Multiple peptides help firm the skin while hyaluronic acid in the form of sodium hyaluronate hydrates and binds water to the skin.
The treatment comes in a lightweight lotion formula that you should only use a few times a week to start. You can gradually increase usage to every other night and then every night, but only when your skin can tolerate it. You can also mix a pump of this treatment with serums or moisturizers to dilute its strength.
Let’s not forget about the area of our face that may be the first to show the signs of aging: our eye area. Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Retinol Eye Cream contains Neutrogena’s proprietary blend of Retinol SA, Glucose Complex, and hyaluronic acid in the form of sodium hyaluronate.
This retinol eye cream targets fine lines, wrinkles, dark under-eye circles, age spots, and stubborn crow’s feet. If you look at the ingredient list, this eye cream also contains ascorbic acid (vitamin C), but it appears that both retinol and vitamin C are present in low concentrations* to minimize irritation to the delicate skin around the eyes.
* Ingredients are listed in order of concentration. Ascorbic acid is ingredient 26 of 29 total ingredients, and retinol is ingredient 28 of 29.
Final Thoughts Using Vitamin C and Retinol Together
The bottom line is that you can use vitamin C and retinol together if you don’t have sensitive skin and as long as you wait for about 30 minutes in between the application of the two.
Can you use vitamin C in the morning and retinol at night? Absolutely! Using vitamin C in your morning skincare routine will help protect you from damaging UV rays, and retinol will work its magic overnight (and away from the sun).
Whether you use vitamin C, retinol, or both, be sure to apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen every morning to protect your skin from harmful UV rays.
Thanks for reading, and until next time, here’s to your good skin health!