When you start to wander into the world of skincare in effort to better your skin health, you’re sure to come across retinol and vitamin C very early in your research. Retinol and vitamin C are two of the most highly-acclaimed ingredients in skincare history. These ingredients are widely recognized by skincare gurus and dermatologists for their restorative benefits and undeniable effectiveness.
While some skincare ingredients are better used in combination with others, some are powerful enough to benefit the skin with or without combination. Retinol and vitamin C reside in both of these categories.
Retinol as a sole treatment is extremely effective for stimulating collagen production, treating acne, tightening the skin, softening skin texture and leveling skin pigment.
Vitamin C can single-handedly brighten the skin, shield the skin from pollutants and sun damage, treat hyperpigmentation, and reduce skin inflammation and redness.
Used separately, these two ingredients can target these specific skin conditions. But when used together, retinol and vitamin C create the ultimate skin-beautifying duo for any skin type.
Before we divulge the benefits of using this powerful skincare combination in unison, it helps to understand why and how these two ingredients work so well individually.
How does Retinol work?
Retinol, a form of vitamin A, aids the body in cellular turnover. Cellular turnover is the biological process by which our bodies are prompted to shed skin cells and regenerate new skin cells. We love this process, because it’s responsible for ridding our old, dead, dull skin cells and replacing them with new, strong, radiant cells.
Our surface skin cells have been through a lot. Every day, they face pollution, dirt, debris, and grime. These unavoidable factors leave our skin cells dry, flaky, discolored, and anything but desirable. (Studies have shown that air pollutants are actually linked to a number of skin conditions, like eczema, skin aging, dermatitis, acne, and psoriasis.)
By shedding these damaged skin cells and telling our bodies to produce new skin cells, unscathed by environmental factors, the cellular turnover process (thanks to retinol) can heal and reinvigorate our skin. The key to youthful, healthy, unaged skin is in this cellular turnover process that—again, thanks to retinol—we can expedite.
How does Vitamin C work?
Vitamin C, also known as l-ascorbic acid on a chemical level, is an antioxidant. This means its function is to neutralize free radicals, which are unstable molecules that damage not only our skin cells, but all of our cells. (Free radicals are known cause cancer, diabetes, eye diseases, and various other life-threatening conditions.)
Free radicals are unstable by nature, because they’re missing an electron—and all electrons need to be paired for them to function properly. This unpaired electron causes the unstable molecule to attack a stable molecule and steal an electron, rendering the stable molecule unstable. Thus, this electron-stealing behavior creates a chain reaction of unstable molecules taking the stable molecules down with them.
It’s important for us to neutralize these free radicals as quickly as possible, before they cause a mass chain reaction of damaging cells. That’s where antioxidants (and more specifically, vitamin C) come into the picture. Vitamin C counteracts free radicals by providing them with their missing electron, which successfully neutralizes these damaging molecules.
Vitamin C is the primary brightening ingredient in skincare. This means it has the ability to lighten hyperpigmentation, brighten skin dullness, reduce dark spots, and fill fine lines and wrinkles—all of which contribute to a youthful and full appearance.
How do Retinol and Vitamin C work together?
A lot of uncertainty has existed around the use of retinol and vitamin C together. This misconceived uncertainty lies in the contrasting pH levels of retinol and vitamin C.
For your skin to absorb vitamin C, there has to be a certain pH level present. While vitamin C requires a low pH (0 to about 3.5) for skin absorption, retinol requires a higher pH level (around 5.5 to 6). When you mix vitamin C and retinol, the pH of vitamin C increases and the pH of retinol decreases—hence why it’s believed that the two ingredients render each other ineffective.
Contrary to that outdated belief, retinol and vitamin C work fabulously together—especially when you apply them in the right succession. Studies have shown the retinol-vitamin C combination to be highly effective in reversing both natural aging and photoaging.
Vitamin C is known to stabilize retinol, which can increase its effectiveness. When applied correctly, these ingredients form a barrier that protects the skin from the harmful environmental factors that cause skin damage and rapid aging. When used properly, retinol and vitamin C make the perfect skincare pair.
The Benefits of Retinol and Vitamin C
Retinol and vitamin C were basically made to anti-age. Retinol stimulates collagen production—and collagen is the protein responsible for giving our skin its firmness and suppleness. Vitamin C essentially provides the glue that holds cells together when collagen is produced. As a combination, retinol and vitamin C support collagen production to give us youthful skin with minimal fine lines, wrinkles, dark spots, and blemishes.
Consistent and proper use of retinol and vitamin C can benefit your skin by:
- Brightening skin
- Evening skin tone
- Firming and tightening skin
- Treating acne and acne scars
- Lightening hyperpigmentation
- Providing anti-inflammatory effects
- Providing anti-aging effects by reducing the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines
Tips for Using Retinol and Vitamin C
As with any skincare product or ingredient, start off slowly. Integrate new ingredients slowly, and observe how your skin reacts to each skincare addition—especially with powerful ingredients like vitamin A (retinol) and vitamin C.
Retinol and vitamin C are highly effective treatments, but they can be rather intense. Depending on your skin type and tolerance, you may be able to use these ingredients 3 times a week—or your skin may tolerate it every day of the week. It just depends.
Regardless, when you first start using retinol and vitamin C serums, it’s highly recommended that you start off slowly. Allow your skin to adjust to these metamorphic ingredients before going all-in. If you integrate them into your skincare routine too quickly, your skin may react with dryness, flakiness, redness, or inflammation.
Begin with a once-a-week routine for both ingredients, and observe how your skin reacts. If your skin takes well to these ingredients and you don’t notice an adverse reaction, try using them two or three nights a week. Continue monitoring your skin’s reaction to determine the best frequency for you.
While the specific ingredients in your skincare routine are likely to vary as your skincare concerns vary, sunscreen should always be present in your routine. Not only does sun exposure account for 90% of skin aging, but also about 90% of nonmelanoma skin cancers are associated with exposure to UV radiation from the sun.
Vitamin A thins our skin’s barrier and increases its sensitivity to the sun’s UV rays. Retinol and retinoids are intense products, and they’re known to result in dry, flaky, red, or irritated skin. This vitamin-A derivative amplifies the sun’s effects on the skin, so it’s important to wear sunscreen when using retinol.
Although vitamin C’s antioxidative properties enable this ingredient to build a skin barrier that protects the skin from UV rays, you should still add a layer of sunscreen for increased protection from sun damage. The American Academy of Dermatology advises that you apply sunscreen every day, no matter how cloudy or rainy.
The active ingredient in retinol (the component that makes retinol so powerful) is retinoic acid, and the active ingredient in vitamin C is l-ascorbic acid. Active ingredients are excellent for your skin, but they can also leave your skin irritated or inflamed if you overload your routine with them.
(An ingredient is considered active when it’s biologically active—which means it alters the structure of cells and reprograms them to behave a certain way. Active ingredients penetrate the skin, healing it on a cellular level.)
Many people combine BHAs and AHAs with retinol and vitamin C to reap maximum benefits from their skincare routine. AHAs (the class of acids that includes lactic acid and glycolic acid) and BHAs (the class of acids that includes salicylic acid) are derived from natural substances, and act as natural skin exfoliants.
Each of these powerful ingredients (retinol, vitamin C, BHAs and AHAs) increases the skin’s sensitivity. Using all of them together can bombard your skin and irritate it. To protect your delicate skin, it’s best to avoid using all of these ingredients at once. Try applying a BHA or AHA to your skin in the morning, and apply a natural retinol serum at night to avoid skin sensitivity from sun exposure. Or, try a staggered approach; use a BHA one night and retinol the next. The same goes with vitamin C; try alternating vitamin C with BHAs and AHAs to avoid skin irritation.
The skin craves moisture. It needs moisture and regular hydration for it to function properly. You can’t expect to experience healthy, firm skin without allowing your skin the proper hydration.
Retinol can have a considerable drying effect on the skin, especially when you first integrate it into your skincare routine. As your skin tries to adjust to this powerful ingredient, it’s known to react in dry, flaky skin cells. Also, as retinol purges your skin of old skin cells to make way for new skin cells, these old skin cells start to flake away at the surface. People with all skin types (dry skin, oily skin, sensitive skin, combination skin) can experience this dehydrated side effect.
Although vitamin C is a proven, natural moisturizer that reduces water loss from our skin, it’s still beneficial to add some additional moisture to your routine. No matter which technique you use to apply a retinol-vitamin C combination, be sure to include an additional, moisturizing layer in the mix.
Hyaluronic acid is a highly effective moisturizer that works wonders with vitamin C and retinol. In the morning, after applying your vitamin C serum, follow this brightening ingredient with a layer of hydrating hyaluronic acid.
In your nightly routine, apply hyaluronic acid before applying retinol. Hyaluronic acid can increase the effectiveness of retinol; it also helps to lock moisture in your skin for maximum hydration. After applying retinol, apply a moisturizing cream as an agent that seals in the underlying ingredients and prevents them from evaporating.
Ways to combine Retinol and Vitamin C
Similar to the process of combining BHAs and AHAs with these ingredients, retinol and vitamin C can provide a rather intense experience for the skin when used together. To avoid skin irritation and increased skin sensitivity, separate your vitamin C routine from your retinol routine, or allow your skin to absorb vitamin C before applying retinol.
It’s optimal to apply vitamin C in the morning, because this ingredient can visibly brighten your skin—and who doesn’t want to start the day off with visibly brighter skin? Vitamin C also creates a protective skin barrier, which defends the skin from the the sun’s intense UV rays and the unpleasant photoaging effects they cause.
Apply a vitamin C booster serum in the morning, followed by a sunscreen (with an SPF of at least 30) to preserve your skin’s youth and improve the appearance of dark spots. Dermatologists advise that you use retinol at night, not in the morning. Retinol increases the skin’s sensitivity, making it more susceptible to damage or irritation from heat and the sun’s UV rays. (If you choose to apply retinol or a retinoid in the morning, apply a generous amount of sunscreen before you bask in the sun.)
At night, apply a natural retinol serum that works to tighten the skin and mitigate wrinkles, fine lines, and other imperfections while you sleep. Using vitamin C in the morning and retinol at night provides your skin with the ultimate brightening and firming treatment throughout the day and night.
To reap the benefits of retinol and vitamin C without irritating or inflaming your skin, try using retinol one night and vitamin C the next. If you prefer to use a vitamin C serum at night, this routine allows your skin enough time to stabilize its pH levels between use of each ingredient. Over time, you’ll start to notice radiant, firm skin from this nightly routine.
With this technique, you’ll wait 30 minutes after applying vitamin C to apply retinol. It’s best to apply vitamin C before retinol, as vitamin C has a lower pH than retinol.
Once your skin absorbs the vitamin C serum, your skin will return to its regular pH levels after 30 minutes or so. (You want your skin to return to its normal pH levels so vitamin C doesn’t lower the pH of retinol.) Once your skin’s pH levels stabilize, you can apply a retinol serum that works at its natural pH levels. This skincare technique allows you to experience the transformational benefits of both retinol and vitamin C without overloading your skin with acidity.
When it comes to your skincare routine, it can take some extra consideration to combine vitamin C and retinol. Regardless, these ingredients are incredibly valuable, so it’s worth taking the time to educate yourself on the best retinol-vitamin C practices.
As with any new skincare product or ingredient you integrate into your routine, you must be patient to see results. Many people throw the towel in too early when trying out a new product. Allow your skin time to adjust to any new ingredients before you oust them from your routine. It can take anywhere from a week to several months for results to show. Dermatologists estimate that it can take up to 3 months for your skin to experience the full benefits of ingredients that alter cell behavior, like retinol and vitamin C.
Use skincare ingredients consistently, but don’t overdo them. Space out your ingredients to avoid skin irritation and sensitivity. Your skin is unique, so listen to it and observe how it reacts to each ingredient to determine the best products for you.