Can You Use Retinol and Vitamin C Together in Your Skincare Routine?

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If you’re always on the lookout for the perfect skincare routine to keep your skin glowing and healthy, you must be familiar with the two powerhouses in the skincare world: retinol and vitamin C.

Both come in different forms and provide amazing benefits for your skin. They boost collagen production, fight wrinkles, and brighten your complexion.

Two bottles of cosmetic serum sitting on top of a rock

But one question comes to mind: can you use retinol and vitamin C together?

Let’s take a look at the benefits of these two ingredients and see if you can use retinol and vitamin C together into your skincare routine for the best results.

What Is Retinol?

Retinol is a type of retinoid, which is also a derivative of vitamin A. It’s a well-known ingredient that works by stimulating the skin’s natural process of shedding dead skin cells, replacing them with new ones.

This process is called cell turnover. The result is fresh, new skin, improving your skin’s texture and reducing the appearance of imperfections.

You can find retinol in different concentrations, which are listed in percentages:

Low strength0.01% to 0.03%
Moderate strength0.03% to 0.3%
High strength0.3% to 1%

Benefits of Retinol

Smooths fine lines and wrinkles

Retinol is widely known for its anti-aging properties. It encourages cell turnover, which helps the skin shed old, unhealthy skin cells.

It can help smooth out uneven skin texture so you’ll get fresher, softer, healthier skin, with reduced imperfections!

Treats acne

Retinol does not only help fight the signs of aging, but it also helps clear up acne. It keeps your skin from producing too much sebum, which can clog pores and cause breakouts.

Those who have oily skin will also benefit from retinol since it helps restore the skin’s natural oil balance.

Reduces swelling

Topical retinoids like retinol can also help reduce inflammation by blocking several inflammatory pathways that make pimples and acne worse.

Boosts collagen production

Collagen is a protein that makes your skin strong, elastic, and firm. But as we age, collagen production decreases, causing the skin to become dry and thin.

Retinol helps reduce collagen breakdown, preventing the skin from sagging, reduces wrinkles, and helps improve skin elasticity.

Lightens hyperpigmentation

Melanin is the pigment that gives your skin, hair, and eyes their color. And excessive production of this chemical may lead to hyperpigmentation, age spots, and dark spots.

Retinol helps lighten dark spots by exfoliating dead skin cells and suppressing melanin formation on the skin.

Who Should Use Retinol?

While retinol provides several benefits for the skin, it’s not for everyone. Its concentration varies depending on your specific condition.

Retinol is beneficial for people with the following skin conditions:

  • Oily or acne-prone skin
  • Mature skin
  • Normal to dry skin type
  • Hyperpigmentation

How to Apply Retinol to Your Skin

A woman is holding a bottle of serum on her hands

If it’s your first time using retinol, there are three things to remember: (1) start with the lowest concentration, (2) use it only at night, (3) and introduce it slowly to your skin.

Here’s a step-by-step guide:

  1. Cleanse your face using a gentle cleanser.
  2. Use only a pea-sized amount, and apply it thinly on your face every other night for at least two weeks or until your skin builds tolerance.
  3. Massage the product gently into your skin and wait for it to fully absorb. 
  4. Once your skin can tolerate retinol, you can use it every night, or even increase the concentration.
  5. Observe your skin for results.

Tips for Using Retinol

  • Always check how your skin reacts. If you don’t see any reaction for two weeks of using it on alternate nights, try using it for two nights in a row and skipping it on the third night for the next one to two weeks.
  • After about a month of using it without problems, you can use it every day if you want to.
  • If you have sensitive skin, apply a moisturizer before applying retinol.
  • If the product causes flaking, allergies, or irritation, try topping the retinol with a hydrating moisturizer or an occlusive ointment like Vaseline to make a protective barrier.

What Is Vitamin C?

Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that helps protect the skin from free radicals, which are unstable substances that damage cells, causing unhealthy skin and aging.

It’s also known for brightening the skin, repairing skin damage, evening out skin tone, and boosting collagen production. In short, it’s a real all-rounder!

Benefits of Vitamin C

Provides antioxidant protection

Vitamin C neutralizes harmful free radicals caused by sun exposure, pollution, and other environmental factors. This protects the skin from premature aging and improves the skin’s overall appearance. 

Brightens complexion

One of vitamin C’s most popular uses is to brighten the complexion. It also reduces the appearance of dark spots and hyperpigmentation by inhibiting the production of melanin.

Boosts collagen production

Vitamin C is an ingredient used for collagen production. Including vitamin C in your skincare routine ensures your body always has access to what it needs to keep skin looking young and firm.

This will also help minimize the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles and enhance the skin’s overall texture.

Reduces inflammation

Another benefit of vitamin C is reducing inflammation and redness. It helps soothe and calm irritated skin, making it useful for those with sensitive or acne-prone skin types.

Enhances sun protection

When used with a broad-spectrum sunscreen, vitamin C can provide additional protection against harmful UV rays.

Combining it with other topical ingredients like vitamin E and ferulic acid can also help reduce skin redness and protect the skin from long-term sun damage.

Who Should Use Vitamin C?

Vitamin C is safe for most skin types. Unlike retinol, it doesn’t cause much irritation. It may help those with the following skin issues:

  • Redness and uneven skin tone
  • Hyperpigmentation
  • Dull and mature skin
  • Sunburn and photoaging

Vitamin C in its most effective form, L-ascorbic acid, is unstable. It’s prone to oxidation and is sensitive to light and pH. So it’s best to choose a vitamin C product in an opaque, airtight container to ensure its quality.

You can find vitamin C in the ingredients list in its stable forms, such as

  • ascorbyl palmitate,
  • sodium ascorbyl phosphate,
  • ascorbyl palmitate, and
  • tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate.

How to Apply Vitamin C to Your Skin

A woman with a towel on her head is putting serum on her face in front of a mirror.

Vitamin C often comes in serums, and here’s how to apply it properly:

  1. Start by cleansing your skin with a gentle facial cleanser.
  2. Dispense a small amount of the serum (two to three drops) onto your fingertips or the palm of your hand.
  3. Dab the product on your face, avoiding the delicate eye area.
  4. Using your fingertips, gently massage the product into your skin using small, circular motions.
  5. Give the vitamin C at least five to 10 minutes to make sure your skin absorbs the product.
  6. Finish by using a broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher during the day.

Tips for Using Vitamin C

  • Choose serums or creams with a 10% to 20% vitamin C content — the ideal range studied in clinical trials.
  • If you have normal skin, look for vitamin C products with a pH of 3.5. But for those with sensitive skin, choose a product with a pH of 5 to 6 to avoid irritation.
  • Choose serums as they keep the vitamin C and its other ingredients stable and penetrate the skin better.
  • Store it safely, in a cool, dark place to maintain its potency.

Differences Between Retinol and Vitamin C

RetinolVitamin C
Oil-soluble retinol that unclogs pores, smooths out wrinkles and fine lines, and inhibits collagen breakdownWater-soluble antioxidant that brightens complexion, improves dark spots, and boosts collagen production
Best for treating acne and improving skin texture and aging skinBest for treating dark spots and dull skin
Increases cell turnover, revealing fresh and smooth skinProtects the skin from free radicals that cause damage and premature aging
Available in serums, creams, moisturizers, gels, and solutionsAvailable in serums, moisturizers, sunscreens, and makeup

Can You Use Retinol and Vitamin C Together?

Yes. Vitamin C and retinol can be used together. But is it vitamin C or retinol first? Can you combine vitamin C and retinol? Nothing comes first, and no, you can’t use them at the same time.

Why? Because while these two skincare ingredients complement each other, they can cause skin irritation and dryness if used on top of each other.

Side Effects of Mixing Vitamin C and Retinol

Skin irritation

Retinol is notorious for causing skin irritation, especially for first-time users. Vitamin C is an acidic ingredient, which sometimes exacerbates this irritation. That’s why we introduce both ingredients to the skin slowly. 

Change in pH levels

Mixing vitamin C and retinol will also compromise their effectiveness. Retinol and vitamin C have different optimal pH levels. Retinol works best at a higher pH (around 5 to 6), while vitamin C is most effective at a lower pH (around 3.5).

So if you mix these two ingredients together, they may cancel each other out.

Things to Know Before Using Retinol and Vitamin C

Before we answer the question: can you use retinol and vitamin C together? Here are some things to know before adding them in your skincare routine.

Patch Test

Perform a patch test for both products to check for irritation or allergic reactions.

To do this, apply a small amount to a sensitive area, such as the inside of your wrist or behind your ear, and wait 24 hours to observe any adverse reactions.

If you see a red patch in the area, you might be sensitive to the product. Consider other alternatives.

Introduce the Products Gradually

Always start with a low concentration of both retinol and vitamin C. Once your skin gets used to them, gradually increase the concentration and frequency as your skin adapts to the products.

Layer the Products Properly

Layering is the method of adding different products to your skin — but in the right order.

When applying skincare products, you should start using those with the lowest to the highest pH.

For instance, moisturizers have an average pH of 5 to 7, and you want to add vitamin C to your routine. You should apply vitamin C first because of its acidic nature and low pH of 3.5.

Use Sunscreen

Retinol and vitamin C can increase your sensitivity to the sun, making your skin more vulnerable to the sun’s UV rays. Always use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 during the day.

How to Use Retinol and Vitamin C Together

If you’re determined to reap the benefits of vitamin C and retinol, here are some helpful tips to safely incorporate both ingredients into your skincare routine:

Vitamin C in the Morning and Retinol at Night

Apply retinol at night and vitamin C in the morning. Retinol is best used at night as it can break down when exposed to sunlight. Meanwhile, vitamin C offers excellent protection against free radicals, making it a perfect daytime companion.

Moisturizer Before Retinol and After Vitamin C (Buffering Technique)

This technique is common in using retinol products, but you can use it for retinol and vitamin C. It helps dilute the active ingredients, creating a barrier to make it more tolerable to the skin.

To do this, apply a gentle moisturizer like hyaluronic acid before using retinol in the evening. In the morning, apply the vitamin C serum before moisturizer and SPF.

Retinol and Vitamin C Alternately at Night

You can gradually introduce retinol and vitamin C by using them alternately at night. This way, you can also get the benefits of both ingredients without causing interactions.

Vitamin C and Retinol, 30 Minutes Apart

If you really want to use retinol and vitamin C simultaneously, you should apply them 30 minutes apart. Apply vitamin C first, then wait 30 minutes for it to be completely absorbed and neutralized before applying retinol.

Frequently Asked Questions

Does retinol and vitamin C cause purging?

Purging is an acne breakout when you first start using a new skincare product. This is because the active ingredients bring pre-existing impurities that were clogged in your pores to the surface of your skin more quickly.

Retinol is known for causing purging in some individuals. But this is only a temporary phase, and after a few weeks of consistent use, the skin should improve.

However, vitamin C does not really cause purging, though some people might experience irritation or sensitivity when using it in higher concentrations.

If you experience purging using vitamin C, it may be because it contains other ingredients, like acids or chemical exfoliators (BHA, AHA, salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide).

Can I apply vitamin C serum before or after retinol?

Since vitamin C has a lower pH than retinol, you should always apply vitamin C serum, wait for 30 minutes, then apply retinol.

Do this with caution, however, especially if you have sensitive skin.

Can you use vitamin C and retinol together or at the same time?

Yes. You can use vitamin C serum with retinol, only if your skin can tolerate it and only if you use them at least 30 minutes apart.

Still, it’s best to use them separately — vitamin C in the day and retinol at night — to prevent unwanted interactions and side effects.

Use Vitamin C and Retinol Together in Your Routine Now!

So can you use vitamin C and retinol together? Yes. You can use retinol and vitamin C together in your skincare. But it can be a bit of a balancing act.

two bottles of face serums on a white background

Whether you use them separately or simultaneously, remember that everyone’s skin is different. So pay attention to how your skin reacts and adjust your routine accordingly.

Follow our tips above to make sure you get the benefits of this powerful skincare combo. Also, remember to only purchase products from tested and reviewed brands.

Be gentle with your skin, take it slow, and don’t hesitate to consult with a dermatologist or skincare expert if you’re unsure about what’s best for you.

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  • Shai Urbano

    Shai is a licensed pharmacist with a Bachelor of Arts in Pharmacy. She uniquely intertwines her medical expertise with a fervent passion for beauty. With an intrinsic understanding of ingredients and formulation, she's the proud creator of her own line of products designed exclusively for naturally curly hair. Over her four-year writing career, Shai consistently delivers content enriched by her distinct blend of knowledge and enthusiasm.

  • Amanda Meehan

    Amanda Meehan, a licensed esthetician and massage therapist, brings holistic beauty to the forefront. Trained at the Aveda Institute Denver and the Center for Natural Wellness School of Massage Therapy, her accolades include the High Honors and Beauty Is As Beauty Does awards. Beyond skincare, she's a certified Reiki Master and yoga instructor.

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