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How To Use Both Vitamin C & Retinol In Your Skin Care Routine

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Everything you need to know

If you’re researching how to create a great skincare routine there’s no doubt you’ve come across vitamin C and retinol.

These two ingredients are arguably the most raved about and researched skincare ingredients of all time.

This is for a good reason; both are pretty essential when it comes to building a great skincare routine. But, can these two fabulous ingredients be layered or mixed? Well, the answer is a little complicated.

This is everything you need to know about using both vitamin C and retinol together.

Let’s break down these two ingredients

Vitamin C and retinol (aka vitamin A) are both powerful antioxidants. Yet, these two ingredients work a little differently on the skin.

Retinol: A derivative of vitamin A, retinol is a mainstay in anti-aging skincare. Retinol can increase collagen production and skin elastin which can help reduce fine lines and wrinkles. It’s an exfoliant and can improve skin texture and tone. Retinol can also cause sun sensitivity and should be used at night, while wearing sunscreen during the day.

Vitamin C: Also known as L-ascorbic acid, vitamin C is a great skin brighter and skin protectant. Vitamin C helps to protect skin cells against UV damage and environmental stressors. And it can increase collagen production which can help decrease fine lines and wrinkles. Since it can protect against damage from the sun, it’s best used in the morning (although it is not a substitute for sunscreen).

Considerations when using both vitamin C and retinol

When using both of these active ingredients, there are some things to consider first:

  • pH levels
  • Solubility
  • Derivatives
  • Irritation

Now, let’s break these down! (✅  Skip ahead for the cliff notes.)

#1 Differing pH levels can affect absorption

One potential problem when using vitamin C and retinol together is their differing pH levels. Using them together might lower effectiveness and absorption. Layering active ingredients with differing pH levels might cause destabilization of one or both ingredients.

Vitamin C: requires a pH of 3.5 or lower for optimal absorption.

Retinol: Retinol requires a skin pH of 5.0 to 6.0. There is a considerable pH gap. So when used together, pH levels might cause absorption and destabilization issues.

#2 The issue of insolubility

Solubility is the ability for a compound or ingredient to dissolve. Some products can only dissolve under certain conditions.

Think of pouring oil into water. The oil and water will separate because oils are insoluble in water, and vice-versa. The same is true of retinol and the truest form of vitamin C, L-ascorbic acid.

  • L-ascorbic acid is water-soluble, which means it can only dissolve in water.
  • Retinol is oil-soluble and only dissolves in oil.

So, therein lies a big problem.

But, there are derivative forms of vitamin C that are oil soluble and have a higher pH. Retinol-compatible derivatives are often found in retinol and vitamin C combination products.

#3 Derivatives: the sister compounds

In chemistry, a derivative is a compound created from a similar parent compound. Derivatives may act similarly, but with a different chemical structure. L-ascorbic acid is notoriously unstable and incompatible with retinol. This is why many formulations opt for a derivative of L-ascorbic acid.

These derivatives are far more compatible with retinol. This can make it easier to use vitamin C and retinol at the same time. Oil-soluble and high pH vitamin C derivatives to look out for:

  • Ascorbyl Palmitate
  • Tetrahexyldecyl Ascorbate
  • Magnesium Ascorbyl Phosphate

Vitamin C derivatives are notably less potent than the truest form. But, this could be a silver lining. Using two powerful ingredients together could easily irritate the skin. (Which brings us to the next point.)

#4 Too much of a good thing can = irritation

Both retinol and vitamin C are fabulous ingredients to have in your skincare arsenal. However, layering them can likely cause skin irritation. If you’re new to using retinol or acids -- skip retinol and vitamin C combination products.

Opt for a more conservative approach and use one in the AM, and the other at night. (See skincare routine suggestions below.)

So, can you use these two together or what?

For those who want a high-level answer -- we’ve simplified it for you.

✅ Here are the cliff notes:

  • Because of pH and solubility differences, don’t mix these yourself. If you want to use a combo, buy a formulated combination product to ensure ingredient compatibility.
  • These two ingredients can potentially play nice together, but the formulation is very important.
  • Please note(!) retinol should only be used at night and vitamin C is best used in the AM but can be used morning and night.
  • RE: irritation - If you’re a retinol pro, go for it (with a properly formulated combo). You may or may not experience skin irritation.
  • RE: irritation -If you’re a retinol newbie, play it safe and don’t mix these two. 

Skincare routine suggestions for using both vitamin C and retinol

There is a time and a place for all skincare products. Here are some ways you can use both vitamin c and retinol in your skincare routine.

Option 1: AM / PM switch off

Use a vitamin C product in the morning and a retinol product at night. This switch-off option is great for everyone and is what most dermatologists recommend. It allows products to really shine without increasing the risk of skin irritation or mixing together ingredients that may not play well together. AM:

  • Cleanse as normal
  • Apply a light moisturizer
  • Always finish off by protecting with SPF 30 or higher


  • Cleanse as normal
  • Allow your skin to totally dry to avoid irritation
  • Seal and protect with a heavy ultra-moisturizing night cream

Option 2: Use a combination product - PM only

This is a good option for those who are well acquainted with acids and retinol. If you’re new to the skincare game, try option 1 first. Retinol can only be used at night. So a vitamin C and retinol combination product is for nighttime use only. These are likely formulated with a vitamin C derivative so don’t worry about product mixing. Don’t layer vitamin C and retinol yourself unless you have purchased a retinol-compatible vitamin C derivative.

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