They’re two of the most popular anti-aging skincare ingredients available but what happens when you combine them into the same routine? Can you use vitamin C and retinol together?
One skincare myth that seems to stick around like a stubborn blemish is the classic tale of two skincare ingredients that just want to love each other but are forced apart due to their differing pH levels. The Romeo and Juliet of skincare if you will.
Where for art thou glowing skin?
So are vitamin C and retinol star-crossed lovers or sworn enemies?
Can You Use Vitamin C and Retinol Together?
Vitamin C is the most abundant antioxidant in your skin and it’s absolutely essential for collagen production!
But that’s not all, it also:
- Reduces pigmentation
- Brightens your skin
- Improves fine lines and wrinkles
- Reduces redness and inflammation
- Hydrates your skin
It’s pretty much a staple in any anti-aging skincare routine.
Retinol is a vitamin A derivative and part of the retinoid family. Like vitamin C, retinol is also an antioxidant and is one of the most well-studied anti-aging skincare ingredients.
The wide-ranging benefits of retinoids include:
- Reducing pigmentation
- Brightening your skin
- Improving fine lines and wrinkles
- Reducing inflammation
- Increasing your skin cell turnover
- Improving the appearance of acne
As you can see, there are a number of skin concerns that both vitamin C and retinol target. Sounds like they would be a perfect combination, right?
So why do we often hear that vitamin C and retinol can’t be used at the same time?
What’s The Issue With Using Vitamin C & Retinol Together?
The pervasive myth that you can’t use vitamin C and retinol together seems to stem from issues surrounding their differing pH levels.
The most potent and purest form of vitamin C is ascorbic acid – this is the form of vitamin C that is found naturally in your skin and that other derivatives of vitamin C have to covert to in order to exert their effect.
Unfortunately, ascorbic acid is notoriously unstable and, according to research, must be formulated at pH levels less than 3.5 to enter your skin.
It’s also easily degraded by light and air and should be stored in a dark and cool environment. This degradation is similarly pH-dependent, with cream formulations containing ascorbic acid most stable at a pH of 4.0.
Retinol doesn’t convert to its active form (retinoic acid) until it has penetrated your skin and requires a process called ‘esterification’ to do so. The enzymes that allow this process, and the expression of vitamin A during skin cell turnover (keratinization), have a ‘low optimum pH of about 5.6‘.
Vitamin C and Retinol Together
The argument for not using vitamin C and retinol together seems to be:
- Ascorbic acid may be less effective if used at the pH where retinol is most effective.
- Retinol may not activate properly if used with a low pH ingredient such as ascorbic acid.
However, your skin’s natural surface pH is around 5.0 – 6.0, although it can be as low as 4.7 on untreated skin (skin that has not used any products recently), so the ascorbic acid form of vitamin C often has to adjust to a more alkaline environment anyway.
While retinol’s optimum pH falls within the range of normal skin pH, the research that it may not function properly at a lower pH may be outdated (the study mentioned earlier was published in 1982).
Research published in 2012 found that vitamin C actually stabilized retinol and enhanced its shelf-life. This study used retinyl palmitate – a retinyl ester that has to convert to retinol before converting to retinoic acid.
Furthermore, a clinical study found that the combination of vitamin c and retinol together worked better than either ingredient alone at reversing the signs of skin aging.
If you’re still apprehensive about combining vitamin C and retinol, remember that there are other vitamin C derivatives that are stable at higher pH levels but may be less effective than ascorbic acid.
In fact, one of my favorite vitamin C serums, Dermalogica’s Biolumin C, contains not one, but four highly stable forms of vitamin C; ascorbyl methylsilanol pectinate (AMP), aminopropyl ascorbyl phosphate (AAP), Acorbosilane C, and K3 Vita-C.
With retinol, its active form, retinoic acid, does not need to undergo conversion and, therefore, does not require the pH-dependent enzymes.
What Are The Benefits of Using Vitamin C and Retinol Together?
Now we have determined that you can use vitamin C and retinol together, what are the benefits of doing so?
The main benefits of combining vitamin C and retinol together are increased collagen production and reduced melanin production, making the combination particularly suitable for:
- Improving fine lines and wrinkles
- Reducing hyperpigmentation (melasma, PIH, age spots, etc.)
- Improving atrophic (pitted) acne scars.
- Making pores appear smaller
- Improving skin texture
Vitamin C and retinol together is a particularly good combination for hyperpigmentation as it targets abnormal pigment from multiple directions.
When Should You Not Use Vitamin C and Retinol Together
There is one reason that you may want to avoid using vitamin C and retinol together – skin irritation.
Retinol and other retinoids are renowned for causing skin irritation when you first start using them. Some people also find that vitamin C, especially in the form of ascorbic acid, irritates their skin.
Using the two together, in the same routine, increases the risk that you will experience irritation from one or both ingredients.
How To Use Vitamin C and Retinol Together
If you want to reap the benefits offered by the combination of vitamin C and retinol together while reducing the risk of irritation, here are a few key tips:
1. Introduce one ingredient at a time and give your skin plenty of time to adjust to it – at least enough time for a full skin cell turnover (approx.. 4 weeks).
2. Gradually increase the frequency of retinol use when you first start using it – for example, once a day for a week, then twice a day for a week, and so on.
3. Look after your skin barrier with a ceramide-rich moisturizer – a damaged skin barrier almost always guarantees that you will experience increased skin irritation.
4. Consider a different derivative of vitamin C – while ascorbic acid the most effective (and trendy) form of vitamin C, you can get similar benefits with other vitamin C derivatives.
5. Wear sunscreen – it’s an essential part of any skincare routine, particularly if you’re looking to prevent and/or treat the signs of aging. Your skin is also more sensitive to sunlight while using retinol.
6. Use vitamin C in the morning and retinol at night – while this won’t prevent irritation, vitamin C enhances the protection offered by sunscreens and retinol is degraded by sunlight (not usually an issue if used under sunscreens).
Summary – Can You Use Vitamin C and Retinol Together?
Yes! You can use vitamin C and retinol together. In fact, they are an excellent combination if you’re looking to reverse the signs of skin aging.
Most criticisms of this wrinkle-busting due come from the belief that their different pH levels will reduce the effectiveness of either ingredient. However, this is not the case. The only reason you may want to avoid this combination is if you have particularly sensitive skin as the risk of skin irritation is high.