They’re two of the most popular anti-aging skincare ingredients available but is vitamin C vs retinol the better option for your skin? Do you have to choose between the two or can you use both ingredients together?
Vitamin C is the most abundant antioxidant in your skin and is essential for the production of collagen.
More collagen = plumper, younger looking skin.
As well as it’s excellent anti-aging benefits, vitamin C also:
- Reduces dark marks and brightens skin by preventing the activity of the enzymes required for melanin production.
- Reduces inflammation
- Reduces blood vessel dilation and facial redness
- Prevents the growth of ‘bad’ bacteria (the type that cause skin infections and acne)
- Some derivatives of vitamin c can improve the appearance of acne
- Improves skin texture
- Prevents premature skin aging (when used with sunscreen) by neutralizing free radicals (substances that damage DNA and break down collagen and elastin)
Retinol is a form of vitamin A that converts to retinoic acid (its active form) when it penetrates your skin. It helps treat a wide-range of skin conditions and is one of the only skincare ingredients that’s clinically proven to alter your skin on a cellular level.
It’s an antioxidant that increases the rate that your skin makes new skin cells and moves them to the surface of your skin in order to be shed. It also:
- Boosts collagen production
- Reduces inflammation
- Helps prevent acne scarring
- Helps unclog pores and treat acne
- Reduces pigmentation by preventing melanin production as well as getting rid of existing pigmentation by increasing skin cell turnover
- Improves the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.
Unfortunately, retinol is renowned for causing skin irritation – particularly when you first start using it. It can also damage your skin barrier if used improperly which can make a lot of skin conditions worse and take a long time to correct.
However, as it requires a few conversions to reach its active form, it’s less irritating than other retinoids (e.g. tretinoin, retinal, differin).
Vitamin C vs Retinol
As you can see, there are a few similarities in the skin benefits offered by vitamin C vs retinol but there are also a number of ways that they differ.
Both are very effective at improving the signs of aging, like fine lines, wrinkles, and hyperpigmentation.
However, retinol definitely has the upper hand when it comes to treating acne. In fact, retinoids, like retinol, are generally considered to be one of the most effective acne treatments available.
In theory, vitamin C should help improve acne as it is anti-inflammatory and antibacterial. However, only one vitamin C derivative, sodium ascorbyl phosphate (SAP) has been found to be an effective acne treatment.
Therefore, if you’re trying to treat acne, retinol would be the better option but for everything else they offer similar benefits.
Can You Use Vitamin C and Retinol Together?
If you can’t decide between vitamin c vs retinol, the good news is that you don’t have to!
Contrary to popular belief, it’s even ok to layer them together one after the other.
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, neither of these are true.
Vitamin C vs Retinol Optimum pH Levels
pH is a measure of how acidic or alkaline a substance is. The pH scale ranges from 1-14 with 7 indicating a neutral pH.
Retinol has to convert to its active form (retinoic acid) in order to exert its effects but it can’t do this 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 have a ‘low optimum pH of about 5.6’.
In contrast, vitamin C is most effective at a pH of 3.5 or lower..
However, even when vitamin C is used at a low pH, it still has to adjust to your skin’s natural surface pH (around 5.0 – 6.0, although it can be as low as 4.7 if you haven’t used any skincare products recently).
In addition, 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 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.
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.
How To Use Vitamin C vs Retinol
Although they’re fine to layer together, vitamin C vs retinol are most effective when used at different times of the day.
Vitamin C is a very useful ingredient to use in your AM routine due to its antioxidant effects which work in synergy with your sunscreen to protect your skin from sun damage and premature skin aging.
Although retinol is also an antioxidant, it’s better suited to nighttime use as that’s when your skin’s natural exfoliation rate is at its highest.
When people ask me for a simple anti-aging skincare routine, my go-to recommendation is
- AM – Vitamin C Serum + Sunscreen
- PM – Retinol + Barrier-Repairing Moisturizer
Vitamin C can be used 1-2 times a day, although, as it has a half-life of around 4 days, once a day is more than enough.
In contrast, retinol should only be used once a day and you may need to use it less frequently to begin with.
To reduce the risk of skin irritation, try starting using retinol every third night for two weeks, then every second night for two weeks, and increase to nightly use if your skin can tolerate it.
Summary – Vitamin C vs Retinol
If you’re looking to add vitamin c vs retinol into your skincare routine but can’t decide which one to choose – they’re both effective anti-aging ingredients. However, retinol has the upper hand when it comes to acne treatment.
However, the best option is to use both ingredients in your skincare routine – especially if you’re trying to treat the signs of aging.