Vitamin C and retinol are two popular products on the skin care scene, especially when it comes to reducing dark spots and fine lines. You've probably seen many videos on TikTok or Instagram touting the benefits of each. But aside from the positive effects, many people are still left with an important question: can you use retinol and vitamin C together?
We consulted with leading dermatologists Azadeh Shirazi, MD, and Todd Minars, MD. With their expertise, we dive into everything there is to know about combining retinol and vitamin C.
What is retinol?
Retinol is a vitamin A derivative that is often used as a skin care product to renew skin cells, protect collagen by fighting free radicals, and plump up the deep layers of the skin to reduce wrinkles, fine lines and visible pores. "[Retinol plays] a role in talking to cells and encouraging healthier, younger cells to break through the skin layer, renewing our skin," says Shirazi. "Many people think retinol thins the skin, but it actually thickens the dermis, the deeper layer of skin. Not only does it improve fine lines and wrinkles, but it also improves hyperpigmentation, treats acne, softens rough patches, improves circulation and improves skin texture and tone.
Retinol is often confused with retinoids, so it can be helpful to understand that retinol is actually a type of retinoid. You may encounter retinoids in two different forms:
- Retinoic acid, available by prescription.
- Retinol, which is available over the counter.
Retinoic acid is considered the "gold standard" by many dermatologists, Minars says, although he adds that retinols are still effective for most patients.
"A patient should expect results in three months with retinoic acid and six months with over-the-counter retinol products," Minars says. "If a patient comes to me and says, 'I want to correct my photoaging with one topical product,' I will always recommend retinoids first because they are simply effective and consistent."
What is vitamin C?
Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that protects and defends our skin by neutralizing free radicals, says Shirazi. "It's like pac-man - it goes around and scavenges these highly reactive molecules that damage and stress the skin."
Vitamin C's antioxidant properties also contribute to the skin's natural regeneration process, she says. Vitamin C can benefit the skin in many ways, such as improving skin tone and texture, lightening dark spots, promoting the production of collagen and brighten dull skin.
"Vitamin C has overlapping effects with retinoids, specifically retinol, but they are not as well studied, predictable or effective," Minar told Byrdie. He generally recommends retinoids for patients looking for a product that helps rejuvenate the skin. But in cases where retinol irritates the skin, he recommends vitamin C serum as an alternative, with the caveat that vitamin C serums are generally not as effective as retinoids.
Can you use retinol and vitamin C together?
According to dermatologists, there is no problem with use both retinol and vitamin C as part of your skin care routine. In fact, Shirazi calls this combo a "power couple" when it comes to aging well. But you'll want to be aware of when you use your vitamin C and retinol. To avoid the potential risk of irritation, Shirazi does not recommend layering your products. Instead, she suggests using vitamin C in the morning and retinol at night.
Minars' advice is a little different. He says it's okay to use both products at night, but with a plan in place to deal with to the irritation that may occur. "My recommendation is to start one at a time, then introduce the other every other night until you get used to it or can comfortably say it's not irritating when combined," he says.
The benefits of combining retinol and vitamin C
Using retinol and vitamin C together (it's not necessary at the same time) can result in smoother, brighter skin. "Vitamin C defends, protects and supports collagen production, while retinol renews skin cells and stimulates collagen," explains Shirazi. "They both reduce pigmentation and lighten discoloration."
Although the benefits of combining vitamin C and retinol may be marginal, simply because retinol is so effective on its own, Minars tells us. "If your skin doesn't get irritated by combining them and you perceive added value from the combination, then go for it," he says.
Side effects of the combination of retinol and vitamin C
If you decide to use both vitamin C and retinol as part of your skincare routine, irritation is the most common side effect you may experience, especially if you layer the products. But you can avoid this irritation by spacing out the application of each product, using retinol at night and vitamin C in the morning.
Another drawback to using retinol and vitamin C is the cost. Compared to products like moisturizer, retinol and vitamin C can be a bit more expensive. "That being said, depending on your past photodamage and rejuvenation goals (whether it's aesthetics, self-esteem or confidence building, etc.), many patients find the expense worth it," says Minars.
Both dermatologists we spoke with pointed out that vitamin C products can vary greatly in terms of quality, so it's probably best not to buy any random product you come across while browsing instagram. "This is the only product that I would splurge on because it is difficult to formulate a stable vitamin C so that it can magically work in the skin," says Shirazi. "A higher percentage of vitamin C can also cause breakouts on acne-prone skin. So I suggest using a lower percentage, like 5 to 10 %, if you have acne or sensitive skin."
Minars recommends sticking to sophisticated, tested and reviewed brands and formulations for retinol and vitamin C, but he says that the variability between different vitamin C products is probably more between the different retinol-based products.
The last takeaway
You can certainly use retinol and vitamin C in your skin care routine, but it's probably best not to use them at the same time if you want to avoid irritating your skin. Consider applying retinol at night and vitamin C in the morning. These two products can help rejuvenate your skin in a number of ways, such as improving skin texture and tone, reducing fine lines, brightening dark spots and brightening dull skin.