Reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Retinol and Vitamin C are two most popular topical anti-aging skin compounds on the market.
Both have proven benefits to collagen production, and each one offers additional benefits that can give your skin the advantages it needs to recover from damage and have a youthful, firm glow up.
Given that they’ve both been proven safe and effective, a lot of women are probably wondering: can I use both?
The answer is complicated, as you might suspect, but there are ways in which you can effectively use both treatments without causing any harm to your face. You just have to understand how they work together.
Both retinol and vitamin C provide a multitude of skin health benefits, and they can be an effective system for reversing aging damage when used together.
Retinols like tretinoin, which has been prescribed by dermatologists since the ‘60s, have been shown to improve the synthesis of collagen.
They’re also effective at helping your epidermis discard dead skin cells more effectively, so the young, healthier cells can shine through.
Meanwhile, vitamin C is one of the most important compounds in helping your skin keep a healthy glow, and is particularly helpful in fighting sun damage.
Sunlight beats up your skin throughout the day. Typically, vitamin C acts as the primary antioxidant to fight free radicals caused by UV rays, which left unmitigated will throw a wrench in the normal production of new calls and collagen in the dermis.
With reduced levels of vitamin C, your skin is left without the necessary tools to deal with the free radicals created by radiation.
Using vitamin C will help give your skin the protection it needs to keep healthy cellular regeneration going unaffected.
The short answer to whether or not you can use retinol and vitamin C treatments at the same time is yes. But the bigger answer involves deciding what “the same time” means.
Concurrent treatment with both retinol and vitamin C is possible, and it’s mostly safe to use them both daily. But there are some factors to consider before jumping on the two-a-day bandwagon, like whether you’ve used either compound in the past, and how sensitive your skin is.
You should be careful when combining the two, particularly at first, as your skin may be sensitive to the sudden stress of both compounds, particularly because they both can contain acids.
For example, your skin may get irritated if you use a serum with vitamin C (which is acidic) and as well as a retinol cream, or if you use a retinol serum along with a prescription retinol cream.
Irritation is a known potential side effect of both compounds, particularly with prescription retinol formulations like tretinoin, whose side effects can include irritation, redness and peeling in certain cases with certain skin types.
There’s a big difference between using retinol and vitamin C concurrently, and combining the two for use simultaneously. In addition to the irritation risks of starting two different skin treatments at the same time, there are also potential problems from applying them at the same time.
Conventionally, this has been advised against for a few reasons. First of all, vitamin C and retinol have different solubility requirements. Vitamin C is soluble in water, whereas vitamin A compounds are soluble in oil.
Used separately, topical creams and serums don’t cause each other problems, but if you’re layering the two, it can make both treatments less effective.
In the past, there were also assumptions about the efficacy of these treatments that had to do with pH levels—they were more effective at conflicting pH levels, and combining two treatments could make for a less effective experience.
These days, pre-combined cosmetic formulations have been shown in limited studies to offer a stable, effective solution for using both vitamin C and retinol at the same time.
A 2012 study noted some promising results, though it noted a lack of data or explanation as to how stability is achieved in these cases. In other words, research is ongoing as to whether combinations are an alternative to two separate treatments.
There’s a lot more data to show that using these two treatments concurrently can have a big impact on your skin health.
And spreading them throughout the day doesn’t just allow the compounds to work more effectively; it also allows your skin time to react and rebalance after each treatment.
Because vitamin C helps fight sun damage, it’s best to start the day with a vitamin C treatment (and a sunscreen with an appropriate SPF, while you’re at it). One solution might be a serum, like our daily Morning Glow Vitamin C Serum, which can be applied topically for brightening dull skin.
Retinol can add additional sun sensitivity to your skin, so it’s best to avoid doing that before heading out for the day, and leave it for an evening treatment.
One of the most effective retinoids is the prescription medication tretinoin. Learn more about tretinoin here, and see if it’s right for you. You can also discover more about the best vitamins for skin health in our blog.
Kristin Hall is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with decades of experience in clinical practice and leadership.
She has an extensive background in Family Medicine as both a front-line healthcare provider and clinical leader through her work as a primary care provider, retail health clinician and as Principal Investigator with the NIH.
Certified through the American Nurses Credentialing Center, she brings her expertise in Family Medicine into your home by helping people improve their health and actively participate in their own healthcare.
Kristin is a St. Louis native and earned her master’s degree in Nursing from St. Louis University, and is also a member of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners. You can find Kristin on LinkedIn for more information.