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When it comes to active ingredients that really improve your skin, there are few more effective than retinol and vitamin C. Unfortunately, these power players don't tend to play that nicely together. Retinol, a vitamin A derivative, turbo-charges skin-cell turnover to minimise the appearance of fine lines, pores, pigmentation, and more. It works hard and fast to reduce breakouts and knock years off your complexion. Vitamin C, on the other hand, is a potent antioxidant that protects and repairs skin cells whilst simultaneously tackling fine lines, brightening dark spots, and leaving skin glowing. Both sound good, right? Trouble is that you can, in fact, have too much of a good thing, as overdoing it on retinol and vitamin C can lead to redness and sensitivity.
Luckily, you don't have to choose one over the other. You do, however, need to be strategic with your application. We called on skin-care experts to reveal exactly what each ingredient does and how to incorporate both vitamin C and retinol into your routine for the best smoothing, clearing, and brightening results without irritation.
Image Source: Medik8
The Benefits of Retinol
"Retinol is a form of vitamin A (other forms you may see are retinoic acid and retinaldehyde, which are both super strong, or retinyl palmitate and retinol esters, which are weaker)," said skin-care biochemist Nausheen Qureshi. "I personally call it 'CPR for the skin.' Retinol resuscitates and regenerates skin cells, keeping them active and preventing premature cell death. It not only refreshes the skin's appearance, but it also works on signs of ageing and unwanted texture." Retinol should be used only at night, and you absolutely need to apply sunscreen the next morning. "Skin naturally regenerates at night, and retinol supports this natural process by promoting cell turnover," Qureshi explained, "while the fresh skin cells are more susceptible to sun damage so need protection during the day."
Not sure which retinol to buy? While retinol has typically been an ingredient prescribed by dermatologists, nowadays you can get good-quality, effective retinol products over the counter. In fact, there is one brand that many of the dermatologists and facialists we spoke with recommend: Medik8's range of Intelligent Retinol Serums. "You get a decent dose of retinol at a really good price point," says Kate Kerr, advanced facialist and director of Kate Kerr London.
Image Source: SkinDesign London
The Benefits of Vitamin C
"Vitamin C is a potent, powerhouse ingredient that brightens skin and boosts collagen production. It also contains a property that helps to lighten dark spots and hyperpigmentation," said Dr Toni Phillips, group clinical director at DestinationSkin. "A quality antioxidant (vitamin C is usually found in combination with other antioxidants) protects skin cells from free radicals. Free radicals are tiny molecules that can attack the cells and reduce their ability to function optimally," which results in your skin losing its natural radiance and looking dull and tired.
"It is a very unstable ingredient and oxidises very quickly, so it is usually best not to go for a product with straight vitamin C in it as this won't survive long," Qureshi said. "It's more potent in its ester forms and in its encapsulated forms."
While retinol has a reputation for being potentially irritating to skin, vitamin C can cause a reaction, too. Alexander Johnston, general manager of John Bell & Croyden, London's luxury pharmacy, explained that "vitamin C is a potent, active skin-care ingredient so it can cause a reaction on sensitive or redness-prone skin, especially in higher concentrations. However, if it is introduced slowly into your routine, your skin will adapt over time. As with all active products, patch testing is always recommended."
Johnston recommends Skinceuticals Phloretin CF Gel (£159). "It is one of the best products out there that gives an instant boost to the skin. Formulated with 10 percent vitamin C, ferulic acid, and phloretin, the gel formula means it is easy to apply the right amount of product [and not overdo it]."
For anyone with blemishes, Johnston pointed them towards SkinDesign London's C Antioxidant Glow Serum (£115). "Packed with nutrients, it delivers a powerful boost to your skin. With a 30 percent vitamin C concentration derived from kakadu plums — which is both antibacterial and anti-inflammatory — this is the ideal product for dealing with dull and acne-prone skin." Want to up the ante? "Medik8's most powerful vitamin C serum to date, Super C30 + Intense Serum (£60), is both potent and affordable," Johnston said.
The Benefit of Incorporating Both Retinol and Vitamin C Into Your Routine
"Vitamins A and C work incredibly well together," Qureshi explained. "Whilst vitamin A regenerates and keeps the cells alive, vitamin C protects them from free radical damage and brightens the surface of the skin. So not only do you get a better texture and more voluminous facial tissue, but you also get bright and radiant-looking skin. They are a great tag team." As long as you don't layer them, that is.
Do Retinol and Vitamin C Play Nice If Applied Together?
"No, not usually, because retinol is oil-soluble and vitamin C is water soluble," Qureshi said. "They are also both acids, so it can be quite dangerous to apply together." Dr Phillips agreed, adding that "there is no real benefit in using too many products at the same time, so the idea is to have a simple program using the correct products in a way that the skin is supported, corrected, and protected." All this is to say: please don't layer retinol and vitamin C, as the side effects could be bad and probably quite painful.
The Best Way to Use Retinol and Vitamin C in Your Routine
"I usually recommend people of all ages to use an antioxidant (vitamin C) every morning after cleansing," Dr Phillips said. "You may find products with varied percentages of vitamin C, but dry skin types should use the lower percentages, and the oiler skin types will respond to products with a higher vitamin C percentage."
For those under the age of 30, an antioxidant product can be used twice a day — in the morning as well as in the evening after cleansing. For the over-30s (and under-30s if you have extremely oily skin and struggle with spots or uncontrollable breakouts), an evening retinol is recommended instead of vitamin C, according to Dr Phillips. "Natural collagen production begins to slow in our mid-20s, and the signs of this start to show in the late-20s, early 30s. This is exactly when a retinol product should be added, in the evening after cleansing," he said.
"Retinol is a powerful active product, so it needs to be introduced gently," Dr Phillips continued. "I usually recommend starting to use it two to three times a week, increasing to every second evening, and after six to eight weeks, trying to use it every night. Some people will experience reactions such as dryness, redness, and peeling. These are all completely normal for the first two to three months when starting retinol. However, as most of us don't like these reactions, the gradual protocol should help to minimise this until we are comfortable and start to see the skin improve as a result."
Image Source: Elequra
There is, however, one product out there that safely delivers retinol and vitamin C at the same: the Elequra Radiance Accelerator Serum (£98). Formulated by Qureshi, it boasts encapsulated retinol (making it water soluble), combined with two forms of vitamin C esters (one becomes active on the skin in eight hours and the other in 12 hours). "It is a world first and is meant to be applied at night so that the retinol works immediately and the vitamin C can be released eight hours after in the morning and 12 hours after in the middle of the day so that it protects your skin in the daytime when it needs it." Thanks to the way the actives are encapsulated within the formula, you reap the benefits of both actives in just one nighttime product.