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You’ll be hard-pressed to find skincare advice on the Internet that doesn’t namedrop retinol at least once. The vitamin A derivative is often touted as a cure-all for bumpy texture, recurring breakouts and a dull complexion. For those who want to see less wrinkles and lines on their face (or prevent it from happening sooner than later), it’s an absolute must-have. Rightfully so, I can personally attest to its exfoliating powers, but knowing what not to mix with retinol is arguably as important as the ingredient itself.
Before we get down to brass tacks, it’s important to know that there is no one way for all of us to take care of our skin. Sure, most experts will tell you it’s important to at least cleanse, tone and moisturize (with SPF) every day. But even some of those steps are debated in lengthy Twitter threads and Instagram comments. Ultimately, you have to take social media advice with a grain of salt and simply find a routine that works specifically for you. With that being said, experience and plenty of group chats have taught me that multi-step routines still reign supreme, leaving plenty of room for error if it includes retinol.
Because I don’t want any of our money to go to waste—retinol can be affordable or expensive, depending on your preference—I asked board-certified dermatologist, Dr. Hadley King, for a quick refresher on the other commonly used ingredients I should keep far from my night serum.
There are a handful of ingredients that can brighten and even out your complexion, but vitamin C is definitely the most popular. After a months-long experiment with pineapple enzymes, I recently transitioned back to a vitamin C product—specifically the Vitabrid C12 Dual Drop Serum (obsessed BTW!)—and my skin is thanking me for it. Up until recently, Dr. King says there had “been some concerns that the acidic pH needed for vitamin C absorption could contribute to the degradation of retinol.”
However, recent studies have shown that retinol maintained its effects when paired with vitamin C. “Plus, some studies have shown that combining retinol with vitamin C or another antioxidant may help stabilize it,” says Dr. King. Retinol and vitamin C combo products are still relatively scarce, albeit some well-known formulas like Kate Somerville’s moisturizer. So what should you do if you don’t have a combo product, but still want two separate ones in your routine?
“I recommend using a vitamin C serum, like the GoodJanes Face Latte Serum , in the morning, followed by a product with SPF, like the ALASTIN HydraTint Pro Mineral Sunscreen,” says Dr. King. “This helps protect the skin from the damaging effects of UV radiation, as well as from free radicals from other sources such as pollution.” Save your retinoids for the night routine, especially since they are usually degraded by sunlight.
Like salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide is a widely-used and recommended ingredient for targeting blemishes and various types of acne. If you regularly visit a dermatologist, you may have been prescribed medication with BZ in it or perhaps you have an OTC spot treatment or acne dot that utilizes its anti-inflammatory benefits. Retinoids are equally beneficial for acne-prone skin, but you risk deactivating its formulation if you mix with apply with benzoyl peroxide.
“It is ok to use both of these ingredients if your skin tolerates them, but use the benzoyl peroxide in the mornings and use the retinoid at bedtime,” says Dr. King. “There are some combination products that contain both benzoyl peroxide and a retinoid and these have been specially formulated for stability (eg Epiduo).”
It’s also worth mentioning that both are potentially irritating, depending on how sensitive your skin is, so there’s a chance you won’t even be able to tolerate both. Again, everyone’s skin is different, so if something doesn’t feel right…something is probably wrong.
Alpha and Beta Hydroxy Acids
Like vitamin C and benzoyl peroxide, there are over-the-counter products that include both retinol and alpha or beta-hydroxy acids. However, keep in mind that these have been specially formulated for stability. If you’re working with two separate products, they will need to be used at different times.
“Alpha and beta hydroxy acids may make some topical retinoid formulations less effective because of the pH. It is ok to use these products if your skin tolerates them, but use them in the mornings and use the retinoid at bedtime,” says Dr. King. “If you are using a topical retinoid regularly, you may notice that your skin is sensitive and you may not be able to tolerate other potentially irritating or exfoliating products like alpha and beta hydroxy acids.”
If you’re not completely satisfied with your current retinol product, here are some newer formulas to peruse.
The retinol in this luxe night treatment is microencapsulated to prevent irritation and the remaining formula contains a complex that helps further stabilize the retinol so it can be as effective as possible.
Kate Somerville made waves when she debuted this rich moisturizer, infused with both vitamin C and retinol for brighter and smoother skin.
This affordable, fragrance-free option has also been specially formulated with retinol, vitamin C and hyaluronic acid. Just be sure to layer with an SPF when applying in the morning.
In addition to the brand’s exclusive Retinol Tri-Active technology, this just-released moisturizer is also enriched with peptides, another powerhouse ingredient proven to firm and smooth-out skin.
The brand’s latest face patches are infused with retinol, vitamin C and peptides to diminish fine lines with continued use. Just place over any part of your face, go to sleep and remove in the AM.
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