Retinol vs Vitamin C: Which One Should You Use?

Retinol vs Vitamin C: Which One Should You Use?

Retinol and vitamin C are revered in the beauty industry as two of the best skincare ingredients. These two are known for their multipurpose characteristics, addressing several skin issues simultaneously. For this reason, many have become interested in using them.

However, some warn against layering vitamin C and retinol due to possible reactions that may irritate the skin. Check out the infographic below to learn more about these skincare ingredients and how to safely use them in your routine.

retinol vs. vitamin c infographic

Retinol vs. Vitamin C

Retinol Benefits

  1. Smoothen out wrinkles and fine lines

The skin transforms retinol into retinoic acid, increasing your cell turnover rate no matter what retinol form you take. This faster turnover rate helps eliminate dead skin cells and promotes collagen growth, leading to smooth and nicely hydrated skin.

Plus, the boost in collagen production makes retinol effective in minimizing fine lines and wrinkles. As such, your skin appears plump with reduced signs of aging.

  1. Minimize the appearance of pores 

Clogged pores are often due to dead skin cells and other environmental factors, like pollution, and can result in inflammation. This response is natural as it prompts the immune system to block foreign debris from entering your body but can make the pores look bigger. 

Retinol’s anti-microbial agents protect your skin from environmental irritants or abnormal skin peeling, so you can stop skin inflammation and enlarged pores.

  1. Fade dark spots and minor scars

Besides its quick cell turnover rate, retinol also shows exfoliating properties. Retinol serums promote the growth of new skin cells while shedding dead ones, which can help fade hyperpigmentation by removing dark spots and eliminating minor scars. This function of retinol gives you a more radiant complexion.

  1. Improve skin texture

One of the common causes of uneven skin texture is dead skin cells and pollutant build-up. But retinol can remove these irritants from your pores, resulting in a more even skin texture.

Vitamin C Benefits

  1. Brighten complexion and even out hyperpigmentation

Vitamin C is another multipurpose skincare ingredient well-known for its antioxidant properties and skin-brightening benefits. 

For one, this ingredient can inhibit the production of tyrosinase and, consequently, melanin—which causes skin hyperpigmentation. This inhibitory property brightens the complexion and makes vitamin C an excellent dark spot solution.

  1. Soothe inflammation 

Apart from brightening, vitamin C’s antioxidant properties help neutralize free radicals that cause cells to incur oxidative damage. Vitamin C also enhances the immune system to help control inflammation.

  1. Improve skin texture

Vitamin C also has wound-healing abilities, as it assists the proline and lysine hydroxylases in stabilizing the tertiary structure of collagen—the protein essential for the structure and reconstruction of the skin.

Moreover, ascorbic acid is a part of all collagen production stages, from synthesis and maturation to secretion and degradation. This skincare ingredient doesn’t just reduce fine lines and wrinkles; it also speeds up atrophic and acne scar healing.

Retinol vs. Vitamin C: Key Differences

  1. Environmental protection

Both skincare ingredients improve skin tone, brighten the complexion, and enhance skin texture. However, vitamin C has other properties that retinol may not have, such as protection from harmful UV rays.

Meanwhile, retinol is tricky to use. The wrong dosage or incorrect usage may dehydrate the skin and disrupt skin barrier functions, including locking in moisture and preventing the entry of infectious agents, harmful chemicals, and allergens into the skin. If misused, retinol might make your skin more vulnerable to environmental stressors and pollutants.

  1. Sun sensitivity

Another major difference is that using retinol can cause your skin to be more sensitive to the sun. This vulnerability is due to retinoic acid’s tendency to cause oxidative stress when exposed to UV rays. The new skin cells resulting from the fast cell turnover are also thinner and more delicate, so they’re more sensitive to the sun.

On the other hand, vitamin C can hold up well and protect against oxidation from UV radiation while acting as an inhibitor of tyrosinase. This means it can prevent hyperpigmentation caused by overexposure to the sun. 

  1. Strengths

One characteristic that makes retinol come out on top is that it can come in different concentrations and styles, whereas Vitamin C cannot. But what is retinol

This ingredient is a type of retinoid or vitamin A derivative. Due to its many forms, like retinol esters and prescription retinoids, retinol is the most common over-the-counter retinoid in creams and serums.

On the other hand, the amount of vitamin C in a skincare product formula can affect its potency. Lower portions of 5% to 10% are optimal, while anything higher can cause breakouts for those with acne-prone skin. 

  1. Compatibility

Generally, anyone can use both for their skincare. However, you should refrain from using retinol if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, as it can lead to Fetal Retinoid Syndrome (FRS). In this condition, high vitamin A levels might trigger developmental issues. Retinol may also not be ideal if you have sensitive or dry skin, rosacea, eczema, or skin allergies.

However, early use of retinol can slow down aging, especially for those in their early thirties when the cell turnover rate slows.

Meanwhile, vitamin C is perfect for those who have dry skin.

When to Use Retinol and Vitamin C


This skincare ingredient is usually incorporated into serums and moisturizers, making it gentler on the skin. Slowly apply it toward the end of your routine and in low concentrations since the formulation may be too intense for sensitive skin types.

When to use retinol is another common question among retinol newbies. The answer is in the evening. Retinol is sensitive to light and prone to breaking down from the sunlight, reducing its efficacy. Its light sensitivity is also why it often uses dark packaging and why applying sunscreen the following day is a must. 

Applying retinol after moisturizing can also help avoid skin dehydration. When the skin is dehydrated, it cannot facilitate shedding, causing dead skin cells to remain.

Vitamin C

You may be wondering when to use vitamin C in your skincare routine. Since this ingredient is typically used in serums for better absorption, you can apply it after your toner and before moisturizers and creams. The toner step is crucial as it preps the skin by hydrating it, allowing other products to seep into your skin. 

If you want to maximize the benefits of vitamin C, you should apply it twice: in the morning and at night. Exposure to UV light can lower the skin’s vitamin C levels, so using it at night is ideal for bringing it back to normal levels. Meanwhile, a daytime application can help block the harmful effects of UV rays.

Can You Use Retinol and Vitamin C Together?

For most experts, it’s possible to use both ingredients simultaneously. However, knowing when to use retinol and vitamin C is crucial. Here are some tips when combining retinol and vitamin C.

  1. Use Vitamin C in the morning and retinol at night

Layering products that contain both ingredients can irritate your skin. Not only can this result in flakey, red, or irritated skin, but also compromise the efficacy of your products. 

The two products require different pH levels to work correctly on the skin. While retinol typically requires a pH level of 5.0 to 6.0 to work optimally, vitamin C needs a pH of 3.5 or lower to penetrate the skin better. As such, layering these products may be counterproductive.

A good workaround is to use Vitamin C in the morning and a retinol serum at night. Apart from preventing irritation caused by ingredient incompatibility, this routine also ensures that your retinol doesn’t make you overly sensitive to the sun.

  1. Apply retinol a few times a week

Again, retinol—no matter what form—is a potent ingredient. It’s best to start small and apply it a few times weekly to keep potential side effects in check. Small amounts can go a long way, especially for retinol newbies and sensitive skin types. Doing so ensures you won’t have allergic reactions. You can gradually up your retinol usage once your skin acclimates to the new ingredient. 

Meanwhile, vitamin C is another potent ingredient, but compared to retinol, it’s safe to use daily.

  1. Always apply moisturizers after retinol or Vitamin C serums

Retinol and vitamin C often come in serums for higher concentration, so you typically use them before your moisturizer. Besides locking in moisture into your skin, applying a moisturizer creates a barrier between your skin and outdoor weather, preventing retinol and vitamin C products from escaping. 

  1. Wear sunscreen daily

Retinol’s sensitivity to sunlight creates the need for a strong sunscreen that can protect your skin from harsh UV rays. Sunscreen is the best skincare product to prevent the sun’s harmful rays from damaging your skin. However, you can think of vitamin C as an extra layer of protection that supports your sunscreen’s effectiveness. 

  1. Be careful in introducing other actives to your skincare routine 

If you’re using retinol, vitamin C, or both, check the other active ingredients in your skincare routine. Retinol, in particular, isn’t compatible with many skincare ingredients, such as AHA and BHA. Using them together can cause irritation and breakouts. Check the ingredients of skincare products before using them to prevent adverse reactions to your skin.

Choose the Best Skincare Ingredient for You

Retinol and vitamin C are two of the most popular skincare ingredients nowadays, targeting various skin conditions simultaneously. However, it’s not advisable to layer these products as they may further irritate the skin.

Instead, you should thoroughly research how and when to use these products or ingredients before introducing them to your skin. If you’re not careful, they may do more harm than good. The best way to determine a product or ingredient’s compatibility with your skin is by consulting a dermatologist.

Message Kiehl’s on Facebook to get personalized product recommendations. Our customer representative will answer your questions about skin types and concerns to help you find the right products. 

If you’re ready to shop, check out Kiehl’s retinol serums and dark spot treatments with vitamin C formulated for everyday use.