The 10 Do’s and Don’ts of Layering Your Retinol with Other Ingredients
Main image – Bratco/Stocksy
To achieve thicker, voluminous hair you’d usually turn to a volumising hair mousse or spray. For plumped, glowy, de-clogged skin, it’s retinol.
Sounds simple right? But when it comes to who can use it and what to layer it with, it gets a little more complicated.
This is because, as beneficial as it is for the skin, retinol packs a serious punch. It can cause dryness, irritation and redness on even the most ‘normal’ of skin types, and it can react with certain other ingredients too. So, those with sensitive skin should be cautious.
Of course, applying a daily SPF is recommended for everyone, but particularly those who have retinol as part of their skincare regime. But what else should or shouldn’t we be mixing retinol with? After all, applying too many active ingredients at once can sometimes do the skin more harm than good.
Dermatologists Dr Jennifer Baron, Dr Hamdan Abdullah Hamed, Dr Geeta Yadav and advanced aesthetics doctor Dr Sebastian Bejma are here to give us a rundown of retinol’s most compatible (and incompatible) matches.
1. Do layer retinol with hyaluronic acid
In my opinion, you really can’t go wrong with hyaluronic acid. It’s found naturally in the skin and holds up to 1,000 times its own weight in water, so it’s super hydrating.
Unfortunately though, according to the experts, our body’s own supplies deplete over time thanks to things like pollution, UV and ageing so whatever your skin type, you need to keep it topped up. Even if you’re using retinol.
“It’s a winning pairing,” says Dr Baron. “Hyaluronic acid holds moisture more than anything. Retinol will challenge that but not if combined in a routine.”
PRO TIP: Dr Bejma recommends applying retinol in between hyaluronic acid and niacinamide. “This is sometimes referred to as a sandwich technique because you are sandwiching two ingredients that help to moisturise the skin around one ingredient (retinol) which can dry the skin,” he says.
2. Don’t layer retinol with vitamin C
“Both [retinol and vitamin C] can be irritants since they are both acids,” says Dr Baron. You can still use the two ingredients, just not together.”
“I’d suggest using Vitamin C during the day and then retinol at night,” adds Dr Hamed.
“Vitamin C is a very valuable tool in the defence against free radicals which your skin is most susceptible to during the day when it’s exposed to UV and other environmental factors,” explains Dr Yadav.
3. Do layer retinol with a gentle antioxidant serum
This is fine, as long as the serum doesn’t contain vitamin C. “All retinols are irritants, so the best regimen plan is to pick one that is part of a well-balanced formula or to layer it with an antioxidant or deeply hydrating product,” says Dr Baron.
This includes hyaluronic acid as I’ve mentioned before, but Dr Baron’s other favourite antioxidant pairings with retinol are green tea, niacinamide, caffeine, aloe vera and macadamia oil.
These ingredients won’t be too harsh on the skin when paired with retinol like vitamin C can be, for example, and they will work well together to smooth, repair and renew the skin.
4. Don’t layer retinol with benzoyl peroxide
Benzoyl peroxide is an ingredient often used to zap acne breakouts, meaning it’s very strong and not to be messed with. As retinol is also an incredibly powerful ingredient, the two used together would likely be too harsh for your skin. Even if alternated, morning and evening.
Dr Yadav recommends you use it “on nights that you do not use retinol and use retinol on the other nights.” So, no alternating unless it’s alternate days.
5. Do layer retinol with moisturiser
Everyone needs a decent moisturiser in their skincare regime, and preferably a different one for morning and evening. The purpose of a moisturiser is to replenish any lost hydration that’s happened either overnight, during the day or indeed caused by any of your other skincare products, like retinol.
You can layer your moisturiser with retinol, as long as it doesn’t contain any active ingredients. Apply your retinol at night, in serum form if you can. Allow it to sink in, then apply your night cream over the top.
6. Don’t layer retinol with glycolic acid and other AHAs
Glycolic acid, an effective chemical exfoliant, and even the gentlest of AHAs like lactic acid shouldn’t be layered directly with retinol.
“Do not use exfoliants like azelaic acid, AHAs, BHAs or PHAs in the same part of your routine as retinol as it will likely over-sensitise your skin,” warns Dr Yadav.
Retinol is usually recommended as a night-time product so use your AHA/BHA/PHA exfoliant or anything containing glycolic acid in the morning so that you’re not overloading your skin all at once. If your moisturiser or serum contains glycolic acid, use a different one for evening time to layer with your retinol.
Dr Baron actually advises using glycolic acid only 2-3 times a week. “Use a glycolic acid preparation then a medical-grade retinol to see results.”
7. Do layer retinol with niacinamide
Much like hyaluronic acid, niacinamide (a form of vitamin B3) is a one-ingredient-suits-all kind of vibe. “It features both anti-ageing benefits as well as anti-inflammatory properties, making it a beneficial pairing,” says Dr Yadav.
“Retinol can be layered with hyaluronic acid and niacinamide and they tend to work well together because whilst retinol can cause dryness, hyaluronic acid helps to hydrate the skin as does niacinamide,” adds Dr Bejma.
Remember the sandwich technique? “These two ingredients can help to negate any negative effects of the middle one [retinol],” confirms Dr Bejma.
8. Don’t layer retinol with azelaic acid
I’ve already touched on azelaic acid and mentioned not layering it directly with retinol, but what exactly is azelaic acid? As well as being a good anti-inflammatory and skin tone balancer, it can sometimes be used to treat acne. But it is far gentler than benzoyl peroxide.
Having said that, layering it with retinol is advised against. I am currently using a prescribed azelaic acid cream to clear up some hormonal acne and was advised by my doctor to stop using retinol altogether as this combination could irritate my skin.
One evening I applied my retinol without thinking and whilst I didn’t experience redness or dryness, my skin was very itchy for the next 24 hours.
9. Do layer retinol with SPF
Most of the time, retinol is best used at night because that is when the skin rejuvenates. Also, some types of retinol can break down in sunlight so it’s best to space the two apart.
That’s not to say, however, that using it in the morning is the wrong thing to do, as long as you have been advised to do so by a professional. Whether you use it at night or in the morning though, the advice on SPF stays the same – wear it daily and apply one no lower than SPF 30.
Use a gentle, non-comedogenic SPF that won’t clog the skin and cause irritation when layered with retinol. And if you alternate anything, make it the retinol, not the SPF.
10. Don’t layer retinol with salicylic acid
Salicylic acid is another brilliant ingredient for treating issues like acne, pigmentation and fine lines. However, you should proceed with caution when layering it with retinol by alternating the two, morning and evening.
PRO TIP: Before starting my current azelaic acid treatment, I would use my salicylic acid cleanser in the morning, followed by my standard morning routine. Then in the evening, I’d swap out my morning cleanser for a gentler one that didn’t contain salicylic acid so that I could layer on my retinol, irritation-free.
This was a good system for my oily, sometimes sensitive skin and I didn’t experience any redness or dryness.
When it comes to hyaluronic acid, SPF, antioxidants, niacinamide and a standard moisturiser, layering them up with retinol couldn’t be more beneficial for the skin. It’s your other acids and exfoliants that you need to be weary of.
Think about what these acids – with the exception of HA – are usually doing for your skin. Renewing, smoothing and sometimes treating a skin condition. This is what retinol is doing too, so a double whammy in the same sitting might be too much and could cause a negative reaction.
Alternation is key here, whether that’s alternating between morning and evening, or by day. So, follow the above instructions for a safer, more effective retinol experience.
Meet the experts
Dr. Jennifer Baron is a double board-certified dermatologist with a premier skincare line. For more than a decade as a private practice dermatologic surgeon in San Jose, California, Dr. Baron continues to pair her medical training and experience with research and innovation of effective skin care treatments for her patients.
Dr Hamdan Abdullah Hamed is a board certified dermatologist and co-founder of online haircare shop PowerYourCurls.
Dr. Geeta Yadav is a board-certified dermatologist and founder of FACET Dermatology.
Dr Sebastian Bejma is known as a trailblazer in Skin Tech and the owner of Bejma Medical Clinic in Leeds. Harnessing 15 years of experience as a doctor, he utilises his impeccable knowledge of innovative technology to revolutionise skincare, anti-ageing, pre-juvenation and rejuvenation.