When it comes to skincare products, buzz does not necessarily equate to effectiveness. But in the cases retinol and vitamin C, two ingredients that are generating a ton of buzz at the moment, it does. Though they both offer many anti-aging benefits, the science behind how each works is different. Here, I’ll explain what each is, what it does, and when and how you should apply it.
Googling a term is usually straightforward. But searching for retinol could also lead you to retinoid and Retin-A. Retinoid is the umbrella term for any topical over-the-counter skincare product or prescription that contains a vitamin A derivative. In over-the-counter creams and serums, retinyl palmitate and the stronger retinol are the most common retinoids.
While retinol has been around for decades, its popularity has soared in recent years as the accumulating data shows, out of all the topical anti-aging ingredients available, retinol is runner-up only to sunscreen in its ability to combat skin aging. Specifically, retinol has been proven to help unclog pores, reduce fine lines, stimulate collagen production, increase skin cell turnover, smooth skin, and even out discoloration and pigmentation.
Vitamin C, which also goes by ascorbic acid, is an antioxidant that neutralizes free radicals (think UV rays and pollution, among a host of others) that can deteriorate the collagen in your skin, causing more visible signs of aging. (That said, vitamin C itself is not a sunblock.) Meaning: It’s capable of reducing the appearance of sunspots and discoloration, diminishing wrinkles, and smoothing over rough spots.
When to apply them
Since vitamin C guards the skin from the harmful effects of UV rays and everyday pollutants, you should apply it right after cleansing your face in the morning. Retinol, on the other hand, is best left for the night because it can increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun. If it’s easier to apply them both at night, you shouldn’t run into trouble unless you have sensitive skin and the two together cause irritation.
If you’ve never used retinol before, it can be drying. So, look for a product that also contains moisturizers, or one that encapsulates the retinol. With encapsulated retinol, it’s delivered to the skin gradually. Even then, it’s a good idea, after washing your face, to apply a layer of moisturizer and then a pea-size amount of retinol, followed by another layer of moisturizer. Studies have shown that the base layer of moisturizer helps with tolerability and doesn’t diminish the efficacy of the retinol.
Vitamin C serums aren’t hard to find, but they are notoriously unstable. Any exposure to air, heat, or light and the vitamin will slowly begin to degrade. To help with that, vitamin C is typically paired with other antioxidants and packaged in a dark-glass, air-tight bottle.