Vitamin C and Retinol: The Powerhouse Duo

By: Alicia

As rising stars in the skincare scene, you’ve probably seen a couple of Instagram reels or TikTok videos about Vitamin C and Retinol. They are the powerhouse duo many skinfluencers and skincare brands are raving about!

Vitamin C is known for fading dark spots and brightening, while Retinol is known for its anti-aging effect. When used together, they can really transform dull skin into a youthful, transparent glow.


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Despite all this hype, many are still confused on how exactly these ingredients work and whether you can use them together. It’s important to know how to use active ingredients properly, or you may risk damaging your skin. Let’s backtrack to the basics of each ingredient first for those who are unfamiliar with Vitamin C and Retinol!

Get to know Vitamin C

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Vitamin C, also known as L-ascorbic acid, is a water-soluble antioxidant that protects our skin from free radicals. Free radicals are rogue molecules lacking an electron that can damage our body if left unchecked. These can be neutralized by antioxidants such as Vitamin C that donate or share an electron to these free radicals, and prevent damage.

Antioxidant Hero and Collagen's Bestie

The antioxidant properties of Vitamin C also help with our skin’s regenerative properties and benefit the skin by lightening dark spots, improving tone, texture, and hyperpigmentation. 

Next, Vitamin C plays a crucial part in creating collagen, an essential component of our skin that keeps it firm, elastic, and maintains the skin barrier. This is why it's important that we have enough Vitamin C in our body and skin. 

Lastly, Vitamin C also has the ability to inhibit melanin production in the skin, which prevents the formation of dark spots. By reducing oxidative damage caused by UV rays and environmental pollution, and ensuring our skin has the right building blocks to keep creating collagen, all of this can help maintain your skin’s clear, youthful appearance!


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Powerful but Delicate Ingredient

However, Vitamin C is a very unstable ingredient as it is quickly oxidized in the air and easily damaged by light and heat. If not packaged properly, these factors can greatly reduce its functionality. On the other hand, derivatives of Vitamin C (such as Vitamin C carbonate magnesium salt, Vitamin C palmitate, Vitamin C glucoside, etc.) have much better stability and can be exposed to light. These derivatives are often added to daily brightening and anti-oxidizing skincare products.

In terms of pH, Vitamin C requires a lower pH or a more acidic environment in order to work. Because of this, Vitamin C cannot be paired with Retinol, and you will learn later on why this is so.

Next, Understand Retinol

Our second power ingredient is Retinol or Retinoic Acid, also known as Vitamin A. Just like Vitamin C, Vitamin A also has antioxidant properties and because of its ability to increase the quantity of collagen and prevent the deterioration of collagen in the skin, it is widely used in the treatment of aging skin. 

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However, Vitamin A is quite harsh and aggravating, and may cause adverse reactions to the skin such as skin irritations and dryness. Retinal (A aldehyde) and retinol (A alcohol) are relatively less aggravating among the retinoids, so they are widely added to skin care products as daily applications.

Unlike Vitamin C, which is water-soluble, Retinol is oil-soluble. Since oil and water do not mix, you should not use skincare products containing Vitamin C and Retinol together. Furthermore, Retinol actually requires a more neutral pH that is closer to the skin’s natural pH in order to work. Remember that Vitamin C requires a more acidic or lower pH? Mixing Retinol and Vitamin C will cancel out their effects and thus, become ineffective! This is why it is advisable to use them at different times of the day. 

Incorporating Vitamin C and Retinol into your routine

The combination of the Vitamin C and Retinol meets the core needs of anti-aging and brightening and if the two are used properly, it can greatly improve your skin condition. Here are other key factors to take note of when using these actives. 

1. Build Tolerance

Before actually incorporating them into your skincare routine, a very important point when it comes to using Vitamin C and Retinol is to build tolerance to minimize irritation! How can you build tolerance? Follow this acronym, CAFD:


It is recommended to start with a low concentration of Vitamin C derivatives or A-alcohol derivatives and gradually transition to a relatively higher concentration. Generally, one concentration, such as only 0.5%-2% Retinol, is used continuously for one month to observe the skin condition. If there is no adverse reaction, you can consider increasing the concentration.

Here is a table you can use to determine the concentration you should use for Vitamin C and Retinol according to your familiarity with it:




Vitamin C




Vitamin A

<= 0.1%




When starting out, only use a tiny pea-sized amount of the product on your face. Vitamin C and Retinol can be harsh on skin that has never encountered it before, so make sure to only apply a thin layer of it. As you build tolerance over time, you can start to increase the amount to a slightly larger amount.


To start off, use Vitamin C and Retinol only 1-2 times a week. After a few weeks with no allergic reactions, gradually increase usage to 2-3 times a week, then every other night.


While you are still adjusting, it is helpful to dilute the products with something calming such as a gentle essence toner or moisturizer prior to applying on your skin. The layer of essence toner or moisturizer on your skin will provide a barrier to avoid immediate harsh contact with the Vitamin C or Retinol. 

2. Separate them out: Vitamin C for AM, Retinol for PM

As mentioned before, Vitamin C and Retinol cannot be used together because of their different chemical properties and pH incompatibilities. Don’t worry, you can still use them in your skincare routine, just ensure that you use each ingredient at separate times of the day!

Since Vitamin C has sun-protective properties that limits damage from UV rays and has antioxidizing effects, it is better to use it in the morning! On the other hand, Retinol is an ingredient that can increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun, increasing likelihood of UV damage or sunburn. Hence, it is recommended to use Retinol at night when you are safe from sun exposure and the ingredient can work its magic while you sleep!

3. Always wear sunscreen during the day

In addition to building tolerance, another very important factor is sun protection. If you don't use sun protection, it may lead to dryness and irritation! As the two ingredients of Vitamin C and Vitamin A are aggravating, they will make the skin barrier more sensitive and fragile. Sunscreen helps to keep out harmful UV rays out.


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4. Not suitable for everyone

Unfortunately, this powerhouse duo is not for everyone. Here are three categories of people who should avoid using this skincare combo:

❌ People with damaged skin barrier

❌ People with severely sensitive skin 

❌ Pregnant and lactating women


Our recommended Vitamin C and Retinol products to try

Now that you’ve familiarized yourself with these two ingredients and how to build tolerance to them, here are some popular recommendations from Osakakuma!

1. Obagi

Got dark spots and pimple marks that take ages to fade?

Obagi, a skincare brand known for their Vitamin C serums, has achieved the miracle of No. 1 sales in the United States for ten consecutive years, and has also won a beauty award in Japan every year. Many have praised this serum for its dark spot-fading and brightening effects on the skin! The Obagi Japanese line jointly launched by Rohto and Dr. Obagi has different concentrations to meet the needs of Asian skin. 

Cr: SuperNature

There are a number of versions you can choose from:

Entry-level selection C5: This version for everyone, but the Japanese version has added alcohol, which is not suitable for sensitive skin.

C10 for long-term use: C10 is the most refreshing version and the patented stabilization technology ensures maximum Vitamin C activity and better permeability. It is suitable for long-term use and the most notable effect is that the skin becomes more “transparent” as pigmentation gradually disappears.

C20 for intensive care: The texture is a bit oilier than C10, the overall skin will feel comfortable and smooth. It is easy to apply, and has a magical effect on stubborn acne marks!

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The Obagi serum has a light yellow and transparent oily texture with a gentle note of sweet pear fragrance. 

2. AMPLEUR Luxury White Emulsion Gel EX

Need an all-in-one gel that repairs, softens, and moisturizes?

If you’re wondering what Japanese aesthetic salons use to beautify their customers, this is a product you have to look out for! AMPLEUR is a brand commonly used in high-end beauty salons in Japan. Its products have novel formulas and are well-received in Japan.

cr: Dora Crystal Fish

All in one jar, this product can repair + soften skin + moisturize! It contains arbutin, apple stem cell extract and 7 kinds of Vitamin C-rich fruit extracts. 

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In addition to vitamins and other ingredients, it can improve dry and peeling skin, and it is more moisturizing than ordinary creams. It has a natural jasmine scent with a fluffy and light texture.

3. SHISEIDO-ELIXIR Enriched Wrinkle Cream 

Searching for a refreshing, non-greasy eye cream?

This SHISEIDO-ELIXIR Enriched Wrinkle Cream is the second anti-wrinkle skin care product that has been officially certified by Japan after POLA. Currently, the highest level of anti-wrinkle certified in Japan is level 4, and this ELIXIR anti-wrinkle essence eye cream is in the 4th level of anti-wrinkle.

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The main ingredient used is the "pure retinol" ingredient that Shiseido has been researching for more than 30 years ago, which can improve wrinkles by increasing the moisture content of the skin and restoring your eyes to their youthful state!


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The texture of the eye cream is refreshing and non-greasy, and it is easy to spread and absorb.

When using ELIXIR eye cream, you only need to use a small amount equivalent to about one grain of rice for one eye! While applying, you can gently massage the skin around the eyes to help with absorption. This also helps reduce swelling, improve blood circulation around the eyes, and give your eyes a lifted effect.

4. SHISEIDO Vital-Perfection Intensive Wrinkle Spot Treatment

Looking for a product that spot-targets wrinkles?

Next, the SHISEIDO Vital-Perfection Intensive Wrinkle Spot Treatment contains almost all of Shiseido's existing scientific research achievements.


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The addition of Pure Retinol + VA acetate promotes the regeneration of collagen, which can well fight against photoaging and static wrinkles. It also contains Shiseido's patented potassium methoxysalicylate 4MSK to improve sagging and dark circles.

Moreover, it has a vacuum one-way keep-alive technology so that the cream can be pushed out without letting air in. This protects the stability and quality of the ingredients! 

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The texture of the cream is easy to spread, not sticky at all, and it is absorbed immediately after application.

5. SK-II Genoptics Under Eye Circle Eye Essence

Got stubborn dark circles and puffy under eyes?

Last, we have a cult-favourite skincare brand, SK-II! Compared to ordinary eye creams, this product comes with a ceramic massage head, which is convenient to use and makes the essence easier to absorb.

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It contains a brightening complex formula to brighten the complexion and decrease dullness. It also contains SK-II's most advanced GenOptics Aura Technology, and a new GenOptics Under Eye Dual Complex, which maintains healthy skin metabolism.


cr: SunnyGirl

It mainly improves the dullness of the skin around the eyes, lightens the dark circles, and targets the fragile skin around the eyes. The texture is like a lotion, the flow is very smooth, the absorption is quick, and you can pair it with eye cream for heightened effects. 

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