Before You Get Active: A guide to using skincare actives safely
Disclaimer: This article does not substitute for doctor advice. We recommend consulting with your dermatologist first when starting a new product. If you experience adverse effects, stop what you are using and see a dermatologist immediately.
There are so many products swimming in a sea of beauty aisles that it’s easy to get confused, or worse, make a mistake about their usage. Experiencing a bad reaction after combining multiple things in your routine is not unusual but it can be avoided. This is why it’s important to know how to use certain products together by understanding the effects of each one so you can identify what you really need.
We’ve talked about the proper way to layer skincare products before, and the general rule is to apply them on your skin from water-based solutions to oil-based solutions. This can also translate to using thinner skincare products first to thicker ones, or lightest to heaviest. With actives though, things get a little more tricky.
Actives refer to skincare ingredients that can drastically alter how skin looks, feels, or even behaves. At the right concentrations and conditions, they’re potent enough to effect change in the skin even in a short amount of time. Think of them as skincare with superpowers, which is why they’re most useful for treating and targeting more serious skin concerns. There are four kinds that are commonly used for skincare.
Vitamin C is an antioxidant that targets dark spots, uneven skin tone, wrinkle formation (or signs of aging), and hyperpigmentation.
When to use: Vitamin C can make your skin more sensitive to the sun, so if you’re not used to using skincare actives, it may be best to use this at night. It also depends on the strength of your vitamin C: a concentration of 20% and below may be used in the morning with less irritation. If it is more than 20%, stick to using it in the evening.
Can I use it with other products? The use of vitamin C and niacinamide together has long been debated. It’s actually yes and no. If you have highly sensitive skin, then combining these two products might not be good for you as you may experience too much irritation or flushing (redness of the skin). People with inflammatory acne might get more irritated as well.
With AHAs and BHAs, it is better to take precaution as acid exfoliants can cause irritation when too much is used. Vitamin C is also utilized from an acid, so it may be better to just swap it out and skip one when using the other. It is the same case as using vitamin C with retinol. Some retinol products are really strong or potent and may cause irritation.
Aside from that, you’re good to go! As of current research and studies, you can use vitamin C with everything else.
AHA and BHA
AHAs (Alpha Hydroxy Acids) and BHAs (Beta Hydroxy Acids) are chemical exfoliants that make your skin smoother by getting rid of older layers and pore blockages such as whiteheads and blackheads. They also make skin appear brighter and smoother.
When to use: This would entirely depend on the product and brand. My Ordinary AHA/BHA is meant for weekly use only, while my COSRx AHA can be used two times a week. Make sure to read the label and to go slowly at first. AHA can increase sensitivity to the sun but because the effect can last for a week, it doesn’t really matter whether it is used during the day or in the evening.
Can I use it with other products? The use of acids with retinoids has been talked about for a while now and while there are contradicting statements, it is clear that both of them can cause dryness and irritation, especially for first-timers or when using stronger products. It’s best to use them separately, on different days. It’s also recommended to use a heavier moisturizer or hyaluronic acid afterwards.
Retinoids are the holy grail of skincare. They reduce signs of aging, treat acne, encourage cell turnover (which means skin gets new cells), reduces hyper pigmentation and dark spots, and heal mild acne scarring.
When to use: Retinoids are best used in the evening because they are sensitive against sunlight and would also make your skin sensitive to the sun. It’s best to start slowly and then gradually increase frequency.
Can I use it with other products? It is generally advised not to use retinoids with other retinoids, unless recommended by a dermatologist. Do not use in combination with waxing or laser treatments as well. Also, do not use retinoids if you are trying to conceive or if you are pregnant as there are concerns on how usage may have an in vivo effect.
Niacinamide, also known as Vitamin B3, is an antioxidant that helps reduce signs of aging, improves appearance of pores, evens out skin tone, and helps the skin appear brighter and less dull. It also reduces the skin’s transepidermal water loss (TEWL), meaning it prevents dryness and keeps the skin hydrated and moisturized, assuming of course that you moisturize your skin properly.
When to use: You can safely use this in the morning and in the evening daily.
A note on sunscreen
The PV team firmly believes in applying (and reapplying) sunscreen daily, even without the use of skincare actives. It’s especially important to keep your skin protected when using products with AHAs and retinoids as these have been proven to cause photosensitivity.
I personally do not use actives all together in one application as I have sensitive skin. I prefer to alternate use, depending on what my skin needs at the moment. Despite scientific studies, skincare is YMMV (your mileage may vary) so make sure to test out a product first before using it religiously.
Have you tried any of these skincare actives? How was your experience with them? Have you ever combined them together? How did it go?
Mukherjee, S., Date, A., Patravale, V., Korting, H. C., Roeder, A., & Weindl, G. (2006). Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clinical Interventions in Aging, 1(4), 327–348.
Song, X., xu, A., Pan, W., Wallin, B., Kivlin, R., Lu, S. ... Wan, Y. (2008). Nicotinamide attenuates aquaporin 3 overexpression induced by retinoic acid through inhibition of EGFR/ERK in cultured human skin keratinocytes. International Journal of Molecular Medicine, 22, 229-236. Link.
Chiu, P. C., Chan, C. C., Lin, H. M., & Chiu, H. C. (2007). The clinical anti‐aging effects of topical kinetin and niacinamide in Asians: a randomized, double‐blind, placebo‐controlled, split‐face comparative trial. Journal of cosmetic dermatology, 6(4), 243-249.
KindofStephen. (2018, May 11). Can you use Niacinamide and Vitamin C (Ascorbic Acid) together? Retrieved July 24, 2018, from link
Deciem. (n.d.). The Ordinary Regimen Guide. Retrieved July 24, 2018, from link
INTO THE GLOSS. (2018, February 28). How To Mix The Right Ingredients In Your Skincare Routine. Retrieved July 24, 2018, from link
Lushing, M. (2018, April 27). How to Combine Acids and Retinols in a Skincare Routine. Retrieved July 24, 2018, from link
Hadgraft, J., & Lane, M. E. (2009). Transepidermal water loss and skin site: A hypothesis. International Journal of Pharmaceutics, 373(1-2), 1-3. doi:10.1016/j.ijpharm.2009.02.007