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The Most Powerful Active Ingredient Combos for Your Skin

August 18, 2021

The Most Powerful Active Ingredient Combos for Your Skin

You likely already know the importance of using active ingredients like vitamin C, retinol and hyaluronic acid in your skincare routine. But which of these powerhouse ingredients play well with each other? Some actives work incredibly well together, boosting effectiveness for added benefits. But some active ingredients can inactivate each other or lead to breakouts when paired together.

Consider this your cheat sheet of active ingredients that work well together—and those that don’t. We’ve got the low-down on the most powerful active ingredient combos for your skin.

What are actives in skincare?

Actives are the ingredients in a skincare product that make it effective. They specifically address the skin concern the product is meant to target. Active ingredients typically will also have some scientific basis for their activity. Some active ingredients are also regulated by the FDA. For example, on sunscreens, you can find a “Drug Facts” label stating the active ingredients, directions and safety information.

Common Skincare Active Ingredients

  • Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs)
  • Beta hydroxy acids (BHAs)
  • Ceramides
  • Hyaluronic acid 
  • Niacinamide
  • Peptides
  • Retinoids
  • Antioxidants
  • SPF

The Most Powerful Active Ingredient Combos for Your Skin

Get the most out of your targeted treatments, boosters and serums with the most powerful active ingredient combinations below.

Vitamin C + Ferulic Acid 

Vitamin C is one of the most powerful antioxidants. It protects the skin from things like UV rays, dirt and pollution, and free radicals. But the most potent forms of vitamin C are often the most unstable. That makes them vulnerable to light, heat, and air. Ferulic acid also fights free radicals. And when combined with vitamin C, it helps to stabilize it so that it doesn’t vanish into the air.

Vitamin C + Vitamin E

Vitamin C and vitamin E both work by negating free radical damage, but each combats different types of UV damage. When paired together, these antioxidants are more effective in preventing photodamage than either alone. This powerful combo gives your skin the ammunition to fight double the damage from free radicals and sun damage.

Vitamin C + Vitamin E + Ferulic Acid

Vitamin C, vitamin E and ferulic acid are the best of all worlds, offering triple the protection power. We already told you that vitamin C and E work in tandem to undo damage from the sun. And when combined with vitamin C, ferulic acid helps to stabilize it so that it doesn’t vanish into the air. This is the ultimate active ingredient combo for fighting UV damage.

Hyaluronic Acid + Vitamin C

Using vitamin C and hyaluronic acid together in your skincare routine is the quickest way to get bright, balanced skin. These actives work together to smooth skin texture and visibly reduce fine lines. If you're using them in the form of two different products, apply your vitamin C serum before your hyaluronic acid serum.

Retinoids + Peptides 

Using retinoids and peptides together is another powerhouse skincare combo. You get the collagen building effects of the retinoid, while it works to improve the penetration of the peptide cream. This helps improve skin’s firmness. Plus, many peptide creams contain emollients, or hydrating ingredients, to counteract the irritating side effects from the retinoid. Use the retinol serum first, then top it with the peptide cream.

Antioxidants and SPF

Wearing sunscreen 365 days per year, rain or shine, is arguably the most important thing you can do for your skin health. And while antioxidants can’t take the place of a preventive SPF, they can make it work harder. Research shows that the combination of vitamins E, C, and sunscreen increases the effectiveness of your sun protection. Antioxidants work to scavenge damaging free radicals, acting as a second line of defense and extra layer of protection. This is a powerful active ingredient combo in the fight against both the visible signs of aging and skin cancer. 

Retinoids + Hyaluronic Acid

It was once thought that applying a moisturizer before a retinoid would render the latter inactive. But we now know this isn’t the case. Retinoids are infamous for being harsh on the skin. They can cause discomfort, irritation, redness, flaking, and extreme dryness. These side effects may be a deal breaker for some. This is where hyaluronic acid comes in. Pairing a retinoid with a hydrating hyaluronic acid serum is actually a great combination. Apply a light layer of the hyaluronic acid cream or serum first, followed by a pea-sized amount of the retinoid. 

Niacinamide + Vitamin C

There was once a misconception that niacinamide couldn’t be mixed with vitamin C. However, they don’t render each other less effective -- they actually form a powerhouse duo. Using niacinamide in conjunction with a vitamin C serum will leave skin looking more radiant and noticeably younger-looking. 

Active Ingredient Combinations to Be Cautious Of

The following active ingredient combinations require caution and monitoring.

Retinoids + Skin Acids

Retinoids are super effective, sometimes at the cost of skin irritation and sensitivity. Using retinoids at the same time as skin acids increase sensitivity. If you do want to use both active ingredients, use the acids in the morning and save the retinoid for evening. Or, use them on different days.

Retinoids + Vitamin C

Using retinoids in combination with vitamin C can cause over exfoliation. This can result in increased skin and sun sensitivity. Separate these two active ingredients in your skincare routine. Use one in the daytime and one in the nighttime.  

Benzoyl Peroxide + Vitamin C

This active ingredient combination renders the effects of both useless. The benzoyl peroxide will oxidize the vitamin C. Use these two on alternative days.

Benzoyl Peroxide + Retinol

Just like with vitamin C, mixing benzoyl peroxide with retinol won’t work. These two ingredients deactivate each other. Alternate days if using both.

Beta Hydroxy Acid + Alpha Hydroxy Acid

It’s best not to use products with beta-hydroxy and alpha-hydroxy acids at the same time. Salicylic acid is the most common BHA; glycolic and lactic acid are popular AHAs. BHAs and AHAs aren’t meant for layering. But they can work together IF they’re formulated and blended correctly. Look for a product that contains both, rather than layering separate products. These are specially formulated to minimize irritation.

When to apply your active ingredients 

To help you figure out when to apply your favorite active ingredients, we’ve created this cheat sheet. See what’s best to use during the day versus night time.

Actives to use in your morning skincare routine

How you cleanse in the morning is your call, but you do want to start the day with a clean slate. A toner and any of your favorite hydrating products(like hyaluronic acid) can be applied any time of day. But there are a couple active ingredients that are best used in the morning. Those include:

Zinc oxide, titanium dioxide and other SPF ingredients. Whatever your preferred sunscreen, it’s vital that you apply in the morning. Your SPF should be applied as the final step before your makeup.

Vitamin C and antioxidants. You can technically apply vitamin C at any time of the day, but you’ll make the most of its benefits if you use it in the morning. Because vitamin C is an antioxidant, it shields your skin from free radicals and sun damage. 

Actives to use in your nighttime routine

We recommend a double cleanse in your nighttime routine, especially for makeup wearers. Start with a micellar water to wipe off makeup and oil buildup. After this first cleanse has removed all impurities, it’s time to use a face wash. Wash upwards and outwards in order to get a deeper cleanse. Next, you can apply a serum, treatment or cream with an active ingredient that works best over night.

Retinoids. Retinoids are generally best applied at night since the sun can break down the ingredient rendering it less potent. Vitamin C and retinol also shouldn’t be mixed, so it’s best to use one in the morning and one in the evening. Finally, using retinol at night allows you to combine it with a heavier cream to reduce irritation. 

Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), like glycolic and lactic acid. AHAs are also generally best reserved for nighttime use. This is because they can increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun. It’s ideal to use an AHA only two to four times per week depending on the potency.

Beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) like salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide. You should reserve BHAs for nighttime usage for the same reason. Similar to other acids, BHAs can cause sensitivity with over use or when combined with other exfoliating ingredients. 

Make your skincare routine as effective as possible and your products work even harder for you. Step up your knowledge of active ingredients and know your do’s and don’ts. It can be daunting to add a new powerful ingredient into your routine. Not to mention knowing how to mix them. But with our cheat sheet of active ingredients that work well together (and those that don’t!) you’ll see your best skin yet!

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