Retinol vs vitamin C—the benefits, differences, and how to use each in your skincare routine

The experts break down retinol vs vitamin C and how they can transform your skin

Two serums in a pipette, retinol vs vitamin c, spilling out on a grey backdrop
(Image credit: Getty Images)

If you're weighing up the benefits of retinol vs vitamin C, it's likely you might be trying to tackle wrinkles, fine lines, age spots, or acne. With so many skincare products and ingredients available it can be tricky to know which is going to be best for your skin. Let’s start by getting to the bottom of retinol vs vitamin C once and for all.

These two ingredients are both found in a variety of beauty products, usually creams or serums, but they work in different ways in your skincare routine. Retinol is derived from vitamin A and is used topically like vitamin C, but once applied both work in different ways. While the best vitamin C serums tend to focus on collagen synthesis, skin tone and clarity to shift pigmentation, the best retinol creams speed up cell turnover so can prove helpful in learning how to get rid of acne and for general textural improvements. 

Both are effective skincare ingredients, and they can even be used in the same routine if you follow a few simple rules. This guide will teach you to differentiate between retinol vs vitamin C so you can make the best decision and achieve your skin goals. 

Retinol vs vitamin C: your expert guide

What are retinol and vitamin C

What is retinol?
Retinol is a hot topic in the skincare industry—and even within that topic people debate retinoid vs retinol. Essentially all retinols are vitamin A derivatives, they just come in a few different forms. “Conventional cosmetics usually contain retinol esters called retinyl palmitate and tretinoin,” explains Vanessa Thomas, cosmetic chemist and founder of Freelance Formulations. “Your body converts these into an active form, retinoic acid, that can then be used by your skin cells.” 

What is vitamin C?
Vitamin C is one of the nutrients most of us learned about as children as a shortcut to good health. The primary function of Vit C in skincare is working as one of our most effective antioxidants to mop up unstable, damage-causing molecules called free radicals, which are found in smoke, pollution and UV. This gives it powerful protective and restorative properties when applied to the skin.

WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF EACH?

Retinol benefits
Whichever form of retinol you use, once your skin converts it into retinoic acid this in turn speeds up cell turnover, so helps shed dead cells and grow collagen, both of which contribute to skin smoothing and plumping. “Retinol can reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, improve an uneven tone and exfoliate the surface of the skin,” says Thomas. Due to it's ability to shift dead cells and build-up, retinol is often used in a skincare routine for acne and skincare for oily skin

Vitamin C benefits
As well as preventing oxidative damage, “Vitamin C is required for the biosynthesis of collagen,” says Thomas. Collagen is the skin's support structure. It keeps connective tissue strong, which results in wounds healing more quickly and skin retaining elasticity. So using topical Vit C can fortify the skin, make it more capable of fighting off irritants and damage and give it a firmer appearance. It can also superficially fade pigmentation and other tone issues caused by environmental damage. 

Retinol vs vitamin C: The key differences

Two pipettes of serum, a retinol vs vitamin c on a grey backdrop

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Retinol and Vitamin C can benefit similar aspects of the skin, but Savannah Grizzaffe, esthetician and owner of Southern Beauty Skin, notes there are some key differences too: 

  • Environmental protection: While both ingredients can help treat wrinkles, fine lines, spots, acne, and more, vitamin C is also known to protect the skin from harmful UV rays, pollution, and other harsh elements. 
  • Strengths: Retinol can come in different concentrations and styles such as prescription retinoids and retinol esters. Vitamin C cannot, although the percentage to which it is included in a formula can dictate the potency of that particular product. 
  • Potency: Retinol is one of the most powerful skincare ingredients. Vitamin C is more of a jack-of-all-trades. It has many of the same benefits — plus more — but the effects may not be as pronounced.
  • Who should use it: Vitamin C can be used while pregnant or breastfeeding, but retinol should not be used during this time.

How should you use retinol and vitamin C?

Vitamin C and retinol are both found in topical products, so you use them by applying them to cleansed skin like you would most skincare. “Vitamin C is generally used in serums to allow for better absorption,” explains Thomas. “Retinol is also mainly used in serums and moisturizers.”

The application process of both products is fairly similar, but the main difference in how to use retinol vs vitamin C is the best time of day to apply them. “While vitamin C is best in the morning, retinol can increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun, so it’s best at night,” says Dr. Harold Lancer, dermatologist of Lancer Dermatology. Wearing the best facial sunscreen is never a bad idea, but most experts particularly advise applying sunscreen in the mornings after using retinol the night before.

WHEN SHOULDN'T I USE THESE INGREDIENTS?

  • Layered up: While using both in your routine should be tolerated by the skin, experts recommend not using vitamin C and retinol at the same time. “The skin can become irritated and the products’ could be compromised if layered on top of one another,” says Dr. Lancer. This won’t create faster or more pronounced results and may lead to flakey, red, or irritated skin.
  • With AHAs: Thomas also recommends avoiding using either product layered up with “Alpha-hydroxy acids such as lactic or glycolic acid, as this can cause result in irritated skin.” You can still use skincare acids in a routine with retinol and vitamin C but leave a day or so between use and build up slowly to avoid overstimulating your skin. 

Retinol vs vitamin C: w&h verdict

Weighing up retinol vs vitamin C doesn't have to be an either-or situation. Certainly, they both have distinct benefits, and if your only goal is learning how to get rid of acne scars or other textural improvements, retinol might be the way to go. That is, however, as long as you don’t have sensitive skin or are pregnant or breastfeeding.

If you want a product that will improve your skin’s tone, collagen production, and general health and you’re willing to wait a little longer for the results, vitamin C could be the answer. It’s also relatively gentle, so all but the most fickle skin types should tolerate it well. But as we say, you needn't choose. With careful use, combining both in a routine, with Vitamin C in the morning and retinol at night, you could achieve the best results of all. 


woman&home thanks Vanessa Thomas of Freelance Formulations, Savannah Grizzaffe of Southern Beauty Skin, and Dr. Harold Lancer of Lancer Dermatology for their time and expertise.

Fiona McKim

As woman&home's Beauty Channel Editor, Fiona Mckim has tried more beauty products than she’s had hot dinners and nothing makes her happier than raving about a brilliant find on womanandhome.com or her instagram grid (@fionamckim if you like hair experiments and cute shih-tzus)

Fiona joined woman&home as Assistant Beauty Editor in 2013, working under industry legend Jo GB, who taught her everything she needed to know (clue: learn about ingredients and employ extreme cynicism). 


In a previous life, Fiona studied journalism back home in bonnie Scotland and honed her skills as a features writer at publications including Junior and Prima Baby, with a brief and terrifying stint on the showbiz pages of a tabloid newspaper in between. She's a skincare fanatic who can’t resist adding an extra step to her routine, adores fragrance, has fun with makeup and never turns down the chance to test a new hair tool. Basically, she loves it all.

When not slathering herself in self tan or peering at a tiny ingredients list on a moisturiser, you’ll probably find Fiona enjoying something to do with food - cooking it, eating it, cajoling her friends into trekking across London to try a hyped pop-up in a dirty car park. 


Come to think of it, the hot dinners and beauty products are probably about even.