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Vitamin C vs Retinol [what do these serums actually do?]

Vitamin C and Retinol are two of the most hyped ingredients in the world of skincare. And often mentioned as gold standard components in anti aging skincare routines.

I get many questions about serums with vitamin C vs Retinol serums. How they differ, and which is most effective to fight skin aging. So in this post, I’ll sort it all out. I’ll explain what these serums really do to your skin and how they should be used. 

Below is what I’ll cover and you can quick jump to any section by clicking the headlines:

Vitamin C serum – what it does to your skin

Vitamin C plays a fundamental part in the process of producing collagen. And using a vitamin C serum can therefore help with increasing collagen in your skin. BUT that only happens if you get a frugal amount of this vitamin from your diet. 

In other words, make sure you eat plenty of fruits and vegetables every day to keep the collagen production high. You can check out this post to learn more about what vitamin C does to your skin internally. 

Adding vitamin C topically as a skincare ingredient can be great for other purposes though. Such as treating hyperpigmentation. And as adding extra protection against free radicals. Since antioxidants are consumed rapidly during stress, illness, sun exposure, and pollution.

Be aware though, that many vitamin C serums can be highly irritating. Especially if you have sensitive skin. I have a whole blog post about this subject. So if you are about to start with a vitamin C serum I suggest you read this post first.

Vitamin C vs Retinol - comparison and tips
Vitamin C vs Retinol serums. This post explains how they differ and what they can accomplish. As well as how to combine them and what serums I use myself on my sensitive skin.

*Please note, this post contains affiliate links, which means I may receive a small commission if you purchase through any of those links. It doesn’t cost you any extra and I only recommend products I truly love and use myself. You can read my full disclosure here.  

In short, vitamin C serums can cause irritation but also help with healing and calming the skin. Depending on which form that is in the serum. 

I do not recommend the pure ascorbic acid for several reasons. It is very unstable and can oxidize easily and even become pro-oxidant. It can also cause irritation as well as acne if you are sensitive (as myself). 

My first-hand choice of vitamin C in skincare products is sodium ascorbyl phosphate. It is suitable for even the most sensitive skin types. And as a huge bonus it actually helps with reducing inflammation and acne.

My own favorite serum with vitamin C is this one. And to read my full review of it you can check out this post

Retinol serum – what it does to your skin

Retinol is an ingredient that belongs to the group of vitamin-A derivatives called retinoids. They are the most used and studied ingredients when it comes to skincare. And they have proven effects on reducing wrinkles and fine lines

Even though Retinol is a much milder derivative than pure retinoic acid (for example Retin-A). It has been shown to be just as effective for anti aging purposes. Even though it might take slightly longer to see the benefits of it. 

On the flip side, Retinol will also cause a lot less side effects such as erythema and scaling

So how do Retinol (and other retinoids) make your skin younger? Here is a short version of what it does long term:

  • It increases production of collagen
  • It increases cell turnover
  • It increases production of new blood vessels 
  • It increases production of hyaluronic acid
  • It decreases age spots and other hyperpigmentation issues

This is why retinoids are considered to be gold standard ingredients when it comes to anti-aging skincare. 

Just remember that these improvements take time. Usually, 3-6 months until you start to see any positive change.

Another thing to remember is that even if Retinol is much milder than pure retinoic acid. It can still cause a lot of side effects if you are sensitive. 

For me personally, it took years before I found a serum with Retinol that worked for my skin. All the others had caused me not just irritation and redness. But also such bad breakouts that I could not continue using them without risking to get scared.

Now, I have very sensitive skin, and there are many ingredients that I don’t tolerate. But if you happen to be super sensitive like I am. Or if you just want to know one of the best serums out there. I recommend this one from Murad (my full review is found here).

If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, or just want to have a retinol alternative, I highly recommend you see my new post about Bakuchiol.

Is retinol an exfoliant?

Not exactly, since it does not exfoliant the surface of the skin. But using Retinol will increase cell turnover which will bring out new skin cells faster and that will in turn help push out the old ones. This is what makes Retinol such a great ingredient for improving skin’s brightness and reducing hyperpigmentation. 

Exfoliants such as AHA and BHA on the other hand, work by removing the dead skin cells on the surface of your skin. Which can also promote brighter skin temporarily.

The flaking that Retinol and Retin-A can cause initially is not an exfoliant reaction. But instead, an irritation that hopefully goes away with time if you start slow.

It is ok to use both an exfoliant (preferable a mild one) and retinol at the same time. But only once your skin has adjusted to the Retinol and shows no signs of flaking or irritations. And assuming you have a non-sensitive skin type.

And if you’re wondering about sun exposure. Your skin does not get more sensitive to the sun by using retinoids. As long as you have adapted to it and can tolerate the serum you are using. If you experience any flaking or redness from the serum you use, then definitely stay out of the sun. 

Vitamin C vs Retinol – which is best for anti aging?

They are both great skincare ingredients for anti aging. But they work differently. This section will compare and summarize how they differ in terms of anti-aging properties.

Collagen production

Retinol will, by acting as a cell-signaling agent, increase collagen production. Which is important for thickening and smoothening of the skin. Retinol will also help prevent breakdown of the collagen you already have. 

Vitamin C is crucial for collagen production, which is a huge selling point when it comes to serums with this ingredient. But in reality, topical products with vitamin C will only aid with collagen production if you are eating sparingly with vitamin C rich foods. Which you of course shouldn’t. Read this post to understand more about why you need vitamin C in your diet. 


Retinol will increase the production of hyaluronic acid, which makes your skin hydrated and plump. And less prone to fine lines. If you want more tips on how to increase your own Hyaluronic acid production, then see this post.

Vitamin C will not impact the hyaluronic acid content. But one of the vitamin C derivatives, magnesium ascorbyl phosphate, has been shown to have a hydrating effect. By decreasing transepidermal water loss

Also, certain carotenoids that you get from the same food sources as vitamin C will increase the production of hyaluronic acid in the skin. I personally eat a lot of carotenoid-rich foods. But I also use this face serum with both vitamin C and the carotenoid astaxanthin. That has an amazing effect on the skin. 

Free radical defense

Retinol works as a powerful antioxidant. And so does Vitamin C. Meaning they both protect from harmful free radicals that we find in our daily life (sun, stress, pollution etc). 

Vitamin C plays especially well when combined with other antioxidants. And should always be combined in a serum with other antioxidants such as vitamin E, and or carotenoids. In food that happens naturally. 

Cell turnover

Retinol increases cell turnover, which Vitamin C serum doesn’t.


Both retinol and vitamin C helps with hyperpigmentation. And they can both give a more even skin tone. 


If vitamin C is used in the right form (sodium ascorbyl phosphate) it has a calming and anti-inflammatory effect. And can reduce acne. If used in its pure form (ascorbic acid) it can instead be highly irritating especially if you are sensitive. And cause more harm than good.

Retinol can often be irritating in the beginning and should be used only a few times per week to start with. I personally have hypersensitive skin and as mentioned before there is only one retinol serum that my skin can tolerate. See this post if you want to read more about it. 

Over time though, retinol will strengthen the skin and make it healthier, thicker, and more resistant.

Vitamin C vs Retinol - Me and the serums I use myself

So there you have the list of what these skincare ingredients can achieve for your skin. Just remember that skin care products are just a small piece of the puzzle when you want to fight aging. Sun exposure, smoke, sleep, and diet all play important roles for how fast your skin will age.

To read more about the fundamental ways to prevent wrinkles make sure you read this post. And to see my favorite sunscreens (and why) see this post

Another important thing to mention is that no skincare product will do much to sagging skin if you are experiencing that. I suggest you check out my post about nasolabial folds, and jowls and marionette lines, to learn how to prevent and tackle these concerns. 

Can vitamin C and Retinol be combined?

Yes, they can. But if you have sensitive skin you need to be cautious and only use one of them at a time. And remember that many times less is more when it comes to active ingredients in skincare. Too much of the “good” can overstrain the skin and even backfire (see my post about skin barrier repair if you think you have overstrained your skin already).

I would suggest most skin types to use a vitamin C serum (mixed with other antioxidants such as vitamin E and/or carotenoids) in the morning. And a retinol serum before bedtime. 

My own favorite vitamin C serum and retinol serum.
These are the two serum I use myself, since they are not just effective, but also tolerated by my hypersensitive skin. You can read about my favorite retinol serum from Murad in this post. And my vitamin C serum with astaxanthin in this post.

Another tip is to be extra careful with combining serums with pure ascorbic acid ingredients with retinol. Especially if you have sensitive skin or acne-prone skin (read this post if you experience irritated skin barrier from using too many products).

There are many reasons why I recommend the vitamin C derivative sodium ascorbyl phosphate. And I explain it all here

Conclusions Vitamin C vs Retinol

  • Retinol is the most researched and proven ingredient to really have a strong anti aging effect on your skin. It increases collagen, hyaluronic acid, and cell turnover. It also evens out your skin tone and reduces hyperpigmentation. 
  • Retinol products need to be acclimated slowly to your skin in the beginning. 
  • Vitamin C is a crucial element for collagen production. But you should first and most make sure you eat plenty of vitamin C rich foods to saturate your vitamin C levels from the inside. 
  • A topical vitamin C serum can help with skin brightening, reducing acne (if used as sodium ascorbyl phosphate), and help with fighting free radicals. Especially when combined with other antioxidants in the same serum.
  • The ingredient vitamin C comes in different forms. And the one I recommend is sodium ascorbyl phosphate since it is suitable even for the most sensitive skin type, and it helps with reducing acne too. 
  • The best way to incorporate both these ingredients in your skincare regimen is to use a vitamin C serum in the morning. And a retinol serum at night. If you were to only choose one of them I would definitely choose retinol. As long as your skin can tolerate it. 

If you want to try the vitamin C serum I use myself, this link will take you to YesStyle. They have great prices, ship worldwide, and give you a money-back guarantee too.

If you want to try the retinol serum I use, this link goes to Sephora. If you live in Europe I recommend Feelunique on this link. They have the best price I could find and they deliver to most countries too.

That’s it! Let me know in the comments below if you have any comments at all. Or if you have any experiences you want to share 🙂

Until next time, love your skin!

This Post Has 26 Comments

  1. Lee Good

    Thanks so much for this indepth article on the values of vitamin c and retinol for the face. I have learnt so much! In the past I was given a new vitamin c product to try by a salon which burnt my skin and the pain lasted 3 days. The salon was very concerned and asked me to apply hyaluronic acid as a solution which did help but testing the vit cin a small patch test would be my advice. I do have sensitive skin lately as I get older. Also I have a few autoimmune conditions which can affect the whole body inclding the skin.

    1. Ann

      You’re very welcome Lee! So sorry to hear about your experience. I am sure they gave you a product with pure ascorbic acid which can be very harsh for someone with sensitive skin. The derivative sodium ascorbyl phosphate is so much better 🙂

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