Main content

Q: Do Actives Change the Order of Your Skincare Routine?

20 Aug 2020

With a love for cosmetics from a young age, my curiosity knew that there was much more to the goop inside the jar than meets the eye. I graduated with a Bachelor’s of Science in Analytical Chemistry and moved to California to chase my dreams of becoming a cosmetic chemist, passionate about developing results-driven skincare. Now, I am the Product Innovation Manager for Youth To The People. My primary experience is in research and development, with a focus on both sustainability and the formulation of skincare, bringing natural ingredients to the forefront of the cosmetics market. I’m here to answer all your skincare questions.

Question: Do Actives Change the Order of Your Skincare Routine?

Answer: Layering your skincare in the right order is incredibly important. With all the different ingredients and actives out there, it is important to know how to layer, what not to layer, and where exactly certain products should come into your routine. 

Everyone’s skincare goals are different, and you don’t need all active ingredients in your routine at once. Certain actives may help you hit multiple goals in one go, like retinoids, which are a great anti-acne and anti-aging ingredient, but they can be irritating to dry and sensitive skin types. Niacinamide and vitamin C may be the best ingredients for post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (here’s how to get rid of hyperpigmentation), but used at the same time, they interact poorly and cause extreme irritation. It can be complicated, so I made a guide of active ingredients, what each does, and when each should be used in your routine. No matter what, always wear sunscreen!


  • If you are using tretinoin as a prescription acne medication, consult with your doctor on using other active ingredients, like salicylic acid and niacinamide, to avoid potential interactions.
  • Retinol and its derivatives are some of the best anti-aging ingredients. Derived from vitamin A, an antioxidant known for its ability to accelerate cell turnover, retinoids can diminish the appearance of deep wrinkles, crows feet, and hyperpigmentation.
  • Because of how effective it is, retinols can be incredibly irritating in the early stages of use. Using AHAs and BHAs while using a retinol can cause the skin to become very dry, which can lead to irritation. I recommend holding off on exfoliators while using a retinol, especially in the first three months of use. 
  • If you’re finding retinol to be irritating but you love the results you are seeing, it is very important to moisturize. Using ceramides and hyaluronic acid in your nightly moisturizer while using retinol will help to keep your lipid barrier intact, keep skin hydrated, lower irritation, and allow retinol to be even more effective

Vitamin C

  • Because vitamin C is such a potent antioxidant, it can stop oxidation in its tracks. It’s a great daily protector. Vitamin C can also help to diminish the look of post inflammatory hyperpigmentation and sun damage over time, helping skin to become more even and less red with continued use.
  • In a skincare routine, vitamin C can be used after an AHA/BHA cleanser, but should be the first active put on your skin after cleansing. This will ensure that the strong antioxidant (vitamin C) goes to work on hyperpigmentation while protecting skin from loss of elasticity. When combined with chemical exfoliators and with continued use, the benefits from vitamin C will show up sooner.
  • Give vitamin C a little bit of time on your skin before your next step. A couple of minutes will allow your skin time to start the process of using the vitamin C. Our acid mantle will start to break down derivatives of vitamin C into L-ascorbic acid; avoid diluting this process by adding serums or moisturizers too quickly. As always, be sure to use a daily sunscreen to ensure the vitamin C is its most effective.
  • Avoid combining niacinamide and vitamin C to prevent potential irritation caused by interaction when both are applied topically as leave-on products. These two actives should instead be used on alternating days, if necessary. 

Alpha Hydroxy Acids and Beta Hydroxy Acids

  • Alpha hydroxy acids help speed up cell turnover, a process that begins to decrease as we age. Beta hydroxy acids break down oils on our skin, control sebum, shrink pores, and work as an anti-acne ingredient. At low pH (below 4.0), these chemical exfoliators will act as a peel, dismantling the lipids in between cells, allowing them to slough off faster. This can be quite dangerous to the skin if not applied properly by a professional. When the pH is skin-neutral, between 4.5-5.5, it means the acids will help balance the skin’s acid mantle. At this pH, they’ll exfoliate, refine pore size, and help with cell turnover. They’ll likely be less irritating, which is best overall. 
  • If the pH of a product sits between 5.5-6.5,  it is going to be both exfoliating and very hydrating. Hydration is also key to exfoliation, because it takes a lot of water to create new skin cells.
  • AHAs and BHAs exist in a number of different types of products, but my personal favorite is in cleansers and toners. If the effects of AHAs and BHAs are what you are after, consider them to be the first part of your nightly routine. If in a cleansing step, consider only using that cleanser once a day, depending on strength. If in a toning step, consider using that toner only at night, perhaps once or twice a week to avoid over-exfoliating—and definitely on alternating days to a retinoid. 
  • AHAs can be paired with vitamin C, but it is not recommended with retinol, especially within the first three months as the skin becomes tolerant to the antioxidant power of vitamin A (retinol). In this stage, the skin is quite vulnerable, but as soon as skin starts to look more even, the use of AHAs alongside retinol in a routine can help to diminish the appearance of hyperpigmentation. AHAs should be used on alternating nights as your retinoid. They should not be piled on one another in leave-on products. Either leave on retinoids, or leave-on AHAs and only at night to avoid potential irritation from sun exposure and daily pollutants.
  • AHAs will also help the delivery of niacinamide, and together they make for a great nightly routine.

Hyaluronic Acid

  • It’s an important vehicle for transferring water to the skin cells within the stratum corneum. Hyaluronic acid’s impeccable water-capturing abilities means that skin cells can sustain hydration. It acts as a net, forming a film above our stratum corneum, capturing water molecules and transferring them to dehydrated cells in our skin. It’s a wonderkind humectant that acts against transepidermal water loss.
  • This ingredient should go on after retinoids, vitamin C, and AHA/BHAs, and before moisturizers, or within your moisturizing step. Skin needs to stay hydrated, and this potent active ingredient helps. 

Ceramides, omega fatty acids, and phospholipids

  • Complex lipids like ceramides, phospholipids, and omega fatty acids are all necessary components of our skin’s lipid barrier. That lipid barrier protects our skin from dehydration which can be a common symptom of the over-use of chemical exfoliators and retinoids.
  • These function well at any stage of your skincare routine. Since these are all fantastic moisturizers with the ability to prevent transepidermal water loss, it’s ideal to use these in your facial serums, oils, and before your moisturizing step to lock in all the skincare goodness of your routine. Consider these actives in your sunscreen step as well, since they offer added protection against environmental stressors. 
Of course, it's incredibly important to know your skin type, because that will determine which active ingredients are most beneficial for your skin. (Have questions about your skin type? Book a free 15-minute skincare consultation here). But if you are cleansing your face with a pH-balanced cleanser, moisturizing regularly to keep skin hydrated, and of course wearing sunscreen, everything that falls in between will help you meet those skin goals efficiently.
Orientation message
For the best experience, please turn your device