Active skin care ingredients: A guide to layering them correctly

Active skin care ingredients: A guide to layering them correctly

Like many of you, we spent a lot of our time during quarantine upping our skincare game. Thanks to a wide variety of affordable brands gaining popularity like The Ordinary, The Inkey List, and Good Molecules, skincare has become akin to a fun chemistry experiment. Given this, skincare ingredients like niacinamide, lactic acid, peptides and retinoids have become more readily available and almost mainstream. What’s awesome about greater accessibility to these skincare superstars is we can mix and match ingredients to suit our skin’s needs, but not all ingredients work well together. When improperly coupled, some ingredients can cancel each other out or worse, leave your skin sensitive and sore. In this blog post, we’ll break down the basics of what works well together and what doesn’t, so keep reading to find out if you’re making any skincare mistakes!


A note before we dive in: Always be sure to spot test new skin care products on a small patch of out-of-view skin such as the skin behind your ear or on the inside of your forearm.  We always recommend, especially if you’re prone to allergies or sensitivities, to consult a professional before trying a new product.




the ordinary niacinamide 10% + zinc 1% bottleNiacinamide has been a game-changer for us and is definitely a staple in our routine. It’s also known as vitamin B3, which is found naturally in our bodies when transforming carbs into energy. For us, it’s helped reduce the appearance of larger pores and limit sebum production. Not only does it help balance our oily-combo skin, it’s also improved our skin’s overall hydration, helped to repair the skin barrier, and reduce pigmentation and dark spots. Like most active ingredients, you’ll typically find niacinamide in serum form. Our go-to has been The Ordinary Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1% (Sephora, $5.90) or Paula’s Choice Niacinamide 20% (Paula's Choice, $48), which is a more potent formula.


How to pair:


Niacinamide works great on most skin types, as it’s not very acidic (a 4.5 PH level, to be exact) so it’s generally safe for sensitive skin. You’ll typically be OK to use niacinamide with other active ingredients like vitamin A’s (retinol) and vitamin C’s. Some skin specialists have argued that mixing niacinamide and vitamin C renders vitamin C less potent, though this is likely not the case today given currently available vitamin C’s are much more stable than they were when studied years ago. Pairing vitamin C and niacinamide may help to smooth wrinkles and even out dull pigmented skin, especially with acne scars and hyperpigmentation! If your skin is super sensitive, it may be a good idea to use your vitamin C in the daytime and apply niacinamide at night.



Vitamin C

Drunk Elephant c-firma vitamin c day serum bottleAlso known as ascorbic acid, vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant. Many use vitamin C for its brightening effect and for promoting collagen production in the deeper layers of the skin. Vitamin C in its pure form can be very unstable though, which can create confusion on how to properly use it. There are many different derivatives of this ingredient that are great for sensitive skin types, as they are more stable and gentler. One of our favourite vitamin C products is the Drunk Elephant C-Firma Vitamin C Day Serum (Sephora, $105).


How to pair:


Vitamin C works wonders when paired with Vitamin E and ferulic acid, which work in tandem to stabilize the vitamin C and can actually limit any irritation the vitamin C alone may cause. Vitamin C also pairs well with azelaic acid to calm inflammation, kill acne-causing bacteria and treat post-acne marks. Another great vitamin C combo involves hyaluronic acid, which is known for brightening and hydration and can help hydrate the skin. It’s best to avoid the use of AHA/BHA’s or retinol with vitamin C, as together they can dry out and potentially burn the skin. If you want to use these ingredients together, it’s best to apply vitamin C in the morning and your AHA/BHA’s at night.




The Inkey List Retinol Anti-aging serum bottleRetinol is known as the holy grail of ingredients when it comes to ageing. Also known as vitamin A, retinoids work to “slow down” the ageing process by stimulating and reducing the breakdown of collagen, boosting elastic tissue, and inhibiting pigment formation. It also helps to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. If you’re using retinol you’ll need to be patient, as it can take up to 6 months of consistent use to produce visible results. For retinol newbies, be sure to start with a very low strength (0.1% - 0.5% is recommended) to avoid irritating the skin. Introduce retinol to your routine by starting with applying once a week and gradually increasing your use to 2-3 times a week up and until you reach what is recommended on the product instructions, pending you’re not experiencing irritation. Once your skin is used to the low dosage of retinol, you can try introducing a more potent formula. We just started using The Inkey List Retinol Anti-Aging Serum (Sephora, $12.99) once a week and are eager to see the results!


How to pair:


Vitamin A pairs great with ingredients such as hyaluronic acid, niacinamide and SPF, with the latter necessary as vitamin A can make your skin very sensitive to sunlight. When using retinol, it’s not a good idea to use vitamin C’s or chemical exfoliants (AHA’s, BHA’s, salicylic acid). Layering these ingredients one after another is a recipe for irritation. If you do want to use vitamin C, apply it in the morning use retinol at night. The same doesn’t hold true, however, with chemical exfoliants and you shouldn’t use them in the morning because they make your skin very sensitive to the sun (you’re essentially removing the top layer of your skin when chemically exfoliating). Instead, alternate the acids and retinol each evening, use retinol one night and an acid exfoliator another. (You can use AHA/BHA in your morning routine for active breakouts/hyperpigmentation, just be sure to always wear an SPF).



How to layer:

You know what ingredients to pair and not to pair, now lies the question of how to layer them. We found that this is often overlooked and can cause a lot of confusion when you’re incorporating a new product into your routine. Your routine should look something like this, give or take a few steps, depending on AM vs. PM:




Chemical exfoliants (BHA, AHA, lactic acid, etc.)

Eye cream

Serum (hyaluronic acid, niacinamide, etc.)



Face oil


We hope this skincare round-up was able to clear up any mistakes or confusion in your skincare routine. We wish we had a similar guide when we started expanding skincare! If you’re looking to dive deeper into skincare, check out these Youtube channels, Beauty Within, Hyram and Mixed Makeup!




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