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Work Smarter Not Harder: The Basic Do’s and Don’ts of Skincare Ingredients

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It’s a regular occurrence for women across the world– after staring at your skin care collection and trying to figure out what products are best for you, you decide to do some research. You find yourself frantically googling every skincare ingredient you’ve come across and reading article after article, and, most likely, you end up more confused than you were to begin with. Don’t worry! You’re on the right track, and you’re certainly not alone.

Understanding skincare ingredients and what they do is paramount to getting skin that’s healthy and glowing– not to mention free of inflammation and irritation that only serves to exacerbate any skin concerns you already have.

Many of us want to get as much bang for our buck out of our skincare products. And why wouldn’t we? After spending $50+ dollars on serums that promise to clear our skin and moisturizers that claim to restore youth, we deserve to have those high expectations met. But when it comes to your skin, more isn’t necessarily better, and you may be doing more harm than good by slathering as much on it as possible. 

While there’s a lot of conflicting information out there, understanding the fundamental do’s and don’ts of what skincare ingredients go (and don’t go) together will serve you much better in the long run, and isn’t as daunting a task as it may seem. By using your products more efficiently, you’ll both save your hard earned money and improve your skin at the same time.


An ingredient you’ve surely heard of, retinol is the gold standard in antiaging skin care. It also fades hyperpigmentation, fights acne, and evens out skin texture. Derived from vitamin A, retinol belongs to the family of retinoids which includes over-the-counter adapalene (brand name Differin) and prescription-grade tretinoin (brand name Retin-A).

Retinol works by penetrating the skin deeper than other topical ingredients where it promotes cell turnover. Retinol not only chemically exfoliates the top layer of the skin, but stimulates collagen, elastin, and hyaluronic acid production that already naturally occurs in our body. 

Generally, retinol is best used alone unless specifically formulated with other ingredients. They can easily cause redness and inflammation, especially when you’re just starting out. Start slowly to acclimate your skin by only using it a few times a week. Retinol should always be used at night as it breaks down with UV exposure.

You can mix retinol with

Retinol plays best with ingredients that don’t chemically exfoliate the skin. They do, however, work well with hydrating ingredients that promote moisture to offset its powerful effect on the skin. Ingredients you can mix with retinol include hyaluronic acid, collagen, ceramides, panthenol, and aloe vera. And don’t forget your sunscreen! Retinols should always be used with an SPF during the day, even if you’re applying it at night. 

Don’t use retinol with

When using retinol, avoid mixing it with vitamin C, benzoyl peroxide, and AHA’s/BHA’s, as these ingredients can all cause irritation and potentially negate each other. You don’t have to avoid them entirely, however, but you should alternate their use. Vitamin C, for instance, can be used in the morning while using a retinol at night. 

AHA’s and BHA’s

Alpha hydroxy and beta hydroxy acids are undoubtedly among the most tried and true ingredients in skin care; they’ve been around for as long as skincare products themselves have.

There’s a reason they’re so popular– they work. AHA’s and BHA’s chemically exfoliate the skin to shed dead skin cells on the surface. In doing so, they reveal brighter, more even tone and clear out clogged pores. While they’re great at giving you clear skin, they can also be abrasive and require a bit of know-how to really reap their benefits.

AHA’s include glycolic, mandelic, and lactic acid. They’re popular because they’re usually more gentle on the skin. This is due to the fact that they’re water-soluble, making them less abrasive than their oil-soluble counterpart BHA. Salicylic acid is the most well-known BHA, and since it’s oil-soluble, salicylic acid is great for acne and closed comedones since it specifically targets oil and breaks it up.

AHA’s and BHA’s pair well with

Like retinol, they pair well with moisturizing ingredients. Hyaluronic acid, collagen, aloe vera, and generally anything that hydrates and keeps the skin from drying out are great to use with AHA’s/BHA’s.

Always use an SPF during the day since chemically exfoliating your face makes it more susceptible to sun damage. You don’t want to undo all the work you’ve put in, do you?

Don’t mix AHAs/BHAs with

Don’t mix AHAs/BHAs with retinol. You may be tempted, but putting these two ingredients together that chemically exfoliate is a recipe for disaster. As mentioned above, if you want to get the benefits of both, alternate which nights you use them.

Oh– and one more thing. You’ll often see AHA’s and BHA’s together in the same skincare product. When specifically formulated together, they can work well since they’re both water and fat-soluble. This doesn’t mean it’s time to play chemist, though. Never mix them yourself.

Vitamin C

The most well-known antioxidant in skin care, vitamin C, offers a wide range of benefits. When applied topically, it brightens the skin to help fade hyperpigmentation, even out skin texture, and prevent skin damage.

Pair vitamin C with

Like just about everything, Vitamin C can be used with moisturizing ingredients like hyaluronic acid, aloe vera, and ceramides. It pairs especially well with sunscreen, working in tandem to build protection against UV exposure and sun damage.

Don’t mix vitamin C with

While it can be layered with AHA’s/BHA’s, it causes the least amount of irritation when used alone and when applied in the morning, priming your skin for sun exposure. You should never use vitamin C with retinol. Doing so can render both ingredients ineffective and cause irritation.  

Benzoyl Peroxide

Benzoyl peroxide is a strong antiseptic that fights germs and bacteria, making it ideal for acne-prone skin and those with active breakouts. It’s available as either a face wash or spot treatment and fights acne by going straight after the bacteria that causes pimples.

Use benzoyl peroxide with

Benzoyl peroxide is often used by itself but can also be prescribed by a doctor in a formula that’s mixed with a topical antibiotic. It can be used morning and night when used as a spot treatment, and pairs well with soothing ingredients such as hyaluronic acid and aloe vera to offset the irritation. As with any products that fight acne, you should always wear an SPF during the day.

Avoid using benzoyl peroxide with

Avoid retinol when using benzoyl peroxide. Besides canceling each other’s effects out when mixed, they can cause a lot of irritation. If you want to use both, use a product containing benzoyl peroxide in the morning and retinol at night.


Niacinamide is the active form of niacin, aka vitamin B3, an antioxidant known to lighten small wrinkles, hyperpigmentation spots, acne, regulate oily skin, fight sun damage, dehydration, and uneven complexion. Unlike AHA/BHA acids and vitamin C, niacinamide has no acidic base, so it’s unlikely to cause irritation or redness. 

Niacinamide can be mixed with

You can use niacinamide together with almost every skincare ingredient, including retinol, AHAs, or BHAs. That’s because niacinamide, thanks to its anti-inflammatory properties, is very tolerable and causes little to no side effects or irritations. Thus, niacinamide should be compatible with most skincare ingredients. 

Don’t use niacinamide with

If you want to stay on the safer side, you should avoid using niacinamide with vitamin C simultaneously. They are both antioxidants, so they won’t have better effects when used together. Plus, their potency might be affected unless you use them at least 15 minutes apart. 

The Takeaway

My rule of thumb is this: stick to one ingredient at a time. There’s nothing wrong with using different ingredients if you know your skin can handle it, but alternate what you use in the morning and what you use at night.

My preferred routine is to use a vitamin C serum each morning (followed up with an SPF, of course) and the retinol one night and an AHA/BHA product the next.  And while you’ve no doubt seen YouTube beauty gurus bragging about their 7 step skin care routine full of every ingredient out there, the truth is that few of us have the type of skin that can tolerate several ingredients at once. If you’re unsure, less is better.

And in case you haven’t noticed – wear sunscreenAlways. We like these the most!

Who wrote this?
Rebecca Byrne
Rebecca Byrne
Rebecca Byrne is a licensed master cosmetologist who has held her license since 2015. She has worked in several areas of the beauty and skincare industry, where she consulted one-on-one with clients and treated different skin conditions. Rebecca now writes beauty and cosmetology content to help others achieve their best selves and make them feel better in their own skin.
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Women's Concepts relies on the latest scientific research to provide accurate, complete, and fact-based information in skincare, on which we're willing to stake our reputation. Our team includes skincare experts who are highly regarded in their fields and committed to upholding the best standards of research. We spend quality time vetting every single product we recommend and double-checking all the facts shared on Women's Concepts. We always stand on the side of inclusivity, and our mission is to help everyone fix their skin issues as they arise and leverage the products they buy to achieve their goals. You can view our expert review board and everything about our editorial guidelines here.
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