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The Best Skincare Ingredients to Mix (and Which to Avoid)

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Skincare has come a long way from the basic achievement of remembering to wash your face before bed. Now, we’ve got countless products touting various benefits (Retinol to smooth fine lines! Vitamin C to brighten!) that are just a click away—leaving most of us with the dicey job of mixing, matching, and playing chemist during our skincare routines. While strategically mixing skincare ingredients has the potential to dramatically enhance a product’s efficacy or minimize irritation, make the wrong match and you could end up with a redness, rashes, and a very unhappy skin barrier.

How are you supposed to know what ingredients to pair without going overboard? We caught up with board-certified dermatologic surgeon Dendy Engelman, MD, for a 101 on the dos and don’ts of skincare mixology—from boosting your SPF to getting the most out of alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs)—so you can create a customized skincare routine that works best for you.


About the Expert:

Dendy Engelman, MD, is a dermatologist and Mohs surgeon at Shafer Clinic Fifth Avenue in New York City.

Skincare Ingredients You Should Mix

Combine Antioxidants and Sunscreen

You’ve already learned the value of wearing sunscreen every day, but aside from applying and reapplying, you can also increase your protection by adding antioxidants into the mix. “The addition of antioxidants to sunscreen is hugely beneficial because it further protects our skin from free radical damage that can lead to premature aging,” explains Dr. Engelman. Since UV rays are a major source for those damaging free radicals and can slip through your carefully slathered SPF, antioxidants act like a safety net to help catch the sneaky rays that make it through.

And they’re not just an SPF wingman, they actively work on free radical damage control. “Antioxidants play the dual role of preventing skin damage from environmental aggressors and reducing signs of damage after they occur,” Dr. Engelman adds. One of the easiest ways to get this combo in action is with an SPF that’s formulated with antioxidants, like SUPERGOOP! Daily Dose Vitamin C + SPF 40 Serum, which pulls double-duty to get your skin ready for the day.

Combine Vitamin C and Ferulic Acid

While vitamin C (an antioxidant) is a star ingredient for brightening and helping fade hyperpigmentation, the lesser known ferulic acid (also an antioxidant) works behind the scenes to make sure the stage is set for its benefits. “Ferulic acid helps stabilize vitamin C (which is known to deteriorate quickly if exposed to sunlight), so by using ferulic acid and vitamin C together, you extend the life of your vitamin C products,” Dr. Engelman tells us. “And when paired together, these two ingredients have a synergistic effect that boosts their antioxidant properties.” Try the GOLDFADEN MD Brightening Elixir Protect + Repair Brightening Serum to get the best of both antioxidants in one shot. That’s a win-win.

Combine Retinol with Peptides

The gold standard for treating stubborn acne and minimizing the signs of aging, retinol and retinoids can also bring their fair share of woes while your skin gets used to them. “When active, potentially irritating ingredients like retinol and hydroxy acids join the mix, it’s important to balance them out with skin-soothing ingredients in order to prevent irritation,” advises Dr. Engelman. 

Peptides, like the naturally-occurring amino acids found in TULA 24/7 Moisture Hydrating Day & Night Cream, can help strengthen your skin’s elasticity, which is key for warding off irritation from retinol. “Ingredients that soothe the skin barrier, like niacinamide, vitamin E, peptides, and hyaluronic acid are great to use with retinol as they balance out its harshness and help reduce unwanted side effects like irritation, redness, and dry skin.” And because retinol (found in REN CLEAN SKINCARE Bio Retinoid™ Youth Concentrate Oil) helps increase the skin’s absorption of peptides, you get a more potent dose of their skin-firming benefits.

Combine Niacinamide and Hyaluronic Acid

If you’ve been scanning for new skincare products lately, there’s no doubt you’ve encountered niacinamide on a label—and there’s a good reason for that. “Niacinamide plays well with pretty much all skincare ingredients,” says Dr. Engelman of the famous multitasker that can help protect, improve texture, and nourish your skin. By pairing niacinamide skincare (like KAO LIFE Niacinamide Booster) alongside fellow barrier-strengthening ingredients like hydrating hyaluronic acid, they’ll reinforce one another’s effects, so you get the result of soft, glowy skin. We love KOPARI Moisture Whipped Ceramide Cream for a boost of all over hydration.

Mix Salicylic Acid and Glycolic Acid Skincare

Salicylic acid, which is a beta hydroxy acid (BHA), penetrates deep into hair follicles to dry out and break down pore-clogging oils and dead skin cells—the usual suspects in causing breakouts. “To boost the skin-clearing effects of salicylic acid, I recommend pairing it with additional (gentler) exfoliants like glycolic acid,” says Dr. Engelman, adding that you’ll want to be sure to add some skin-soothing ingredients to prevent excessive irritation. So why would you layer these two acids together (like in DERMATOLOGISTS CHOICE SKINCARE Deep Cleansing Facial Mask with AHA and BHA)? Glycolic acid, an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA), operates at skin level to help exfoliate and slough away dirt and debris, paving the way for salicylic acid to do its job below the surface.

Mix Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHA) With Squalane

“If you’re using potentially irritating ingredients like AHAs or BHAs in an exfoliant or serum, apply a calming product afterwards, like a moisturizer that contains squalane,” Dr. Engelman tells us. As a skin-friendly emollient, squalane works by helping the skin to retain moisture—an essential function after using exfoliating acids. For the ultimate glowy combo, pair up BENEFIT COSMETICS Tight 'N Toned Pore Refining AHA + PHA Toning Foam with a squalane-rich serum, like HEY HONEY Make A Splash! Intense Hydration Aqua Serum.

Skincare Ingredients Not to Mix

Do Not Mix Retinol and Benzoyl Peroxide

Both of these are potent acne-fighting ingredients, but together…not so much. “Benzoyl peroxide should not be combined with retinol, as they can render each other less effective,” says Dr. Engelman. To mitigate this, keep your benzoyl peroxide as part of your morning routine and stick to using retinol at night.

Do Not Mix Retinol With Vitamin C

Even though vitamin C has similar benefits as retinol (brightening your complexion and fading dark spots), layering them doesn’t double up the results. “Vitamin C is also known to be less effective when used with retinol,” Dr. Engelman adds. In addition, you could end up with a very uncomfy feeling as both of these active ingredients can irritate your skin.

Do Not Mix Retinol and AHAs or BHAs

Unfortunately, the same risk of excessive irritation comes with AHA/BHA exfoliators. “They can cause excessive redness, itchiness, flaking, dry skin, and other unwanted side effects when paired with retinol,” says Dr. Engelman. To keep your skin happy, alternate the days you use these ingredients.

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About the author
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Hannah Cassidy
Hannah is a beauty editor at IPSY and has been creating content for fashion, beauty, and wellness in Los Angeles for over five years. Outside of the beauty world, she’s an avid vintage collector and dog mom to Pumpkin and Turtle.
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Article Last Updated February 28, 2023 12:00 AM