The Do’s and Don’ts of Mixing Retinol & How to Apply It

Retinol is famous for good reason, but it doesn’t always play nice with others like the cool kids in high school.
BY Sarah Lim
| Last updated Apr, 2023
how to apply retinol

While retinol has superior anti-aging effects on the skin, it doesn’t always work well in tandem with other skincare ingredients or actives due to its sheer potency. So whether you use retinol in a serum or moisturizer, it’s essential to know how to apply retinol. Especially when it comes to mixing it with other skincare products, knowing is a must. Here’s your guide on how to apply retinol as well as what you can and can’t mix your retinol products with for the best skincare results!

How to Apply Retinol

How to apply retinol depends on the product you’re using. For example, while it’s generally a good rule to apply serums to your face when it’s slightly damp, YOU may not want to do this with retinol, especially if you’re prone to irritation. Because it can more easily get into your skin.

When applying retinol as a moisturizer, you don’t need to apply much product—about the size of a pea is all that’s necessary for your whole face. If you’re new to retinol, you can start using the product every other day or every two days if your skin is very sensitive and gradually works up to daily use.

What Can You Mix Retinol With?

YOU can mix retinol with certain ingredients to help enhance its effectiveness and even reduce its potentially irritating side effects. Let’s look at a few ingredients that you can mix retinol with.



Ceramides are essentially fat molecules that compose part of the skin’s outer layer and play an essential role in your skin barrier and skin hydration. You can often find cermaides in moisturizers and balms and can help protect and nourish the skin.

Fortunately, you may find retinol pairs well with ceramides and the two together in moisturizers and eye creams. You can also use separate products to use these two in combination with each other.


niacinamide with retinol

A form of vitamin B3, using retinol with niacinamide may help reduce the irritation some people experience from using retinol. You can use two separate products when combining these two ingredients. A concentrated form of niacinamide and a nightly face balm with retinol. Or use one product that combines them both, such as a moisturizer.

Hyaluronic Acid

Hyaluronic Acid

It is one of the naturally occurring molecules that helps the skin retain its moisture. Hyaluronic acid and retinol tend to work well together, and you can often find them in a moisturizer or serum. To layer, you can use both of them in a moisturizer or layer in separate products. For example, your serum may contain hyaluronic acid and your moisturizer, retinol.



Using retinol with sunscreen is essential to protecting your skin from the potentially harmful effects of sun exposure. Retinol can make your skin more sensitive and even cause DNA damage when exposed to sunlight. So, it’s imperative to use sunscreen the next day after using retinol.

You may also use retinol during the day. Still, you must be mindful of sun exposure, ideally covering up skin or layering sunscreen over your retinol product as the final step in your skincare routine.

Vitamin C

vitamin c

Using retinol and vitamin C together can help improve the appearance of skin aging and sun damage. It may also help improve skin dryness. Vitamin C is often found in retinol products, whether in its L-ascorbic acid form or other ingredients, such as rosehip oil or Kakadu plum. You can also use a vitamin C serum on its own in the morning to help prevent sun damage throughout the day.

The No-No Retinol Combinations For Your Skincare Routine

While retinol can work well with many of the following ingredients, it’s not designed to be used simultaneously or mixed with these skincare actives. So if you’re wondering how to apply retinol, avoid using it at the same time as these skincare ingredients.


Alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) is a chemical exfoliant that can take different forms, including glycolic acid. While you can use AHAs with retinol, it’s generally best to use them at different times. The reason is they can cause more skin irritation when used together. One exception to this rule is lactic acid, a type of AHA, which works well with retinol, particularly to address sun damage.

The best way to use AHA and retinol without mixing them is to use AHA in the morning and retinol at night. You can also use them both at night, but wait at least 30 minutes after using a product with AHA before applying retinol. 


Beta hydroxy acid (BHA), another chemical exfoliant, can help support regular retinol use and be effective against fighting acne. While BHA is ideal for oily or acne-prone skin, using this skincare active with retinol can be too harsh on the skin. So, consider using a BHA such as salicylic acid in the morning routine and retinol at night routine to avoid irritation.

Physical Exfoliants

Physical exfoliants could include anything from sugars and salts to ground coffee to physically exfoliate the skin. Although you can and should exfoliate at least once a week (depending on your skin type), exfoliating your skin and using retinol immediately afterward may lead to more irritation.

Since retinol is generally better used at night due to its ability to make skin more sensitive to sunlight, you can exfoliate earlier in the day. If you exfoliate at night, consider skipping retinol that day to keep your skin happy and avoid potential irritation.

Benzoyl Peroxide

Although this skincare ingredient can be effective for some with acne, retinol shouldn’t be paired with benzoyl peroxide. Because it can cause too much skin irritation. Benzoyl peroxide can often be found in cleansers, masks and spot treatments. And it is best used at a different time of day than retinol products.

Grab This FREE Printable Guide on Mixing Retinol

Have YOU ever tried any of these combinations with retinol? Always take care when using retinol on your skin. And be mindful of any skincare active ingredients you use on the same day you use retinol. Have questions about how to apply retinol or what to mix it with? Grab our free printable guide!

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1 Comment

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