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The right actives can completely change your skincare game – but not all ingredients should be used together. Photo: Shutterstock

How to pair the active ingredients in your skincare routine, from retinol to vitamin C, to get the best results and avoid irritation

  • Not all active ingredients get along with one another, and mixing them can lead to over-drying, over-exfoliating or irritation of the skin
  • Don’t pair retinol with vitamin C, as that can lead to irritation and allergic reactions, and layer acids with hydrating ingredients to help your skin rebalance

If you’re into skincare there’s a chance you own a plethora of serums, cleansers, moisturisers and whatnot to keep your skin healthy. While swimming through the sea of beauty blogs, TikTok trends and YouTube channels out there, you’ve probably bumped into the term “actives” but what are they exactly?

As the name suggests, these are the active ingredients in your product’s formula that tackle particular problems. A moisturiser to treat dryness, for example, might contain hyaluronic acid, while a product with salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide can get rid of acne.
The right actives can completely change your skincare game – but you should be aware that not all active ingredients get along with one another. Mixing them can lead to over-drying, over-exfoliating or irritation of the skin.

“Mixing actives is very commonplace in the routines of skincare veterans, with the caveat being that we tend to carefully monitor the concentration of active ingredients and how many we are layering since the main worry is over-exfoliation and a damaged moisture barrier,” says Amy Erdman, a US biologist, educator and K-beauty blogger.

Glow Recipe Watermelon Glow PHA+BHA Pore-Tight Toner contains BHAs. Available at Sephora.

“So, besides introducing an active one at a time, I often switch to using more soothing and hydrating products to help mitigate any potential irritation. If things are good, my routine will go back to normal with, for example, my glycolic acid toner.”

Before jumping into it, check out these skincare mixology dos and don’ts to make sure you’re pairing your actives with their right partners.

Everything you need to know about exfoliating

Vitamin C

Also known as ascorbic acid, this antioxidant protects your skin from free radical damage, brightens up your complexion, protects you from UV rays, infrared radiation and environmental pollution, and can prevent dark spots or inflammation.

Good mix: When mixed with antioxidants such as ferulic acid or vitamin E, vitamin C can be very effective. These ingredients can boost your skin’s protective shield and are even more efficient when paired. Wearing SPF on top of vitamin C is good, as sunscreen prevents UV damage while vitamin C repairs and reverses existing damage.
Bad mix: Retinol, benzoyl peroxide and exfoliating acids (like alpha hydroxy acids [AHAs] and beta hydroxy acids [BHAs]) carry some degree of cell turnover and exfoliation powers which, combined with vitamin C’s already powerful effects, can be an open door to irritation, allergic reactions and skin peeling.
The Inkey List Niacinamide, available at Sephora.


Crowned 2020’s star skincare ingredient, niacinamide – or vitamin B3 – is an easy-to-absorb antioxidant that balances out sebum, boosts hydration, protects your skin from environmental damage, reduces hyperpigmentation, enhances elasticity, improves the appearance of fine lines and pores, and reinforces your skin’s protective barrier. This keeps inflammation, irritation and dryness away.

Good mix: Niacinamide is that friend that gets along with (almost) everyone. You can mix it with pretty much everything, but especially other active ingredients, as it will help diminish their possible side effects and keep your skin strong.

Bad mix: Niacinamide only has one enemy: vitamin C. While the combo may not cause adverse effects, niacinamide has the potential to alter vitamin C’s stability, making each other weaker, so it’s better to use one in the morning and one at night, or simply on different days. 

Ole Henriksen C-Rush Brightening Gel Creme contains three sources of vitamin C. Available at Sephora.

Benzoyl peroxide (BPO)

Benzoyl peroxide’s name may not be as well-known as its counterparts, but many of your products probably feature this ingredient, especially if you have acne-prone skin. It can prevent and help heal acne by infiltrating your skin’s hair follicles and getting rid of bacteria, while also decreasing inflammation and redness. The downside? It may be dehydrating and, for some, it can cause irritation.

Good mix: Benzoyl peroxide works wonders when mixed with hydrating formulas such as hyaluronic acid, squalene and shea butter, which help replenish moisture and protect your skin from getting dehydrated. Wearing sunscreen is also a must with this active ingredient to keep the sun from sensitising your skin or causing blemishes.

Bad mix: Vitamin C, retinol, AHAs, BHAs and tretinoin can cause more bad than good when mixed with BPO. These combos not only can cause your skin to become dry, flaky, or even peel, but they can also cancel each other out for all the side effects and none of the benefits.

The best vitamins for your skincare and the products they’re found in


Retinol is one of the beauty community’s favourite ingredients to treat acne, signs of ageing, hyperpigmentation and texture. As we get older, our skin loses its power to produce collagen and promote cell turnover, which can lead to a dull, lethargic complexion. That’s when retinol, or vitamin A, enters the chat. 

It helps accelerate skin renewal, boosts collagen production, smooths out skin texture and can minimise the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, bringing your skin back to a more youthful state.

The Ordinary Retinol 1% in Squalane.
Good mix: Retinol pairs great with hydrating ingredients like hyaluronic acid, glycerine and ceramides, and calming ingredients such as niacinamide and Centella asiatica. It tends to be a bit drying, so humectant (moisture retaining) ingredients can help draw and hold water molecules at the surface and lock in moisture, while soothing ingredients will protect your skin from getting over-irritated. SPF is a must.

Bad mix: Retinol doesn’t get along with vitamin C, benzoyl peroxide or AHA/BHA acids (which dry out and sensitise your skin). Benzoyl peroxide and retinol cancel each other out, while vitamin C paired with retinol can cause irritation and sensitivity.

Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant contains BHAs including salicylic acid.


Exfoliation is a must if you want to keep your pores decongested and your skin glowing. AHAs and BHAs are potent exfoliants with the power to penetrate your pores and improve skin texture, pigmentation, even treat acne.

Glycolic, lactic, malic and mandelic acids are some of the most popular AHAs, while salicylic acid takes the BHA crown – but they can cause mild redness, dehydration, tingling and itching, so it’s always a good idea to use calming, hydrating ingredients on the side.

Good mix: Anything moisturising and/or soothing will go great with acids. Ingredients such as aloe, rosehip oil, hyaluronic acid, ceramides, glycerine, niacinamide, allantoin and rose water can help your skin recover its balance, and reduce inflammation and redness. As with all other actives, make sure to wear sunscreen when you exfoliate with acids in the morning.

Bad mix: By this point, you’ve probably guessed that retinol, vitamin C and benzoyl peroxide are not good friends with acids and you should not layer them together.