Which Skincare Ingredients + Products Should You Use At Night Only?

by Gio
skincare ingredients + products to use at night only

Why do some people use vitamin C in the morning and others at night?

Why do some exfoliants state you can use them both in the AM and PM and others recommend you stick to night-time use only?

And what about essential oils? Where the heck do they fit into your skincare routine?

It’s enough to make your head spin.

Truth bomb: time matters. Using the right skincare products at the wrong time of day makes you age faster, not slower!

Some of the best skincare ingredients do wonders for your skin at night, but use them during the day and they turn against you.

Who are these fickle divas? Here are the skincare ingredients and products you should use at night only:

medik8 retinol 6 TR 01

1. Vitamin A

Vitamin A is a skincare superhero. During the day, it sleeps. But, as soon as the sun sets, it puts its mask on and out it goes to fight wrinkles, dark spots and acne.

Its weapons?

  1. Accelerated cellular turnover (it helps skin exfoliate faster)
  2. Collagen booster (it keeps your skin firm)
  3. Free radical fighter (it destroys them before they can leave wrinkles and dark spots on your skin)

Vitamin A hides its true identity under many names:

  • Hydroxypinacolone retinoate
  • Retinaldehyde
  • Retinol
  • Retinyl Palmitate
  • Retinyl Retinoate
  • Tretinoin (retinoic acid – prescription only)

(If there’s a “retin” somewhere in the name, it’s likely a form of vitamin A).

Why Should You Use It At Night?

Vitamin A is great at fighting sun damage. At night.

During the day, it has the opposite effect: it makes your skin more susceptible to sun damage! Use it at night and slather that sunscreen on in the morning, ladies!

Best Picks:

Related: Which Strength Of Retinol Should You Use?

sunday riley good genes glycolic acid treatment

2. AHAs + BHA

Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs) and Beta Hydroxy Acid (BHA) are exfoliants.

They remove dead skin cells in the same way: by dissolving the glue that holds them together. Once those are off your face, your skin looks smoother. Brighter. Softer. Wrinkles and dark spots have slightly faded, too.

The difference? AHAs also hydrate the skin and boost collagen production while BHA rids your skin of blemishes and breakouts.

Why Should You Use Them At Night?

Anything that removes dead skin cells also makes skin more susceptible to sun damage.

Here’s how it works: dead cells are there, on top of your skin, for a reason: to protect the newer cells that aren’t ready to come to the surface, yet. When you remove an entire layer, you’re thinning the skin.

When UV rays hit your face, your skin is less protected. Cue irritations, redness and wrinkles. Ugh.

Avoid the drama and use it at night.

P.S. You still need sunscreen in the morning.

Best Picks:

Related: AHAs vs BHA: Which One Should You Choose?

cerave moisturizing lotion

3. Rich Moisturizers + Facial Oils

Balms, oils, intense moisturizers… anything with a rich texture that’s super moisturizing.

Oily skin hates them. Dry skin laps them up. They make it smoother and softer again. When my skin’s going dry and needs that little bit of extra TLC, I turn to these heroes to give it all the moisture it needs to stay soft and supple.

Why Should You Use Them At Night?

Did you know your skin has an in-built clock (it’s called circadian rhythm)? It’s like an alarm that tells it to do a certain thing at a certain time.

For example, this inner clock tells your skin to produce more sebum (your skin’s natural moisturizer) in the morning, amp up its production a notch or two around midday and slow it way down at night.

It makes sense to use these super moisturizing concotions at the time of day when your skin’s sebum production is at its lowest. (Plus, lightweight lotions make a better base for makeup ;)).

Best Picks:

medik8 glow oil

4. (Some) Essential Oils

Can I tell you a secret? I’m not a big fan of essential oils.

There, I said it.

I get why lots of you are looking for more natural alternatives, but natural doesn’t always mean better.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that an essential oil is only one ingredient. But, any essential oil is made of lots of different compounds.

Some of these compounds are good. They’re what gives these oils their moisturizing, soothing and anti-aging properties.

Others are not so good. They’re there to protect the plant against aggressors (plants don’t like to be eaten, so they have their own in-built defenses, too) that could cause irritations.

Of course, you can never generalise. Every essential oil is different. Some are more nourishing (me loves some rosehip oil for example) while others are more irritating. And some are best used at night.

Why Should You Use Them At Night?

Two of the most problematic compounds in essential oils are 5-methoxypsolaren and bergaptene. They act like a magnifying glass, increasing the effects of UV rays on your skin.

Translation? They make your skin more prone to sun damage.

Not all essential oils do this, though. So, what are the main cuprits?

  • Bergamot
  • Bitter orange
  • Grapefruit
  • Lemon
  • Lime

If you really must use them (they smell heavenly, don’t they?), do it at night only.

P.S. Rosehip oil is a natural source of retinol. Use that at night only, too.

drunk elephant c-firma day serum

What About Vitamin C?

You’ve probably heard you should use vitamin C at night, too. That’s not wrong. But, it’s not right, either. It all depends on what side of the debate you’re on.

Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant. It keeps skin young and healthy in three different ways:

  1. It destroys the free radicals that cause premature wrinkles
  2. It boosts collagen production, keeping skin firm
  3. It has a slight exfoliating effect that brightens skin and fades dark spots

Like its cousin vitamin A, vitamin C comes in many forms:

  • Ascorbic acid polypeptide
  • Ascorbyl glucosamine
  • Ascorbyl glucoside
  • Ascorbyl palmitate
  • Ester-C
  • Ethyl ascorbic acid
  • L-ascorbic acid (pure form)
  • Magnesium ascorbyl phosphate
  • Sodium ascorbyl palmitate
  • Sodium ascorbyl phosphate
  • Tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate

(If it has “ascorb” somewhere in the name, it’s a form of vitamin C.)

Why Should You Use It At Night?

Remember when I said anything that exfoliates the skin thins it, making it more prone to sun damage? That.

A lot of women don’t like to take any risks, so they relegate vitamin C to their night-time skincare routine, when the sun isn’t around to wreak any damage.

Why Shouldn’t You Use It At Night?

Well, if I were to use vitamin C alone, I’d use it at night, too.

But, I prefer to get my dose of vitamin C from serums that let it play with its BFFs, vitamin E and ferulic acid. Together, these antioxidants have been shown to boost one another’s effective AND the protection of your sunscreen.

In other words, if you apply CEF under sunscreen, it’ll give you better sun protection.

But, there’s a catch. You need to apply the right amount of sunscreen needed to reach the SPF level on the bottle. And, you need to reapply it often.

Best Picks:

Related: Vitamin C In Skincare: What Does It Do?

The Bottom Line

The most powerful skincare ingredients rarely get along with the sun. If you’re not 100% religious with sunscreen application (and reapplication), it’s best to err on the safe side and use them at night, only.

Are you using these powerful skincare ingredients at night only or do you need to make some changes to your skincare routine? Share your skincare routine in the comments below.



silvia May 29, 2017 - 2:17 pm

Regarding the vitamin C, in the studies you linked it is stated that vitamin C and E by themselves both have been shown to be somewhat effective in different models of photodamage. However, together they are even more efficient. So I am not sure how the conclusion was drawn that vitamin C by itself should e used at night because it exfoliates skin so it increases photodamage? Also, I have only found studies that state AHA increases photosensitivity and it has little to do with exfoliation. Futurederm explains this well in an article, stating “In fact, studies reveal that it’s more about the fact that GA smoothes the skin, which alters its ability to scatter and absorb UVR (2), rather than stratum corneum thickness.” In fact, this study clearly states that BHA did non increase sun sensitivity: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2791365/

Gio June 3, 2017 - 3:37 pm

Silvia, as a rule, anything that smoothens out the skin or thins it could potentially increase sun sensitivity. Vitamin C has a slight peeling action so common sense says to apply it at night. I prefer to apply it in the morning under sunscreen to boost its protection. Thanks for the link.

kaido May 29, 2017 - 7:20 pm

Great post as usual. I’m using Vitamin C daytime under sunscreen so I think I got all in order. About Vitamin A, can I use The Ordinary Advanced Retinoid 2% followed by The Ordinary Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1% at night? Their pH range are almost the same so after cleansing, I put on the retinoid and then niacinamide after 5-10 minutes. During my exfoliating nights, I waited 20 minutes minimum after applying The Ordinary Salicylic Acid 2% Solution before applying the niacinamide because the pH difference is quite significant. Am I doing OK with PM my routine?

Gio June 3, 2017 - 3:38 pm

Kaido, yes, you are. 🙂

Porcelina May 31, 2017 - 8:39 pm

Gio, your blog is now my go-to resource when I want to find out some skincare facts! Thank you x

Gio June 3, 2017 - 2:52 pm

Porcelina, thank you! I’m honoured. 🙂

Ana June 6, 2017 - 10:21 pm

Great post! I am currently streamlining my skincare routine and want to include a Vitamin C cream, an Azelaic Acid cream, 2% BHA liquid and Differin/Isotretinoin/Tretenoin gel in it (for acne, hyper-pigmentation and anti-aging). I have also started using Olay Total Effects Night FIrming Moisturizer. What should I use (and in what sequence) in the AM and PM? Would love to know your opinion 🙂

Gio June 11, 2017 - 2:19 pm

Ana, in the am, I’d exfoliate with BHA, Vitamin C serum, Azelaic acid cream and sunscreen. In the pm, the Differin/Isotretinoin/Tretenoin gel and Olay Total Effects Night Firming Moisturizer. If you’re new to these actives, introduce them into your routine slowly, one at a time or you’ll do more harm than good.

Ana June 12, 2017 - 10:55 pm

Great! I actually started using azelaic acid cream followed by vitamin c cream in the morning, and Differin at night. I had skipped 2% BHA liquid for a while as it started making my skin very red (I thought I was over-exfoliating by using it every single day) and felt very sticky as the weather is getting warmer. Now I have the following concerns:

1. I always feel that by layering products I am wasting them as they won’t be that much effective. What is the ideal wait time before you apply product no.2? Isn’t it better to alternate days for let’s say azelaic acid and vitamin c creams?

2. In AM I want to introduce Olay Total Effects SPF 15. Is this product worth it? I have oily/acne-prone skin with blackheads on nose, cheeks and chin.

3. I started using Differin a while ago but though I love its texture it made no difference to my acne, blackheads, pore size or anything. After switching to Isotretinoin my skin started peeling and I broke out badly. I want vitamin A for both acne and anti-aging. Which form would you recommend? Should I switch to Retin-A/Tretinoin for that? What if i use all three (adapalene, tretinoin and isotretinoin) on alternate days?

4. Speaking about my blackheads and huge pores what do you recommend? I have been regular with BHA in the past but along with having the problem I talked about earlier it made no visible difference to my pores. Though it unclogged them a bit I still couldn’t get rid of them as the product claimed to do. What would you recommend for that?

Thank you so much for all the help in advance 🙂

Gio June 17, 2017 - 11:38 am

Ana, depending on your skin type, that can happen. With exfoliation, you have to experiment a bit to find out what your skin can tolerate. To answer your questions:

1. You’re not wasting them. Just wait until one product has fully absorbed before applying the next. You can also alternate them, if that works best for you. I usually recommend this when the actives are powerful (such as retinol and vitamin C), so your skin can tolerate them better.

2. This is one of my fave moisturizers. It’s always worked well for my combo skin. But I know that Olay’s formulas can slightly differ from country to country, so make sure that where you live, this cream doesn’t have Isopropyl Palmitate. That’s very comedogenic.

3. Please, don”t use more than one form of vitamin A. It’s best to find the form that works best and stick to that. Breakouts are common with vitamin A, especially if you have oily skin. You should give it a month to see if the situation improves. If not, switch to a different form.

4. The size of your pores is genetically determined. When they are clogged, the crap inside makes them swell so they look larger. BHA gets rid of all that gunk, bringing your pores back to their original size. But you can’t shrink them more than that or make them disappear. 🙁 Having said that, vitamin A and BHA will help to keep them at their original size.

Let me know if you need more help.

Ana August 14, 2017 - 6:46 pm

Hello Gio,

Thank you so much for your detailed reply. I have been using this regimen for a month but still can’t see noticeable improvement in my skin. Blackheads are there, I get breakouts daily and my acne is leaving marks. The only thing I am not using is Vitamin C.

I have another huge concern. When I start using salicylic acid (I am using Paula’s Choice 2% BHA liquid) my skin starts turning dark and red. When I stop using it my skin takes months to recover the original complexion but I never go back to my original color completely. In yellow lights and in steamed mirror my face looks extremely dark, although I have olive/yellow undertone and fair skin. I have noticed the same with the use of adapalene, retin-A. Am I doing something wrong? Putting it in one sentence – Since using BHA and Vitamin A my face color has darkened cobsiderably and it doesn’t go exactly like my body color no matter what I do.

Please help!

Ana September 11, 2017 - 9:36 pm

Any word on this?

Gio September 17, 2017 - 8:34 am

Ana, sorry for some reason I had missed it! I’m so sorry to hear about your problem. It seems to me the form of vitamin A you’re using is way too strong for you and is seriously increasing your sensitivity to the sun, which is why your skin is getting darker. Apart from being even more religious with sunscreen and avoiding sun exposure as much as possible for the time being, switch to a lower concentration of vitamin A. You can always go back when your skin has gotten used to it.

Diana July 13, 2017 - 8:50 am

Thanks so much for the post! Is it OK to use glycolic acid and vitamin C in the morning? My dermatologist prescribed glycolic acid 6% for a dark spot on my chick, which I introduced to my morning skincare routine but I don’t exactly know how to combine it with my vitamin C, which I had been using in the mornings for about a year – I just don’t want to stop using it. So, can I use both in the morning or should I switch one of them to my night routine. At night I use Tretinoin 0.05%..

Thanks for your advise!

Gio August 19, 2017 - 10:07 pm

Diana, I would use glycolic acid at night simply because it can make your skin more susceptible to more dark spots if you don’t use sunscreen religiously. Just wait a few minutes before the tretinoin.

Ana September 27, 2017 - 6:30 am

Thank you so much Gio! I think i need to use sunscreen more religiously and cut back on Vitamin A. Can’t thank you enough!

Gio September 29, 2017 - 12:26 pm

My pleasure, Ana!

Ana November 11, 2017 - 9:13 pm

Hello Gio! Just wanted to ask you a quick question. How can I repair my skin of the sun damage that is already done? It still looks dark and red though I am just using BHA once in a while. Can vitamin C or vitamin E serums repair that and restore my original complexion? Any other way I can repair it?

Ana November 20, 2017 - 12:26 pm

Any word?

Ana November 26, 2017 - 1:48 am

Can you please reply me asap? Waiting for it ?

Gio November 26, 2017 - 3:06 pm

Hi Ana, sorry for my late reply. I’ve had a very busy month and am terribly behind on comments. Hope to reply to everyone today. 🙂

Yes, a serum with Vitamins C and E and ferulic acid will help. I’d also add glycolic acid 2 or 3 times a week. It’ll take a while to see results but it should help. 🙂

Ana December 1, 2017 - 8:13 am

Thanks a lot Gio! Any serum and glycolic acid you’d like to recommend?

Gio December 3, 2017 - 7:18 pm

Ana, I’m a big fan of Paula’s Choice AHA serums and The Ordinary Glycol Toning Solution. They’re effective and affordable.

Gisele January 26, 2018 - 4:29 pm

Hello Gio and Happy New Year,

So based on NIOD’S ethoxylated Ascorbic Network, vitamin C derivatives are okay to be formulated with niacinamide?

Gio February 2, 2018 - 3:31 pm

Gisele, yes they are. Thanks! Happy New Year to you too. 🙂

epsita panda August 24, 2018 - 8:41 pm

Hey i am using o3+ seaweed serum, haylurinivc, +vit c e serum and kaya brigjtening combo. Can u tell me the order how and when to apply them. Thank u.

Gio September 7, 2018 - 12:20 pm

Epsita, apply vitamin C serum followed by hyaluronic acid in the morning and the brightening serum followed by seaweed serum in the evening.

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