“I exfoliate with glycolic acid. Can I follow it up with vitamin C?”
Short answer: yes, you can. But that doesn’t mean that you should…
Long answer: it’s complicated. Here’s what I mean:
What The Heck Is L-Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C)?
L-Ascorbic Acid is the pure form of vitamin C, a powerful antioxidant that:
- Fights the free radicals that give you wrinkles
- Boosts the production of collagen, the protein that keeps skin firm
- Reduces transepidermal water loss, helping to keep skin hydrated
- Brightens skin and fades away hyperpigmentation
If you’re in your early ’20s and want to kickstart your antiaging journey, vitamin C is the perfect place to start.
The catch? L-Ascorbic Acid ain’t the only form of vitamin C. This antioxidant come in many forms. Like, Magnesium Ascorbic Phosphate and Ascorbyl Glucoside, to name a few.
For this post, I’ll cover just L-Ascorbic Acid. It’s the most pH dependent. Put simply: it works better at a pH of 3.5 or lower.
FYI, that doesn’t mean that if you raise the pH to 3.6, L-Ascorbic Acid becomes useless. It’s just the higher up you go, the less effective it gets.
Other forms of vitamin C aren’t so finicky. They work even at higher pHs. But why am I telling you this?
Because the higher pH of glycolic acid is usually cited as reason why it’s incompatible with L-Ascorbic Acid. Keep that in mind. We’ll come back to it.
- Drunk Elephant C-Firma Day Serum ($80.00/£67.00): available at Cult Beauty, Sephora and SpaceNK
- Paula’s Choice C15 Booster ($49.00): available at Feel Unique, Nordstrom and Paula’s Choice
- Skinceuticals CE Ferulic ($166.00): available at Adore Beauty, Blue Mercury and Dermstore
Related: Why You Should Add Vitamin C To Your Skincare Routine
What The Heck Is Glycolic Acid?
Glycolic acid is the best exfoliant for dry skin (if you a different skin type, you can stop reading now. You don’t need to mix glycolic acid with anything. Ha!).
A member of the Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs) family, glycolic acid dissolves the glue that holds skin cells together so they can easily slough off.
Once those dead cells are off your skin, your complexion instantly looks better. Your skin is softer to the touch. Your fine lines look smoother and smaller. And your entire face glows as if lit from within.
That’s not all. Glycolic acid acts as a humectant: it attracts and binds water into the skin, helping to keep it hydrated. See why it’s so good for dry skin?
I’m sure you’ve also heard that glycolic acid can boost collagen. That’s true – but only at 10%+ concentrations. Most topical skincare products don’t have that much. 🙁
- Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum ($90.00): available at Cult Beauty, Sephora and SpaceNK
- Paula’s Choice Resist Daily Smoothing Treatment with 5% AHA ($33.00): available at Dermstore, Look Fantastic, Paula’s Choice and Selfridges
- The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution (£6.80): available at Beauty Bay and Cult Beauty
Related: The Complete Guide To Glycolic Acid: What It Is, What It Does & How To Use It
Why You Can Use L-Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C) And Glycolic Acid Together
Remember when I told you that critics say you can’t mix vitamin C with glycolic acid because they work at different pHs? That’s not exactly true.
As you know, L-Ascorbic Acid works best at a pH of 3.5 or lower. Some glycolic acid exfoliants on the market go above that. You can find some with a pH as high as… 4!
Not much of a difference, is there? Truth is, pure vitamin C and glycolic acid work well at around the same pH.
They both like it low. But if you go too low, you can literally burn your skin! That’s why you’ll never find a skincare product with a pH of 2.
As long as difference between pHs is so little, you’ve got nothing to worry about. Both glycolic acid and vitamin C will work at their best.
Sue Ann Wee, a dermatologist at the Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York City, agrees: “From a general chemistry compatibility point of view, vitamin C (l-ascorbic acid) can be combined in cosmetic formulations with hydroxy acids, such as glycolic acid, since both can maintain their efficacy in similar acidic pH ranges.”
- Skinceuticals C + AHA ($136.00): available at Blue Mercury, Dermstore and Skinceuticals
Why You Shouldn’t Use L-Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C) And Glycolic Acid Together
You won’t compromise the effectiveness of L-Ascorbic Acid or glycolic acid if you use them together. But the mixture can be too harsh for your skin.
Here’s the deal: both L-Ascorbic Acid and glycolic acid are powerful. In skincare, powerful often means irritating.
Used alone, they can sting and irritate skin. Used together, you’re doubling the risk of irritation.
If you have resistant skin that can tolerate anything, then yes, you CAN use L-Ascorbic Acid and glycolic acid together. Exfoliate and then layer vitamin C on top.
But if you have sensitive skin or are using these actives for the first time, don’t risk it. You can minimise the risk of irritation by using them at different times of the day.
That’s what I do. And my skin is pretty resistant. I just don’t believe in overdoing skincare. Too much of a good thing can backfire. 😉
I like to apply L-Ascorbic Acid in the morning because studies show that it can boost the sun protection of your sunscreen. I then use glycolic acid every other night.
This way, I get the best of both worlds without the irritation. 🙂
The Bottom Line
You can totally use L-Ascorbic Acid (vitamin C) and glycolic acid together without making them ineffective. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. For some people, this combo is too harsh. If that’s you, use them at different times of the day.
What about BHA’s and Vitamin C? What are your suggestions? Thanks for all of the great information you give us!
Kathleen, I don’t recommend it because of the potential irritation. Using too many actives can irritate your skin if it’s sensitive/dry. But if you have resistant skin that can take it, go ahead and use them together.
Some say you can use AHA and retinol together, some say no because retinol requires a higher pH. Who knows?
Jeff, you can use them together if they don’t irritate your skin. For some people, this combo is too drying. For others, it’s totally fine. But the pH isn’t that much of an issue.
If glycolic acid is for dry skin then which is best exfoliant for combination skin ,as in active acids ?
Mehwish, it depends. If sun damage is a concern, you can still use glycolic acid. But if you’re experiencing breakouts, salicylic acid is the way to go.
What about using a hyaluronic acid serum after the glycolic acid?
Elisa, yes you can do that.
What about using the Ordinary hyaluronic acid with Ordinary L- Ascorbic acid ?????
Sarah, yes you can do that.
Hi Gio….could you do this every other day?
Framboose Drunk Elephant
Ascorbic Acid 8% + Alpha Arbutin 2%
Hyaluronic Acid 2% + B5
100% Organic Cold-Pressed Rose Hip Seed Oil
Carolina, if you don’t find it too harsh for your skin, yes you can.
Hmmm, but what about a AHA toner followed by a Vitamine C serum?
Cara, that’s fine if it doesn’t irritate your skin.
is ok to use L-Acorbic in the morning(the pure form not a derivative)? I have just read you do,
it isnt photosensible and cause you dark spots becasue of sun ?
Lolo, it’s ok to use it in the AM as long as you follow up with sunscreen.
Hi. I’ve been using The Ordinary Vitamin C 30% suspension in silicone, can i use it with salicylic acid?
Ritalyn, if you don’t have sensitive skin, yes you can.
Hi. Can I first use the 7% Glycolic acid toner, then the Hialuronic Acid serum and then the Vitamin C serum and if yes, how much time between each one should I wait?
Erika, use Vitamin C in the AM and glycolic acid + hyaluronic acid in the PM. Always wait until one product is fully absorbed before applying the next.
Would it be ok if I use the glycolic toner one day and the next day I go for vitamin C?
Devu, yes it is ok.
Can I use tula’s pro-glycolic 10% ph resurfacing gel and the drunk elephant’s 15% L-absorbing acid serum at the same time? Or should I use one at night and thr other one in the morning? Thank u!
Nayelly, use L-Ascorbic Acid in the morning and glycolic acid every other night.
Can I use the ordinary glycolic acid 7% toning solution in the morning followed by kiehl’s powerful-strength line-reducing concentrate (2% vitamin Cg + 10.5% L-ascorbic acid)? I use retin-a 0.25% every night and I read that I shouldn’t use glycolic acid at the same time as a retinol. Or should I switch off nights between the glycolic acid and retin-a? I have semi sensitive, dryer skin. I am also adding a hyaluronic acid 2% + B5 morning and night.
Kylee, the best thing would be to alternate glycolic acid and Retin A at night.
Can I combine peptides and niacinimides together and with Vit C and/or glycolic? Additionally can I leave a 15% glycolic on my face without washing it off (an at home peel)? Thank you
Akrol, you can use these ingredients in a routine, but at different times. For ex, Vitamin C in the morning and the rest at night.
If it doesn’t irritate your skin, you can use 15% glycolic acid without rinsing off. But no more than twice a week!
Hi – thanks so much for your post! Here is what I’m doing and I’d love your feedback, both on if it is okay and what I’m missing:
AM routine – cleanser, REN ready steady glow AHA tonic, the Ordinary ascot if acid 8% + Aloha Arbuthnot 2%, SPF 40+ tinted moisturizer
PM routine – cleanser, the Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% toning solution, The Inkey list retinol anti-aging serum, sleeping moisturizer
Should I get some hyaluronic acid in there?
I have 2 pretty dark spots in my face and want to lighten them. I am 41, light olive skin tone, combination T-zone skin with occasional blemishes in my chin and jawline. I use and love Kate Somerville EradiKate and It cosmetics bye bye breakout concealer to combat those. I also have quite a bit of milia around my temples and under eye/bridge of my nose.
Sorry – meant to type ascorbic acid, alpha arbutin
Sacha, you’re exfoliating way too much! You don’t need AHA morning and night! If you’d like more help with your skincare routine, please book your consultation here: https://www.beautifulwithbrains.com/skincare-consultation/
This is great post! Thanks for all the information on skncare products and what to use when.
I have a combination skin, more on the dry side if I may say so. I currently use the Mario Badescu Glycolic Acid Toner, and I was looking into incorporating Vitamin C in my routine. Do you have any specific recommendations for Vit C which may go well with the Mario Badescu Toner?
Keerthana, use the toner only three nights a week. Glycolic acid isn’t meant for daily use!
Any of the serums in this post will do. If you’re looking for something cheaper, try MaeLove The Glow Maker or Skin Actives 15% Vitamin C Serum.
If you use vitamin c in the morning and glycolic acid toner in the evening will that also reduce the effectiveness of vitamin c?
Farwa, no. This is actually the best way to incorporate both in your routine.
HI, I know this article is from a while ago, but what do you do when you DO have a bad reaction from using both glycolic acid and vitamin C, one after the other?
I normally use glycolic acid (8%) everyday and it’s fine for my skin. Then one day I followed up with Vitamin C right after and it literally left my face burnt. It’s dry, red, hard skin. It’s been about a week! I’ve laid off using any products since then, just some coconut oil (which someone recommended and which feels quite soothing so far). Is there anything else I should be doing to help my skin heal? I’m assuming it’s going to all go back to normal when the layer of skin naturally sheds in 28 days… right?
Melissa, sorry this happened to you. I always recommend you use vitamin C and glycolic acid at different times to avoid irritation.
To heal your skin, go back to basics. Until it’s all healed, only use cleanser, moisturiser and sunscreen.
If I already alternate glycolic acid toner in the evening with a retinol product, and I use an L Ascorbic Acid product in the morning, where do I fit in the Buffet AND the Niacinamide+Zinc please?? Yes behave been using the last two for the last four months in the evening , but I really would like to add a retinoid and a glycolic! I m 45 . Thanks! Shall I just stop using the buffet and niacinamide for a while??
I meant ‘ I have been using’ NOT ‘Yes behave’ !! Sorry.
Gio, this is a really nice article. I read all the comments as well and everything is related to either sensitive, dry or combination skin. I have an oily acne prone skin with some bad acne scars and hyperpigmentation. I have a brown skin and I never felt that my has become dry or stayed dry.
I have been using vit c serum and glycolic acid during the day and night. I also use Salicilyic acid cleanser twice day and will use a toner afterwards before going to any acids and follow up with suncreen if I am going out. Is this a good approach for my skin type?
Bhargav, if something works for you, don’t second guess it because it’s not suitable for other skin types.
Having said that, I think you’d benefit more from substituting glycolic acid for salicylic acid. You don’t need salicylic acid in a cleanser, it works better as a leave-on exfoliant.
HI, I am using the Framboos night serum, and wanted to add Ascorbic Acid+AHA and buffet by the ordinary into the regimen. Recommended to use the ordinary products on alternate days but I am wondering if and how to continue with the framboos in this routine….also would adding low dose retinol really be too much here 🙂
Hello I’m using the Biore Baking Soda Acne Cleansing Foam that has GLYCERIN and SALICYLIC ACID (0.50%) in it. Not sure how much glycerin is in it,doesn’t tell me. After cleansing my face I use a potent VITAMIN C serum followed by a HYALURONIC ACID serum. Then heavy moisturizer at night. Is it bad that I have glycerin, salicylic acid AND vitamin c incorporated in my night routine? Please help before I mess up my skin.
Caramel, salicylic acid in a cleanser doesn’t really work and 0.50% is too small to do much of anything anyway. So I wouldn’t worry about it. If Vitamin C is too potent, you can use it every other day.