Skincare Ingredient Pairings – What Goes Together and What to Avoid

7 min
by Ben Gentzler
February 07, 2022

When thinking of iconic power couples, a few names to come mind: Jay-Z and Beyoncé, Barack and Michelle, and Prince William and Kate. All of these names are recognizable on their own, but when they are partnered up with their significant other, they’re an absolute force. And they’re not the only ones that work better in pairs.

Every skincare active has its own set of traits, and just like people, many actives work better with others that complement their strengths and weaknesses. Inversely, there are also some skincare actives that don’t play well with others, and layering them can result in ineffective ingredients or worse – serious irritation. To keep your skin from paying the price, we’ll fill you in on the ingredient power couples that will help maximize your skincare results – and the duos that should call it quits.  

Skincare Ingredient Soulmates

SPF + Antioxidants 

Sunscreen on its own is a skincare superhero. It’s the holy grail for protecting skin against skin cancer and premature aging, but it does have one weakness, it doesn’t protect against all the free radicals that surround us on a daily basis. If you think free radicals sound harmless, think again. These bad boys break down collagen and accelerate skin aging (aka more wrinkles, dark spots, fines lines and dull skin). But don’t panic, this is where SPF’s antioxidant sidekick swoops in to save the day. Antioxidants neutralize free radicals, so when you layer an antioxidant serum (cough, cough vitamin C) under your SPF and/or use a sunscreen that’s already formulated with antioxidants, you’re boosting your protection with an extra layer of defense against skin damage. So do yourself a favor and make sure that SPF and antioxidants are part of your morning routine to ensure you’re protected throughout the day.  

Salicylic Acid + Niacinamide

If you have combo, oily, or acne-prone skin, this iconic skin-clearing duo needs to be on your radar. These two buzzy ingredients are already great on their own, but when they’re paired together, they take things to the next level. Oil-soluble salicylic acid balances oil production from within the pores and prevents congestion while water-soluble niacinamide reduces oil on the skin’s surface, repairs damage, and strengthens the skin barrier. When using this combo regularly, expect to see a visible reduction in pore size as well as an improvement in skin texture and clarity. Already looking to add to cart? Make it easy on yourself and look for products that already feature this ingredient power couple

Retinol + Bakuchiol

If combating signs of aging is at the top of your skin goals but you hate the irritation that comes with using retinol, don’t sleep on the benefits of pairing retinol with bakuchiol. While using retinol on its own often comes with unwelcomed flaking and irritation, bakuchiol’s ability to strengthen the skin barrier increases the skin’s retinol tolerance – so no more dreaded retinol uglies. Bakuchiol also helps to stabilize retinol, extending its longevity, and provides additional protection against environmental aggressors. 

Skincare Ingredient Pairings That Need To Call It Quits

Oil-Based Products + Water-Based Products 

This may be obvious to some, but oil and water don’t mix. Think about when you boil a pot of water and add a drizzle of oil, the oil, and water separate because oil repels water. Oil molecules are also bigger than water molecules, so if you try to layer a water-based product over an oil-based product, the film from the oil will block the water from absorbing. But fear not friends, if you still want to include both formulas in your routine, you just have to be strategic with your application. Always start your routine with your thinner water-based products and then once they’ve had time to absorb, layer your oil-based products on top to seal in the actives and moisture. Not only will your skincare work more effectively, but your makeup will go on like a breeze and you will avoid the disastrous pilling (you can read more about layering skincare products here).  

Retinol + Vitamin C 

Although both ingredients are great for brightening the skin and fading dark spots, layering them is a recipe for over-exfoliation, irritation, and redness. Can you say ouch? Retinol is oil-soluble and vitamin C is water-soluble and both ingredients need different pH environments to carry out their functions and deliver results. Fortunately, you don't need to choose one over the other. To get the most out of these powerhouse actives (without the irritation), use your vitamin C in the morning to help protect against free radical damage and use your retinol at night to help restore the skin. Trust us, your skin will thank you!  

Retinol + Benzoyl Peroxide

It’s easy to see how someone may think that mixing these two acne-fighting superstars would be the key to breakout-free skin however, mixing retinol and benzoyl peroxide is a big no-no! Both ingredients are known to cause dryness and irritation so that should be enough of a reason to not use them together. But on top of that, the ingredients aren’t a good match chemically. Both benzoyl peroxide and retinol oxidize easily, and when they’re used in conjunction with one another, the ingredients neutralize each other’s benefits, making them ineffective. Talk about an unhappy couple! To reduce the risk of irritation, incorporate benzoyl peroxide into your morning skincare routine and keep the retinol for nighttime use only. 

Discover Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare for All Your Skincare Needs

For more skincare tips from the experts at Dr. Dennis Gross, check out our blog’s newest content today. Shop the collection of Dr. Dennis Gross bestselling skincare backed by dermatologists.

Written By

Ben Gentzler

Ben is an Education professional with 16 years of experience in prestige/professional skincare and beauty. Brand, retail, and professional/spa education & training.

Read More from Ben Gentzler

Written By

Ben Gentzler

Ben is an Education professional with 16 years of experience in prestige/professional skincare and beauty. Brand, retail, and professional/spa education & training.

Read More from Ben Gentzler