Between face wash, toner, serum, moisturizer, SPF, spot treatments, eye cream and night cream, chances are your skin care lineup could fill an entire medicine cabinet. But do you ever stop to think about how these lotions and potions interfere with one another? Er—maybe you should.
“Product formulation is advanced chemistry and mixing ingredients should be done with caution,” says Dr. Michelle Henry, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at Skin & Aesthetic Surgery of Manhattan. “Combining multiple irritating ingredients can have catastrophic results. However, synergistic ingredients can be a game changer for your skin.”
Instead of playing chemist with a blind eye toward ingredient lists or worse, using trial-and-error to see whether your skin improves or breaks out, read on to feel like a product pro no matter what you apply next.
Ingredients Pairings That Just Make Sense
Ever layer a night cream over a serum and wake up with the best skin ever? It’s not a dream: Layering certain products can actually enhance their individual effectiveness and offset adverse effects.
Take niacinamide and vitamin C, for example. When applied to treat hyperpigmentation, the niacinamide interferes with the transfer of melanin from pigment-making cells and vitamin C reduced pigmentation by interfering with the enzyme responsible for the creation of melanin. “Blocking pigment through two pathways is synergistic and allows for a faster result,” Dr. Henry says.
Another match made in heaven is retinol and hyaluronic acid for treating acne: The former can be drying; the latter is hydrating and soothing. Alas, the duo makes a perfect match.
When it comes to anti-aging, retinol goes well with peptides. Together, they stimulate collagen production to improve skin tone and texture, improving the skin tone, texture, firmness, Dr. Henry says. Add sunscreen into the mix, and you’ll also protect your skin from collagen degradation to maintain your results, she adds. See? When considered strategically, the more products, the merrier!
Why Some Pairings Just Don’t Work
“There is a myth out there that combining products with different pHs can inactivate each other,” says board-certified dermatologist Dr. Ashley Magovern, MD, medical director of Dermstore. She has also heard concerns over oxidation, color change, and degradation, but insists these are largely problems for manufacturers, not consumers.
Dr. Henry says there may be some truth here, after all: “Many ingredients may not be directly incompatible, but they may exist best in environments with a different pH and may not function when paired together,” she says. Alternatively, combined ingredients could oxidize one another, rending one or both inactive—at least in theory, she adds. (What. A. Waste!)
But it could get worse: “The main concern is that combining too many active products may cause skin irritation and lead to damage to your skin barrier, inflammation and irritation,” says Dr. Magovern. “This can make whatever concern you are treating worse, so it’s important to go slow and not be overzealous with combining too many things that may irritate.” In other words? Proceed to pair caution.
What Skin Type Has to Do With Ingredient Pairings
When plotting a skin care regimen, it’s always best to begin with your skin type and your skin care goals. For instance, common sense dictates that a person with oily skin shouldn’t set out to hydrate and someone with clear but sensitive skin shouldn’t go all out on anti-acne products. Taking a good look in the mirror (ideally, with an experienced dermatologist) and understanding your skin type—be it acne-prone, dry, oily, sensitive, or mature—can help you establish objectives and identify which products and pairings are best to seek out or avoid.
What Skin Tone Has to Do With Ingredient Pairings
Because melanated skin can be prone to both sensitivity and hyperpigmentation, those with darker skin tones should avoid combining products that can provoke irritation—think acids and retinoids, says Dr. Magovern. After all, excessive irritation isn’t just uncomfortable: It can activate pigment-making cells known as melanocytes, which can worsen hyperpigmentation.
The Ultimate Ingredient Pairings Cheat Sheets
If it sounds like ingredient pairing can be a bit of a minefield, well, you’re not wrong. After all, certain ingredient pairings are known to cause irritation—and yet? You’ll still see them combined in many dermatologist-recommended skin care regimes, Dr. Magovern says, explaining that combining ingredients but applying them at different times can be effective and reduce irritation.
This cheat sheet can help you navigate ingredient lists more carefully—but don’t forget to consult a dermatologist for application directions before beginning a new skin care routine.