Skin Lightening Ingredients that Should Never be Combined

Looking at your dressing table or cabinet, how many skincare products do you use? What about hair products and probably some medications?

Most likely, you have a couple of moisturizers, lotions, creams and gels. Since your skin is a sensitive organ and a true mark of beauty, it’s safe to assume that you take good care of it.

That said, skincare products come with as many as tens of ingredients. With some people using up to seven products at a go, it doesn’t take a genius to know that you could be subjecting your skin, and body for that matter, to hundreds of compounds every day. 

The active ingredients in some of your products, especially skin lightening creams, could negatively affect your skin. In some cases, certain ingredients can actually counteract each other’s action or even worse, open up your skin to adverse reactions. In line with this, we have compiled a list of skin lightening ingredients that should never be combined.

#1 Vitamin C + Retinol 

Vitamin C is among the most popular ingredients in skincare. Typically, it’s found in anti-ageing and skin lightening creams. It lightens dark spots and evens out the skin tone by interrupting the overproduction of melanin. Also, vitamin C plays a major role in building collagen, the main protein responsible for skin’s elasticity.  

Retinol, on the other hand, is a vitamin A derivative. It helps in boosting collagen production to fight off wrinkles and fine lines. It’s also known to improve skin tone by peeling the skin and stimulating the production of new blood vessels. Retinol also functions as an antioxidant to prevent free radicals from damaging your skin.

Individually, retinol and vitamin C are excellent at taking care of most of your skin needs. Combined though, they could spell doom to your looks. Why is this? It has to do with increased sensitivity.

Retinol, a derivative of vitamin A, makes your skin more photosensitive. As a side effect, it irritates, dries and causes the skin to flake. On the other hand, by reducing melanin levels, vitamin C interferes with the skin’s protection against sunlight. 

Together, the ingredients may not necessarily harm your skin but they will increase sensitivity to harmful radiation. Also, vitamin C products work best at a pH of 3.5 while retinol is formulated at a pH of 5.5 to 6. The difference in working pH calls for the two not to be combined.

Expert tip: For full efficacy, use vitamin C serums and creams during the day and retinol-based products at night. 

#2 Benzoyl Peroxide (BPO) + Hydroquinone

Benzoyl peroxide is a common ingredient in acne medication. It eradicates propionibacterium acnes (p. acnes), acne-causing bacteria. Apart from preventing hyperpigmentation brought about by acne scarring, BPO also lightens skin by impairing melanin production. 

Hydroquinone is recognized as the golden standard for skin lightening. It’s produced from crude oil as a derivative of benzene. Hydroquinone lightens skin by slowing down the formation of melanocytes, melanin-producing cells. At the point of application, it also inhibits tyrosinase, the enzyme needed for skin pigmentation. 

Both ingredients are used to treat the skin similarly and effectively. When used together though, they can cause your skin to stain. The stain is usually short-lived and can be removed by thoroughly washing with soap and water.

Additionally, both compounds have a strong bleaching effect, enough to get rid of dark spots and cause hypopigmentation when applied together. Simply put, if you continue with the treatment for a long time, your skin may lose all colour. 

#3 Glycolic Acid + Salicylic Acid 

Glycolic acid is a type of alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) used as a chemical peel. It’s used in skincare to treat scarring, discolouration, and reduce the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines. The acid is highly efficacious, making it a common ingredient in psoriasis and melasma topical medication.  

For skin lightening, glycolic acid exfoliates the blemished skin to leave you with brighter and younger skin. The acid has also been proven to plump skin by promoting collagen production. Over the counter, you will find the ingredient in facial washes, cleansers and mild chemical peels

Just like glycolic acid, salicylic acid is an effective keratolytic (peeling agent). It’s used in the treatment of acne, psoriasis, removing warts and calluses.

As much as the two ingredients have a similar mode of action, and treat the same conditions, they should never be combined. Here is why;

Sloughing off damaged and old skin is an important step in your skincare routine. It should, however, be done in moderation, so as not to irritate the skin.

Using salicylic and glycolic acids together will strip your skin bare which leads to irritation and itching. This will most likely lead to post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.

#4 Alpha and Beta Hydroxy Acids + Retinol

Among the beauty trends that have taken over in recent years is the use of chemical peels. Key to these DIY and professional treatments is the use of alpha and beta hydroxy acids to exfoliate the skin. Glycolic, lactic and citric acids are some of the common AHAs, while salicylic acid is the most widely used BHA in skincare. 

While both AHAs and BHAs work by exfoliating the skin, the main difference comes in their optimal working conditions. AHAs are water-soluble while BHAs are lipid-soluble. 

As such, alpha-hydroxy acids do not penetrate deep into the pores which contain sebum (skin oil). They are better at sloughing off damaged skin which is not brought about by oily breakouts on the skin. 

Typically, AHAs are better used on photodamaged skin while BHAs, which are oil-soluble, should be used to exfoliate dead skin build up inside your pores.   

So what happens when you use both AHAs and BHAs in combination with the vitamin A derivative Retinol? While retinol won’t exfoliate your skin like the acids, it will peel off the top layers. With delicate skin exposed, the acids will penetrate, exfoliate and leave your skin dry and irritated.

#5 Benzoyl Peroxide + Vitamin C

As earlier noted, benzoyl peroxide is a skin lightening agent that works on acne, while vitamin C boost collagen and lightens your skin as well. Separately they are great, but if combined, the effects of the two ingredients can counteract each other.

The chemical composition of benzoyl peroxide is such that it can oxidize vitamin C. Once that happens, both ingredients are rendered useless. 

Safe use: To enjoy the efficacy of each, use BPO and vitamin C independently. However, if yours is overly oily skin, using both could be beneficial. The best approach is to use a BPO-based product as a toner or wash, followed by a vitamin C cream or serum. That said, wait a few minutes between the using products.  

#6 Alpha and Beta Hydroxy Acids + Vitamin C

AHAs, BHAs and vitamin C are formulated in acidic conditions. Vitamin C works best at a pH of 3.5. This is when it is considered not only stable but also easier to penetrate the skin.

AHAs such as glycolic acid work at a pH of 3.8 while a BHA like salicylic acid work best at 2.9. When mixed, the other acids are likely to alter the pH of vitamin C, which can reduce its effectiveness.

Expert tip: If you want to use both, use them separately- vitamin C in the morning and the other acids at night.

#7 Oil-based + Water-based Products

Water and oil do not mix- which is basic science. When used on the skin, water-based products repel oil-based products and vice versa. 

What this means is that, when you use an oil-soluble product on your skin, a thin film forms. If you follow the regimen with a water-based product, the cream or serum is rendered useless since it won’t penetrate. 

The same case applies when you start with a water-based product, the hydrating effects means a film of moisture covers your skin, preventing any oily product from absorbing. 

#8 Niacinamide + Vitamin C

Niacinamide is a form of vitamin B3 used in topical skin lighteners and medication. The water-soluble ingredient is common in the treatment of pellagra, a skin disease characterized by dermatitis. Its ability to maintain skin health makes niacinamide a popular additive in most products.

In skin lightening, clinical studies have proven the ingredient to be effective in inhibiting melanosome transfer from melanocytes (melanin-producing cells) to keratinocytes. Niacinamide is preferred over potentially toxic skin lightening ingredients such as hydroquinone and steroids.

This fast-rate solution to hyperpigmentation control can, however, be made less effective if used together with vitamin C. Reason being, acidic products such as vitamin C can make niacinamide hydrolyze into nicotinic acid, a less potent version. 

Experts argue that this change may require lots of time and heat to happen. So, where does this leave you? It is recommended that if you decide to use both, be on the lookout for persistent rash-like flushing, an indicator of the hydrolysis.

#9 Hydroquinone and Steroids

With prescription and proper use, steroids can be used to treat conditions such as eczema, contact dermatitis and psoriasis. Steroid based products are also used to lighten skin and get rid of dark spots by inhibiting melanin production. 

The use of topical corticosteroids to lighten skin has been on the rise despite the adverse side effects associated with the practice. Even without hydroquinone in the picture, steroid-based skincare products can be harmful to your skin and overall health. 

Dangers of using topical steroids to lighten your skin, especially for long, can lead to hypertension, skin thinning, elevated blood sugar, suppression of the body’s natural steroids and development of stretch marks and tearing of the skin.

When steroids and hydroquinone mix on your skin, the dangers are further compounded. This is usually observed in long-term uses whose aim is to speed up skin lightening- by using the most potent ingredients in the market. 

Under the care of your dermatologist though, irritation caused by hydroquinone can be suppressed by the application of mild and short-term steroid-based ointments. 

How to Use Skin Lightening Products Safely

Skin lighteners work by altering or inhibiting some functions of your skin. The ingredients decrease the melanin in your skin by;   

  • Inhibiting tyrosinase (the enzyme that catalyzes the production of melanin) and/or, 
  • Killing off melanocytes (cells which synthesize melanin)

As such it’s prudent that you go for a product that works in moderation to achieve the desired results. Using a highly concentrated substance can severely irritate, peel or burn your skin. If such a treatment is used for a long time, your skin can suffer from hypopigmentation, infections, or even rebound hyperpigmentation.

To choose the right ingredients or product, a practical and professional way is to carry out a patch test

Patch Test

This involves trying out a new product on a small area of your skin, say the back of your hand. Let the treatment stay for about 12 or 24 hours to gauge how your skin will react. 

If only minor and short-lived side effects such as mild redness or irritation occur, then continue with the product. However, if you experience severe effects such as breakouts and persistent irritation, then discontinue use.


Each of the above ingredients is an effective ingredient in skin lightening. And yes, it is common practice to use combination ingredients for better results. However, some ingredients just don’t work together and while not getting desired results is one of the outcomes, ending up with adverse side effects is a likely possibility in other instances.

That said, better be safer than sorry; don’t try a combination skin lightening routine until you are sure of the likely results. The above list is a good place to start.

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below 0 comments