Forget having a cupboard overflowing with products. This scientifically proven trio is all you need to get the best skin of your life.
Have you ever counted how many skincare products are on your shelves? Or bothered to add up how many steps your routine actually has? The serums, oils and essences, maybe there’s a face mask or two thrown in for good measure.
But what if we said you don’t need a shelf (or, more likely, shelves) bursting with products to keep your skin healthy and looking its best? What if, actually, you only really needed three incredible hero products?
If you speak to any dermatologist or skincare expert, they’ll agree that vitamin C, SPF and retinol (a form of vitamin A) are the ‘magic three’ – and are the only scientifically proven ingredients that can impact how skin ages.
“There’s a strong track record for their benefits in medical literature, confirmed by multiple studies.” Harley Street’s Dr Sam Bunting concurs, adding, “If you have no specific issues (such as eczema), those ingredients are the Holy Trinity.”
You’ve heard it before, but a minimum of SPF30 with UVA and UVB protection should be worn all year. “UV rays account for 90% of skin ageing, and studies show sunscreen alone doesn’t protect against all of the free radicals caused by UV radiation,” says Victoria Hiscock, product and education specialist at cosmeceutical brand AlumierMD.
It’s for this reason that a powerhouse antioxidant, such as vitamin C, should be applied beforehand. “Vitamin C helps shield skin from free radical damage caused by pollution and sun exposure,” explains Dan Isaacs, formulation and development director at Medik8. But ensure the vitamin C you’re using is effective. It’s notoriously unstable and oxidises when exposed to light and air. When this happens it’ll turn a brownish colour and is no longer beneficial for skin.
There are different types of vitamin C, but the most effective is L-ascorbic acid. Usually found in serums, it’s the most potent form. It’s also Bunting’s favourite: “Products containing it can be more expensive, but are a worthwhile investment,” she says.
Then, in the evening, use retinol. It has a bad reputation thanks to temporary dryness and potential irritation while skin adjusts, but, as Isaacs explains, it’s worth it. “Retinol is hailed as the gold standard of anti-ageing and works by stimulating collagen production,” he says. “It helps to accelerate skin cell turnover which smooths out fine lines, enhances skin texture and corrects pigmentation.”
Here, we run through the best vitamin C, SPF and retinol products to add to your skincare routine.
The best daily Vitamin C products
AlumierMD EverActive C&E
Premixed formulas can oxidise quite quickly, but unique technology (that took four years to perfect) means the 15% L-ascorbic acid is only released into the serum when you’re ready to use it. Each pack contains three bottles which you open and use one at a time.
AlumierMD EverActive C&E, £149
Clinique Fresh Pressed Daily Booster With Pure Vitamin C 10%
10% L-ascorbic acid is housed in special ‘stay fresh’ packaging that isolates the pure vitamin C until it’s activated. Add a couple of drops to moisturiser or use it alone. Each set comes with four bottles, which last around a week once opened.
Drunk Elephant C-Firma Day Serum
Combined with ferulic acid and vitamin E, two ingredients that work in conjunction with vitamin C, Drunk Elephant founder Tiffany Masterson told Stylist she stores her day serum in the fridge to help keep the active ingredients fresh for longer.
Garden of Wisdom Vitamin C Serum 23% + Ferulic Acid
Ferulic acid helps protect vitamin C from oxidisation. Combined with the airless pump that dispenses the formula, it means that this is a total antioxidant powerhouse. Plus, it’s free from alcohol, silicones and fragrance.
Lixir Vitamin C Paste
A one-of-a-kind formula, apply a layer of Vitamin C Paste in the morning, leave it on for a few minutes, then rinse it off. This morning mask will brighten dull skin by neutralising oxidised sebum, as well as working as a shield against UVA and UVB rays (use SPF too, though).
The best daily SPF products
Fresh Peony Brightening UV Shield Sunscreen SPF 50+
Dry skin will benefit from this three-in-one formula that works to brighten and hydrate skin while still protecting against the sun’s UV rays and pollution. Shea extract helps to smooth skin while hyaluronic acid injects moisture.
La Roche-Posay Anthelios XL Ultra-Light Fluid SPF 50
A common SPF complaint is that it’s too heavy and greasy for sensitive skin. If that sounds familiar, try this. A seriously lightweight lotion with an invisible finish, it sits well under make-up, is kind to skin and will not block pores.
Murad Essential-C Day Moisture SPF 30
This antioxidant-rich SPF moisturiser defends against free radicals as well as preventing UVA and UVB damage. It’ll help improve your skin’s radiance, too, and repairs existing damage while keeping it hydrated. A veritable multitasker.
Shiseido Urban Environment UV Protection Cream SPF 30
A super light sunscreen that gives skin a serious hydration boost while effectively protecting it from both UVA and UVB rays. It’ll help even out your complexion, and it’s also virtually invisible so it works well as a base for your foundation, too.
Skinceuticals Mineral Matte UV Defense SPF 30
Perfect for oily skin types, this 100% mineral, oil-absorbing mousse protects against both UVA and UVB rays while smoothing out skin and helping to reduce the appearance of pores. It also dries down to a soft, powder finish.
The best retinol serums
Elizabeth Arden Retinol Ceramide Capsules Line Erasing Night Serum
The INKEY List Retinol Serum
1% retinol has been paired with 0.5% granactive retinoid (a slightly stronger form of vitamin A) and has been formulated with squalene, which hydrates skin and helps to prevent further moisture loss.
The INKEY List Retinol Serum, £9.99
Medik8 Retinol 3 TR Advanced Night Serum
A good choice for anybody new to using retinol, this serum is gentle on skin and has clever time release technology that helps prevent irritation. Use four drops of retinol serum each evening on cleansed skin to help speed up the natural exfoliation process.
Paula’s Choice Clinical 1% Retinol Treatment
Best for seasoned retinol users, this lightweight cream will absorb quickly and is made with nourishing ingredients like licorice and oat extract that help calm skin. Limit initial usage to three times a week and gradually increase.
REN Bio Retinoid Anti-Ageing Concentrate
If you prefer the luxury of oils over creams, try this seriously concentrated, all-natural formula. Warm a few drops in your hands each evening and gently massage into skin to help lock in moisture and improve its texture.
You may also like
Sensitive skin: how to treat an irritable complexion
Images: Harry Pedersen / courtesy of brands
Freelance beauty editor Lucy Partington is obsessed with all things skincare, collecting eyeshadow palettes that she'll probably never use, and is constantly on the hunt for the ultimate glowy foundation.
Recommended by Lucy Partington
Can't get to a dermatologist? This new book will answer all your skincare questions
The big skincare glossary: an A-Z of the ingredients you need to know
Retinol is the number one ingredient in skincare. Here’s everything you need to know
“The budget moisturiser that gave me the luxury skin of my dreams”