Emma Hoareau

Emma Hoareau
July 5, 2020



Mixing actives cheat sheet

Why is it important to know how to mix active ingredients? As one of the most asked questions I get over on Instagram, it’s because you don’t want to create sensitivities in your skin from over exfoliating, and you want to use your active ingredients correctly so they absorb well and you get the most out of them. Good skin and skincare is more than using every single ingredient possible but rather knowing what is best for you and you skin, and by understanding how actives work you’ll gain the knowledge on how to use them to get the best results.

If you want to find out what skin type you are, what ingredients are for you and have a basic skincare outlines for you, you can find my blogpost about all that here.


  • AHA’s: glycolic, lactic, mandelic, malic, citric
  • BHA’s: salicylic
  • Enzymes

Not exfoliating:

  • Antioxidants:  VitaminB3 (aka Niacinamide), Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Vitamin A (aka retinol*)
  • Hyaluronic acid (a natural humectant substance found in skin tissue)
  • Peptides (short chain Amino Acids aka proteins such as collagen, keratin, elastin)
  • Ceramides & Omegas (fatty acids and components of lipid barrier)
  • Pro  + prebiotics (bring good microbiome / bacteria to surface of skin to help skin barrier)
  • Clay (draws out impurities and absorbs excess oils)

*Retinol stimulates renewal of cells – so dead ones shed off due to this – but it isn’t technically an exfoliant as it doesn’t remove dead skin cells specifically.

pH and why it’s important when mixing actives

The reason behind mixing actives is that we are trying to keep a balanced pH level of the skin, so as not to sensitise it. pH refers to ‘potential of hydrogen’ and  goes from 0 Acidic: to 14: Alkaline. Lemon juice is a pH of around 2 and Ammonia is an alkaline 12. A pH of 7 neutral and anything above it is considered alkaline. Our skin is usually around a pH of 5.5 so actually already acidic, and this is what our ‘neutral’ is. Acids in skincare are, of course, acidic and by temporarily lowering the pH of the skin it stimulates the skin to produce substances that help it be soft, hydrated and supple. Acids work temporarily as the skin will return itself to its normal pH usually within the hour. Skincare normally ranges from a  pH of 3 to 8.

Average pH levels for ingredients:

  • acids: 3-4
  • niacinamide: 5-7
  • retinol: 5-6
  • vitamin c: 3.5-5

the reason you don’t want to mix certain actives together is because they work best when in different pH environments.

Of course, we want to be able to use multiple actives to get the benefits of them all, and that’s where it can get confusing as to what you can mix or not. It of course depends on how your skin is naturally, but with skin I always prefer to err on the side of caution! So…


  • You can mix exfoliants with non exfoliants, just not all antioxidants as some many are also acids (eg Vitamin C which is ascorbic acid). It’s the exfoliants and acidic antioxidants you want to be aware of, everything else can be mixed freely together and alongside 1 acid or antioxidant.
  • Mixing acids (including Vitamin C, which is ascorbic acid) and Niacinamide in same routine can not only raise the pH of the acid making it less effective, but also lower the pH of niacinamide converting it to niacin (another form of b3) which on sensitive skins can cause a flush. That’s why I recommend choosing one antioxidant for morning, vitamin c or niacinamide (alternate days if you want to use both ingredients) if you have more sensitive skin. Then using your exfoliating acids at night.
  • Don’t mix exfoliants that tackle the same layer of skin together in same routine: aka surface AHAs & enzymes, or deeper down BHA and retinol.
  • You can mix AHAs and BHA in same routine (they often come in same product)

In same routine (eg evening skincare routine) you can mix:


BHA and enzymes

Retinol and Niacinamide

hyaluronic acid with everything

azelaic acid with other actives

I would always apply actives that are not exfoliants or antioxidants (eg hyaluronic, ceramides, probiotics) after exfoliating that way there are no dead skin cells in the way = great absorption!



  • cleanse
  • protect with antioxidant serum
  • hydrate with hyaluronic acid serum
  • use SPF to protect the skin cells


  • double cleanse
  • exfoliate with chemical exfoliants (AHA / BHA / enzymes) OR use retinol. Exfoliants used at night will help promote cell turnover as you sleep.
  • hydrate with hyaluronic acid serum
  • add any other nourishing ingredients eg ceramides


In terms of choosing products, below I’ve added in my favourite for each ingredient I’ve spoken about above.

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