The Ordinary: Retinoids and Vitamins

The Ordinary: Retinoids and Vitamins

Last September, I did a post on The Ordinary skincare and my first impressions of the five products that I had bought. Since then, it’s become by far the most read article on my blog and the interest in the brand is clearly not going anywhere. And I get it. No other brand combines affordability, science and transparency in the same way. It is not, however, an accessible brand when it comes to actually using it. The names are incomprehensible, there is no clear routine to follow and the choice is overwhelming. I understand why they are doing it and I’m not necessarily criticizing the approach. It simply means that there are a lot of people out there trying to figure out which products to get and what to do with them.

I own most of The Ordinary line by now* and I have used a good portion of them quite consistently over moths or weeks, so I thought I’d do a little overview of everything they offer and share my experiences and opinions. I’ve broken the line-up down into categories the same way The Ordinary does on their web site, which means there’ll be four posts. Most of these will still not be proper reviews: I have not tested the things for moths while keeping all the other stuff I use the same. But you know what? Hardly anyone has done that, as this is not what normal people do. So bearing that in mind, I think my thoughts can still be useful – but do check out alternative views like Gothamista’s reviews on YouTube, Detail Oriented Beauty’s posts and and Tophcam’s overview. I admit these are all (pretty) positive, but these are people whose advice I rate. There is also a semi-helpful guide on The Ordinary website, that gives you some basic information on when, how and what order to use the stuff.

Advanced Retinoid 2%. If I could only recommend on The Ordinary products, this would probably be it. I don’t know if it’s the BEST thing they do, but there is nothing else like this on the market. There is no product in the vitamin A family (retinoids, retinols, retinoic acid, anything with “retin” in it) that’s cheap, gentle and efficient. Most retinol – the most common form of vitamin A in skincare – serums and creams are very expensive, you often have to pay close to or more than 100 euros. And many people do, because it works (if you need a primer on what vitamin A is and does, check out Caroline HironsM, Sam Bunting and Nadine Baggott). You can get it relatively cheap if you have access to Differin in the US or have a prescription for a reinoid. That will, however, not be gentle. You will peel and your skin will be sensitive. I’ve used AR2% for 10 days in a row when I was in Japan without any ill effects. Yes, I know, my skin is robust, but it’s not immune to actives – more of that later. The active ingredient here is the same as in Sunday Riley’s Luna and Pestle & Mortar’s Retinol Night Oil, both widely loved; plus it includes pure retinol as well. While AR2% it’s not as well rounded as my fancier retinol serums, I didn’t miss the pricier ones when using it. I also like its milky, slightly gel-like texture, something I cannot say of all The Ordinary products. Use it in the serum stage – I had no problem going in with an acid before, but you do you. Follow up with a night cream or oil, if desired. The only issue I have with this product is that the name is misleading – it gives the impression that it’s stronger than it actually is. See a more detailed/analytical/critical take here.

Retinol 1%. Remember all those times I’ve said that my skin is not sensitive and can take anything? Well. How the mighty have fallen. This retinol made me peel like a snake. If you’re not familiar with retinoids, you may not know that this is often part of the process. A strong vitamin A product (note that the Advanced Retinoid 2% and Retinol 1% contain different forms of it, so you cannot compare the percentages) will give you more dramatic results, but you usually have to pay the price with flaky, dry, irritated skin in the short-term. Now, my situation was not helped by the fact that I used this retinol for three days in a row, something you should never do with an untested retinol product. I also got pretty sensitive and dry for a while and had some breakouts, possibly related to my skin freaking out. It’s also a very simple formula (see also: the price of it) and I’m sure that’s partly behind the irritation factor – there isn’t much in there to mitigate the impact. But again, please bear in mind that as soon as stopped being silly, the side effects reduced markedly and I do think it gives you results. So if you are an impatient person who wants to see and feel her skincare in action, this is a great option. The founder of The Ordinary himself recommends the AR2% over the retinol and if you are new to vitamin A products or have sensitive skin, I agree. On the other hand, if you are looking for a strong over the counter retinol, I would take note: 1% concentration is very hard to get in EU these days. Use where you would your serum, only at night and not every day. Seriously.

Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1%. Niacinamide is also known as vitamin B3, hence the inclusion in this category with vitamin A and C. It’s one of the trending ingredients recently, as it’s good for pigmentation and uneven skintone, fine lines, dullness, enlarged pores, hydration, you name it. It’s also popular in many Asian skincare products. Somewhat surprisingly, The Ordinary markets it as a decongesting serum. This particular serum has a substantial dose of niacinamide and many people like it. I like it too, but I haven’t seen results that would have turned me into a regular user. What I did discover, though, is that Sam Bunting recommends using niacinamide before retinoids if they tend to irritate your skin. I tried that yesterday and indeed, my skin seems totally undisturbed by the 1% Retinol – whether it has just gotten used to it or because the niacinamide magic, I don’t know. This feels like a hyaluronic serum on skin and is slightly mattifying, so possibly good for day when you have combo-oily skin. Use at the serum stage, maybe mixed or layered with Alpha Arbutin and avoid vitamin C in the same routine (derivatives are fine).

Vitamin C Suspension 23% + HA Spheres 2%. Most skin people would agree that next to retinoids, Vitamin C is the other thing that actually does shit for your skin. There have been many great guides to Vitamin C recently and you might want to take a look at Tophcam and Nadine Baggott. Considering that all Deciem brands are very result-driven and clinical, it’s no wonder that they do several vit C products. Possibly too many for an average consumer. The VitC23 as I’m going to call it here is the strongest of the Ordinay vitamin C products and it is indeed pretty strong. Even I can feel a little tingle when I apply it and some people might experience pretty bad stinging. I’m quite confident that it works and works well, but I haven’t used it enough to vouch for it. The reason I haven’t used it as much as I could have is that I prefer the upgraded version from NIOD, another Deciem brand: it is even more powerful, while the texture is nicer and there is no irritation. There is also, however, a significant price difference and that’s normal – it simply is more expensive to produce. If you are on the hunt for a serious vit C product and budget is a consideration, do take look at VitC23. If you can live with some discomfort and the somewhat inelegant texture (you can feel the vitamin powder in the product), this could be perfect for you: Victoria at Bois de Jasmin loves it. Use at night, at the serum stage, but I feel I can also use it after a lighter, water-based serum as a night cream – it feels quite rich. NB Do not use niacinamade in the same routine.

Ascorbyl Glucoside Solution 12%. This is a vitamin C derivative and I really like this one for day. It’s not as strong as VitC23 or my NIOD serum (the % is again not dirctly comparable, as it’s not pure vit C), but it’s still pretty powerful and very nice to use. It has a light, somewhat oily serum feel that I personally enjoy. It does leave skin sticky, so this is something to consider, but I apply a day cream on top anyway. When I use a vitamin C product during the day, I’m doing it mostly for the antioxidant, defensive properties, so I don’t really expect it to give me any dramatic results regarding anti-ageing or brightening (although this one is said to be especially good for the latter). It’s also very difficult to judge the results of this serum when I use a very strong vit C product at night on a regular basis. What I can say, though, is that I’m constantly reaching for this serum over my many other, often much more expensive ones. You can use it both day and night, again at the serum stage.

Ascorbyl Tetraisopalmitate Solution 20% in Vitamin F. Of all my vitamin C products, this is the one I haven’t quite figured out yet. The intensity should be similar to the AGS12 (again, these aren’t the same ingredients, it’s a different derivative) and they should both be especially good at brightening. I haven’t really warmed to it, but I think this is mostly because I prefer the AGS12 and therefore don’t really have a place for this one in my routine. And the reason I prefer one over the other is that while AGS12 feels a little bit oily ATS20 is, in fact, an oil. Me and oils aren’t the biggest friends. I’m thinking that if you have drier skin and you want a vit C serum that is effective, but not strong enough to irritate your skin, this could be the best fit for you. Can be used day and night as a serum and if you’re not dry-skinned, even wthout a cream on top.

Magnesium Ascorbyl Phosphate 10%. This is the only product in this category that I do not own – mostly because it’s the least strong of the four, but also because there’s a limit to how many similar products I can actually fit into my routine in a meaningful way. What makes it unique among the The Ordinary offerings is that it’s defined as “a light cream”. So if you’re interested in a vit C product that is not a serum and can be worn as a day cream, keep this in mind. It’s OK to use at night as well and is apparently even better at brightening than other forms of vitamin C. If you have used it, let me know!

*Although it’s hard to keep up, they have just launched foundations and I’m sure there are more colour products to come.


Add yours
  1. 1

    I have the hyaluronic acid one and I have ordered the Advanced Retinoid- I have been using tretinoin (0.25%) for a couple of years, so I’m excited to see this in comparison. I also ordered the toning solution in the big bottle, but I was thinking of using it on the body instead of face (I still have so much of p50 left and it would be silly to let that one go to waste). In general, the cheap prices make you feel that you should order everything just for the sake of it, but I’m not really sure whether that would be reasonable 🙂

    • 2

      Dear Marianne, so sorry for the late reply – I’ve been away and off-line. I think the AR will be very gentle in comparison, so not a replacement, but something that you might want to use in between tretinoin days. I’ve just received the glycolic toner and used it yesterday: it was stronger than I expected, I could definitely feel it, which is not usual for me (unless it’s P50). And yes, noone needs the whole line or even close, but the prices make it tempting.

  2. 3

    I’ve been using the MAP 10% for a couple of weeks now, with the Niacinamide and Alpha Arbutin, and some retinoid at night, and I’ve been very impressed. I have dehydrated and sun damaged skin ( years of working outside with naturally very pale skin), but my complexion is looking much brighter and more even. The MAP has replaced my day moisturiser, and is working well under my sunscreen every morning. It’s not enough on coldays when the central heating is on, and I need a bit more moisture but is a great base layer for the spring and summer. Give it a try.

    • 4

      Dear Kate, this is very useful to know. Thank you for leaving the comment and I apologise for getting back to you so late: I’ve been in Senegal and therefore not as responsive as I usually am.

  3. 5

    I want to use this line but still find your explanations hard to follow as i dont know the terminology or products. I have oily skin, larger pours and uneven skin-tone, i dont have many wrinkles but would like to take some preventative measures, what can you recommend? I tried reaching out to the company directly with no responses. HELP me! haha. 🙂

    • 6

      I would still recommend contacting the company again, they know the products better and are more qualified. Personally, I’m a fan of retinol for both prevention and treatment of ageing. The 2% retinoid is very gentle, so you should be able to use it at night as a serum without any issues (use one or twice a week at first, just to be sure). Everything vitamin C related is good for pigmentation. So I’d either use something at night instead or alternately with retinol or something (milder) during the day. Personally, I really like ACS 12% for the day. And always make sure that your skin is well hydrated. A hyaluronic acid product is always good to have – especially for oily skin, as it only adds water, not oil.

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