Here’s why you should use vitamin C on your skin
Plus 6 top-rated products to try
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You may know vitamin C as a necessary nutrient for supporting the immune system. (Hence why many of us reach for it when we have a cold, but the jury is out on that.) It also protects cells from damage and promotes wound healing. Being water-soluble, though, it can't be stored in the body, so it must be consumed daily from foods like citrus fruits, broccoli, strawberries, and potatoes. What you may not know about this essential vitamin: Applying it topically to skin has also been shown to brighten, smooth, and protect the skin.
To help understand what vitamin C can do for your complexion, we consulted Dr. Tsippora Shainhouse, a board-certified dermatologist based in Los Angeles.
How vitamin C benefits the skin
The vitamin C from your diet is normally transported from the bloodstream to your skin’s outer layers where it essentially stands guard against the harsh effects of the environment. “Vitamin C is a necessary molecule for collagen synthesis, and the regeneration of collagen is crucial for minimizing the signs of aging and to keep wrinkles at bay,” Shainhouse explains.
However, with daily exposure to free radicals—molecules from cold temperatures, winter winds, harsh weather, pollution, and UV rays that attack the skin on a cellular level—the dietary vitamin C in your skin is used up quickly in the defense against these relentless aggressors. What's more, age is a factor in how your skin holds vitamin C in the first place. Think of it as kind of like a phone battery that won’t hold a charge. With each passing year, it becomes more and more difficult to keep the battery (your skin) fully charged—with vitamin C, that is. For this reason, applying the vitamin directly to skin can supplement a healthy diet.
"Vitamin C is also an antioxidant, which means that as an ingredient in skincare products, it can help prevent and repair skin damage caused by the exposure to free radicals from UV rays and environmental pollution," says Shainhouse. Ascorbic acid (another name for vitamin C) also acts as a chemical exfoliant. It can effectively slough off dead skin cells from the surface of your skin, thereby lightening dark patches for a brighter, more even-toned complexion. Finally, vitamin C also prevents the formation of additional melanin (and more dark spots) by directly inhibiting the enzyme tyrosinase, a key component in melanin. “When used in combination with daily broad-spectrum sunscreen, vitamin C can prevent the formation of new sunspots and darkening of existing ones,” says Shainhouse.
How to choose vitamin C products that work
One small problem with this skincare overachiever is that it oxidizes relatively quickly upon exposure to air or sunlight, reducing its potency. “That said, it works best when combined with other antioxidants, like vitamin E or ferulic acid,” Shainhouse says, so looking for products that use these, too, can help assure you a product will be more effective. To keep your vitamin C products from oxidizing for as long as possible, only buy ones that come in UV-protective containers, such as amber-colored glass bottles, opaque plastic tubes, or airless pumps, make sure caps are on tightly between uses, and store them away from light just to be safe.
Another thing to consider: the amount of vitamin C in a product. Consider starting with as little as 8%, especially if your skin is sensitive or acne-prone, while it adjusts. But otherwise, 15% to 20% is appropriate for maximum benefits. Using a serum, as opposed to a moisturizer or other product containing vitamin C, can better ensure you’re getting the dose listed on the label, as their thinner consistency allows them to absorb faster into the skin.
Finally, vitamin C will show up under various names on product labels. You’ll see it listed as ascorbic acid, L-ascorbic acid, vitamin C ester; ascorbic and L-ascorbic acid both refer to vitamin C and ester is a derivative of vitamin C that's more stable.
Is vitamin C Safe for all skin types?
While vitamin C is suitable for most skin types, Shainhouse indicates that it could be irritating for those with sensitive skin, acne, or rosacea. This irritation often comes in the form of stinging, burning, itching, or mild skin flushing. Users committed to including vitamin C in their routine can curb any discomfort by introducing it slowly and basically building up a tolerance. “Try using it twice a week to get used to it,” Shainhouse says. “Choose a product with a lower concentration or consider layering it over or mixing it into a moisturizer at first, to get used to it.” If irritation persists, consider limiting application to once a week or halting until you can speak to a dermatologist.
1. For acne-prone skin: Clinique Fresh Pressed 7-Day System With Pure Vitamin C
Clinique takes a novel approach to delaying oxidation and maintaining the integrity of its vitamin C serum with its Fresh Pressed 7-Day System: Each system comes with seven packets, and each packet is good for seven days. This booster was designed as a daily supplement to brighten and smooth skin and contains a low 10 percent to introduce the benefits of vitamin C without irritating acne. Users mix the product with water to activate it, and they apply it immediately directly or most by mixing it with their preferred moisturizer.
One happy reviewer writes: “Typically, my skin is pretty cooperative. However, when I am under quite a bit of stress or when it's that time, my skin is very prone to cystic acne. This product cleared up my acne pretty rapidly. I am a picker (I know that's gross), but this left my skin pretty much clear after the seven days with minimal scarring. I was very surprised and extremely happy with the product. I know it is advertised as an anti-aging product, but it does a lot more than that. If you are someone who suffers from cystic acne from time to time, I highly recommend this. You will not be disappointed.”
2. For sensitive skin: Derma E Vitamin C Concentrated Serum
Not only is this formula a soothing blend of vitamin C mixed with aloe and vitamin E, but it’s also free of phthalates, parabens, sulfates, and fragrances, making it an excellent pick for anyone with sensitive skin.
One skeptical reviewer raves: “I saw this recommended in a magazine. I don't know what made me purchase, as I normally chalk these things up to snake oil, but I'll be darned, it actually works! Love, love, love! My skin is more taunt and smooth and many wrinkles diminished! This is a must try.”
3. For dark spots: BeautyStat Universal C Skin Refiner Serum
Developed by a cosmetic chemist, Beauty Stat’s Universal C Skin Refiner Serum is formulated with 20% L-ascorbic acid, and it’s infused with EGCG (the powerhouse ingredient in green tea) and squalane, which soothe irritation and hydrate the skin, respectively. This formula has been clinically proven to reduce the look of dark spots and discoloration.
One reviewer noted, “I have used a lot of serums in the past and spent tons of money on serums, creams, moisturizer, and I have to say, right off the bat, this one was so hydrating. I love that this is so smooth and creamy. I have a few brown spots that I have fought, trying to get them to lighten up, and some fine lines. Since using this, I notice the brown spots have started to fade and my concealer has not been creasing under my eye area. I am very happy with this purchase and anticipate even more results as use continues. I have combo skin and this does not leave my skin feeling oily.”
4. For dry skin: Elizabeth Arden Vitamin C Ceramide Capsules Radiance Renewal Serum
Along with vitamin C, this serum from Elizabeth Arden is also chock-full of ceramides, or lipids found in the outer layer of the skin, to help retain moisture keeping your skin deeply hydrated. What sets this serum apart is its unique delivery system. With capsules that maintain potency and freshness, each one delivers the right amount of product and is loaded with all the good things your skin needs for brighter, more even-toned skin.
One reviewer writes: “I received some samples of the Vitamin C ceramide capsules and loved them immediately. It left my skin feeling soft, hydrated, and looking dewy and radiant. I had to have more and I will most definitely be using these as a part of my everyday regimen.”
5. To reduce fine lines and wrinkles: Kiehl's Powerful-Strength Line-Reducing Concentrate
Kiehl's Powerful-Strength Line-Reducing Concentrate is a blend of 12.5% vitamin C and hyaluronic acid that work together to smooth and hydrate your skin, and minimize the look of fine lines and wrinkles.
One reviewer shares: “I will preface by saying I had to use the entire bottle before I really noticed a difference, but this seriously smoothed out my forehead wrinkles to where even my friends noticed. All products take time to work, nothing is going to have results in a week, especially when it comes to reducing fine lines and wrinkles. Smells nice and absorbs well. Be patient, this stuff works!”
6. For proven pollution protection: Skinceuticals C E Ferulic
Per her recommendation of using vitamin C in combination with another antioxidant (vitamin E and ferulic acid, in this case), Shainhouse recommends the popular (though pricey) SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic. Skinceuticals C E Ferulic claims to reduce the damage from free radicals, UVA/UVB rays, and ozone pollution by as much as 41%. What’s more, this serum also contains vitamin E and hyaluronic acid to moisturize the skin, and per the manufacturer, the loss of potency due to oxidation is minimal, likely because of the amber-colored glass bottle.
One pleased reviewer writes: “I used this product for six months religiously. It is worth every penny. I immediately saw a change in my complexion for the best. It made my skin brighter and smoother. I have oily/combination skin, medium to dark complexion and suffer from hyperpigmentation. I’m in my 40s. I am definitely adding this to my holy grail—must be part of my skincare routine.”
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.