Well this post has been sitting in my drafts for far too long so it’s time for me to stop procrastinating and tell you why you should care about vitamin C in skincare.
Vitamin C’s having a real time at the moment, helped by the proliferation of vitamin C and vitamin C-adjacent serums in The Ordinary’s lineup. It’s a complicated ingredient, though, and it’s fickle—not all types of the molecule are created equal, so it’s important to know what you’re buying. Even the wrong type of packaging can make your vitamin C product a total dud.
So who should use vitamin C in skincare? Oh, you know, everybody. It’s one of the most versatile skincare ingredients, having measurable effects for preventing and repairing signs of aging, preventing and repairing dark spots and other pigmentation, minimising inflammation… it’s a comprehensive list, basically.
What is vitamin C?
Vitamin C is an antioxidant that occurs in nature and is found naturally in our skin. Many people have diminished levels and introducing it can help pretty much any skin complaint. It’s also essential for lots of other aspects of our health.
Actually, vitamin C is one of the few ingredients that is useful for your skin when taken orally as well as topically, so if you’re smashing Berocca or multivitamin tablets for your immune health, know that’s good for your skin too!
What does vitamin C do for your skin?
What doesn’t vitamin C do? (lol) Vitamin C acts as both a preventative and a repairing ingredient. It can prevent the development of pigmentation—both sun spots and post-inflammatory pigmentation like acne scarring. It can also fade existing pigmentation so is often considered a brightening ingredient.
Vitamin C supports collagen production and aids in skin repair, so is useful for both slowing down signs of aging in the skin, and reducing the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles and sagginess in more mature skin.
As an antioxidant, vitamin C also defends against pollution and environmental stress, and gives your skin some protection against UV damage. That’s not to say that it can replace a sunscreen, but is certainly a handy ingredient to use daily.
Lastly, it can soothe the skin and reduce inflammation, so it’s effective for people with acne and rosacea or other redness.
How does vitamin C in skincare work?
Vitamin C is an antioxidant, meaning it can donate electrons to skin-damaging free radicals and effectively neutralise them. Free radicals are incited by all sorts of environmental damage to the skin, from UV exposure to pollution, stress, smoking and excessive alcohol consumption.
It also supports your skin’s production of collagen, helping your skin repair itself faster and restore firmness.
Who should use vitamin C skincare?
Everyone who isn’t already content with the appearance of their skin can benefit from using vitamin C, pretty much. Its double duty as a protectant and repairer means it’s a smart ingredient to introduce into your routine early, before you start seeing signs of aging, and it will slow them down.
If you have any redness or pigmentation, vitamin C will help break it up and tone it down. And if you know your skin is prone to developing pigmentation after pimples heal, you can use vitamin C as a spot treatment to stave that off before it happens.
What type of vitamin C should you use?
Here’s the important part: not all vitamin C is stable and effective in skincare, so you have to know what to look for.
The two best forms of vitamin C are L-ascorbic acid and magnesium ascorbyl phosphate. They’re the most well-researched and are known to be stable and effective at penetrating and affecting your skin.
Other versions known to be useful are ascorbyl 6 palmitate, disodium isostearyl 2-0 L-ascorbyl phosphate, and ascorbic acid sulfate. There are many more, particularly as vitamin C is becoming a more popular skincare ingredient and companies are trying different methods to become unique in the market.
Vitamin C is effective at low concentrations, but is most effective between 10-20%. Anything over 20% is probably unnecessary.
What packaging should you look for?
Vitamin C is notoriously unstable, so there are a few packaging considerations that are essential to make sure you’re buying a vitamin C product that’s more than just marketing.
Air and light are its worst enemies, so jar packaging will render your product worthless. Likewise, clear glass or plastic packaging is a bad idea.
Instead, look for opaque glass or plastic packaging, ideally with a pump or airless delivery mechanism (as in, a squeeze tube rather than a dropper). And unless you’re planning on using your serum or treatment daily, see if you can find smaller packaging which will decrease the risk of the vitamin C oxidising before you get to the end.
How do you know when vitamin C has gone bad?
It’ll be yellowish or brownish instead of white or clear.
What else do you need to know?
It’s recommended to use it in the morning so you get its environmental protection effects throughout the day, although you can safely use it twice daily for faster results.
It used to be said that vitamin C doesn’t play nicely with niacinamide (I wrote about it myself) but it seems that professional advice now is that they’re fine to be used together. It’s also safe to use with other actives like retinol and AHAs, but this can cause a little bit of irritation if you’re new to using them.
Vitamin C also works even better when paired with vitamin E or ferulic acid.
Skincare with vitamin C
Wishtrend Pure Vitamin C21.5 Advanced Serum, $24.99 USD
This is one of the most popular vitamin C serums in the skincare-obsessed part of the internet, and it took me a while before using it because I wanted to give it a fair go. It comes in a brown bottle with a dropper, so it’s not the most sensible packaging for vitamin C, and some people recommend keeping it in the fridge. Truthfully, if I have to keep a serum in the fridge to keep it active, I probably won’t bother.
Because of its high concentration, you’re likely to get fast results with this serum, but it can come at a cost. Some people report purging (when all the bad shit in your skin comes to the surface in the form of nasty pimples) but I didn’t have anything of the sort.
I couldn’t get through this serum before it oxidised, so if you’re the type of person to get upset about having to throw away a product before it’s used up, don’t go for this.
Cosmedix Pure C Vitamin C Mixing Crystals, $80.50 NZD
Pure vitamin C in crystal form. Pretty smart, if you can be bothered with the faff! This wee tub is a bit like a talcum powder container, with a shaker to dispense the powder. You’re meant to mix a few shakes of the crystals with your regular nighttime moisturiser or serum and then apply to the skin.
The dry powder is a smart way to evade oxidation and means you can adjust how much product you want to use, as long as you’re in tune with your own skin. One potential issue is that vitamin C is only effective at a pH of 3.5 or lower, so you’ll need to know the pH of the product you mix the powder with. You can google the name of your product + pH and hopefully find a result, or look for a list of skincare pH levels.
This product is fun: it’s a gel that pills up and physically exfoliates as you rub it into the skin. A lot of the pilling is caused by the ingredients in the gel, so it’s not like you’re massaging away the whole top layer of dead skin cells, but it still does a decent job of exfoliating.
The Body Shop have a whole selection of these liquid peels in each of their skincare ranges. There’s not a whole lot that sets each of them apart, except the price, and this is the cheapest of the liquid peels available. Its vitamin C comes in the form of 3-O Ethyl Ascorbic Acid, an effective form of the molecule, so it should give you visible results, although the concentration is very low.
Clinique Fresh Pressed Daily Booster, $130 NZD for four
I wrote about the Clinique Fresh Pressed powder cleanser and wasn’t wowed by it, and unfortunately this “daily booster” serum is going the same way. It’s got a very novel delivery method designed to eliminate oxidation before use, but the formula didn’t work for me and the price point is prohibitively high for most people.
Each plastic tube contains 7–10 days worth of serum. You activate it by pressing a button on the top of the tube, which dispenses powder vitamin C into the rest of the formula, and you shake to combine. Then you mix a few drops of the serum into your moisturiser or other serum twice daily. It’s a smart way to avoid the oxidation issue, but comes at a huge cost in the form of excess plastic and waste packaging. For a month’s worth of serum you need four of these plastic tubes.
The form of vitamin C is ascorbic acid, so it’s effective, but for some reason this product really didn’t work for my skin. I don’t know what it is about Clinique skincare but most of their products cause me to break out. If you’re fine with Clinique formulas, the price and the environmental cost of the packaging, this is a formula worth looking at.
One of Kiehl’s’ most well-loved products, this serum contains 10.5% ascorbic acid making it an effective vitamin C serum. The formula is heavy in silicones but water free, so it feels very slippy on the skin but it’s not at risk of oxidation in the packaging.
I did feel a little warming on the skin when first applying this serum, which is a sign it’s working (even though tingling and stinging is usually a bad sign, warmth from strong vitamin C serums is normal). It gave visible results in skin texture for me, which was awesome, and though it’s pricey, it does work. The only thing preventing this from being my number one recommended vitamin C product is…
The Ordinary products are never far away when it’s time to talk about effective skincare ingredients. They have a whole range of vitamin C serums, actually, but I picked this one for no real reason. It’s water free so stable and not at risk of oxidation.
It’s also got the highest percentage of vitamin C among the products I’ve listed (unless you’re mixing that Cosmedix powder 50-50, which would just be wasteful). It uses ascorbic acid, but if for some reason you don’t want ascorbic acid, The Ordinary makes a range of other vitamin C-type serums.
This one has dropped out of favour a wee bit amongst The Ordinary fans, and it’s because the formula is a bit grainy. I definitely feel the grit a bit on my skin, and while that doesn’t bother me too much (I just use it at night) I can see why you’d pick a different one instead. Once I’m through this I’ll take a look at their others.
Other C serums
There are a number of other vitamin C serums on the market that at some point I’d like to try, although they’re all rather expensive and, as The Ordinary has shown us, unnecessarily so. Particularly appealing to me are the Drunk Elephant C-Firma Day Serum and Sunday Riley CEO Rapid Flash Brightening Serum, both with 15% concentrations, but I’ll be honest they appeal because I like the brands, not because I think they’ll do anything special.
Have you tried vitamin C in skincare before? Will you now?