This post discusses Topical Vitamin C, what it is, what the scientific community says it is, the benefits, and the must-haves to receive those benefits. I also share topical vitamin c side effects and my personal serum recommendations.
I welcome hearing about your own experiences with Vitamin C.
Topical Vitamin C
The importance of getting enough Vitamin C in one’s food and even as a supplement is well-known and undisputed. Without enough of it in the body, diseases like scurvy, hyperthyroidism, anemia, and even arguably, the common cold take hold.
Topical Vitamin C on the other hand is a relatively new concept. In case you are wondering, I’m talking about Vitamin C in its pure form, aka Ascorbic Acid or L-Ascorbic Acid, that you apply to the skin. Lauded as a skincare hero, Vitamin C has proliferated in popularity and now appears as an active ingredient in many forms from serums to skincare creams and more.
To be honest, I am a big believer and double decade user of topical Vitamin C. I know firsthand the benefits it offers particularly for more mature skin.
But don’t just take my word for it. The information I share in this post is a distilled version of what the scientific community espouses. Given the glut of choices and influencers on the market, my hope is that this will better inform you as you consider your skin needs and buying choices.
Let’s explore the facts.
Vitamin C and Skin Health
Vitamin C also known under the moniker Ascorbic Acid or L-Ascorbic Acid was discovered as recently as the 1930s and immediately used as a remedy for scurvy. It is a chemical that enables the body to use carbohydrates, fats, and protein more efficiently.
In current times, the scientific community agrees unequivocally that Vitamin C is critical for skin health and appearance. While Vitamin C research is ongoing, the association between Vitamin C deficiency and significant skin disorders is clearly evident. With scurvy alone, untreated symptoms include bleeding gums, poor wound healing, and even eventual death.
Furthermore, subsequent studies have demonstrated that the reverse is also true. Adequate Vitamin C exposure and levels result in collagen boosting, skin brightening and antioxidant increase. In fact, the National Institute of Health says it is one of the most powerful antioxidants in the skin.
Vitamin C Delivery
If Vitamin C is all that, then why topical?
Nutrition, even as opposed to supplementation, plays an uncontested leading role in Vitamin C delivery to the body. Yet, surprisingly, the nutritional benefits of Vitamin C cannot reach the outermost layers of the skin or the epidermis. The epidermis lacks the necessary vascular infrastructure or blood vessels for delivery.
To reap these benefits, it would be easy to assume that all one needed to do was put Ascorbic Acid in a skincare product and slather it on the skin. Nope.
A potent topical treatment requires an effective delivery method. The skin must absorb and also utilize the Vitamin C.
The Challenges of Ascorbic Acid
Vitamin C as a “molecule” is highly “unstable” meaning it can easily degrade in efficacy over a short period of time.
Over time and testing, chemists discovered the specific package and product conditions for the most potent product. This includes:
- Airtight packaging
- Dark or opaque container since exposure to light oxidizes Ascorbic Acid
- pH in the acidic range between 2.0-3.5
Additionally, the product formulation needs a:
- Concentration of Ascorbic Acid: the greater the concentration, the higher the efficacy
- HOWEVER, the efficacy is the greatest in the range of 8%-20%
- Less than 8% will have no effect and 25% will be the same as 20%
- Powerful combination of Ascorbic acid with Vitamin E and Ferulic Acid
- Studies show that an 8-fold efficacy increase when 15% ascorbic acid is combined with both .5% Ferulic Acid and 1% Vitamin E
- This combination is particularly great for photodamage and also a possibility for the prevention of skin cancer in the future
Vitamin C Derivatives
Given the difficulties of pure Vitamin C, a number of alternative more stable Vitamin C products called derivatives have emerged on the market and in skincare products and serums.
While these derivatives are more stable, they require added steps. Derivatives must convert into active ascorbic acid and then the skin must absorb it. From the research I have read, only some derivatives are able to do this, and they each do it with varying levels of success.
Additionally, a majority of derivatives have been tested in the lab only. “In vivo” testing on real human beings has been spotty.
The final conclusion here is that Ascorbic or L-Ascorbic Acid is the best most potent form and most well tested ingredient to benefit our skin.
Vitamin C Side Effects
Ascorbic Acid is considered a substance that is “tolerated well” with few side effects and allergies. However, side effects do exist and depend on multiple factors such as skin sensitivity, product type, pH level etc.
They generally appear as skin irritation i.e. redness, dryness, and flakiness.
Vitamin C Recommendations
If you have never tried a Vitamin C serum or product before and given its very real skin benefits, I urge you to first try a serum with pure Ascorbic Acid. If you are an existing topical Vitamin C user and don’t feel that you are getting much from it, you may want to check the ingredients list to discover what you are using.
To ensure the most potent product along with the least potential irritation, I recommend the following:
- Choose a product with a lower concentration of Ascorbic or L-Ascorbic Acid of about 10-15%. Anything lower than 8% is ineffective. You can always work up to 20% as the skin acclimates.
- Give preference to products that have the ideal most powerful combination of ingredients: Ascorbic Acid (15%), Vitamin E (1%), Ferulic Acid (.5%)
- Consider the packaging: airtight with at least a cap that screws along with an opaque or dark bottle
- Start by applying the product once a day in the morning or even once every other day. You can always work up to every day twice a day if desired.
- Check the ingredients list to see if there are buffering ingredients. These include glycerin, panthenol, hyaluronic acid or its salt form, sodium hyaluronate. They will generally minimize sensitivity.
- Alcohol and Benzyl Alcohol are used in some products as a preservative. It can dry and sensitize some skin types. Check the ingredients list to see whether it falls at the end or the beginning of the ingredients list. Exercise caution if it lands at the beginning.
Below are 5 Vitamin C serums that I have used and recommend.
SkinCeuticals CE Ferulic
This Vitamin C serum is the most expensive of the group, however, it is also considered in the industry to be the best. SkinCeuticals backs their products with science and provides a lot of testing and research to the cosmetics industry as a whole. This product has never irritated my sensitive skin. It visibly smooths and plumps. A holy grail.
Obagi Professional C-Serum 15 or 20%
Obagi makes a very hydrating and effective C Serum available in 2 different strengths. While the serum does not have Vitamin E and Ferulic Acid, it is still effective and from personal experience very beneficial for drier more sensitive skin.
Drunk Elephant C-Firma Fresh Day Serum
Drunk Elephant really understands packaging and freshness as it pertains to Vitamin C. This product comes with a powdered form of Ascorbic Acid and a separate base serum that the consumer mixes. The percentages of Vitamin C, Ferulic Acid, and Vitamin E are also scientifically the most potent. The ingredients list is a long list (maybe too many) however, there are some good oils and buffering agents. A solid product that falls in the mid-range price-wise.
Drmtlgy CEF L-Ascorbic Acid
Like the other recommendations, the packaging and product ingredients are spot on. This also has Sodium Hyaluronate, a form of hydrating Hyaluronic Acid. Very solid product.
Timeless Vitamin C&E Ferulic Acid
Timeless is vastly the most economical of this recommended group. They have the right packaging with the right combination of ingredients. While they are extremely well-reviewed and well-liked, they are my least favorite of the group although they are still good enough to be in the group.
Timeless offers 2 strength options-a 10% and 20%. If you are new to Ascorbic Acid and with this product in particular, my recommendation is to start with the 10% and follow the recommendations I put forth in the section above. Given the price point, it could be a good way to try Vitamin C that won’t break the bank.
I am very interested to hear how many of you try (or have tried) Vitamin C and your results! For me, Vitamin C is one of the most skin-transformative ingredients and a runner-up to Tretinoin (see my post on Agency Skincare for a discussion on that).
Let me know if you would like to know more about Derivatives. They deserve more airtime than what I have given them here.
Thank you for reading!
This post discussed Topical Vitamin C, what it is, what the scientific community says it is, the benefits and the must-haves to receive those benefits. I also share topical vitamin c side effects and my personal serum recommendations.