Do you swallow horse-size vitamin C pills or chug a glass of orange juice every morning in the hopes of a healthier, happier life? Vitamin C, after all, is one of the most media-friendly dietary supplements around. Most everyone believes they should ingest it in some form to, at the very least, fight the common cold.
But the benefits of vitamin C go beyond oral to include topical applications as well, with skin netting scores of extremely positive results. “Vitamin C is one of the most important ingredients to apply to your skin to promote anti-aging, prevent and reverse photo-damage, brighten skin, and help maintain skin’s overall health,” says Dr. Kally Papantoniou, board-certified dermatologist and clinical instructor at Mount Sinai in New York City.
For Dr. Papantoniou, this makes perfect sense: “After all, vitamin C is essential for the production of collagen and is a potent antioxidant able to scavenge oxides.”
About Those Skin Care Benefits
When it comes to harnessing the skin care strengths of vitamin C, Dr. Papantoniou says that applying it directly to your dermis will do your skin the most good — but don’t skimp on a immunity-strengthening diet replete with vitamin C. “Applying vitamin C will be more effective for the anti-aging and brightening that we seek, but good oral intake of vitamin C can also help potentiate the skin’s vitamin C resources,” she says, noting that vitamin C-rich vegetables (red bell peppers and kale) and fruits (papaya and strawberries) will do the trick.
But how exactly does vitamin C assist skin? Let’s break it down.
Benefit No. 1: Collagen Synthesis
Collagen provides skin with its form, firmness, and strength, and it tends to decline when we age due to a multitude of factors (smoking, UV rays, free radicals). As Dr. Papantoniou says, vitamin C is integral to collagen formation and is involved in every step of its production. However, “it’s an essential vitamin that the body doesn’t produce,” she says. That means we need to eat it or apply it. Otherwise, “without it, proper collagen production and repair cannot occur,” she says.
In steps your daily slathering of topical vitamin C. When applied to skin, vitamin C has been found to help stimulate collagen synthesis as well as preserve existing collagen.
Benefit No. 2: Skin Brightening and Evening of Tone
Those dark spots and uneven blotching you can’t seem to shake? Quite simply: They need a topical dose of vitamin C. “Vitamin C has an effect on the enzymes necessary for melanin production, and regular application can lighten skin tones and areas of hyperpigmentation,” Dr. Papantoniou says.
Benefit No. 3: Free Radical Fighting
As a potent antioxidant, vitamin C works around the clock to neutralize free radicals and slow or even stop cellular damage. “It has the ability to reverse damage caused by UVA and UVB exposures. Sunscreen alone can’t do this, but vitamin C can, which is why sunscreen and vitamin C are so often paired together,” says Dr. Papantoniou.
Benefit No. 4: Anti-inflammation
Suffering from acne or rosacea? Vitamin C has your back, too. “Vitamin C also has anti-inflammatory properties and can reduce inflammation in conditions such as acne and rosacea as part of a skin care routine,” Dr. Papantoniou says.
What to Look For
As wondrous as vitamin C is for skin, it’s a fickle ingredient. Notoriously unstable, it degrades when exposed to air and light. As such, it requires special packaging in opaque or UV-resistant (read: not clear) air-resistant tubes or pump bottles that help preserve its longevity.
Just as you don’t want to throw your money away on an improperly packaged topical vitamin C, you also want to be smart when choosing concentrations. Though concentrations as low as 0.6 percent can provide antioxidant and anti-aging benefits, Dr. Papantoniou says to aim higher. “The maximum concentration shown to be beneficial is 20 percent.”
She points to studies that show that a 10 percent concentration can effectively reduce redness caused by UVB exposure by 52 percent — no small feat. While a concentration of 10 percent to 20 percent is optimal for mature skin, you’ll also want to look at what ingredients accompany vitamin C in the formulation. Some ingredients, like vitamin E and ferulic acid, can greatly boost vitamin C’s efficacy.
And, like everything in life, not all formulations of vitamin C are created equal, leading to different levels of efficacy. Here, Dr. Papantoniou demystifies a few of vitamin C’s most popular formulation types you’ll find when scanning ingredient panels:
L-ascorbic acid: “Most studies show that this form of vitamin C is the most potent, but it can easily degrade with UV exposure and must be at a low pH,” she says.
Magnesium ascorbyl phosphate (MAP): “MAP is second best, and it is the most stable ascorbic ester — not to mention, it’s hydrating to the skin. MAP’s more stable than L-ascorbic acid, and can be found in cream form,” she says.
Ascorbyl palmitate: “Data shows that this is likely not as potent as L-ascorbic acid, and it still has the same stability issues,” making it not a first choice.
Retinyl ascorbate: “This combines retinol (vitamin A) and vitamin C to a more stable compound, and it can be effective,” she says. “However, more sensitive skin types should be cautious, as this may be more drying or irritating.”
Derm-Approved Vitamin C Serums
Ready to reap the skin care benefits of vitamin C? We asked Dr. Papantoniou for her suggestions, plus some ingredient concentration intel so you don’t have to do the legwork!
SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic
Ingredient breakdown: 15% L-ascorbic acid, 1% vitamin E, 0.5% ferulic acid
This is the gold standard of vitamin C for the skin. The combinations of these concentrations actually increase vitamin C’s efficacy by eight times. Available at skinceuticals.com, $165.
Cosmetic Skin Solutions Vitamin C+E Serum Advanced Formula+
Ingredient breakdown: 15% vitamin C, 1% vitamin E, and 0.5% ferulic acid
A great alternative to SkinCeuticals, it has the same trio of ingredient concentrations but at a much lower price point. Available at cosmeticskinsolutions.com, $40-$75.
Timeless Skin Care 20% Vitamin C+E Ferulic Acid Serum
Ingredient breakdown: 20% vitamin C; vitamin E and ferulic acid concentrations not listed
Combines the triumphant trio of ingredients, but isn’t as transparent about the concentrations. Available at timelessha.com, $25.
Brooklyn Botany Ultra Pure Vitamin C L-Ascorbic Acid Serum
Ingredient breakdown: 10% L-absorbic acid, 3% magnesium ascorbyl phosphate, 0.9% tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate
This product is unique in that it contains three vitamin C formulations. Available at brooklynbotany.com, $33.