Every couple of years, there’s a new, innovative ingredient claiming to be the next holy grail of skincare products. In 2018, it’s the year of vitamin C. Just take a walk down the beauty aisle and you’ll notice that every other product seems to contain it. Your friend might have even name-dropped that pricey serum because her dermatologist told her that using vitamin C benefits her skin. Yep, your go-to vitamin for warding off signs of sickness during cold and flu season is now a key ingredient in serums, moisturizers, and other skincare products—and for a good reason. Vitamin C is good for your skin (and not just because your face looks brighter when you take it). The vitamin C benefits for your skin are endless, resulting in a brighter, youthful-looking face. “[Just] as we are told to take vitamin C supplements when we are sick in order to strengthen our immune system, it’s wise to use a topical vitamin C serum every day to strengthen your skin and build its immunity against free radicals and the signs of aging,” says licensed esthetician Tiffany Lewis. To get the full rundown on vitamin C benefits, we asked experts to explain exactly how it works.
What is vitamin C?
Vitamin C, or ascorbic acid, is an antioxidant commonly used for dietary purposes and for helping you avoid the plague of cold and flu season. Taking a vitamin C supplement or regularly eating foods that are rich in it can boost your immune system. But recent research shows vitamin C benefits your skin’s appearance and plays a large role in skin health. While the full benefits of topically applied vitamin C are still unknown, research published in the journal Nutrients and hosted by Oregon State University suggests that the antioxidant does play a role in collagen stimulation and protection against UV photodamage. Thanks to aging and environmental factors, the naturally occurring vitamin C levels in your skin begin to decline over time, and using beauty products with vitamin C can help compensate for that loss. “Vitamin C is one of the most potent antioxidants we have for topical use on the skin,” says Joshua Zeichner, MD, who is the director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital. “It’s a cofactor necessary for the production of collagen and in this way helps promote healthy cell activity, collagen production, and maintains a strong skin barrier.”
How Vitamin C Benefits Skin
Vitamin C helps you say bye-bye to free radicals.
It happens to even the most careful of us: We’ve stepped out in the sun longer than we’ve intended to and now we’re burnt. On top of the sunburns we’ve all gotten, our skin is constantly exposed to other types of environmental stressors, like pollution. Research shows that vitamin C benefits your skin when it’s been affected by sun damage and these environmental stressors. According to the Oregon State University resource, vitamin C reduces and neutralizes the oxidants in the epidermal (outermost) layer of the skin caused by environmental damage. It does so by transporting keratinocyte-rich proteins (a cell of the epidermis) to the skin, protecting it from UV lights and other stressors. “It helps put out inflammation caused by free radicals, helping to protect the skin from the sun,” says Zeichner. “I look at them like safety nets to protect the skin against any UV light that penetrates despite our best efforts of protection with sunscreen.”
Vitamin C delays signs of wrinkles.
As a result of sun damage and environmental stressors, that exposure and oxidative damage can interfere with your DNA, leading to changes in skin structure including wrinkles and other signs of aging. Research has shown that using topical formulas rich in vitamin C benefits your skin by reversing those aging effects, says Yoon-Soo C. Bae, MD, clinical assistant professor of dermatology at New York University. “When there’s DNA damage you develop skin cancer and wrinkles,” she says. “Vitamin C gets rid of all that to prevent DNA damage.”
Vitamin C plumps up your face.
As you get older, your skin produces less collagen, meaning the connective tissues in your dermis (the inner layer of skin) are weaker and your face begins losing its natural elasticity. Bae says that vitamin C benefits the production of collagen by creating more of it. According to a study published in the Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, it does so by increasing collagen synthesis—the process in which your skin makes more collagen and stabilizes it. When that happens, your skin gets firmer, your cheeks look fuller, and your face can look as plump as it did in your younger years. We’ll call that a win!
Vitamin C gives you brighter skin and reduces dark spots.
Got a few dark spots? No worries! If you ever look at a brightening face mask, you’ll often find vitamin C is a key ingredient. That’s because it helps get rid of dark spots and brightens your skin. According to Bae, your skin changes pigment as a result of tyrosine, an enzyme that supports melanin production. As mentioned in Nutrients, melanin production is the reason that we tan from the sun or develop moles, freckles, or other dark spots. Vitamin C blocks that tyrosine from forming, which eventually will even out and brighten your skin tone and nix dark spots.
Vitamin C helps with inflammation.
While there is still research to be done, Oregon State University’s vitamin C resource suggests that it benefits those experiencing inflammation, whether it’s the result of sun damage or a blemish. “Vitamin C has anti-inflammatory properties as it decreases the activation of the transcription factor nuclear factor kappa beta, [a protein complex] responsible for many pro-inflammatory cytokines [proteins],” says Bae.
Which type of vitamin C benefits skin?
Not all vitamin C is created equal. Because of the differences in pH balances, some formulas of vitamin C benefit your skin more than others. Lewis recommends using vitamin C that’s categorized as a L-ascorbic acid because it’s the purest and most stable and works for all skin types. However, if your skin is more sensitive, magnesium ascorbyl phosphate is a better option because it’s fatty-acid derived. Other common names you’ll find include ascorbyl palmitate, magnesium ascorbyl phosphate, and sodium ascorbyl phosphate. “Any of these forms of vitamin C are water-soluble nutrients with vast antioxidant properties that also synthesize collagen, aid in vascular circulation, protect and repair damaged epidermal cells, and guard against photoaging and hyperpigmentation,” says Lewis.
Will vitamin C supplements benefit your skin?
When we sense a cold coming on, it’s common to want to chug a glass of orange juice or pop an Emergen-C (even though recent research shows that vitamin C actually has little benefit when it comes to preventing a cold or reducing symptoms!). Still, it’s common practice, and it makes sense that people would want to use vitamin C on the skin as well. But for the skin, vitamin C works differently. “The benefit to the skin from topically applied vitamin C is far superior to the benefit when taken by mouth,” says Zeichner. “It takes high concentrations of vitamin C delivered directly to the skin to achieve the skin-brightening and collagen-stimulating benefits.” However, some studies suggest that vitamin C supplements can indirectly affect your skin: Taking it orally has been shown to enhance the effectiveness of SPF, which is, of course, great for skin! Other studies suggest that a diet rich in high doses of vitamin C benefits your skin’s appearance greatly and reduces the look of fine lines and wrinkles. Still, topical products are the way to go, according to the experts.
The Best Skincare Products With Vitamin C Benefits
“Due to the instability and low skin penetration of vitamin C, [products with vitamin C] must be formulated properly to be effective,” says Bae. In addition to finding a good formula, she also suggests finding a product that comes in a dark container to prevent the vitamin C from oxidizing: “Oxygen exposure causes oxidation of the product, so packaging and formulation matter.” And as for what kind of vitamin C product to buy, you might get better results by using a serum. “The benefits of using a topical vitamin C serum are exceptional, also because it’s readily absorbed into the skin, particularly in a lower PH level,” says Lewis. However, vitamin C is found in a plethora of beauty products from moisturizers to face masks and more. Be warned though: Stable vitamin C that won’t oxidize quickly doesn’t come cheap. Below are a few recommendations to get you started on that vitamin C kick. SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic Serum ($146) If you want your skin to really reap the vitamin C benefits, get in the habit of using a vitamin C–packed serum daily. Formulated with ferulic acid, vitamin C, and vitamin E, it brightens your skin, improves signs of wrinkles, and provides protection from environmental stressors for at least 72 hours. Environ Evenescence CBoost Cream ($83) This clarifying cream is rich in vitamin C and light enough to use both morning and night. It has a unique form of vitamin C (ascorbyl tetraisopalmitate) to promote collagen production, minimize pigmentation, and even hydrate your skin. Drunk Elephant C-Firma Day Serum ($80) This is an ideal serum for those new to using vitamin C, thanks to its low 3.3 to 3.5 pH level. This serum is made with clean ingredients, including pumpkin ferment, pomegranate extracts, and their special antioxidant complex of L-ascorbic acid, ferulic acid, and vitamin E to brighten and protect your skin. Tatcha Violet-C Radiance Mask ($68) You can also get your vitamin C benefits in face-mask form. This mask offers two types of vitamin C: a water-soluble vitamin C that works ASAP to get your glow on and an oil-soluble vitamin C that works into the deeper layer of your skin. As an added bonus, this mask is formulated with alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) derived from seven fruits to remove the buildup of dead skin. Use it two or three times a week and you’ll notice your skin will be brighter and softer. CLINIQUE Fresh Pressed 7-Day System with Pure Vitamin C ($30) All it takes is seven days to get all the vitamin C benefits you could ever want from this two-step system. It contains pure vitamin C in powder form that’s activated when mixed with water. Apply it to your face, and by day two, you’ll notice brighter results. The Ordinary’s Magnesium Ascorbyl Phosphate 10% ($10) For those with sensitive skin who want all of vitamin C’s benefits but can’t handle too strong of a formula, this serum is for you. This serum’s water-soluble formula makes it less potent than other vitamin C products, meaning it’s gentler on the skin.