Back in the day, vitamin C was usually associated with foods and drinks, like Tang (#TBT), oranges, and Sunny D. More recently, however, the antioxidant powerhouse has become a mainstay of beauty aisles and the star ingredient within all sorts of serums, creams, and masks. As you read product labels for these products, though, you may have found yourself wondering, “Well, what does vitamin C do for your skin?”
The buzzy vitamin is so omnipresent because it’s a skin-boosting multitasker with a long list of benefits. It’s a potent antioxidant, first of all, so it’s protective — but also has anti-aging perks, can even out your complexion, and more, and it’s something countless dermatologists recommend people use in their daily beauty regimen. Keep scrolling for more about what makes vitamin C so great and how to work it into your routine.
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What Is Vitamin C?
Vitamin C is one of the most common antioxidants found in beauty formulas — for good reason. Studies have continually shown its many benefits to the skin when applied topically. But, as you’ll notice when you take a closer look at product labels, there’s not just one kind of vitamin C that’s used in skin care.
The two main derivatives, according to Dr. Dhaval Bhanusali, M.D., a New York City-based board-certified dermatologist, are L-ascorbic acid and tetrahexyldecyl (THD) ascorbate. The former is the most researched and the purest form of vitamin C, but it comes with its downsides. “Concentration and formulation all affect its efficacy as L-ascorbic acid is highly unstable,” says Dr. Jenny Liu, M.D., a Minneapolis-based dermatologist and assistant professor at the University of Minnesota. “That’s why it’s often formulated with vitamin E and ferulic acid.” (See: the cult-favorite Skinceuticals C E Ferulic Serum.) Bhanusali adds it also requires being in a dark bottle since it oxidizes quickly.
Currently, more beauty brands are embracing THD ascorbate, says Bhanusali. “It’s better suited for sensitive skin and thought to be more stable,” he explains. It’s also lipid-soluble, unlike L-ascorbic acid, which means it can come in creamier formulations that are easier on all skin types, says Liu.
Besides these two main forms of vitamin C, you may also find methylated ascorbic acid (3-o-ethyl-ascorbate) or ascorbyl glucoside. “These are sugar derivatives that are more stable but lack evidence for anti-aging,” says Liu, though notes they may help with uneven skin tone.
What Does Vitamin C Do For Your Skin?
1. It Boosts UV Protection
Without sun protection, vitamin C can make your skin more susceptible to sun damage, but the ingredient actually works synergistically with your sunscreen. “When worn under a broad-spectrum sunscreen during the daytime, vitamin C has been shown to boost your skin’s defenses against UV-generated damage,” says Tiffany Masterson, founder of beauty brand Drunk Elephant.
2. It Stimulates Collagen
Because vitamin C is required in the production of collagen and skin repair, it is also an effective anti-aging treatment working to improve firmness. Essentially, vitamin C packs two collagen-related punches: It helps stimulate the production of collagen and also prevents existing collagen from being broken down — making it a beauty regimen win-win.
3. It Protects Your Skin From Damage
Because vitamin C is such a powerful antioxidant, it’s great for protecting your skin. “It helps fight against free radicals that can harm your skin,” explains Bhanusali. And free radicals, which come from outer elements like the sun’s rays and environmental stressors, wreak havoc on the complexion and quicken signs of aging, explains Dr. Alexis Stephens, D.O., dermatologist and advisor for skin care brand Naturium.
4. It Improves Hyperpigmentation
You’ll see vitamin C inevitably show up in a slew of dark spot correctors, and that’s because vitamin C is a fan-favorite, research-backed tool when looking to fight hyperpigmentation and improve skin’s brightness. It works by inhibiting the tyrosinase enzyme, which is needed in the production of skin pigment, or melanin, explains Stephens. With regular use, you’ll notice a more even skin tone. “It clarifies and brightens your skin by helping get rid of dark spots,” says Dr. Shirley Chi, M.D., a California-based, board-certified dermatologist.
5. It Calms Inflammation
The benefits keep going — vitamin C also works to soothe inflammation on the skin. It works by preventing certain pro-inflammatory cells (called cytokines) from being activated. Translation? It’s great to use if you’re dealing with acne or post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. Talk about a multitasker.
Is Vitamin C Safe For All Skin Types?
Vitamin C is generally good for all skin types, with a couple of exceptions. Who should avoid it? Those who are “extremely sensitive,” says Chi. You should also steer clear of the ingredient if your skin is compromised — Chi points to conditions like eczema flare-ups or skin that’s recently undergone procedures (think chemical peels or laser treatments). “In that case, it can burn when applied,” she explains. It can also further exacerbate irritation or inflammation. Otherwise, she’s a fan: “It should be in everyone’s anti-aging routine,” Chi tells Bustle.
How To Use Vitamin C In Your Skin Care Routine
Because vitamin C works with your SPF, most derms recommend using it in the morning. “I love an antioxidant serum every morning under my SPF to boost the protective effects of sunscreen,” says Liu. Morning is also best because you face the great majority of environmental stressors during the day, adds Stephens.
You can find vitamin C in moisturizers and masks, but you’re going to get the most potent form in serums since they tend to have more concentrated formulas. Whichever type of product you go with, Bhanusali recommends closely checking out the ingredient label and packaging. You want bottles that are dark or have a metallic lining. “Look for a container that blocks sunlight,” says Chi. “That is necessary because vitamin C is very unstable in the sun.” If stored improperly and exposed to sunlight or air, it will oxidize and break down, making it less effective.
It’s also important to note that vitamin C isn’t the kind of beauty ingredient that’ll give you instant satisfaction — it can take time before you start to see results. “Vitamin C is a long-term relationship like retinol, and its benefits take time to show up on the skin,” Chi tells Bustle. But patience and consistency may yield awesome results.
Shop Vitamin C-Spiked Skin Care
For Extra Brightening
For Combatting Hyperpigmentation
Fight dark spots with this formula’s combo of 10% ascorbic acid, niacinamide, licorice root, and camu camu, the latter of which is another antioxidant-rich extract that’ll help even out your complexion.
For A Gentle Formula
Though it relies on the potent L-ascorbic acid form of vitamin C, this serum offsets any adverse effects with hydrating glycerin and aloe vera. Plus, the fruit extracts — papaya, pineapple, and mango — in the formula boost its skin-brightening prowess.
For A Skin Boost
This vitamin C elixir has a straightforward formula that allows the antioxidant to truly shine, and makes for a product that’s easy to layer with other serums.
For Improved Radiance
Buttah Skin’s brightening serum pairs the ascorbic acid in its formula with ferulic acid to make it more stable, and offers added antioxidant protection via green tea, grapeseed, and chamomile extracts.
For Added Hydration
If your skin is on the dry side, this product works as a true multitasker: Besides its stabilized vitamin C complex, it uses aloe juice and glycerin to infuse your skin with hydration.
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Sheded, M. (2019). The Role of Vitamin C in Photosensitivity Attenuation of Antimicrobial Quinolones Group. Science Signpost Publishing. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/334679989_The_Role_of_Vitamin_C_in_Photosensitivity_Attenuation_of_Antimicrobial_Quinolones_Group
Telang, P. (2013). Vitamin C In Dermatology. Indian Dermatol Online Journal. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3673383/
Zolghadri, S. et al (2018). A comprehensive review on tyrosinase inhibitors. Journal of Enzyme Inhibition and Medicinal Chemistry. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14756366.2018.1545767
Dr. Jenny Liu, M.D., board-certified dermatologist based in Minneapolis, Minnesota
Dr. Dhaval G. Bhanusali, M.D., board-certified dermatologist based in NYC
Dr. Shirley Chi, M.D., board-certified dermatologist based in California
Tiffany Masterson, founder of Drunk Elephant
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