If you’ve browsed for skincare online or in-store, you’ve no doubt seen vitamin C listed as a key ingredient across multiple products.
From serums to scrubs, creams to cleansers, oils to eye treatments, and masks to moisturisers, there’s no shortage of vitamin C skincare to choose from. But why is vitamin C so crucial when it comes to skin treatments?
What kinds of benefits does it offer your skin and how on Earth do you incorporate it into your routine? Heck, what even is vitamin C? If you’re a little stumped by this popular ingredient, here’s everything you need to know.
What is vitamin C?
You might already be familiar with vitamin C as a vitamin commonly found in foods. Also known as L-ascorbic acid, this water-soluble vitamin is naturally present in citrus fruits, berries, capsicum and tomatoes, among other fruits and vegetables.
It’s also added to some foods to boost their nutritional content. So, how does it relate to skin health? Well, vitamin C happens to be the most abundant antioxidant in your skin.
It plays a pretty key role in keeping your skin healthy and radiant — which we’ll dive into shortly. Because it’s so fundamental to skin health, vitamin C is a favourite ingredient in many facial products and treatments.
In skincare, you may find a few different types of vitamin C used. The most well-known (and the most potent) is L-ascorbic acid, but magnesium ascorbyl phosphate or ascorbyl palmitate are also somewhat common.
Both of these mix pure vitamin C with other ingredients, meaning they can be less effective than products that only use L-ascorbic acid.
What are the skin benefits of vitamin C?
Where do we begin? From combatting pigmentation to protecting against sun damage, you can expect numerous benefits from using vitamin C on your skin.
Here’s how it can help.
It gets you glowing
Environmental stressors like the sun, air, pollution and other things that float about in the outside world can cause the formation of free radicals.
These are atoms that have the ability to damage the cells and lead to signs of ageing. Because vitamin C is an antioxidant, it can help prevent these free radicals from forming. The result? Skin that tends to appear younger and more glowy.
It cultivates collagen
Collagen is one of the abundant proteins in your body. Your body produces collagen for a number of reasons, including to keep your skin plump and elastic.
Over time, though, and as a result of stressors like the sun, smoking and alcohol, collagen production decreases, which can lead to wrinkles. Vitamin C, on the other hand, helps promote collagen production. This is because it plays a critical part in collagen synthesis in your body.
A bunch of clinical studies have found that using vitamin C topically — that is, in skincare — can boost collagen production in both young and aged skin.
It fades pigmentation
Melanin is the pigment responsible for giving skin its colour. When your body produces too much of it, it can lead to hyperpigmentation. If you’re affected by some form of hyperpigmentation — age spots, sun spots, acne scarring or melasma — you may find vitamin C particularly helpful.
This is because vitamin C actually helps block your body’s production of melanin.
It alleviates acne
On top of acne scarring, vitamin C may also assist in controlling current breakouts. Vitamin C has anti-inflammatory properties, meaning it can help tackle the redness and swelling associated with acne.
(Bonus: these properties also make it effective in treating rosacea and wounds!)
It protects your skin against the sun
UV rays aren’t particularly kind to our skin. Excessive exposure to them, without adequate sun protection, can lead to premature ageing of the skin, wrinkles, sunspots and even skin cancer.
Luckily, vitamin C can provide protection against UV rays when used in tandem with broad-spectrum sunscreen. In fact, it actually boosts the protective power of sunscreen by offering a stronger barrier against the sun’s rays.
Vitamin C is also pretty powerful when mixed with other ingredients like ferulic acid (a fantastic antioxidant) and vitamin E.
Together, these ingredients can reduce redness and deliver further relief from sun damage.
Are there any side effects of vitamin C?
For the most part, vitamin C is safe to use daily over a long period of time. In some cases, however, vitamin C use may lead to dryness, redness or stinging — but these can easily be addressed with a good moisturiser.
If you’ve got particularly sensitive skin, you may want to be careful with vitamin C. This is especially true with products that use L-ascorbic acid as it’s the most potent form of vitamin C used in skincare.
Magnesium ascorbyl phosphate is a more gentle option. Like any skincare product, you should always patch test before applying vitamin C over your entire face. That way, you can check for a nasty reaction.
How often should you use a vitamin C skincare product?
You can safely use a vitamin C product once or even twice daily. In fact, applying topical vitamin C every eight hours is considered most effective. If you choose to only use it once per day, or every other day, try to apply it in the morning before going in with your SPF product.
What is the best way to use vitamin C on your skin?
There’s a practically endless choice of vitamin C products to choose from, but serums are easily the most common.
A serum is a great way to apply vitamin C because serums generally contain a higher concentration of active ingredients compared to other products like moisturisers and creams.
This means your product will be more effective and may produce results sooner. When purchasing a vitamin C serum, you generally want to look for a product that’s concentrated with between 10 and 20 percent vitamin C.
Products with less than 10 percent may not be strong enough to yield decent results, while those that contain more than 20 percent might be too irritating.
Software’s Vitamin C + Ferulic Serum happens to fall smack-bang in the middle, containing 15 per cent vitamin C. This serum brightens and firms skin, evens skin tone, stimulates collagen and helps to reduce fine lines.
In tandem with ferulic acid, this powerhouse duo is vital for building and developing collagen and rejuvenating the skin by improving elasticity and firmness.
Plus, it protects your precious skin cells from free radicals caused by UV rays and environmental stressors.
When it comes to layering your skincare products, you want to go from the lightest product in texture to the heaviest product. Cleanse first, then tone, apply your vitamin C serum next and finish with your moisturiser, plus SPF if you’re incorporating vitamin C into your morning routine.
Full-spectrum SPF is an absolute must if you plan to head outside after using a vitamin C product.
While we’re on the topic of using vitamin C in your skincare, you may be wondering whether you can reap similar benefits by incorporating more of it into your diet. Taking vitamin C supplements orally may indeed help prevent things like sun damage and contribute to your overall skin health.
However, in dermatology, topical vitamin C is the preferred method of delivering the stuff to your skin. This is because your gut can only soak up so much vitamin C. Plus, vitamin C’s bioavailability (that is, an ingredient’s ability to be processed and used by your body) is limited when taken by mouth.
A vitamin C skincare product instead gets placed straight on your skin, making it more readily absorbed.
What products can't you use with vitamin C?
If you’ve got other active ingredients in your skincare routine, tread with caution when incorporating vitamin C. There are a few products that don’t work too well with vitamin C, leading to irritation or ineffectiveness.
You’ll want to alternate the days you use each product, or apply one in the morning and the other at night.
Ingredients that shouldn’t mix with vitamin C include:
- Benzoyl peroxide
- Alpha-hydroxy acids, or AHAs, and beta-hydroxy acids, or BHAs, such as glycolic acid, citric acid, lactic acid and salicylic acid.
Hyaluronic acid serum vs vitamin C serum
You may also spot hyaluronic acid listed as a key ingredient in some vitamin C skincare products. The two are frequently combined to fight the signs of ageing but they’re actually quite different.
Hyaluronic acid is a humectant, meaning it’s hugely moisturising. It works by absorbing water into itself which then gets pulled into the skin’s surface. It also provides a barrier to the skin, helping to prevent moisture loss.
This means hyaluronic acid can keep your skin moisturised, reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, and boost your skin’s elasticity and firmness.
Vitamin C is also an awesome anti-ageing ingredient, but as we know, its benefits lie more in decreasing oxidative stress, hyperpigmentation and inflammation, and supporting collagen production and skin protection.
The other distinction is that hyaluronic acid usually works well on sensitive skin and doesn’t react badly when mixed with other active ingredients, such as retinol. Despite their differences, what the two have in common is that they’re equally fantastic at keeping your skin in tip-top shape — especially when used together.
Hyaluronic acid can combat the dryness and irritation sometimes associated with vitamin C, making your vitamin C products even more powerful. It’s a win-win!
If you're new to the world of vitamin C, now is the time to jump aboard the bandwagon. Your skin will thank you for it.
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- Collagen and Your Body: What to Know, WebMD, 2022.
- Nathan, Neera, MD MSHS; Patel, Payal, MD. Why Is Topical Vitamin C Important for Skin Health?, Harvard Health Publishing, 2021.
- What to Know About Vitamin C Serum for Acne, WebMD, 2021.
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- Michels, Alexander J, PhD. Vitamin C and Skin Health, Oregon State University, 2011.