Vitamin C Benefits for Skin and How to Choose a Product with the Ingredient

Dermatologists detail the main vitamin C benefits for skin and how to choose between products containing the ingredient.

Woman Applying Vitamin C To Face
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Few ingredients receive as much praise from skin-care enthusiasts as vitamin C. It's well-established that the benefits of vitamin C for skin are extensive and wide-ranging, not to mention applicable for pretty much everyone, regardless of age or skin type. It's a serious workhorse, one that's absolutely worth incorporating into your routine.

The only caveat is that vitamin C is notoriously finicky and unstable, meaning the product you pick, how you use it, and even where you store it are all key things to consider. Ahead, top dermatologists detail the benefits of vitamin C for skin and share oh so important intel about how best to use the ingredient in order to maximize said benefits.

What is Vitamin C?

"Vitamin C is the most abundant antioxidant in human skin," says Robyn Gmyrek, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist at UnionDerm in New York and a clinical instructor of dermatology at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. Fun fact: your body is unable to synthesize vitamin C, so it has to be acquired orally, via diet or supplementation, she explains. Still, even if you have a high intake of vitamin C, "only a small fraction of vitamin C will be biologically available and active in the skin. A very limited amount is absorbed into your gastric tract, and then makes its way into the bloodstream and ultimately to your skin. The only way to increase its availability in the skin is to apply it topically," says Dr. Gmyrek. Enter the onslaught of many vitamin C products from skin-care brands.

Vitamin C Skin Benefits

The reason you've heard so much about vitamin C in skin care is that the ingredient is a triple threat.

Has Antioxidant Effects

"As a powerful antioxidant, vitamin C combats oxidative stress, protecting your skin against damaging free radicals," explains Dr. Geeta Yadav, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of FACET Dermatology in Toronto. Free radicals are unstable molecules that can come from, among other places, environmental aggressors such as pollution and sun exposure. They trigger a process known as oxidative stress, which breaks down collagen and accelerates skin aging, says Dr. Yadav. Vitamin C can help neutralize the free radicals, prevent the damage. (

In related news, research suggests that topical vitamin C reduces sunburn cell formation by 40 to 60 percent, adds Dr. Gmyrek. The ingredient can even reduce a specific marker of DNA damage caused by UV radiation exposure that's associated with the formation of skin cancers, she says. For all of the above reasons, it's a smart move to layer a vitamin C product underneath your sunscreen every morning.

Aids In Collagen Production

"Vitamin C is known for its ability to stimulate the synthesis of collagen, one of skin's primary proteins, which is responsible for the appearance of a firmer, tauter, and smoother-looking complexion," says Dr. Yadav. "By triggering collagen synthesis, you'll help your skin maintain its resilience and fight off the signs of aging." And, not only is it helping create new collagen, the ingredient also has the added benefit of decreasing collagen breakdown and destruction, notes Dr. Gmyrek.

Decreases Hyperpigmentation

Prone to unwanted dark spots? Reach for vitamin C. "Vitamin C helps to even out skin tone, brighten the skin, and decrease unwanted pigmentation," says Dr. Gmyrek. "It inhibits the action of the enzyme tyrosinase, an enzyme important in the production of melanin [a pigment occurring in skin], thereby decreasing pigmentation."

How to Choose the Best Vitamin C Skin-Care Product

If you've decided you want to take advantage of vitamin C in skin care, you can find the best product for your routine by keeping three factors in mind.

Type of Vitamin C

Vitamin C is used as a blanket term, because there are a number of different versions that are used in skin-care formulas. Many pros consider l-ascorbic acid the golden standard. "It's the most biologically active, the most common type used in topical skincare product, and the most well-studied," says Dr. Gmyrek. The only drawbacks are that it's extremely unstable and doesn't penetrate the skin well, and it also has the highest likelihood of causing irritation, particularly in those with sensitive skin, she says.

Other versions of vitamin C in skincare include ascorbyl-6-palmitate, magnesium ascorbyl phosphate (MAP), and tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate (THD). They're more stable and better able to penetrate your skin, says Dr. Gmyrek. The trade-off: They're weaker, as your skin will need to convert them into ascorbic acid upon application, notes Dr. Yadav. "The advantages of using other forms of vitamin C can include improved stability, reduced irritation, and improved absorption, but in my opinion, there's nothing like the real pure thing," she says. However, it does also bear mentioning, that, broadly speaking, products that contain l-ascorbic acid do tend to be pricier than those that use other forms of the ingredient.


The concentration of vitamin C within the formula also matters. "For a product to be of biological significance, it needs to have a vitamin C concentration higher than eight percent, but studies have shown that a concentration above 20 percent does not increase its effectiveness and will be more irritating. Most products on the market today, range between 10 to 20 percent," which is a good range to aim for when choosing a product with l-ascorbic acid, says Dr. Gmyrek. With other forms of vitamin C, a 15 to 20 percent concentration is likely the sweet spot, though the ideal concentration will depend on not only the particular form of vitamin C but the entire formulation, says Dr. Yadav.

If your skin is on the sensitive side, Dr. Yadav advises starting on the lower end and gradually working your way up; you can also opt for a formula that contains one of the other types of vitamin C. Also important: Ferulic acid, another powerful antioxidant, helps to stabilize l-ascorbic acid, and vitamin E works synergistically with the ingredient, so seeking out formulas that utilize all three is a good idea, says Dr. Gmyrek.

Packaging matters too. Since vitamin C — l-ascorbic acid in particular — is easily destabilized by sunlight and oxygen, look for products housed in opaque containers with pump top dispensers, suggests Dr. Gmyrek. Store them in a cool, dark place, adds Dr. Yadav.

Type of Product

To get the most bang for your buck, look for vitamin C in a serum, rather than a moisturizer. "Serums are concentrated treatments and will be the most potent form of delivery to your skin," points out Dr. Yadav. Apply it onto clean, dry skin in the morning, when it can act as a second layer of defense underneath your sunscreen; Just make sure to let it fully absorb into the skin for a few minutes before putting on sunscreen.

You can use it in the evening again as well (so long as your skin is tolerating it), though you shouldn't combine it with any other products, cautions Dr. Gmyrek. Other common ingredients — benzoyl peroxide, retinoids — can destabilize the ingredient, essentially negating the effects all together, she says. If you do want to use it in tandem with other active ingredients, seek it out in a combination product that's already formulated with all of them together to ensure that they're stable and active, rather than layering them yourself, she explains.

There are quite a few factors to consider when choosing a product, but getting in on the numerous benefits of vitamin C will likely be worth the effort.

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