Did you know vitamin C is a naturally occurring water-soluble vitamin? And it’s not just found in orange juice! Many of your favorite citrus fruits and veggies contain vitamin C. This popular immune system booster is a classic aid for warding off the common cold, and in recent years, it’s become a star player in dermatology, thanks to its many potential beneficial effects on the skin. When applied topically, vitamin C can help slow the signs of aging, reduce the appearance of dark spots, boost protection against the sun, protect your skin from the environment, and more.
Here we’ll tell you everything you need to know about vitamin C, how you can incorporate it into your skincare routine, and its possible side effects.
When it comes to health benefits, vitamin C (aka ascorbic acid) has a lot! It plays a critical role in collagen synthesis and helps form and maintain key structures in your body, such as blood vessels.¹ One study also found that vitamin C supplementation can even help speed up bone healing after a fracture.² As an antioxidant, it helps protect cells against free radicals, molecules produced when the body is exposed to pollutants like UV rays, smoke, and X-rays.
Vitamin C deficiency (also known as scurvy, a condition that’s quite rare today) can hinder the body’s ability to do its normal functions.³ That’s why it’s important to always get the daily recommended intake of vitamin C. Thankfully, that’s easy to do by simply eating fruits and veggies rich in vitamin C, like oranges, broccoli, and spinach.⁴
Fun fact: Did you know the human body doesn’t produce vitamin C? And even when supplementing with tablets, only a small fraction of the vitamin becomes biologically available and active in the skin. This means (you guessed it!) you have to rely on topical application to reap the benefits of vitamin C on your skin.⁵
Vitamin C is a truly legendary ingredient that boasts many benefits for the skin when applied in the form of serums, creams, toners, and more.
It helps protect the skin from the sun: As an antioxidant, vitamin C has been proven to work as a protectant against sun damage. Combined with your daily SPF, it’s a great way to reduce and help prevent damage caused by UV rays. Additional sun protection may result from combining vitamin C with other ingredients like ferulic acid and vitamin E.⁶
It’s anti-aging: Vitamin C helps increase collagen production and this may improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.⁷
It fades hyperpigmentation: Vitamin C helps fade hyperpigmentation by inhibiting melanin production.⁸ This can help brighten your skin.
It improves acne: Vitamin C’s anti-inflammatory properties may help improve acne.⁹
When using vitamin C for skin, there are several common types to look for: l-ascorbic acid (LAA), magnesium ascorbyl phosphate (MAP), and ascorbyl-6-palmitate. Understanding their differences makes it easier to choose the one that will work best for your unique skin type and goals.
L-ascorbic acid (LAA). The naturally occurring form of topical vitamin C is L-ascorbic acid (LAA), the most popular form used in skincare products. It is the most biologically available and well-studied.¹⁰
Magnesium ascorbyl phosphate (MAP). Magnesium ascorbyl phosphate (MAP) is another form of vitamin C that is stable at a neutral pH of seven. Unlike LAA, which is hydrophilic (soluble in water), MAP is lipophilic (soluble in fats).
Ascorbyl-6-palmitate. Ascorbyl-6-palmitate is another lipid-soluble form of vitamin C. Like MAP, it is more stable than LAA.
While this ingredient is widely considered safe, there are a few possible downsides to consider. Like any skincare product, using vitamin C topically may result in side effects—but most people adjust to using vitamin C without any issues. We recommend taking it slow and discussing your skincare goals with your dermatology or healthcare provider.
If you have sensitive skin, you may be more likely to experience some of these common side effects when using vitamin C topically:
Tingling or burning
If you’re experiencing any of the above, these tips may help:
Apply vitamin C to dry skin only.
Work up to daily use! Try using it once every few days, or every other day, before applying it daily.
Check the ingredients; your skin may be reacting to something else in the product.
Be on the lookout for prolonged burning, swelling, or hives—these could be signs of an allergic reaction. Concerned about vitamin C overdose or toxicity? Don’t be—very high doses of vitamin C supplements are required to overdo it.
Adding vitamin C to your skincare routine is completely optional. If you choose to do so, the most important thing to consider is not the product itself (be it a serum, cream, or lotion) but the form of vitamin C you're using. Look for L-ascorbic acid, which is highly stable and proven to penetrate the skin barrier effectively. Also, be sure to check for any comedogenic (pore-clogging) ingredients. Remember, clogged pores equal acne.
Over-the-counter vitamin C serums, specifically, are usually packaged in dark bottles because vitamin C breaks down when exposed to air and light. Serums range in vitamin C concentration, from 5% all the way up to 20%. We recommend going with lower concentration if you’re just starting out or you have sensitive skin.
Remember, potential vitamin C serum side effects include itching, redness, irritation, tingling, and burning. If you experience any of these when using vitamin C, or any skincare product, it’s best to shelve it.
Founded by dermatologists in 2014, Curology helps take the guesswork out of your skincare routine—licensed dermatology providers work with you to examine your skin, assess your skincare goals, and provide custom treatment options. Our mission is to make customized skincare accessible to all for skin concerns like rosacea, acne, and signs of aging.
Signing up is easy. Just answer a few questions about your skin and snap a few selfies to get matched with one of our in-house dermatology providers. They’ll create a personalized prescription formula with a mix of ingredients for your unique skin’s needs. They’ll also be there to answer any questions you may have, like supplementing your skincare routine with vitamin C. When you sign up for a free month of Curology,* you can add on additional products recommended by our team at no extra cost—just pay $4.95 (plus tax) to cover the cost of shipping and handling.
When it comes to health benefits, vitamin C (aka ascorbic acid) has a lot! It plays a critical role in collagen synthesis and helps form and maintain key structures in your body, such as blood vessels.
It helps protect the skin from the sun
It fades hyperpigmentation
It improves acne
Tingling or burning
May, James M., Harrison, Fiona E. Role of Vitamin C in the Function of the Vascular Endothelium.Antioxid Redox Signal. (2013 December 10).
DePhillipo, Nicholas N., et al. Efficacy of Vitamin C Supplementation on Collagen Synthesis and Oxidative Stress After Musculoskeletal Injuries: A Systematic Review. Orthop J Sports Med. (October 2018).
Padayatty, S. J., & Levine, M. Vitamin C: the known and the unknown and Goldilocks.Oral diseases. (2016).
Katherine M Phillips, et al. Seasonal variability of the vitamin C content of fresh fruits and vegetables in a local retail market. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture. (2018, February 6).
Al-Niaimi, F., Chiang, NYZ.,Topical Vitamin C and the Skin: Mechanisms of Action and Clinical Applications. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. (2017).
Murray, JC., et al. A topical antioxidant solution containing vitamins C and E stabilized by ferulic acid provides protection for human skin against damage caused by ultraviolet irradiation. J Am Acad Dermatol. (2008).
Pullar, JM., Carr, AC., Vissers, MCM., The Roles of Vitamin C in Skin Health. Nutrients. (2017).
Sanadi, RM., Deshmukh, RS.,The effect of Vitamin C on melanin pigmentation - A systematic review.J Oral Maxillofac Pathol. (2020).
Woolery-Lloyd MD, H., et al, Sodium L-ascorbyl-2-phosphate 5% lotion for the treatment of acne vulgaris: a randomized, double-blind, controlled trial. Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology. (2010).
Al-Niaimi, F., Chiang, NYZ.,Topical Vitamin C and the Skin: Mechanisms of Action and Clinical Applications. (Ibid).
* Subject to consultation. Subscription is required. Results may vary. Trial is 30 days.
Nicole Hangsterfer, PA-C