Vitamin C isn’t just for preventing colds! The naturally occurring water-soluble vitamin has powerful antioxidant properties when applied topically to the skin. If you’re concerned about dark spots or want to add an extra layer of protection against wrinkle-causing free radicals and UV damage, vitamin C may be just what you need. While eating your daily servings of fruits and veggies is great for your overall health, you may not see much of an effect on your skin. To reap the skin-specific benefits of vitamin C, you’ll want to apply a topical vitamin C product in addition to eating a healthy balanced diet.
Topical vitamin C comes in serums and other facial treatments, like masks and oils—a few of which we’ll recommend below. Read on for everything you need to know about this beloved skincare ingredient, including how to use it and how to get the most out of it.
Vitamin C is an antioxidant that fights free radicals that can potentially cause signs of aging. Without getting too technical, free radicals are unstable molecules that shake up the structure of your skin on a microscopic level. This creates oxidative stress, so using antioxidants like vitamin C quite literally helps restore balance to your skin.
Topical vitamin C is a science-backed, dermatologist-favorite ingredient that may help slow early skin aging, prevent sun damage, and improve the appearance of dark spots and wrinkles.
There are a few ways that vitamin C can potentially improve your skin. Here’s how vitamin C works:
Photoprotection: It neutralizes the free radicals that contribute to photoaging.
Regulating pigment production: It helps improve hyperpigmentation (aka dark spots) by inhibiting melanin formation.
Smoothing and plumping: It helps improve fine lines and wrinkles by stimulating collagen production.
The best vitamin C serum for you isn’t necessarily the fanciest one money can buy. In fact, a lot of the most expensive products we came across contain potentially pore-clogging ingredients that can contribute to breakouts. Luckily, you don’t need to break out or break the bank just to enjoy this antioxidant! In fact, almost all of our top picks are drugstore vitamin C serums.
Here are a few vitamin C serums whose ingredients we’ve reviewed and determined to have a low likelihood of triggering acne or irritating the skin:
You can also find vitamin C in products like masks and moisturizers:
The catch with topical vitamin C is that it can “go bad.” Some forms of vitamin C used in skincare products lack stability, meaning they can lose potency and become less effective over time. Most products include stabilizing ingredients, but there’s no scientific consensus on which ones work best (if they work at all). You can usually tell if your vitamin C serum has turned if the product’s color or smell changes.
Here are a few tips on how to store your vitamin C products:
Avoid exposing your vitamin C skincare product to sunlight.
Try to keep the lid tightly sealed.
Store it in a cool and dry place.
You can opt to store your vitamin C products in a refrigerator, but there are no proven skin benefits to chilling your skincare products. When in doubt, refer to the product labeling instructions for storage advice.
Vitamin C serums are best when used fresh, so it’s not the kind of product you want to buy in bulk. Even if you don’t use it very often, you’ll want to replace your vitamin C serum more frequently than some of your other skincare products.
First things first, to be effective, you want to look for a vitamin C product in a concentration of at least 10 percent.
To get the most out of your vitamin C serum, you should apply it in the morning—particularly if you plan to spend time in the sun. Apply a vitamin C serum after cleansing and before you apply your sunscreen (or moisturizer with SPF). And don’t skip on your regular UV protection—while vitamin C provides some protection from the sun, it definitely doesn’t replace sunscreen!
You can apply a topical vitamin C product at night, too, if you like. Some vitamin C serums claim to keep working for hours (even days) after you’ve applied it, so theoretically you don’t need to apply it both morning and night to get the benefits. Whatever works best with your skincare routine, we say go for it.
Vitamin C is considered to be very safe—most people have no trouble adjusting to using it in a topical product. But sensitive skin types will want to take it slowly. If you experience a burning or tingling sensation, particularly the first couple times you use the product, here’s what we recommend:
Make sure you’re applying it to dry skin.
Start using it every other day or two (or even less) before gradually working up to daily use, if tolerated.
Check the ingredients in case it’s not vitamin C but something else that your skin is reacting to. It’s always a good idea to check a skincare product’s ingredients before you start using it, especially if you’re prone to acne breakouts or have sensitive skin.
The short answer is no. Vitamin C is a strong antioxidant that helps stimulate collagen production. This process helps repair fine lines and wrinkles. It slows down melanin formation and is useful in treating dark spots. Because of its anti-inflammatory properties, vitamin C may help reduce the redness that comes with acne, but ultimately will not help clear acne.
Vitamin C and retinol are both popular products on the skincare scene, especially when it comes to reducing dark spots and fine lines. You can use both retinol and vitamin C as part of your skincare routine, but you will want to be mindful about when you use your vitamin C and retinol. To avoid the potential risk of irritation, you may want to avoid layering the two treatment close together. For example, try a vitamin C in the morning and retinol at night. If you're a Curology member, we recommend that you wait a few minutes between applying your prescription medication and a vitamin C product at night.
Looking for a custom treatment that can help with anti-aging, hyperpigmentation, or redness? We’ve got you. Curology is free to start*—you’ll get a Custom Formula, plus any of our recommended skincare products, for just $4.95 (plus tax) to cover shipping and handling. That’s a full skincare routine designed by dermatologists and sent straight to your door. The best part? Curology is custom-tailored to you. That means we can tweak your Custom Formula over time, and you can always update what’s in your box.
PS. We did the research so you don't have to.
1. Firas Al-Niaimi, Nicole Yi Zhen Chiang. Topical Vitamin C and the Skin: Mechanisms of Action and Clinical Application. The Journal of CLinical and Aesthetic Dermatology. (2017, July).
2. Romain De Dormael, et. al. Vitamin C Prevents Ultraviolet-induced Pigmentation in Healthy Volunteers: Bayesian Meta-analysis Results from 31 Randomized Controlled versus Vehicle Clinical Studies. The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology. (2019, February).
3. Juliet M. Pullar, et. al. The Roles of Vitamin C in Skin Health. Nutrients. (2017, August).
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