Aside from taking age-defying supplements and eating our way to glowing skin, we'll admit that we're also intrigued by the benefits of using topical vitamin C products for attaining Liv Tyler–level luminous skin, and then some.
What Is Vitamin C?
Vitamin C, aka ascorbic acid, is a water-soluble nutrient found in some foods. It acts as an antioxidant in the body, helping to protect cells from the damage caused by free radicals (compounds formed when bodies convert food into energy).
According to top skin experts, like dermatologist Jennifer Herrmann, MD, when applied topically, vitamin C can help fight free radicals, boost skin-plumping collagen, and even out skin tone.
Meet the Expert
Dr. Jennifer Herrmann is a board-certified, fellowship-trained dermatologist and dermatologic surgeon as well as a lecturer with more than 20 peer-reviewed studies and book chapters.
To learn the ins and outs of this powerful antioxidant, we consulted Herrmann to find out how exactly vitamin C does wonders for our skin, and which potent products we should be using to reap its benefits.
Vitamin C is a Skincare Powerhouse
According to Herrmann, "One of vitamin C's main benefits is its function as an antioxidant," she says. "Normal cellular processes, as well as environmental insults like ultraviolet light and pollution, create free radicals in the skin," Herrmann adds. In other words, day-to-day exposure to the natural environment and its influences can wreak havoc on our skin. Says Herrmann, "Free radicals are inherently unstable molecules that damage cells, promoting skin dullness, wrinkles, and even cancers." The good news? Vitamin C acts as a protective shield against free radicals.
In addition to its ability to combat environmental factors, "Vitamin C is also praised for its role in collagen synthesis," says Herrmann. "Collagen gives our skin support and structure, and as it degrades with age, we begin to notice wrinkles and folds," she explains. "Vitamin C is a necessary cofactor for building collagen bundles, without which this process halts." Plus, vitamin C also helps even skin tone. "By blocking the pathway of pigment synthesis, vitamin C can lighten unwanted brown spots," adds Herrmann.
How to Add Vitamin C to Your Skincare Routine
For people with sensitive skin, Herrmann recommends adding vitamin C to your skincare routine gradually. "People with sensitive skin should be careful of formulations that contain alcohol or fragrance as these can be allergens or irritants," she advises. She adds that the best time to use vitamin C is at night, as the active ingredient degrades more quickly when exposed to light.
According to Herrmann, shopping for the right vitamin C cream isn't as easy as you might think. "The problem with vitamin C is that it doesn't easily penetrate the skin's barrier," she explains. "Vitamin C is hydrophilic, meaning it loves water," she adds. "This presents a challenge because the skin barrier is mostly made of fats—think trying to mix oil and water."
Not only is it a hydrophilic skincare ingredient, but it's also unstable, meaning when exposed to heat, light, or air, its active properties can degrade quickly. Vitamin C is "very reactive and easily loses its antioxidant properties," Herrmann explains. "Certain alkaline environments, high temperatures, and the presence of oxygen and metal elements can render it ineffective in seconds." That said, when shopping for a vitamin C skincare product, opt for products that come in opaque or dark packaging, or single-use products.
Or, take a cue from Herrmann's vitamin C-packed face cream picks. Shop these three dermatologist-approved vitamin C creams for brighter, firmer skin, including a $44 miracle worker you can (and should) add to your Sephora cart stat.
This Sunday Riley repairing moisturizer contains "tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate, a form of vitamin C that helps it get through the skin," says Herrmann. Though the $65 price tag isn't for the faint of heart, this dermatologist-approved pick is worth the cash if you're looking for a product that will deliver serious results.
When it comes to choosing the best vitamin C cream for your hard-earned money, "try a product that has been researched extensively by dermatologists and scientists not affiliated with the product," advises Herrmann. "One example is SkinCeuticals CE Ferulic," she offers. "Multiple independent studies have shown this product to improve skin brilliance, firmness, and pigment problems."
This $44 cream is "made with ascorbyl tetraisopalmitate, a stabilized form of vitamin C," explains Herrmann, so you can reap the benefits of the collagen-boosting skincare ingredient without needing to worry about whether or not it's being absorbed into your pores.
And one more thing: Toss a product that has a yellowish-brown discoloration, advises Herrmann. "This means that it has degraded and is no longer biologically active."
Mcdaniel DH, Waugh JM, Jiang LI, et al. Evaluation of the Antioxidant Capacity and Protective Effects of a Comprehensive Topical Antioxidant Containing Water-soluble, Enzymatic, and Lipid-soluble Antioxidants. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2019;12(4):46-53.