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Everything You Need to Know About Vitamin C, Skin Care’s Hardest Working Ingredient

Elise Minton Tabin
Writer and expert3 months ago
View Elise Minton Tabin's profile
Vitamin C Skin Care

Vitamin C is the organic substance that gives orange juice its superpowers and amps up your immune system when you feel a cold coming on. So, what does vitamin C do for your face? We asked board-certified dermatologist Dr. Ashley Magovern, MD, medical director of Dermstore: 

If there’s one skincare ingredient that deserves a permanent spot in your skincare routine, it’s vitamin C. This antioxidant-rich powerhouse ingredient works equally as well on the skin as it does for ramping up your immune system to send the common cold packing. No matter how you work vitamin C into your daily routine, be it a cream, serum, mask, or something else, the vitamin goes hard to work. The benefits of vitamin C on the skin include brightening skin discoloration, stimulating collagen, protecting against free radical damage, and softening the look of fine lines and wrinkles. Yet, navigating through the world of vitamin C can be tricky since so many forms and concentrations of the ingredient exist. That’s why we did the work for you, breaking down how to use vitamin C, its benefits, and how to find the best skincare products with vitamin C so your skin can reap all the benefits. 

Table of Contents:

What Are the Benefits of Using Vitamin C for Your Face 

Vitamin C is that one skincare ingredient that seemingly does everything.  

No matter your skin type (it’s safe for most skin types to use) or age, the benefits of vitamin C on the skin are so good that there’s no reason why vitamin C shouldn’t be a staple in your skincare routine. So, what exactly does vitamin C do? While everyone chooses to integrate the ingredients for different reasons, these are the most significant benefits of vitamin C on the skin, which makes it a favorite time and time again. 

Vitamin C is an antioxidant powerhouse that can deliver a wide range of benefits to the skin. Some of these include: 

“Vitamin C is an important building block for collagen synthesis in your skin,” Dr. Magovern says. If you missed that bio lesson, collagen is a structural protein that makes up the skin itself and contributes to its firmness and thickness, she explains. As we age, we lose collagen, which contributes to laxity and results in fine wrinkles. “Encouraging the skin to make more collagen is the cornerstone of everything dermatologists do to combat the signs of aging,” she says. “And the products you use at home make a huge difference.”  

  • Brightens the skin and reduces hyperpigmentation: One of many reasons why fans of vitamin C love the ingredient is because it helps to lighten discoloration and give the skin a healthy, natural glow. By reducing skin dullness, vitamin C provides a more even tone to the skin. Also, vitamin C is known to help control melanin production, which gives color to the skin. By inhibiting melanin, vitamin C helps to fade dark spots, age and sunspots, acne scars, and melasma for a brighter complexion.
  • Hydrates the skin: Topically using vitamin C on the skin promotes moisturization levels for healthier, better-hydrated skin since it helps to decrease transepidermal water loss.
  • Prevents and treats wrinkles: Vitamin C is well known for its anti-aging and wrinkle-reducing benefits. Using vitamin C for your face is clinically proven to reduce the look of fine lines and wrinkles and skin roughness due to increased collagen production.
  • It has anti-inflammatory benefits: Inflammation is a known skin ager, but using an anti-inflammatory ingredient on the skin, like vitamin C, can help limit inflammatory effects for less redness and puffiness. Vitamin C helps prevent free radical damage by acting as an anti-inflammatory.
  • It can improve the look of tired, dark, puffy under-eyes: One of the best uses of vitamin C is for perking up tired eyes. The ingredient can plump and hydrate the eye area to help decrease the look of undereye circles and darkness.
  • Boosts collagen: Collagen is the cornerstone of healthy skin, but it starts to decline naturally with age. Vitamin C for your face has collagen-forming properties to diminish the look of fine lines, wrinkles, and saggy skin.
  • UV protection: Vitamin C can defend the skin from sun damage, especially when used with sunscreen, to keep the skin’s integrity intact so that it doesn’t succumb to the effect of UV rays or environmental pollution.
  • It is an antioxidant: Vitamin C is an antioxidant, so it helps protect the skin cells and prevents free radical damage.
  • Skin and wound healing: Doctors recommend vitamin C on the skin to help with overall wound healing, reducing inflammation, infection, and scarring. A lack of vitamin C can prolong the healing process.
  • Reduces redness: Thanks to vitamin C's anti-inflammatory properties, it can limit oxidative stress and damage and quell inflammation, helping to reduce redness in the skin.
  • Anti-aging: Vitamin C is one of the best ingredients to use for anti-aging benefits. Not only does it protect the skin from free radical damage, but it also improves dull skin while smoothing out wrinkles and fine lines for younger-looking skin. Vitamin C is also critical for collagen synthesis, giving support and structure to the skin.

L-ascorbic Acid 101

There are several different forms of vitamin C used in skincare, and while each is known to impact the skin and its overall health positively, L-ascorbic acid takes the cake as the most potent option of the bunch. Applying L-ascorbic acid topically to the skin can make the most significant difference in your skin tone, texture, and health, and here's why.

For vitamin C to work its magic on the skin, the concentration and type of vitamin C need to be right so that is effective. L-ascorbic acid, a natural organic compound derived from fruits and vegetables, is often viewed as the most powerful and effective type of vitamin C and can be used in concentrations from 10 up to 20 percent, which can impact the skin. L-ascorbic acid also pairs well with other ingredients, which is why it is commonly used with vitamin E, ferulic acid, and glutathione. Plus, L-ascorbic acid is known to help address fine lines and wrinkles, dark spots, acne scars, and hyperpigmentation.

To make sure that your vitamin C cream or serum contains an ample amount of L-ascorbic acid, look at the ingredient label and ensure it sits at the top of the list, preferably within the first five ingredients listed. Flip over the bottle and ensure that the product contains anywhere from 10 to 20 percent L-ascorbic acid for optimal effectiveness. Anything over 20% can lead to skin irritation, so staying under that threshold is important.

Not all types of vitamin C are created equal, yet L-ascorbic acid is active and bioavailable. It doesn't need to be converted since it's naturally found in the skin, making it a reliable skincare ingredient. However, it can be unstable and potentially oxidize, so it's important always to store it in a dark area.

How To Choose the Best Vitamin C Products for Your Skin

The options for vitamin C-based skincare products run the gamut from serums and creams to lotions, moisturizers, and masks. But before you apply anything with vitamin C onto your skin, you’ll want to find products with the right concentration for your skin type.

Vitamin C newbies should always start low and slow with products with a concentration of around 10%. Then, as the skin acclimates to the vitamin, you can increase the concentration to 15% and then 20%.

Most skin types, including oily and acne-prone, fare well with L-ascorbic acid. However, if your skin is sensitive and dry, you may want to look for a water-soluble form of vitamin C (it often goes by magnesium ascorbyl phosphate on the ingredient deck, which may be a better fit for these skin types.

Most vitamin C products are serums that are easy to incorporate into a skincare routine and layer well with other products. Plus, serums are a bit more stable of a vehicle for vitamin C than other formats and allow the ingredient to penetrate the skin as intended. You'll also want to pick a vitamin C skincare product with vitamin E, which will help the C to work more efficiently (it also offers more antioxidant benefits when paired together).

How to Use Vitamin C In Your Skin Care Routine 

In a multi-step skincare routine, Dr. Magovern recommends applying the thinnest products first and progressing to the thickest. Vitamin C serum typically falls into the former category. “I love using serum under moisturizer,” she says—particularly when introducing a new serum to the skin. After all, if your skin is dry or inflamed, any new product can cause some irritation.  While you can often find vitamin C in non-serum form, experts say that using the purest form possible (which is often a serum) will help maximize the effectiveness of vitamin C in your skin care routine. 

Combining other products with vitamin C can help target multiple skin concerns at once. For example, using a vitamin C product underneath your daily SPF will increase the effectiveness of the sunscreen and protect your skin further than using SPF alone.  

Looking for more ways to combine vitamin C with your favorite products? Read our blog on skincare ingredients you can use with vitamin C. 

How Often Should You be Using a Vitamin C Serum? 

Because vitamin C reverses some of the oxidative stress and free radical damage that takes place during the day, it makes sense to apply it at night when skin regenerates, according to Dr. Magovern. “I like to give the skin an extra push by applying a serum that contains vitamin C.”   

That said, there’s no downside to applying vitamin C in the morning, instead, or even twice a day. “I’m OK with whenever you want to put it on,” she says.   

If you opt for the am, don’t confuse the sun damage-reversing benefits of vitamin C with skin protection. “Vitamin C combats oxidative stress and free radical damage that leads to the breakdown of collagen, but it doesn’t protect your skin from UV rays and further damage,” Dr. Magovern warns. In other words, even a generous application of vitamin C serum won’t take the place of a good old SPF, which should be applied after serum and moisturizer but before makeup. 

Potential Side Effects of Using Vitamin C 

Vitamin C is well-tolerated by most skin types with no known risks for pregnant or breastfeeding women. If you do happen to notice stinging, redness, or dryness after applying a vitamin C serum, layering on a moisturizer should nip these side effects in the bud. And if you’re nervous? Begin with a serum that contains a lower concentration of vitamin C—think 5 to 10 percent rather than the ideal 15 to 20 percent—particularly around the eyes where skin can be more sensitive.  

Should you expect your skin to act up in response to a new vitamin C treatment? “No, not necessarily,” says Dr. Magovern. “Any product you put on skin that’s dry or inflamed can cause a little irritation, but hydrating the skin when using active ingredients can help the skin accept the product.” She recommends layering on moisturizer after vitamin C serum for this reason. 

If your skin is acne-prone, you don’t have to worry about vitamin C making things worse. “It doesn’t clog your pores and it can actually improve acne by reducing irritation that can compromise the skin barrier and lead to breakouts,” Dr. Magovern says.   

That said, vitamin C can be a vehicle for other ingredients that do cause breakouts or don’t agree with sensitive skin, so read product labels and ask your dermatologist for recommendations if you’re concerned. Otherwise, slather away.  

What Is the Best Vitamin C Serum for Your Face? 

At Dermstore we pride ourselves in carrying the best of the best skincare products on the market. We love vitamin C because of it’s multitude of skincare benefits packed into one product. Adding a vitamin C serum into your routine is going to be a game changer if you haven’t already. Some of our favorite vitamin C serum brands at the moment are SkinCeuticals, Is Clinical, Obagi, Paula’s Choice, and Eminence. To browse our entire vitamin C selection, head to our vitamin C page. 

Shop Dermstore’s collection of Vitamin C skin care and beauty here.

Elise Minton Tabin
Writer and expert
View Elise Minton Tabin's profile
Elise Minton Tabin is an award-winning beauty journalist, editor, and beauty expert with more than 16 years of experience. She previously held the title of Executive Beauty Editor at NewBeauty magazine, where she reported on beauty, plastic surgery, anti-aging, health and wellness. She was also instrumental in the launch of the beauty supplement brand Hush & Hush. A self-professed beauty junkie and retinol and sunscreen pusher, Elise knows what’s new, what works and who’s the best to go for every procedure under the sun. Follow Elise on Facebook, Instagram, and on her beauty blog,