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How Vitamin C Transforms Skin

Trees filled with oranges, natural sources of Vitamin C serum

There is no shortage of ingredients that can do amazing things for your skin. Plants, vitamins, minerals, and acids can tackle almost every type of complexion problem. And while each is a star in its own right, there’s one that shines the brightest for many skincare experts: vitamin C. Here’s everything you should know about it, plus what to look for in a vitamin C serum to get the most skin-rejuvenating benefits. 

What is topical vitamin C? 

“Topical Vitamin C is a proven and powerful antioxidant that can help to guard against skin damage from high-energy molecules, called free radicals, which form naturally due to sun exposure, pollution, and our body’s natural metabolism,” explains Medford, Oregon-based dermatologist Laurel Geraghty, M.D. You might hear vitamin C referred to by another name, L-ascorbic acid, which is the “biologically active form of vitamin C acquired both through diet and topically,” continues Geraghty. It’s considered the gold standard of vitamin C, but it also happens to be one of the hardest to keep stable (more on that later).

What does a vitamin C serum do for your skin?

A better question is what doesn’t it do? In addition to helping fight those free radicals, vitamin C is absolutely essential for collagen formation, explains NYC-based dermatologist Shereene Idriss, M.D.  “Collagen is the key player when it comes to your skin’s physical support and elasticity,” i.e. keeping your complexion firm, plump, and smooth. But, that’s not all. It also has potent brightening properties — it interrupts pigment production, helping to prevent the formation of dark spots and minimize existing hyperpigmentation. Additionally, because of its strong antioxidant properties, says Idriss, it not only reverses the signs of aging (dark spots, fine lines, uneven texture), but also prevents them at the same time. 

Can’t I just get it from my diet? 

While it’s true that, as Geraghty noted, you can get vitamin C in your diet, it won’t provide enough benefits for any noticeable improvement in your skin. Your body can only absorb so much vitamin C through your gut, so eating a bunch of oranges isn’t suddenly going to make your skin look firm and clear. “Your dietary intake of vitamin C is sufficient to reach the lower levels of your skin,” adds Idriss, “but generally inadequate at reaching the outermost cellular layer of your skin due to the lack of blood vessels feeding those cells, and the complex structure between cells that block the overall flow of nutrients from the inside out.” Topical vitamin C, on the other hand, is absorbed directly into the topmost layers of the skin, allowing it to go to work immediately on dark spots, fine lines, and those pesky free radicals.

Does vitamin C play well with other ingredients?

Vitamin C was given a bad rep back in the day as a finicky ingredient that couldn’t be combined with other active ingredients. According to Idriss, that’s just plain wrong. “It is a myth to believe that vitamin C cannot be combined with an alpha-hydroxy acid or sunscreen,” she says. “In fact, quite the opposite is true as the combination renders the product more effective.” Additionally, using other antioxidants alongside vitamin C will supercharge your results, says Geraghty, noting that vitamin E and ferulic acid are two common ones that can lead to enhanced free-radical fighting results. 

Are there any downsides?

One thing you will commonly hear about vitamin C is that it is “unstable.” When a vitamin C serum is exposed to direct sunlight or heat, it will oxidize. In short, it degrades faster and loses efficacy. (Hence why you should look for a formula in dark glass packaging and stabilizing ingredients like ferulic acid, and store it in a cool, dark, dry place). Water can also pose an issue, which is why it’s difficult for cosmetic chemists to formulate full-power vitamin C serums in a liquid—particularly ones without questionable fillers like propylene glycol. That’s why a powder format, like the Vitamin C Booster, is preferable. With a powder, the vitamin C remains stable, making it all-around more potent when it is absorbed into the skin. Plus, you get the added bonus of being able to make a customized product — you can blend powder with either water or a water-based product, essentially making a fresh batch of vitamin C serum before very application. 

Is a vitamin C serum good for all skin types?

Because vitamin C needs to be slightly acidic to be effective, it may be a little tough on ultrasensitive or breakout-prone skin (you can always opt for a gentler antioxidant treatment). No matter your skin type, though, it’s always best to test new ingredients before making them a regular in your routine. For vitamin C, Idriss says to start out by applying once a day, every other day, and work your way up in frequency to avoid potential irritation and redness. 

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