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What Does Vitamin C Do for Your Skin?

Vitamins are superstar ingredients. They are essential for your health, both internally from ingesting food sources and topically from applying skincare products. In a prior post, I covered vitamin A, commonly added to anti-wrinkle products as retinol. Today, I'd like to discuss vitamin C, another hero ingredient commonly used in brightening formulas.

If the idea of Vitamin C brings to mind the song "Graduation," congratulations! You also graduated from high school in the early 2000s. Have a listen and reminisce. If you are not a millennial, thinking about vitamin C likely conjures up images of citrus fruits in your mind, and you're on the right track! Fruit ingredients are trending on social media, especially orange, due to the brightening and tone-correcting properties of vitamin C. KORA Organics has an entire range around noni fruit extract and Drunk Elephant has a Vitamin C serum that also includes pumpkin and pomegranate ingredients.

Benefits and Mechanism

Vitamin C has been shown to have a variety of skincare benefits, especially brightening and smoothing the skin. It is recommended to help even skin tone, reduce skin inflammation, and diminish the appearance of acne scars, fine lines and wrinkles, sun damage, and irregular pigmentation such as age spots. It can also improve hydration and shield skin from the visible impact of pollution. Together, these benefits help reduce the effects of aging on the skin and have led to the common usage of vitamin C in anti-aging formulations.

Topically, vitamin C works to neutralize free radicals as an antioxidant, interfere with melanin pigment production, and stimulate collagen production. Collagen gives skin its elasticity and youthful appearance. As you age, your skin produces less collagen which leads to sagging skin, fine lines, and wrinkles. Vitamin C works at a cellular level to increase skin cell turnover, support the production of collagen, and reverse skin damage from UV exposure.

For an interesting aside, scurvy, the disease associate with vitamin C deficiency, is characterized by a variety of symptoms related to the lack of collagen production in the body. Scurvy can be fatal if untreated because collagen is a primary structural protein in the human body, necessary for healthy blood vessels, muscle, skin, bone, and cartilage.

Chemical Names

There are many forms of vitamin C. All have antioxidant benefits that translate to anti-aging effects. The most common chemical name you will find on the ingredient list of cosmetic products is ascorbic acid or L-ascorbic acid. Other forms include include sodium ascorbyl phosphate, ascorbyl palmitate, retinyl ascorbate, tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate, magnesium ascorbyl phosphate, and ascorbyl glucoside.


There is no FDA monograph for vitamin C. This means that products with vitamin C are regulated as cosmetics, not over-the-counter (OTC) drugs. This categorization limits the labeling requirements and regulatory oversight and also limits the claims that can be made for the products. That is why you will see claims like "reduces the appearance of age spots" and not "fades hyperpigmentation." For a refresher on FDA monographs and cosmetic claims, refer to Cosmetic or Drug? Regulatory Basics and FDA Monographs.

Consumer Considerations

In its purest form, vitamin C is unstable. As an antioxidant, it will react with oxygen and degrade when exposed to air. Even in shelf-stable formulas, commonly formulated with ferulic acid to boost stability, vitamin C will tend to oxidize and darken the appearance of the product over time. If you have an old serum that has changed from clear or light yellow color to brown or black, the oxidation process has occurred and the formula will no longer be effective.

To get the best possible results, look for products that are packaged in a way that minimizes the exposure to air and light. Avoid clear jars if possible. Opaque, air-restrictive containers are the best option in order to keep antioxidant ingredients stable after you start using the product. This is true for all antioxidants, not just vitamin C.

You can also choose a form that delivers as much vitamin C to the skin as possible. I often see vitamin C products in serum form. The conventional wisdom is to apply your skincare regimen in order from the lightest product to the heaviest. For example, at night you may start with a cleanser to remove makeup and dirt, follow with a light toner or mist, apply your vitamin C serum, and then follow with a heavier moisturizing cream. By choosing a lighter formula that is applied earlier in your routine, you can make sure the hero ingredient is being absorbed into the skin to do its tone-correcting and collagen stimulating work!

Final Thoughts

I hope you learned all about vitamin C from today's post and now know a bit more about a common skincare ingredient with a variety of benefits. As with any ingredient, I recommend trying a few different products until you find a formula that works for your skin. If you'd like to learn more about common cosmetic ingredients, check out Ingredients 101: Cosmetic Ingredients Broken Down by Source, Class, and Function. Do you have more questions on vitamin C? Is there another common ingredient that you would like to learn more about? Let me know in the comments!

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