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Do you need vitamin C in your skincare?

Considering adding a vitamin C product to your routine? Read our guide before you buy. 

Vitamin C wins the award for being the most searched skincare ingredient online. Is it worth the hype? Read on for my thoughts. 
 
Trending skincare ingredients typically come and go. I’ve seen my fair share have their moment in the marketing sun before vanishing from ingredients lists everywhere. Not so with vitamin C. One of the most searched skincare ingredients on the planet, vitamin C has been on our cosmetic shelves for decades now, one of the lofty few to have stood the test of time. 
 
But is all the hype over vitamin C products based on science or clever marketing? Do you need vitamin C in your skincare, and if so, what do you need to know before you buy? 
 
Read on (or check out our video) to find out. 
 
Vitamin C: You can’t live without it 
 Before we get into whether you might benefit from a topical, cosmetic product containing vitamin C, we should point out that a steady stream of dietary vitamin C is essential for your continuing health. Scurvy, a disease caused directly by vitamin C deficiency, was responsible for the deaths of more mariners at sea than storms, shipwrecks, combat, and all other known diseases combined. 
 
Gum health, bones, cartilage, wound healing – vitamin C in your body and skin does a lot of heavy lifting, and it has everything to do with collagen. 
 
The king of water-soluble vitamins
 We need vitamin C to make collagen. End stop. No vitamin C? No collagen synthesis. Wound healing, repairing sun damage – your skin’s health is dependent on vitamin C.

 

Vitamin C is essential for skin growth, repair, collagen synthesis and maintenance. Though diet is our primary source, only a fraction of active vitamin C makes it to our skin. 
 
Because your entire body requires vitamin C, it should be no surprise that the best place to get it is from your diet. However, only a fraction of the vitamin C you consume actually makes it to your skin. On top of that, the vitamin C that’s available in your body’s largest organ decreases with age. Needless to say, this concerns many skincare enthusiasts and dermatologists.

 

Solar radiation, pollution, and smoking are killers for the collagen in your skin. Vitamin C is your protection against oxidative stress. 
 
Besides being required for collagen synthesis, vitamin C also has the distinction of being the most abundant antioxidant in your skin. Solar radiation, environmental pollution, and smoking all bombard the skin with oxidative stress through the creation of free radicals – molecules in need of a spare electron that can wreck chemical havoc on your skin. Vitamin C (along with other antioxidants) neutralize these free radicals, thereby protecting your skin. 
 
So where does topical vitamin C factor in?
 Research has shown that application of topical vitamin C measurably reduces signs of sun damage and can improve the look and feel of skin. It can help skin make and maintain collagen, improve pigmentation (melasma), and reduce wrinkles. There’s also evidence that topical vitamin C might protect against UV induced skin cancers – a huge bonus. It can also help replenish vitamin E in the skin (another important antioxidant). In short, topical vitamin C can do some pretty fantastic things. 
 
But (as with many things) there are a couple of caveats. Most research on the benefits of topical vitamin C has been conducted on small sample sizes and is frequently run (or sponsored) by cosmetic companies who have a product or new version of vitamin C they want to sell – it’s a conflict of interest. 
 
And that’s not even the biggest hurdle… 
 
Vitamin C is a nightmare for cosmetic chemists to work with

Not all vitamin C products are created equal. L-ascorbic acid (vitamin C) is a nightmare to work with and the bane of many cosmetic chemist’s day. Read on to find out why. 
 
If there’s a problem child of the cosmetics industry, vitamin C is it. Highly unstable, short shelf life … vitamin C is a drama queen determined to be difficult to work with. It’s hydrophilic (water loving) and your skin is – you guessed it – hydrophobic (lipids/fats do their best to keep water out), meaning it’s tricky to get vitamin C products to absorb well. One of the tools clever cosmetic chemists use to bypass our skin’s hydrophobic nature is to formulate vitamin C products with an acidic base. Acidic formulas can make it past your skin barrier, but the trade-off is that they run the risk of causing irritation. Acidity isn’t the only way to get L-ascorbic acid past the lipid barrier – other chemistry tricks, like encapsulation, do exist – but acidity is one of the most reliable. 

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Want to ruin a cosmetic chemist’s day? Give them vitamin C to work with. It’s a problem child ingredient that doesn’t play well with others. 
Adding to the difficulty rating of making a vitamin C product, L-ascorbic acid, the active form of vitamin C and the most researched, wins for being one of the most unstable cosmetic ingredients out there (the telltale orange colour is vitamin C oxidizing). A way around this stability problem is to use vitamin C derivatives – more stable forms of the chemical (ethylated L-ascorbic acid, ascorbyl glucoside, sodium and magnesium ascorbyl phosphate, etc) – and let enzymes in the skin convert them to active vitamin C. It’s a great idea but, unfortunately, we’re still really not sure how well these conversions happen and at what rates. Derivative based formulas are probably not as potent as L-ascorbic acid-based ones – though they’re an option, especially if irritation is a concern. 
Keeping all that in mind…
 
How do you pick a vitamin C product?
We recommend looking for products containing L-ascorbic acid (ascorbic acid for short) – the most researched-backed form – at concentrations ranging from 10-20%. Lower concentrations can work but are less common and going above 20% will only increase the risk of irritation with no added benefit. 
If you’re looking for a serum to try, I mention specific products in my vitamin C video to try, ranging in price from affordable to luxury.
 
How to apply a vitamin C serum
  1. Application timing: vitamin C can be applied morning and/or at night, but if you have to choose one, daytime application can help boost your sunscreen’s UV protection.
  2. Avoid benzoyl peroxide: If you’re using a benzoyl peroxide product for acne, apply one in the am and the other in the pm. Peroxide oxidizes vitamin C and together they turn everything (skin, clothing, sheets) orange. 
  3. In case of irritation: Stop, try a different formulation, alternate with other actives, and/or apply less frequently – every other day or a few times a week. If your skin just won’t tolerate vitamin C? Skip it. Vitamin C is a great ingredient but not if it’s leaving you itchy and sore. 
  4. Packaging counts: Look for an airless pump mechanism and opaque container. When less oxygen and light get in, your vitamin C will last longer. 
  5. Use caution with other actives: layering vitamin C with too many other products can cause problems. An exception is hyaluronic acid. We have one releasing soon! 
Reasonable Expectations
When it comes to plastic surgery, I often talk about the importance of keeping reasonable expectations. Vitamin C is great for skin but it’s not a miracle ingredient or replacement for medical treatments (or sunscreen). Understand what results you can expect and budget accordingly so you won’t be disappointed. Lastly, it goes without saying that you should be eating a diet filled with vitamin C rich foods – leafy greens, brussel sprouts, and citrus fruits to name a few – because no amount of skincare will make up for a diet poor in this vitamin.  

Keep your expectations in check. Vitamin C is a great addition to your skincare routine but not at the expense of your skin. Understand that a cosmetic product can’t replace a diet filled with vitamin C rich foods.

 

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Written by
Kristi Charish
Edited by
Dr. Gary Linkov
The content of this newsletter is for entertainment and educational purposes only. This content is not meant to provide any medical advice or treat any medical conditions. Patients must be evaluated by an appropriate healthcare provider on an individual basis and treatment must be tailored to meet that patient’s needs. Results and particular outcomes are not guaranteed.

 

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