Vitamin C is one of the most common active ingredients used in skincare due to its myriad benefits. Not only can this antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent help brighten the skin and reduce hyperpigmentation, but it blocks out the free radicals lurking in the environment that we come in contact with every day, keeping our skin healthy and protected. Practically every skin type can benefit from vitamin C in their skincare regimens. Still, those with acne-prone skin might want to take extra precautions to avoid breakouts, says Karan Lal, DO, MS, FAAD, Society for Pediatric Dermatology committee chair.
It’s not that the vitamin C itself causes or worsens acne — it’s the potential irritation that can result from vitamin C if you’re not smart about its application. “Vitamin C can be irritating at higher concentrations,” he says. Plus, certain types of vitamin C can be more irritating than others, for example. L-ascorbic acid, a popular form of vitamin C might cause sensitive, acneic skin to be more reactive.
In some cases, vitamin C can lead to improvements in acne. “First, its anti-inflammatory properties reduce the inflammation and swelling associated with active acne lesions as well as the discoloration spots that often follow a breakout, known as post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation,” says Emily de Golian, M.D., dermatologist and Mohs Surgeon with Dermatology Consultants, P.C. “Vitamin C reduces hyperpigmentation by blocking pigment-producing pathways in the skin.” Dr. de Golian also points out that vitamin C’s role in collagen synthesis is critical for wound healing, a necessary phase in resolving acne lesions and returning skin to a healthy baseline.
It is still important to read the rest of the ingredients in your products. “If vitamin C is found in an oil-based vehicle instead of a water-based vehicle, it may be the oil clogging your pores and contributing to breakouts,” explains Lian Mack, M.D., NYC-based dermatologist at GlamDerm. Moreover, vitamin C is well known for its anti-inflammatory properties. Fundamentally, acne is caused by bacteria combined with a clogged pore and decreased cellular turnover, resulting in an inflammatory reaction in the skin. Vitamin C in a skincare preparation would combat that.
How to use vitamin C for acne-prone skin
If your skin is acne-prone, it can’t hurt to be proactive about all your skin’s skincare ingredients on your face — vitamin C included.
Go for THD Ascorbate.
Instead of L-ascorbic acid, here at Sunday Riley, we love using a more gentle, acne skin-friendly form called THD ascorbate (found in our latest product, C.E.O. Afterglow Brightening Vitamin C Gel Cream). It’s shelf-stable, powerful, and effective at promoting brighter, healthier skin.
Use a lower concentration.
Vitamin C can be irritating at concentrations at or above 20 percent. For this reason, it is essential to start with a lower concentration, around 10 percent, and use the right vehicle (cream vs. lotion vs. serum), especially if using other acne drying agents, notes Scott Paviol, M.D., a Charlotte-based dermatologist, and owner of Paviol Dermatology. “People can experience dryness and irritation, so it is important to start by applying every other day and slowly work it into your daily routine,” he says.
Combine it with vitamin A.
While vitamin C may be a welcome addition to an anti-acne skincare routine, Dr. de Golian points out that acne’s gold standard topical agent is still a vitamin A derivative, like over-the-counter retinols or prescription retinoids. “These increase the rate of cellular turnover to prevent clogged pores that can lead to acne and reduce dead skin cells on the skin surface,” she says. If vitamin A is not currently part of your skincare routine, speak with your dermatologist about how best to incorporate it.
Check out the packaging.
When purchasing vitamin C, Dr. Paviol urges patients to look for dark bottles. “Active vitamin C breaks down when exposed to light or air and will not provide the same results compared to an active form,” he says. It’s also a good idea to keep an eye on the color of the vitamin C coming out of the container, as yellow or brown indicate that it is less effective. It should be a light straw color, according to Dr. Paviol.
Avoid mixing with benzoyl peroxide.
Although benzoyl peroxide is a popular anti-acne medication, Marina Peredo, M.D., cosmetic and medical board-certified dermatologist and associate clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital, warns that benzoyl peroxide can oxidize the vitamin C, making it less effective.
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