Most of us know vitamin C to be an important nutrient needed for boosting our immune system. While this is certainly true — in fact, our bodies need between 75-90 mg of this nutrient daily — its body benefits are far beyond internal. Vitamin C is actually one of the best ingredients for your body’s largest organ: your skin.
Vitamin C is an antioxidant, so it helps ward off harmful free radicals lurking in the environment that can lead to premature aging, dark spots and fine lines, notes Brendan Camp, M.D., a Manhattan-based dermatologist at MDCS Dermatology. “Vitamin C neutralizes the effects of these unstable oxygen molecules that develop as a result of normal body metabolism and exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation that, over time, can contribute to the appearance of aging skin,” he says.
Another benefit of vitamin C is that it is reparative. “Vitamin C is an essential nutrient for the body’s natural ability to produce collagen and elastin,” says Deanne Mraz Robinson, M.D., a dermatologist with Modern Dermatology of Connecticut. “It aids in wound healing, making it an excellent companion ingredient to your exfoliating retinol and alpha-hydroxy acid-containing (AHA) products.”
Vitamin C can brighten things up if your skin looks rather dull or lackluster. It does this thanks to its ability to inhibit tyrosinase, an enzyme that triggers melanin production, which is what gives our skin pigment, explains Dr. Robinson. “By inhibiting melanin production, you may notice a brighter, lighter complexion and less dark spots fading away,” she adds.
Vitamin C and Sunlight
Vitamin C provides a slew of skincare benefits and is, thankfully, safe for most skincare types and even those who are pregnant and nursing. What’s more: It doesn’t make your skin more sensitive to the sun, like so many skincare products, including retinol, AHAs and hydroquinone. “To the contrary, vitamin C actually protects your skin from UV damage and can boost the effectiveness of your SPF when worn together (which I always recommend!),” explains Dr. Robinson.
It’s quite common, however, to assume that vitamin C makes your skin more sun-sensitive, and there are two reasons for this. The first is that the most stable form of vitamin C found on your product labels is Tetrahexyldecyl (THD) Ascorbate. Some people mistake this ingredient for Alpha-Hydroxy-Acid, which would make your skin more vulnerable to sun exposure, explains Dr. Robinson.
Another reason is that vitamin C is very unstable when exposed to sunlight. “For this reason, most skincare products that contain vitamin C are paired with other antioxidants that help stabilize it — specifically ferulic acid and vitamin E will help to stabilize vitamin C and boost its effectiveness,” says Dr. Robinson. Vitamin C can work as a sun-damage protectant thanks to its antioxidant activity that protects against UV-induced damage caused by free radicals. “Research shows that SPF alone only blocks about 55 percent of the free radicals from UV exposure, and application of 10 percent topical vitamin C shows a statistical reduction of sunburn cell formation by 40-60 percent,” adds Dr. Robinson.
Precautions to Take When Using Vitamin C
While it’s safe to go out in the sun after applying a vitamin C serum, it’s important to layer on an SPF of at least 30 before doing so, as the serum alone won’t provide protection. It’s also a good idea to know how best to utilize vitamin C serums or creams to glean the best results. Here, dermatologists share their best tips for using vitamin C-enriched skincare products.
Use vitamin C in the A.M.
While retinol is most effective when used at night, vitamin C is most effective when used in the daytime because it may cause irritation when paired with retinol. According to Dr. Robinson, retinol may also make vitamin C less effective. “This has to do with pH since retinol has a higher pH level, and your skin requires a low pH to absorb Vitamin C,” she says.
Her advice is to stick with vitamin C in the A.M. when it is most valuable and protective and use retinol only at night since it makes your skin more sensitive to UV rays.
Store vitamin C out of direct sunlight
“Vitamin C serum can oxidize when exposed to sunlight, which is why your serum will never be packaged in clear glass,” says Dr. Robinson. “You can further support this by keeping it out of direct sunlight on your countertop, and by giving it a sniff from time to time.” If at any point you notice a strange odor coming from your vitamin C product or if it has turned a dark brown color, it’s time to toss it and purchase a new one.
Drop into the palm of your hand and apply to face
You might have seen some attractive videos on Instagram or TikTok of users applying a vitamin C dropper right to their skin, but Dr. Robinson recommends against this. If the dropper touches your skin, it can then introduce bacteria and oils from your skin back into the bottle when it’s replaced. “It’s best to drop it into the palm of your hand from a safe distance (just don’t touch the tip of the dropper to your hand) and then gently pat onto your skin,” she says.
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