We all know that vitamin C is a vital component of any immunity-boosting diet, but did you know that it’s also one of the most potent skin care ingredients available? A favorite of dermatologists for its ability to brighten skin, buff away hyperpigmentation and slow signs of aging like fine lines and wrinkles, vitamin C is a skin care powerhouse — and often an affordable one at that. But because vitamin C is naturally an unstable ingredient, getting bright, even-toned skin isn’t exactly as easy as rubbing an orange on your face. Here’s how to use vitamin C in your skin care routine to get supple, glowing skin in just a few weeks.
What is vitamin C?
“Vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid, is used in skin care for its potent antioxidant and anti-aging properties,” says Dr. Sumayah Jamal, dermatologist and director of the Skin of Color Specialty Clinic at Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York City. Generally speaking, you want to look for the word “L-ascorbic” on the label of any topical skin care product.
What are vitamin C’s benefits for skin?
“As an antioxidant, it helps stop the damaging oxidation process from happening,” says dermatologist Dr. Carl Thornfeldt, who founded both Episciences and skin care brand Epionce. Jamal also adds that “vitamin C protects the skin from free radical damage, helps with skin elasticity and reduces redness and hyperpigmentation by inhibiting an enzyme that participates in the production of melanin.” In short, that means it can reduce dark spots and quell inflammation and fine lines, as well as brighten dull skin.
How to use vitamin C in your skin care routine
Jamal recommends using a vitamin C serum in the morning under a basic moisturizer — but unfortunately, you can’t just slather it on and go about the rest of your usual skin care routine. Certain ingredients like benzoyl peroxide can oxidize vitamin C, rendering it useless — while other ingredients like alpha- and beta-hydroxy acids can “alter the pH of the vitamin C and reduce efficacy,” Jamal says. Basically, you don’t want to layer a vitamin C moisturizer over a product with lactic or glycolic acid unless you want them to cancel each other out — or worse, cause irritation or redness. “Additionally, ingredients with a high potential for skin irritation such as retinoids may cause more irritation if combined with vitamin C.”
The only exception to the rule, Jamal says, is any product that’s been specifically formulated with both vitamin C and an AHA or BHA, as the brand likely tested it for efficacy or included other stabilizers, like ferulic acid. As with any product that can brighten skin, be sure to wear sunscreen and limit sun exposure.
What to look for in vitamin C serums
While you might be tempted to get a dropper of pure vitamin C and douse your face in it, Thornfeldt points out that it could do more harm than good: “There’s no place in human skin that cells have receptors only for vitamin C and nothing else. In fact, the skin cells have receptors to metabolize multiple vitamins. If cells are only given vitamin C without the context of all the other vitamins the cells need, then the single antioxidant actually becomes pro-oxidant, creating damage over time.”
Instead, look for a water-based serum that’s packaged in a dark, oxygen-free environment, like a tinted or lined pump bottle. A formulation with 10-20% vitamin C is optimal for absorption, according to a study in Dermatologic Surgery, the official journal of the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery.
Ahead, find expert-vetted vitamin C serums that can transform your skin.
$72 at Protocol
A cult favorite among editors and influencers in the know, Protocol’s water-based Superserum “is bottled in a completely oxygen-free environment using our patented process,” says Tyler Gaul, co-founder of science-led skin care brand Protocol. “It also has a pH of 3.4 because L-ascorbic acid is stabilized in water at a pH of 3.0 and is better able to penetrate the hydrophobic skin barrier [at a] lower pH.”
$169 at Dermstore
Jamal says Skinceuticals C E ferulic serum — a favorite of derms for years — is a “great overall antioxidant serum.” More than 3,700 5-star reviews really drive the point home.
$39.99 at La Roche-Posay
If you’re looking for a more budget-friendly option, Jamal says La Roche-Posay’s vitamin C serum is a great pick — just be sure to store it in a cool, dark place, as the bottle allows light in.
$144 at Dermstore
“Epionce Intense Defense Serum is the first and only comprehensive multi-vitamin for the skin, providing botanical sources of all the various forms of vitamins A, B, C, D and E at the concentrations the skin cells need for optimum health,” says Thornfeldt, the brand’s founder. Reviewers agree: One customer says she’s impressed at how well it brightened and hydrated her sensitive skin, while another calls it a must-have for the way it “made me comfortable leaving the house without makeup, which hadn’t happened since I was a teenager.”
$32 at Sephora
This serum-oil hybrid also features skin-soothing aloe, antioxidant fruit extracts and hydrating glycerin to help brighten and moisturize all at once.
$160 at SkinBetter
Jamal says this serum, which is packed with antioxidants like vitamin C, is her hands-down favorite choice.
$145 $116 at Ssense
NYC dermatologist Lara Devgan is highly sought-after, but even if you can’t get an appointment in her Upper East Side office, you can still try her line. This effective serum is packed with vitamins C and E, as well as ferulic and hyaluronic acid for stabilization and hydration.
$29.99 at Olay
More than 500 5-star reviews laud how lightweight and effective Olay’s affordable brightening serum is.
$20 at Target
This affordable, vegan serum is formulated with L-ascorbic acid and hyaluronic acid to hydrate as it brightens.
$52 $41.60 at Paula’s Choice
A derm-favorite budget-friendly brand, Paula’s Choice offers highly effective products without the markup. One reviewer says, “I was using a vitamin C serum that cost nearly 4x the price of this. Paula’s Choice is just as effective without hurting my wallet.”
$48 at Go-To Skin Care
Formulated with 10% sodium ascorbyl phosphate, glow-enhancing niacinamide and brightening kakadu plum, this serum comes in an oxygen-free pump bottle.
$89 at Sephora
Dozens of 5-star reviewers agree: This serum is the real deal. One customer says the consistency is great, and she calls it a game-changer for the way it buffed her dull skin in a matter of weeks.
$58 at Sephora
Water and ascorbic acid are the top-billed ingredients of Hyper Skin’s cult-favorite serum. Made for melanated skin, which is especially prone to hyperpigmentation, this vitamin c serum evens skin tone and treats dark spots.
From $70 at Sephora
This potent serum has a creamy base that delivers 12.5% vitamin C — 10% L-ascorbic acid and 2% ascorbyl glucoside — along with hyaluronic acid to smooth fine lines and brighten the skin.
$90 at Beautycounter
With over 7,000 5-star reviews, it’s clear why this is a bestseller. Beautycounter’s vitamin C serum is antioxidant-packed with two forms of vitamin C — 5% tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate and 5% bis-glyceryl ascorbate — in addition to turmeric and camu camu.
$55 at Sephora
Ascorbic acid mingles with aloe, green tea extract and glycerin to brighten and hydrate.
$54 at Ulta
Packed with vitamin C and hyaluronic acid, this moisturizer comes in a pump bottle — ideal for antioxidants.