Vitamin C is one of skin-care’s most-studied, beloved and efficacious ingredients for its antioxidant protection and brightening properties. However, it can be a tricky game of trial-and-error for those with sensitive skin. If you’re having trouble finding the best vitamin C serum for sensitive skin, we’ve got insight from top dermatologists.
“Vitamin C is water-soluble and best stabilized in a lower pH. This can be more irritating for sensitive skin because of the acidity, and even more so if it’s highly concentrated,” says Davie, FL dermatologist Marianna Blyumin-Karasik, MD. “As a result, look for formulations with a concentration of 10 percent or lower. Or, look for those serums with closer-to-neutral pH ascorbic acid, which is the molecular version of vitamin C. This would be preferable for sensitive individuals with challenged skin types, such as dry, eczema-prone or rosacea-prone.”
Providence, RI dermatologist Tiffany Libby, MD also recommends starting with lower concentrations of L-ascorbic acid. “Assess your skin’s tolerance. Then you can work your way up or try other forms of vitamin C that may be less irritating,” she says.
These other forms of vitamin C include tetrahexyldecyl, or (THD) ascorbate, a lipid-soluble and stable form of pro-vitamin C that gets converted to L-ascorbic acid in the skin. “THD ascorbate has better skin penetration,” Dr. Libby explains. “Some studies suggest it may be just as or more potent than L-ascorbic acid and less irritating, which makes it a great option for sensitive skin. The other form is sodium ascorbyl phosphate. “This is a salt form of L-ascorbic acid that is less potent than pure L-ascorbic acid, but also gentler and more stable.”
Looking for a Vitamin C Serum for Sensitive Skin? Check This List
SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic ($182)
“This powerful vitamin C serum protects the skin from UVA/UVB, infrared rays, and all other environmental stressors that cause damage to our skin. Its protective benefits last the whole day while giving skin an added glow. Over time, C E Ferulic stimulates collagen to reduce fine lines and wrinkles. It has also won an array of awards and has been featured in countless medical journals. The proof is definitely in the science!” —Fresno, CA dermatologist Kathleen Behr, MD
“This is my favorite vitamin C serum, with 15-percent L-ascorbic acid. Vitamin C can be very unstable and it oxidizes quickly, making the serum not effective. This formulation is stabilized, so it lasts longer and does not have a burning sensation when applied as opposed to many other formulations.
The addition of vitamin E and ferulic acid adds extra anti-aging ingredients, and both are helpful for environmental damage, such as fighting free-radical formation in the skin that can contribute to skin cancer and loss of collagen.” —San Francisco dermatologist Tracy Evans, MD
“SkinCeuticals was developed at Duke, where I trained in dermatology, and C E Ferulic is my favorite vitamin C serum. I also like the Phloretin CF serum.” —Houston dermatologist Jennifer Segal, MD
“This is the most scientifically studied stabilized vitamin C and L-ascorbic acid, and the formulation is very elegant and nonirritating for sensitive skin.” —Fort Lauderdale, FL dermatologist Dr. Matthew Elias
“Vitamin C and sensitive skin can have a tumultuous relationship because the low ph (acidity) of l-ascorbic acid can cause stinging and redness. This is when I opt for other formulations, namely tetrahexyldecyl (THD) ascorbate, which is lipid/fat soluble and a more stable pro-vitamin C form that has better penetration. Some studies show its potency is equal or better to that of irritating L-ascorbic acid.
Alto Defense contains this ingredient, as well as many other soothing antioxidants in a hydrating, fragrance-free base that is ideal for sensitive skin types.” —Campbell, CA dermatologist Amelia K. Hausauer, MD
“It not only contains vitamin C, but also several other antioxidants, and is designed for all skin types. It’s also fragrance-free, which is good for sensitive skin, and helps improve the appearance of redness.” —Rochester, NY dermatologist Lesley C. Loss, MD
“For sensitive skin, I like Alto Defense. It’s rich in antioxidants and helps even skin tone.” —Aventura, FL dermatologist Dr. Bertha Baum
“It not only contains stabilized vitamin C and L-ascorbic acid, but it also takes it one step further adding additional antioxidants. Polyphenol-rich superfoods such as açaí, green tea and mediterranean olive join the skin-smoothing blend to be super gentle on sensitive skin while yielding phenomenal results.” —Dr. Elias
“I always recommend using vitamin C in the morning to protect from damage caused by environmental factors like pollution. This serum is a great choice, as it has 15-percent vitamin C along with vitamin E and polyphenols to offer the skin potent protection. Along with that, this fragrance-free formula has glycerin and hyaluronic acid to keep the skin hydrated and healthy, making it a great choice for even those with sensitive skin.” —New York dermatologist Erin Gilbert, MD
“This serum contains 15-percent L-ascorbic acid, helping to even skin tone and improve radiance for those who are sensitive. It contains a blend of other antioxidants and is lightweight and fragrance-free, making it a great option for someone with sensitive skin.” —New York dermatologist Marisa Garshick, MD
“One element that can reduce some irritation in problematic skin types is to offset vitamin C irritation by adding hydrating ingredients to product the formulation, such as humectants like glycerin and hyaluronic acid, which this serum contains. It is one of my favorites to recommend to patients.” —Dr. Blyumin-Karasik
“La Roche-Posay includes multiple types of humectants like hyaluronic acid, which is hydrating to the skin and helps alleviate sensitivities.” —Dr. Elias
“This 20-percent vitamin C serum is less likely to irritate sensitive skin, as the vitamin C it contains is encapsulated and also combined with soothing green tea and squalene as buffers.” —New York dermatologist Rosemarie Ingleton MD
“I like this serum because it’s made of a stable form of vitamin C in dose-metered packaging. I often find that people use too much product when they use medicine droppers, which can really irritate the skin. Dose-metered pumps help people control how much should be used.
Typically, one to two drops from a pump are all we need to apply on our face. Squirting four full medicine-dropper volumes of vitamin C serum may cause irritant dermatitis. Also, vitamin C serums that are packaged in medicine droppers expose the serum to air, which will eventually change the pH of the solution due to oxidation. Changing the pH of the serum may make it more irritating to someone’s skin.” —New York dermatologist Elaine Kung, MD
“Containing 10-percent L-ascorbic acid, this vitamin C serum offers a gentle yet effective option to brighten the skin. It also contains ceramides and hyaluronic acid, making it especially good for those with sensitive skin because it hydrates and helps to support the skin barrier.” —Dr. Garshick
Yon-Ka Serum C20 ($168)
“It is well-known that topical antioxidants help to keep skin young by warding off free-radical damage and signs of aging. Yon-Ka has achieved a supercharged vitamin C serum using naturally derived ascorbyl tetraisopalmitate, a powerful form of vitamin C with excellent activity and prolonged stability. It is an oleo-based serum designed to enhance tolerance on all skin types, including sensitive skin.” —New York dermatologist Blair Murphy-Rose, MD
“It’s designed for sensitive skin and formulated with 2-percent niacinamide, as well as 12-percent vitamins and antioxidants to diminish the appearance of dark spots and improve skin’s radiance in as little as one week.” —Chicago dermatologist Caroline Robinson, MD
“I love products that multitask and combine vitamin C with other ingredients that directly strengthen or calm sensitive skin. Various forms of vitamin C have varying irritation profiles, and increasing percentages of the active ingredients can also increase risk of irritation for sensitive skin.
Ultimately, I suggest people with sensitive skin look for ingredients such as hyaluronic acid, glycerin, aloe, vitamin E, or niacinamide to be used in conjunction with their vitamin C. This helps improve tolerance and addresses underlying potential for irritation. TruSkin Vitamin C contains hyaluronic acid that improves hydration, and also uses anti-inflammatory vitamin E to improve skin moisture and offset skin irritation.” —New York dermatologist Rachel Nazarian, MD
“I find that using a skin-care hybrid that includes skin-healthy ingredients and vitamin C is a good option for people with sensitive skin because skin-care chemists worked out the correct concentration and pH for the active ingredients to be stable. This winds up being better for people with sensitive skin than layering a number of different serums.
One example of this is serum, which contains vitamin C, as well as other ingredients that are helpful for regulating pigmentation.” —Dr. Kung
“This serum works to transform and brighten dull skin with vitamin C. It’s a powerful antioxidant that fights free radicals and a pigment-reducer that inhibits tyrosinase to treat dark spots and hyperpigmentation for more even skin tone. It also features niacinamide to hydrate dry skin, balance and support the skin’s moisture barrier, for plumper and firmer skin. It has been tested to be proven safe for sensitive skin.” —Dr. Libby
Bliss Bright Idea Serum ($28)
“This serum uses a nonirritating version of vitamin C—ethyl ascorbic acid—and combines it with glycerin to attract moisture and prevent skin drying.” —Dr. Nazarian
“Containing a blend of vitamin C and collagen, this serum works to reduce dark spots while firming the skin. It is paraben-free and phthalate-free, making it a good option for those with sensitive skin.” —Dr. Garshick
“It contains 30-percent pure tetrahexydecyl ascorbate (vitamin C) and patent-pending MelaPATH technology, making it one of the most advanced vitamin C products on the market to visibly brighten and even skin tone. Because the formula is more of a lotion than a serum and contains a stable form of vitamin C, it is less irritating. It’s a great option for those who tend to have skin irritation from vitamin C products, or products in general.” —Dr. Robinson
“It’s great for sensitive and dry skin skin because it has a moisturizer base.” —Melville, NY dermatologist Kally Papantoniou, MD
“This antioxidant formula contains ascorbyl glucoside, a vitamin C precursor. The serum is formulated with a time-release technology for its active ingredients, and this seems to be agreeable even in my most sensitive-skinned patients.” —Davie, FL dermatologist Lesley Clark-Loeser, MD
“This is my favorite because it contains tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate, which penetrates the skin better than other forms of vitamin C due to its fat-solubility, making it up to 50 times more effective and less irritating than water-soluble vitamin C formulations.
Its emollient gel consistency also provides moisture and does not cause skin dryness, which can further irritate sensitive skin.” —Washington, D.C. dermatologist Tina Alster, MD
“Vitamin C remains my favorite cosmeceutical for skin. As science evolves, we are seeing how antioxidant vitamin C prevents skin aging, skin discoloration and browning. This serum is one of my favorite products that I use every day. Tannic acid is derived from sequoia bark, and when paired with vitamin C, the synergistic ingredients increase collagen synthesis.
I love it because it is an excellent standalone product for every generation. I use it for prejuvenation in our younger patients, as well as combine it with other products for rejuvenation in our mature patients. It has an elegant formulation, so I do not have to worry about irritation or noncompliance. Patients stay on it and we get terrific results.” —Rancho Mirage, CA dermatologist Wendy Roberts, MD
“This serum is formulated with a highly effective combination of vitamin C ester, a stable form of vitamin C that stimulates collagen synthesis. It also contains hyaluronic acid and omega-3 fatty acids to help minimize the look of fine lines and wrinkles as it helps to strengthen the skin’s natural protective barrier and combat oxidative skin aging.
This vegan formula is free of fragrances, silicones, parabens, and mineral oils, too, making it gentle yet effective for even the most sensitive skin.” —Miami dermatologist Roberta Del Campo, MD
“This is a new and even more powerful version of an already great antioxidant, Alto Defense Serum [included above]. Version 2.0 boasts a complex of 19 different antioxidants, along with additional new antioxidant technology that aims to protect our mitochondria. My sensitive skin patients not only tolerate this product, but also love it.” —Dr. Clark-Loeser
“I love that this serum contains 17 additional antioxidants in addition to vitamins C and E to help protect against free-radical damage and environmental stressors without irritating the skin. Additionally, it contains Allyl PQQ, patented superpotent antioxidant technology, and an anti-pollution complex. Together, they reduce dullness, improve redness and brighten the skin.” —Dr. Garshick
“This serum does more than what its name implies. Besides hydrating and strengthening the skin, it contains a stabilized form of vitamin C in 20-percent L-absorbic acid to brighten and even skin tone and provide antioxidant benefits.” —New York dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, MD
“This serum contains a patented Tri-C Pro-Peptide Complex that leverages a blend of vitamin C forms including L-ascorbic acid, THD ascorbate and sodium ascorbyl phosphate to brighten, target dullness and improve skin texture. Sodium ascorbyl phosphate is particularly great for sensitive skin types, and the formula was clinically tested on women with sensitive skin types with no reports of irritation.” —Dr. Libby
“The best form of vitamin C for sensitive skin is 3-0 ethyl ascorbic acid. This form of vitamin C is highly stable and potent, but completely non-irritating. It also has excellent brightening properties.
This serum contains vitamin C in the form of 3-0 ethyl ascorbic acid, as well as additional soothing and anti-inflammatory ingredients. Niacinamide, probiotics and hyaluronic acid calm and hydrate sensitive skin. It also works well for dry skin.” —Dallas dermatologist Rebecca Marcus, MD
“This multitasking formulation contains vitamin C, niacinamide and kakadu plum, a potent antioxidant. It also contains hyaluronic acid and squalane, which together, improve overall tone and texture and fine lines, and brighten the skin. It also simultaneously hydrates the skin and supports the skin barrier, making it a great option for those with sensitive skin.” —Dr. Garshick
Q-SkinScience Vitamin C Serum ($69.50)
“This is one of the best vitamin C serums, and it’s also fragrance-free. Look for fragrance-free products if possible because that can be very helpful for those with sensitive skin.” —Dr. Baum
DRMTLGY C5 ($62)
“Including five types of vitamin C, this works to fight free-radical damage and improve the appearance of hyperpigmentation, fine lines and dullness. It is suitable for all skin types and is not irritating to the skin, so it is suitable for those with sensitivities.” —Dr. Garshick
“This serum contains key ingredients fruit stem cell extract, turmeric and magnesium ascorbyl phosphate, a type of vitamin C that is gentle on the skin and helps brighten without causing irritation. It can be applied once daily in the morning to the face and neck on clean skin to help skin glow.” —Dr. Garshick