The A-to-Z Guide to All Things Vitamin C

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This article first appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of New Beauty. Click here to subscribe

Cosmetic chemist Kelly Dobos is a big fan of vitamin C for one very specific reason: “Even NASA is studying it right now,” she says. “It’s big.”

While the rest of us may not be signed up for the next space mission, consider this: “Vitamin C is an essential nutrient that plays a crucial role in collagen synthesis,” Dobos says, calling out that notorious orange drink. “It goes beyond Tang.” And that it does. Every expert interviewed agreed: Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant and deserves a special space (no pun intended) in skin-care history for serving as a free-radical scavenger.

It is that free radical–fighting feature that makes the antioxidant act “like a thief,” and perform as a powerful anti-ager. Without antioxidants, Dobos explains, “free radicals steal electrons from normal molecules and induce a cascade of chemical of reactions that cause injury.”

Celebrity aesthetician Shani Darden agrees, adding that, in her opinion, vitamin C is one of the most important anti-aging ingredients and an essential part of a healthy skin-care routine. “Environmental stressors like pollution and UV exposure create free radicals, and vitamin C is an antioxidant that helps to neutralize them. Free radicals speed up skin aging by causing hyperpigmentation and depleting collagen, leading to wrinkles.

In addition to offering antioxidant protection, vitamin C also helps reduce signs of sun damage by speeding up cellular turnover, boosting collagen and brightening the skin.” One tiny drawback, Dobos points out, is that the ingredient can be tough to stabilize, and therefore, “efficacy, is hampered by so many confounding factors that it creates quite a challenge for cosmetic chemists in developing suitable skin-care products.”

Besides keeping the formula stable, Darden sees one other challenge: user error. “Vitamin C is an active ingredient like AHAs, BHAs or retinol, and you have to introduce it slowly into your skin-care routine. Some people start using it too quickly and then experience irritation and get discouraged about using it.”

Doctor’s Note
Washington, D.C. dermatologist Tina Alster, MD is also a self-proclaimed fan of vitamin C. So much so, that she prescribes it to pretty much all of her patients. “I recommend its use over the entire face (also the neck and décolleté) in the morning under sunscreen,” she says. “It is a superior antioxidant and literally clears away damaging free radicals that break down the skin. It also enhances the effect of sunscreen to further protect the skin from the sun’s harmful rays.”

Dr. Alster is also on her own personal mission: “People think that ingesting vitamin C is better than applying it to the skin. That is wrong. More vitamin C gets to where it’s needed with topical application. The vitamin C formulation is also important: it should be stored in an airtight container away from sunlight in order to avoid degradation. If the product has turned yellow or amber in color, it is no longer good.”

“At the end of the day, I think vitamin C should always have its moment (just not in the sun)! It is an integral part of my personal daily skin-care regimen, and I am pleased that others are now appreciating its many attributes.”

Consumer Craze
Kate Oldham, senior vice president of Beauty at Saks Fifth Avenue, also pegs vitamin C as a perennial favorite for consumers. “It’s a well-known, efficacious ingredient that fights against hyperpigmentation and free-radical damage to the skin, which is perfect for anyone living in a city because they are exposed to a lot more pollution.”

“Our customers understand the benefits of vitamin C and look for it when making purchases, so we always highlight it,” she says, adding that Sunday Riley C.E.O. Glow Vitamin C + Turmeric Face Oil is one of Saks’ best-sellers. “The best thing about vitamin C is that it can be used daily and it is often combined with other ingredients. For example, Kiehl’s Powerful-Strength Line-Reducing Concentrate pairs vitamin C with other antioxidants and hyaluronic acid.”

The Glow Team
Darden always recommends using vitamin C in the morning to reap all of the benefits. The lineup she loves: “Start off with a gentle cleanser—I’m partial to my personal Cleansing Serum, which cleanses skin without stripping it. Next up, apply a vitamin C serum. I love iS Clinical’s Pro-Heal Serum because it’s a powerful formula, but still very nourishing for the skin. If you have a lot of scarring, iS Clinical’s Super Serum is amazing at minimizing the appearance of scars, too. Follow up with a sunscreen that is lightly hydrating yet doesn’t cause congestion, like Supergoop!’s Play Everyday Lotion.”

The Chemist Checklist

  • As Dobos explains, “Vitamin C is readily water-soluble, and while many cosmetic creams and lotions feature water-based vitamin C, in these types of formulations it is unstable with respect to heat, light and exposure to oxygen, and at pH levels near or above 7. Trace sources of metals like copper and iron are also known to be detrimental.
  • Although less efficacious, derivatives of vitamin C like sodium ascorbyl phosphate and sodium ascorbyl palmitate have greater stability.
  • Opaque containers and airless pump packing, as well as individual capsules can also help protect the ingredient.
  • Advanced carrier systems like liposomes can also be used to deliver sustained release of vitamin C over time.
  • Combinations of vitamin C with vitamins A and E have a been shown to enhance the ingredient’s efficacy.

THE C-SUITE: New and noteworthy additions for your antioxidant arsenal.

Beautycounter Counter+ All Bright C Serum ($79); HoliFrog Sunapee Sacred-C Brightening Powder Wash ($44); Protocol Vitamin C Superserum ($72); A-Method C+ Brightening Elixir ($90); Naturium Vitamin C Face Oil ($25); Pixi +C Vit Priming Oil ($28).

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