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Experts consider vitamin C to be excellent when it comes to skin care given both its functional and aesthetic benefits. Also known as L-ascorbic acid, it is “required for [the] proper function of skin” because it plays an “essential role” in collagen production, explained board-certified dermatologist Caren Campbell, MD. The San Francisco-based doctor called vitamin C “invaluable” and “vital” in any skin care routine.
SKIP AHEAD Best vitamin C serums
You stand to get the most vitamin C-related benefits from treatments like serums, creams and lotions, which are typically formulated with high concentrations of their respective active ingredients (between 10 and 20 percent), explained board-certified dermatologist Caroline Robinson, MD. Vitamin C cleansers and other skin care products that you rinse off are not considered treatments and typically include “much lower percentages” of active ingredients (as low as 0.01 percent).
Now that the weather is warming up, you might be looking to transition your skin care routine from rich winter creams to non-greasy products. And as the coronavirus vaccine eligibility expands, you might also be increasingly considering your skin’s health and appearance. A lightweight vitamin C serum could help you meet your skin care goals before the summer season kicks off on June 20, experts told us.
What does vitamin C serum do for the skin?
Vitamin C is helpful for those with mature skin or looking to reduce signs of aging. It is an “excellent antioxidant” because it protects against free radical damage and oxidative stress, Campbell noted.
“Think of sun and pollution (stressors) creating reactive oxygen species (tiny particles bouncing around) in the skin that are breaking up collagen and elastin, causing premature aging, sun damage and wrinkles,” she explained. “Antioxidants like vitamin C chew up these free radicals, which helps protect your skin from damage and makes your sunscreen (the ultimate anti-aging protector) work better.”
Vitamin C is also a “great ingredient” for anyone with acne-prone skin for several reasons, according to Joshua Zeichner, MD, a board-certified dermatologist: It can help neutralize inflation and prevent breakouts, brighten dark spots left behind when pimples heal — it can also treat melasma (dark patches on the skin) and can calm rosacea, Campbell added. However, Zeichner advised those with acne-prone skin avoid vitamin C serums paired with vitamin E, a moisturizing ingredient that can cause breakouts. If you have dry or mature skin, vitamin E is a great ingredient to look out for in your vitamin C serum.
Almost anyone can incorporate a vitamin C serum into their skincare routine. However, board-certified dermatologist Hadley King, MD, noted those with “very sensitive skin” should exercise caution since vitamin C may cause redness and dryness. If you’re interested in trying a vitamin C serum but have sensitive skin, — your safest bet is consulting with a board-certified dermatologist. Once you settle on a vitamin C serum, patch test it on your body before applying the serum to your face.
Medical experts aren’t the only ones emphasizing vitamin C — brands have been especially pushing vitamin C products lately. For example, SkinCeuticals, a higher-end L’Oréal-owned luxury skin care line, created National Vitamin C Day in 2019 “to raise awareness of the importance of vitamin C for health and beauty.” This year, it took place on Sunday, April 4. In March, Murad launched its Vita-C Triple Exfoliating Facial treatment and in January, both Dr. Barbara Sturm and Révive released new vitamin C treatments.
9 best vitamin C serums of 2021
Beyond shopping at the usual beauty retailers — Sephora, Ulta and Dermstore — you can order vitamin C serums directly from brands like Ghost Democracy, INNBeauty PROJECTS and Maya Chia. Popular beauty companies, including L'Oréal and The Ordinary, sell affordable vitamin C serums (some options starting at $6). If you're looking to invest in your skin care routine, consider luxury brands like Revision Skincare and Barbara Sturm.
To help guide your search for a vitamin C serum, we’ve compiled expert-recommended vitamin C serums and a few highly rated options otherwise, ranging from Sephora Clean-approved formulas to a new and notable launch.
Campbell called SkinCeuticals "the gold standard" of topical vitamin C serums. She recommended the Phloretin CF serum for those with oily skin while the C E Ferulic serum is the "best option for all skin types," especially those with dry and combination skin. She noted both serums are "effective" antioxidant treatments that "help prevent and treat oxidative stress.” Phloretin CF serum received a 4.8-star average rating from more than 540 reviews on Dermstore.
Zeichner recommended this vitamin C serum — which earned a 4.5-star average rating from more than 430 reviews on Google Shopping — because it is made from vegan-friendly and cruelty-free ingredients. He highlighted it is made with vitamin C, hydrating hyaluronic acid and calming grape seed and licorice root extracts. Alpha-H recommends users apply three or four drops of the lightweight serum to their face in the morning.
King is a fan of this "all-in-one" serum because it is formulated with 15 percent vitamin C that is paired with niacinamide, another popular skin care ingredient known to help fade discoloration. Hyaluronic acid boosts hydration and peptides stimulate collagen production which will diminish fine lines. It received a 4.4-star average rating from more than 20 reviews on The Detox Market.
Robinson called this a "super potent" vitamin C serum, which earned a 4.6-star average rating from more than 680 reviews on Amazon. The glass ampoules are filled with vitamin C, moisturizing hyaluronic acid and proteoglycans, a protein that improves elasticity. King described its texture as "light," noting its "subtle, clean and refreshing" fragrance.
This popular treatment is Amazon's No. 1 bestseller in its class and the most affordable product on our list. Besides vitamin C, TruSkin's serum is made with a combination of hydrating ingredients: jojoba oil, hyaluronic acid and vitamin E. Zeichner noted that when a vitamin C serum is paired with vitamin E, it might cause pimples for those with acne-prone skin. It is also made with witch hazel to help tighten pores and calm inflammation. This vitamin C serum boasts a 4.3-star average rating from more than 67,200 reviews on Amazon.
This cruelty-free Paula's Choice vitamin C serum received a 4.4-star average from more than 670 reviews on Amazon. It’s formulated with 15 percent vitamin C and peptides for anti-aging benefits to the skin. It also contains hydrating ingredients like hyaluronic acid and vitamins B5 and E, which aligns with Zeichner’s warning that those dealing with breakouts should take caution. Those dealing with dry or mature skin can benefit from the combination of vitamins C and E.
Drunk Elephant earned the green-and-white Sephora Clean seal, meaning it is free of 50 questionable ingredients like sulfates, parabens and mineral oil. Instead, this 15-percent vitamin C serum is made with antioxidant-rich grape extract. It also includes pumpkin ferment and pomegranate extract, both of which help dissolve dead skin cells and minimize the appearance of pores. This vitamin C serum boasts a 4.1-star average from more than 12,260 reviews on Google Shopping.
PEACH & LILY, a popular Korean-beauty line, debuted its vitamin C serum in February. The fragrance-free serum contains 20 percent vitamin C and hydrating ingredients like squalane, hyaluronic acid and vitamin E (a standout pairing for dry, mature skin, but not ideal for acne-prone skin, according to Zeichner). It is also made with kojic and tranexamic acids to help brighten a dull complexion and fade dark spots. It earned a 4.6-star average from more than 60 reviews on Peach & Lily.
Tatcha's serum boasts 20 percent vitamin C and is made with 10 percent Alpha-Hydroxy Acids, which help buff away dead skin cells. The Sephora Clean-approved formula also features Japanese angelica root extract to reduce discoloration. This serum received a 4.3-star average rating from more than 1,500 reviews on Sephora.