We might be the only skincare company that won’t tell you that you need a vitamin C product in your skincare regime. Curious why we take this stance? Read on for our somewhat contrarian take on topical vitamin C products!
In the beauty industry, vitamin C is touted as the “must-have” product in your skincare routine, but we respectfully disagree! One of the reasons is that there are so many other better antioxidants that are available—and we’re here to share them with you!
What is vitamin C?
Vitamin C is an essential nutrient that our bodies need to form blood vessels, cartilage, muscle, and collagen in our bones. It’s used to help our bodies absorb and store iron and we also need it for our body’s healing process. It’s an antioxidant that helps to protect your cells against free radicals. It’s naturally found in food in the form of ascorbic acid, but it can be too acidic for some people’s guts. We need to have 65 to 90 milligrams (mg) of vitamin C daily to keep our bodies functioning properly. An orange has an average of about 70 mg, while a serving size of bell pepper (1 cup) has on average 120 mg. We need to take vitamin C daily because humans are one of the few mammals that can’t produce vitamin C on our own. On top of that, it’s water soluble and can’t be stored in our bodies, so it has to be supplied by our diets.
L-ascorbic acid is the most prominent ingredient in the skincare world for two reasons: it’s easiest to stabilize in a formulation and it’s the most biologically active and beneficial for targeting photoaging. The caveat is that once active, it typically only lasts 2 to 3 weeks. You’ll also find vitamin C in other active forms such as ascorbyl-6-palmitate and magnesium ascorbyl phosphate (MAP).
Vitamin C benefits claim that it’s a potent antioxidant protecting your skin against sun damage, which also prevents the signs of aging. It’s also known as a skin brightener and helps with anti-pigmentation. The issue we have with these claims is that research surrounding them is mainly designed to use for marketing. In this study specifically, the references that support the study have experiments that are mostly done on animals. Animals have different mechanisms than humans do and how they process vitamins and minerals is also different, so the study has no proven results for human skin.
Why we don’t use L-ascorbic acid in our skincare
In the treatment room, we’ve noticed there are better, more effective antioxidants that aren’t so volatile and don’t cause inflammation and irritation to the skin. Ingredients like green tea, jojoba oil, and other botanicals have more bioavailability for the skin.
In cosmetic chemistry, there are just some ingredients that are more efficient than others. One of our favorite cosmetic chemists, Perry of The Beauty Brains Podcast, shares his thoughts on this popular skincare ingredient and answers the question: “Does vitamin C really work, or does it just stain the skin?”
“For example, they claim vitamin C provides photoprotection. Ok, but there are vastly better ingredients that provide photoprotection (e.g. sunscreen drug actives). Why use an inferior technology? They claim vitamin C provides anti-wrinkling. Ok, but why not use an occlusive agent like Petrolatum that works even better?”
Yes, vitamin C can brighten the skin topically, but what is it doing to the lower levels of the skin? As estheticians, we’ve seen sensitized skin on our clients from using vitamin C serums. We’re getting the results we want, but at what cost? Highly acidic products can be irritating and inflame the skin.
Vitamin C is also incredibly unstable in skincare formulation and is only truly effective for 2 to 3 weeks. So the skincare you see sitting on the drugstore shelf might already be inactive . . . not cool!
On top of all this, L-ascorbic acid is hydrophilic, meaning that it’s easily dissolved in water and because our stratum corneum is hydrophobic, our skin has trouble penetrating this type of vitamin C into the skin. One way other skincare brands do this is by lowering the pH level of L-ascorbic acid by using another synthesized antioxidant, ferulic acid, adding more synthesized chemicals into the formulation. Wouldn’t it just be easier to use plants that are already bioavailable to the skin?
What to use instead
If you’re looking to brighten the skin, a gentle, weekly exfoliation can help remove dead skin cells from the surface to reveal brighter skin. Our Weekly Digest Mask mixed with goat’s milk yogurt is a great alternative to topical vitamin C.
For sun-damaged skin, our Wisdom Oil is your summer BFF to aid in healing and further prevent photoaging. Its blend of rosehip oil, sea buckthorn oil, and red raspberry oils is packed with antioxidants, fighting free radicals and helping to support compromised skin. Green tea’s anti-inflammatory properties help to reduce skin irritation, redness, and swelling and also contains catechin, a natural antioxidant that helps to prevent cell damage.
For daily use, our Renewing Face Wash also provides a rich dose of antioxidants while cleansing the skin. It’s why we recommend washing for at least 30 seconds so your skin can soak up the goodness! Green tea, combined with arnica and goldenseal extracts to treat inflammation and bacteria, combined with our plant-based lactic acid helps to keep your skin nourished while you wash.
Our oil-based serums are also packed with antioxidants because of the jojoba oil we use in our formulation. Read more about the powerful benefits of jojoba oil here.
If you’re currently using a vitamin C serum, we recommend that you’re diligent about using SPF when you’re out in the sun. You can develop more sun sensitivity the more you use topical vitamin C. If you find you have a high sensitivity, try using the vitamin C serum every other day.
Avoid using it with benzoyl peroxide (a common ingredient used to fight acne), as it oxidizes vitamin C and deactivates it. The same goes for retinol and niacinamide: avoid using them together as it can make vitamin C less stable and less likely to penetrate the skin. Lastly, avoid using other acids like AHAs and BHAs as they can further cause skin irritation when used together.
Vitamin C on a label
If you’re currently using a vitamin C serum, you’ll find it labeled under a few different names. If you need a refresh, here’s our guide to decoding ingredients on a skincare label.
L-ascorbic Acid – the most common form and most researched vitamin C in skincare. For it to be shelf stable, you’ll want to look for ferulic acid and vitamin E (tocopherol) as they help make the ingredient more stable in a formulation. You’ll usually see anywhere between a 10 to 20% concentration. Anything above 20% has not been proven to be more effective. Exposure to light, air, and heat will cause it to oxidize, rendering it inactive. You’ll want to look for a vitamin C product with good packaging if you see L-ascorbic acid or ascorbic acid on the label.
Magnesium Ascorbyl Phosphate (MAP) – An esterified (combined with alcohol to form an ester) form of vitamin C and are also stable with a neutral pH and is dissolvable in fats or oils. This stable form of vitamin C is less potent than L-ascorbic acid and much gentler on the skin.
Ascorbyl-6-Palmitate or ascorbyl palmitate – Another esterified form of vitamin C with a neutral pH and also fat-soluble. This type of vitamin C penetrates the skin most easily than all the other types. This form unfortunately doesn’t convert well into L-ascorbic acid so you need a high percentage to see results. Skincare formulators love to use this type as it’s the easiest to use in formulation. Unfortunately, it also causes cell membrane damage when exposed to UVB sun rays.
Sodium Ascorbyl Phosphate (SAP) – This form of vitamin C converts into ascorbic acid once it’s applied to the skin and will be most similar to MAP but less effective. Though it’s less active, it’s less irritating on the skin than L-ascorbic acid.
Sodium Ascorbate – This form of vitamin C is the sodium salt of L-ascorbic acid. Again like all the others above, it converts into ascorbic acid once applied to the skin. Another gentler form of vitamin C. You may also see this type of vitamin C in tablet or pill form as a supplement.
Calcium Ascorbate – Like sodium ascorbate, this is another mineral salt version that’s often referred to as Ester C. It has a neutral pH so it’s non-irritating to the skin.
You might also see it labeled with these names: ethyl ascorbic acid (3-O-ethyl-L-ascorbic acid), ascorbyl glucoside, tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate, and aminopropyl ascorbyl phosphate. Again the most bioactive type of vitamin C is L-ascorbic acid and you’ll want to make sure you see ferulic acid which helps to lower the pH level of vitamin C so that your skin can absorb it better. Look for vitamin E (aka tocopherol) as it also helps to stabilize vitamin C in a formulation. Protect vitamin C products from light, air, and heat as they can further deactivate the product.
We hope this helps clarify the use of vitamin C in skincare and shows that it’s not necessarily an essential ingredient that everyone needs in their daily routine. There are so many other amazing antioxidant-rich botanicals that are more effective, more stable, and a better bang for your buck. (Like green tea, jojoba oil, sea buckthorn, the list goes on…) If you’re looking to replace your vitamin C serum but don’t know where to start, email or DM us and our master estheticians can guide you in the right direction!