Between the vitamins, minerals, roots, and extracts, there’s almost no end to the “miracle skincare” ingredients hitting the market. The truth is, they can’t all be miracle cures; in fact, most of them aren’t nearly as beneficial as they claim.
But vitamin C serum is more than a passing fad—it’s the real deal in skin care and can be included in your everyday routine whether you have dry skin or oily skin.
Vitamin C has been studied extensively to reveal anti-aging, skin brightening, and acne-treating effects, plus it’s a natural ingredient that our body needs for overall health and wellness. Just like our bodies, our skin can experience Vitamin C deficiency. However, to take full advantage of the skin care benefits that vitamin C can produce, eating foods high in Vitamin C or supplementation is sometimes not enough. If you’re planning on incorporating vitamin C into your everyday skin care routine, you deserve to know what you can expect.
#1 Skin Brightening
The idea of a “bright” skin tone is popular among skincare brands and beauty experts, but what exactly does that mean?
Glowing, dewy, and fresh-faced? Sure, but there’s more to it than just subjective descriptors.
More specifically, skin brightening alleviates hyperpigmentation, which includes visible dark spots and discoloration from melasma, sun spots, acne scarring, and more. Brighter skin equates to a beautifully even complexion, which vitamin C can achieve and maintain.
The Science: How Vitamin C Counteracts Hyperpigmentation
Hyperpigmentation simply means excess (hyper) skin coloration (pigmentation).
Our bodies produce a certain amount of melanin, the natural pigment responsible for hair, skin, and eye color. Some people produce more than others, accounting for darker skin and hair than their peers. When our bodies produce uneven amounts of melanin, we see skin discoloration and dark patches.
The entire process of melanin production is called melanogenesis, which vitamin C can interrupt.
Vitamin C (often referred to as its active ingredient, ascorbic acid, or AA) is known as a depigmenting agent because it can reverse the effects of hyperpigmentation. There are two types of depigmenting agents; vitamin C is considered the “good one,” as it inhibits the melanin-producing process rather than introducing substances that are toxic to the melanin-forming cell.
Vitamin C interacts with copper ions, which are involved in the cellular process of melanin production, located at tyrosinase-active sites. This enzyme, tyrosinase, sets the process in motion and controls the rate of melanin production.
The interaction between vitamin C and the copper ions inhibits action in the tyrosinase enzyme.
- Ultimately, this decreases melanin formation and accounts for vitamin C’s title as a depigmenting agent.
L-Ascorbic acid (another name for vitamin C, the “L” referring to its shape and therefore indicating a natural form of the vitamin) has been studied to treat melasma, one of the main contributors of hyperpigmentation. Clinical trials have shown significant improvement according to the Melasma Area and Severity Index (MASI), among other metrics.
All in all, vitamin C can be an excellent source of skin brightening and spot clearing, leaving you with a stunningly smooth complexion.
#2 Acne Treatment
If you’ve searched high and low for an effective acne treatment, you’ve likely seen all kinds of inaccurate claims and exaggerated results. There are so many acne-fighting products on the market and so little evidence to prove their success.
Vitamin C isn’t like typical acne brands and formulas.
Topical application can reduce inflammation during breakouts and improve the look of acne scars afterward—with science to back it up.
The Science: How Vitamin C Reduces Inflammation in Sensitive Skin & Improves Wound Healing
Vitamin C takes a two-pronged approach to acne treatment, with two distinct properties that improve the look of acne and the resulting scars:
- Anti-inflammatory – Vitamin C is considered a powerful anti-inflammatory agent. It inhibits NF-κB, a protein that triggers inflammation responses through several smaller proteins that send instructions to cells throughout the body. Like a signal blocker on a cellphone tower, vitamin C prevents the inflammation message from sending—this is how vitamin C reduces the swelling and redness of acne and other skin conditions.
- Wound healing – Acne scars take time to heal, like any cut or scrape. With atrophic acne scars specifically, the noticeable skin indentations are caused by lost tissue and collagen (the major protein responsible for muscle, bone, and tissue composition). Vitamin C facilitates collagen synthesis, which encourages healthy tissue regeneration and scar healing.
With topical vitamin C as part of your daily skincare routine, you’ll likely notice those acne scars less and less over time.
#3 Sun Damage Defense
Our outermost layer of skin is our best and only natural defense against environmental damage—sunburns, air pollution, cigarette smoke, and more.
More specifically, the damage is caused by free radicals, tiny unstable particles looking for an available valence electron that they happen to find and steal from our skin cells.
The Science: How Vitamin C Protects the Skin from Free Radicals
Vitamin C is often cited as a powerful antioxidant; for all intents and purposes, think of antioxidants as the antithesis to free radicals.
What does one have to do with the other?
To understand what’s happening in the body, you might benefit from a quick introduction to some basic principles of chemistry (or a brief refresher if you aced Chem 101 back in the day):
- Free radicals have an unpaired valence electron – These molecules can exist independently but are simultaneously looking for a partner molecule. Think of free radicals as lonely souls who want to be in a relationship and either give or take to make it work; they act as either oxidants (accepting or stealing an electron from the other molecule) or reductants (donating an electron to their new partner).
- They’re unstable and reactive – Molecules with full valence shells are stable because they don’t need anything more, and they have nothing to give—like lone wolves, they’re happily single. Free radicals, on the other hand, are desperate. They bond easily, but their reactive nature makes their relationships short-lived.
- They take from others – Like a volatile relationship, free radicals are ultimately destructive to their partner molecules; oftentimes, their targets are human skin cells.
- Free radicals slowly inflict damage – At first, our bodies are highly resilient, destroying the free radicals and dealing with any harm they’ve caused. However, the gradual build-up eventually leads to oxidative stress, an imbalance between the free radical accumulation and our body’s antioxidant defense. This can cause tissue damage, including skin cancer and other diseases.
- Vitamin C protects against oxidative stress – As an electron donor, vitamin C can easily give up a hydrogen atom to incoming free radicals so your skin cells don’t have to. This powerful antioxidant protects you from damaging UV effects, most notably in the sun’s powerful rays, by neutralizing free radicals.
According to this metaphor, you can think of vitamin C as the best friend who protects you from a questionable potential partner—they know you’re way too good for that free radical and that it’ll only hurt you in the end.
#4 Anti-Aging Effects
On the one hand, UV-induced skin damage (also called photodamage or photoaging) is a significant contributor to some of the more visible signs of aging—vitamin C already has you covered on that front.
But it doesn’t end there. Vitamin C plays a key role in collagen synthesis, which keeps the skin healthy, tight, wrinkle-free (or at least wrinkle-minimal) and reduces fine lines.
The Science: How Vitamin C Regulates Collagen Synthesis to Slow the Effects of Aging
Wrinkles, skin sagging, hyperpigmentation, and more happen naturally as we age. While there’s no way to slow the inevitable passage of time, we may be able to use vitamin C to increase collagen production and make the visible effects less noticeable.
Collagen is the primary structural component in skin and tissues. As we mature, our skin shows a marked reduction in collagen synthesis for types I and III, resulting in wrinkles and sagging skin.
Vitamin C, however, stimulates collagen production to maintain taut, youthful skin.
Clinical trials have shown significant improvements in photoaging after consistent topical use; patients exhibited less inflammation, wrinkles, and pigmentation in the cheeks and around the mouth, plus increasingly hydrated skin around the eyes, with evidence of increased collagen just below the epidermis (also called the Grenz zone).
Between collagen synthesis and defense against oxidative stress, vitamin C may just be your best chance at beating the effects of advancing age—naturally, of course.
How to Use Vitamin C Serum
Vitamin C’s skincare benefits are rooted in its unique molecular composition and key role in several complex physiological processes. The what was rather long-winded, but the how is simple—how to use vitamin C skincare products, that is.
In the grand scheme of your skincare routine, your serum should be applied after cleanser and toner but before moisturizer. By applying your serum to fresh, product-free skin, the extra-small molecules will be better able to penetrate the outer layer and deliver the important, active ingredients—including vitamin C, among others.
While you’re at it, you can also use vitamin C serum for hair growth, another major beneficiary of collagen production.
Honestly, is there anything vitamin C can’t do?
Health & Beauty Go Hand-in-Hand with Cymbiotika
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Indian Dermatology Online Journal. Vitamin C in dermatology. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3673383/
Journal of Investigative Dermatology. Role of tyrosinase as the determinant of pigmentation in cultured human melanocytes. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8496620/
Journal of Cutaneous Medicine and Surgery. Clinical efficacy of 25% L-ascorbic acid (C'ensil) in the treatment of melasma. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19298775/
Pharmacognosy Review. Free radicals, antioxidants and functional foods: Impact on human health. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3249911/
Asian Pacific Journal of Cancer Prevention. Oxidative stress and skin diseases: possible role of physical activity. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24568458/
The American Journal of Pathology. Decreased collagen production in chronologically aged skin: roles of age-dependent alteration in fibroblast function and defective mechanical stimulation. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16723701/
Dermatologic Surgery. Double-blind, half-face study comparing topical vitamin C and vehicle for rejuvenation of photodamage. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11896774/