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What Can Vitamin C Do for Your Skin?

This popular ingredient isn’t just for citrus fruits anymore

Closeup of person holding vitamin C serum, with dropper filled with liquid.

Vitamin C has long been popular as, well … a vitamin, touted in everything from immune-boosting powders to your morning glass of orange juice. More recently, though, it’s become a buzzworthy skin care ingredient, too. It’s touted for its anti-aging, firming and brightening properties.

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So, what can it really do for your skin? Dermatologist Melissa Piliang, MD, weighs in on the benefits of vitamin C serum, when to apply it and how long it’ll take to see results.

What does vitamin C do for your skin?

Vitamin C is great for your body, but when you consume it (like through food, drinks and supplements), your skin mostly misses out. The best way to reap the dermatological benefits of vitamin C is by applying skin care products that contain it.

These days, vitamin C — also known as ascorbic acid or L-ascorbic acid — often comes in serum form, though it can also be found in creams and lotions, all of which help your skin to easily absorb it.

“It’s a very good ingredient to include in your skin regimen,” Dr. Piliang confirms. She walks you through the benefits of using vitamin C serum.

1. Protects skin from damage

Our skin is under constant assault from outside enemies like air pollution and sun exposure, along with standard aging. These things can all rob our skin of its luster by creating free radicals, unstable molecules that steal electrons from your cells and cause damage.

Common sources of free radicals include:

  • Air pollution.
  • Alcohol, sugar and poor nutrition.
  • Cigarette smoke.
  • Ultraviolet (UV) radiation, like from the sun and tanning beds.
  • Pesticides.

But antioxidants can protect your skin from free radicals by lending them electrons to bind to instead. “There’s good scientific evidence to show that vitamin C has antioxidant effects,” Dr. Piliang says. “Using topical vitamin C can result in less cell damage and better-looking skin.”

2. Has anti-aging effects

Free radicals can accelerate your skin’s aging, so on that front, vitamin C is already fighting the good fight. It’s also been shown to protect and increase your skin’s production of collagen, a protein that holds your body’s tissues together.

“As you age, your skin produces less collagen,” Dr. Piliang explains. This leads to wrinkles, sags and bags, so protecting and replacing collagen can protect your skin from signs of aging.

3. Works hand-in-hand with sunscreen

When you’re trying to protect your skin from the sun, you want all the protection you can get — and vitamin C gives you a little bit extra.

“Studies show that when you combine vitamin C with sunscreen, you get even better sun protection and sun aging protection because they work together,” Dr. Piliang notes. “If any of the sun gets through that sunscreen, the vitamin C is there to take care of it.”

And move over, aloe. Using vitamin C with vitamin E and a few other topicals can reduce the pain and inflammation caused by sunburns.

4. Reduces hyperpigmentation

Vitamin C has a reputation for helping even out skin tone by fading sun spots and other dark spots on the skin.

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In one study, 73% of participants saw an improvement in their hyperpigmentation while using topical vitamin C, though the effects seem to be temporary. Once you stop applying the ingredient, the effects will start to fade.

5. Reduces dark under-eye circles

Say goodbye to those “You look tired” comments! A 14-person study showed that vitamin C helped improve dark under-eye circles caused by pooled blood. The study also showed that vitamin C’s collagen-boosting ability may help thicken the skin under your eye, making it harder to see the pooled blood (dark circles).

Side effects/precautions when using vitamin C serum

Most people don’t experience any negative side effects from using vitamin C serum, but in rare case, you may have:

  • Dryness.
  • Itching.
  • Redness.

If you have sensitive skin, start with a low concentration of L-ascorbic acid, just to be on the safe side.

How to choose a vitamin C serum

There are plenty of vitamin C products on the market at a variety of price points. Here are some things to look for:

  • The right ingredients: Vitamin C serum doesn’t always say “vitamin C serum” on the packaging. Look for a product that says “ascorbic acid” or “L-ascorbic acid,” which is vitamin C that’s specially formulated for your skin.
  • 10%–20% concentration: Seek out a serum that’s not too weak or too strong. Under 10% ascorbic acid won’t convey the benefits you’re looking for, but anything higher than 20% risks seriously irritating your skin.
  • No clear bottles: Vitamin C serum’s sunset glow can be pretty, but if it’s packaged well, you shouldn’t be able to tell. This ingredient is sensitive to sun, heat and light, so go for a product that’s protected in dark or tinted glass.

How to use vitamin C serum

Apply vitamin C serum after cleansing (and after applying your toner, if you use one). And although it’s safe to use overnight, Dr. Piliang recommends applying it in the morning because of the way it serves as a backup to sunscreen. “They work in synergy.”

And although you can use vitamin C on your skin every day, don’t expect to see results right away.

“It takes about three months to really see the effects, so be patient,” Dr. Piliang advises. “I suggest taking a picture of yourself with no makeup or anything on your face, and then photograph yourself once a month to see the effects.”

To learn from Dr. Piliang on related topics, listen to the Health Essentials Podcast episode, “Skin Care Tips, Tricks and Trends.” New episodes of the Health Essentials Podcast publish every Wednesday.

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