Bet You Didn’t Know This About Vitamin C


I grew up on clementines, Sunny D, and the untethered belief that vitamin C was the solution to a bell curve of ailments. So when I learned that vitamin C was also the solution to great skin, I jumped on board rather quickly. Nothing is ever that easy, of course. There are imposter vitamin Cs, vitamin Cs that don’t actually work, vitamin Cs that expire at lightening speed, and vitamin Cs that irritate skin. But let’s say you bypass all of that and ask: what does vitamin C really do? When should you use it and what kind should you use? We’ll explore.

Vitamin C is one of the most studied skincare ingredients on the market, which is good for you and me because that means the ground rules are pretty clear on how it works. In a broad sense, vitamin C protects skin from free radicals—essentially damaged skin cells. Some cells are naturally damaged as we age, while others are assaulted directly via epidermal weapons like the sun, cigarettes, and pollution. Free radicals are menacing because they start a chain reaction of damage—so one moment you’re out in the sun baking into something golden, brown, and delicious, and the next moment you’ve sprouted age spots and resemble a California Raisin (give or take several decades).

Antioxidants like vitamin C stop the chain reaction of cellular persecution (they hand out helpful electrons to damaged cells if you really want to know). Related to this is the vitamin’s ability to stimulate collagen production—a nice benefit given that collagen keeps skin firm and plump. Another perk—vitamin C decreases the formation of melanin—the looming culprit behind sunspots and acne scars. And an extra bonus is that it protects skin from both UVA and UVB rays (but not so much that you can skip sunscreen).

All right, so we know vitamin C is kind of a rock star, but if you look on any label, you’ll never see vitamin C listed in the ingredients. That’s because the vitamin goes by many different names, which are formulated to varying degrees of effectiveness (a vitamin C by any other name would in fact not smell as sweet). Here’s a list of the different forms of topical vitamin C:

 -Ascorbic Acid
-Ascorbyl Glucoside
-Ascorbyl Palmitate
-Ascorbyl 2-Phosphate 6-Palmitate
-Ascorbyl Tetraisopalmitate
-Magnesium Ascorbyl Phosphate
-Sodium Ascorbyl Phosphate
-Tetrahexyldecyl Ascorbate

There are so many different compositions because scientists continue to search for the sweet spot between shelf life, limited skin irritability, and vitamin C concentration. Ascorbic acid is the active form of vitamin C, which all other derivatives must convert into in order to deliver vitamin C’s benefits. Ascorbic acid does a sublime job of delivering sun protection, collagen production, and melanin suppression, but at price for folks with sensitive skin. You see, ascorbic acid is effective at a pH of 3.5, which is tolerable for Teflon skin like mine, but may be irritating to others. Oh, and it’s also the least stable, so after 3 months or so, it needs to be tossed.

If you have sensitive skin, you may want to take a look at vitamin C derivatives Magnesium Ascorbyl Phosphate (CellCeuticals Extreme Defense), Ascorbyl Tetra-Isopalmitate (Caudalie Polyphenol C15 Anti-Wrinkle), Ascorbyl Glucoside (Suki Bio-C), and Ascorbyl 2-Phosphate 6-Palmitate. For a detailed breakdown of the different forms of vitamin C, The Beauty Brains has an excellent post here.

Some vitamin C products are boosted with the help of additional antioxidants. A combination of vitamin E, ferulic acid, and phloretin helps stabilize vitamin C and limits the effects of sun exposure. Vitamin E amplifies vitamin C protection by 4-fold; vitamin E and ferulic acid further amplifies by 8-fold; while tyrosine and zinc boosts vitamin C protection by 20-fold.

If we can get especially dull for a moment, an overlooked factor in exploring vitamin C is its packaging, although it makes a tremendous difference. Vitamin C requires storage in a dark place with limited exposure to air—both light and air degrade the vitamin. This means that opaque pumps are ideal. Droppers work well too, but at the very least, remember to close the container completely (I’m a bit neurotic and keep my vitamin C bottles in their original boxes to further limit light and air exposure).

I’ve dipped my toe in a fair share of vitamin C serums (you’ll want serums by the way, because vitamin C in lotions and cleansers are often too diluted). I’m partial to Paula’s Choice, which carries ascorbic acid, vitamin E, and ferulic acid under the hood (and at a price that won’t crush souls). Mychelle’s Perfect C Serum is another fine choice. Philosophy offers ascorbic acid in powdered form, which helps with stability and also gives you a chance to mix the vitamin with a favorite moisturizer. In the future, I’ll probably try Cellex’s C Advanced serum, a mighty blend of ascorbic acid, tyrosine, and zinc.

So vitamin C may not prevent my annual cold (thanks science), but it sure does protect an important chunk of my largest organ—compromise comes in many forms, it seems.

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