Vitamin C is the most commonly referenced ingredient in the skincare world. The mere mention of vitamin C evokes images of luscious citrus fruits, yet despite the over-familiarity, as a facialist, I find it is one of the most confusing topics for my clients.
I am often bombarded with questions such as;
At what stage do I use vitamin C in my daily skincare routine?
What percentage is good for me?
Can I layer other products on top?
What’s better, a serum or cream form?
And the dreaded;
I get irritated with vitamin C, I think I am allergic to it?
So here, let me strip it down to the basics – why it should be an integral part of your skincare routine, what you should be looking for, and how to use it to its full potential.
THE ULTIMATE MULTI-TASKER: Vitamin C has a plethora of skin benefits.
Vitamin C is a potent, natural antioxidant that promotes healthy skin by fighting and neutralising free radicals. Free radicals are elements which cause damage to the skin. Vitamin C targets these radicals to protect skin against oxidative distress, including pollution and car exhaust or cigarette smoke. It also has anti-inflammatory properties, so can help with acne, it evens out skin discolouration and hyperpigmentation by inhibiting melanin synthesis, and it helps to stimulate collagen production, which will make your skin look smoother, more glowing, energised, and healthy. Is there anything it can’t do?
Topical use of vitamin C is the best way to achieve visible results for your skin. And because it's so versatile, it's great for everyone.
Which Vitamin C formula is best?
There are so many different vitamin C products out there – you'll find it listed as an ingredient in pretty much every kind of skincare product you use. Brands now formulate toners, face mists, creams, masks, and even oils with vitamin C, but I’d suggest a vitamin C in serum form. This is because they’re generally higher in concentration, and their low molecular weight means they can more effectively penetrate the skin’s bilayers. Plus, I stress the daily use of vitamin C, so applying it in serum form is convenient and practical.
Does vitamin C percentage matter?
Not all vitamin C serums are created equal. It’s not enough for a product to have vitamin C on the label – if you cannot locate the exact percentage on the ingredient list, then that’s an indication that the product contains less than 5% concentration. This means you’re missing out on the benefits of vitamin C! You may get a little hydration effect based on the other ingredients the serum is diluted with, but that’s about it.
For vitamin C to be effective and bring about an actual change to your skin, it must be at a concentration level of 8% or over. Vitamin C is highly unstable, meaning it oxidises the moment it comes into contact with light or air. You want the active ingredient in its most stable form, which is L-ascorbic acid. The percentage of L-ascorbic acid should ideally be between 10-20%. Under 8% isn’t enough, and over 20% is very likely going to cause irritation and inflammation.
So though it may seem that a higher percentage is better and faster-acting, that simply isn’t the case. The higher the percentage, the faster it will oxidise and break down, rendering it ineffective.
BLEND OR LAYER: Vitamin C has many friends and co-workers it performs well with.
If direct application (using it neat) makes your skin sensitive, or if you, like so many other skincare junkies I know, want to play with other active ingredients, then here are some of vitamin C's friends that pair well together;
- Vitamin C + Hyaluronic Acid.
Hyaluronic acid offers a hydration blanket for the skin. When layered under vitamin C, this duo becomes a power couple. You get hydration + brightening.
How to use: After AM cleansing, apply hyaluronic acid and wait 30 seconds for it to absorb before following up with vitamin C. Or, simply blend 1 part of each into the palm of your hand to create a hydro-lightening blend. Mix and pat into skin.
Good for: Dull /vdehydrated skin.
- Vitamin C + E + Ferulic Acid.
Vitamin E and ferulic acid negate free radical damage, so when blended or layered with vitamin C, the combo offers triple protection as powerful antioxidants.
How to use: Cocktail all together by blending in your palm, or layer in the mornings.
Good for: Sun-damaged skin, hyperpigmentation and melasma. Boosts the power of SPF.
- Vitamin C + Retinol.
A combo I am often asked about as more and more consumers have added retinoids to their skincare, and are keen to not keep the use of daily vitamin C. Retinols, and other vitamin A derivatives, are infamous for being harsh on the skin, leading to discomfort, irritation, redness, flaking, and extreme dryness. So, it really depends on the retinol strength you’re using, and how your skin is reacting to it. If retinol has compromised the skin barrier leading to dryness, then adding vitamin C may cause discomfort. If the skin has adapted to your retinol use, then of course, it is possible to use vitamin C alongside retinol.
How to use: I don't recommend layering these two together as with other combos. Use vitamin C in the AM and retinol in PM, sandwiched between hyaluronic acid underneath (for hydration) and a light night cream (to create a buffer). This will ensure the skin tolerates both actives, and won’t disturb the skin's delicate pH.
Good for: Treating first signs of ageing, lines, wrinkles, and textural imperfections.
NOTE: avoid mixing vitamin C with strong ingredients like benzoyl peroxide (acne treatment), AHAs and BHAs, as they will strip the skin’s pH, causing irritation and damage its ability to recover.
My go-to vitamin C.
The ZO Self Activating Vitamin C has been my go-to for professional and personal use for a long time, thanks to its highly stable formula.
It only activates once pumped, keeping the formula safe from oxidation. The talc-like, creamy texture is perfect for blending with other ingredients to boost results.
During treatments, I adapt the blend / layering of ingredients based on the skin concern I am treating. At home, it can be paired well with any serum or cream to boost complexion, protect and brighten skin.
Celebrity facialist in NY
Be skin smart.
Words by Adeela Crown.