A version of this story originally appeared on the Strategist U.S.
Vitamin C is a powerhouse skin-care ingredient that can reduce inflammation, fight free-radical damage, brighten skin, diminish fine lines and wrinkles, and reduce the appearance of discolouration and dark spots. But while vitamin C can be quite effective at curing a plethora of skin-care woes, “one should keep in mind that not all vitamin C is created equal,” according to Dr. Tara Rao of Schweiger Dermatology Group.
In fact, most of the dermatologists we spoke to all agreed that, because vitamin C is an unstable ingredient, finding properly formulated serums is paramount to reaping all the benefits of the antioxidant. Our experts generally recommend looking for serums that contain ascorbic acid, also known as L-ascorbic acid — the most active form of vitamin C — and to store whichever one you buy away from sunlight to prevent oxidation. Below, their favourite vitamin C serums for every skin type.
Best overall vitamin C serum
Four of our dermatologists recommend Skinceuticals CE Ferulic, which they (and our editors) hail as the gold-standard vitamin C serum, and is suitable for all skin types. “I think it’s the best out there,” declares Dr. Kenneth Howe of the Wexler Dermatology Group. He says it has a light, non-greasy feel, while still delivering “the maximum amount of its active ingredients to the skin.” It is expensive, but worth the price due to its super-stable, patented formula, according to our experts. That’s because L-ascorbic acid (which comprises 15 percent of this serum) is water soluble, and in less precisely formulated serums, won’t effectively penetrate skin. “A product must be formulated carefully to enable sufficient delivery to the skin,” Howe explains. Part of this serum’s patented formula includes a pH level higher than those of its competitors, meaning it won’t cause the redness and sensitivity that serums with lower pH can. As Dr. Julie Russak, founder of the Russak Dermatology Group, puts it, this serum can “deliver vitamin C through the top layer without disrupting the protective barrier of the skin.”
Whatever vitamin C serum you choose, Howe suggests applying it in the morning. “That way a reservoir of active vitamin C is present in the skin during the daylight hours, when ultraviolet radiation is strongest,” he explains.
Best (less expensive) vitamin C serum
“This is an insider secret as it’s effectively a dupe for the Skinceuticals [CE Ferulic] but at a far lower price point,” says Rhea Cartwright, beauty journalist and founder of editorial platform @nahfemme. Another serum that features ferulic acid, along with vitamin E and 20 percent vitamin C, this product is vegan-friendly. “The only mega difference [between the Timeless serum and the Skinceuticals] is the pH, which tends to make the Timeless oxidise a lot faster,” Cartwright tells us, “but they’ve recently changed the packaging to an airtight pump rather than a pipette. When I first used this, I even had strangers ask me what I was using!”
Best drugstore vitamin C serum
A more budget-friendly option is this “effective” vitamin C serum from L’Oréal Paris, which is formulated with 10 percent ascorbic acid. It comes recommended by dermatologist Dr. Joshua Zeichner, the director of cosmetic and clinical research at Mount Sinai Hospital, who says it “has been clinically studied and is available at your local drugstore at a very reasonable price.” It’s also free of fragrance, parabens, mineral oils, and synthetic dyes, so it won’t irritate your skin or cause unwanted breakouts. [Editor’s note: You can shop this product on Amazon U.S., for UK delivery. This price does not include shipping costs.]
Best cruelty-free vitamin C serum
Another effective, affordable serum is Drunk Elephant’s Day Serum. Because it contains a similar formula to the Skinceuticals CE Ferulic, you get all the skin brightening benefits at “half the cost,” according to Dr. Noelani Gonzalez, a dermatology specialist at Mount Sinai Health System. But unlike Skinceuticals, Drunk Elephant’s serum is also cruelty-free. Its formula contains L-ascorbic acid, as well as pumpkin-ferment extract and pomegranate enzyme, which attack dead surface skin cells and help to exfoliate, explains Dr. Deanne Mraz Robinson, a co-founder of Modern Dermatology of Connecticut and skin-care company PURE BioDerm. Plus, the serum’s packaging is both airtight and completely opaque — things Gonzalez says you should look for when choosing a serum, because packaging like this helps to keep the vitamin C from exposure to water, light, or oxygen (all of which degrade it).
Rhea Cartwright, beauty journalist and founder of editorial platform @nahfemme, recommends Beautystat’s skin refiner, which comes in the form of a pump and has 20 percent L-absorbic acid, which Cartwright calls “the holy grail of vitamin C.” It also contains “the most active compound of green tea, which is another powerhouse antioxidant,” and undoubtedly “does what it says on the tin,” according to Cartwright. “As a Black-owned brand, Ron Robinson is the hero chemist and CEO [of Beautystat] who’s formulated for EVERY top brand before creating his own no-nonsense, results-driven brand.”
Best vitamin C serum for acne-prone skin
If you’re worried about your vitamin C degrading, Gonzalez also suggests trying a powdered version of it, like the one in this two-product set from Clinique. Vitamin C is more stable as a powder, she explains, and less likely to be degraded by light or oxygen. This set contains two 10 percent L-ascorbic acid-infused products: The first is a powder cleanser that you combine with water, gently massage onto the skin, and then rinse off. The second is a serum designed to be mixed with whatever daily moisturiser you use. The Clinique serum also contains the common acne-fighting ingredient salicylic acid, so it’s “great for acne-prone skin,” says Gonzalez.
Best vitamin C serum for sensitive skin
Dermatologist Dr. Elizabeth Tanzi loves the PCA Skin C&E Advanced Serum, formulated with 20 percent L-ascorbic acid, because the lightweight serum can “easily integrate into a skin-care regimen” and doesn’t “cause irritation,” making it a safe bet if you’ve got sensitive skin. [Editor’s note: This price does not include shipping costs.]
Best vitamin C serum for oily skin
If you’ve got oily skin, Russak recommends trying this often-overlooked sister product of our best-overall serum. Its formula is similar to that of CE Ferulic and contains L-ascorbic acid and ferulic acid, but does not contain pore-clogging vitamin E, “making Phloretin CF the better choice for oily skin types.” Phloretin CF is also an ideal choice for those with melasma, a common skin pigmentation disorder, because the light serum is especially effective at combating “increased pigment production, which usually occurs due to UV exposure,” according to Russak.
Best less-expensive vitamin C serum for mature skin
According to dermatologist Dr. Keira Barr, “ageing is unavoidable, but protecting your skin against environmental stressors that accelerate the ageing process is totally in your control.” Collagen, the most essential structural element in your skin, is what helps keep your complexion youthful and firm, she explains. While it naturally decreases with age, UV damage and air pollution “can accelerate its breakdown and interfere with production,” Barr explains. To “bolster mature skin’s protection against the elements,” she suggests “applying a topical vitamin C serum like Marie Veronique’s Vitamin C+E+Ferulic.” Its combination of vitamins C, E, and ferulic acid “work together synergistically to fight free radicals, DNA damage, and increase penetration into the skin cells,” Barr says, noting Marie Veronique’s serum has both L-ascorbic acid and THD ascorbic acid to effectively penetrate the skin. [Editor’s note: This price does not include shipping costs.]
Best vitamin C serum for dry skin
Dr. Rhonda Klein, the other half of Modern Dermatology of Connecticut and PURE BioDerm, suggests the Obagi Professional-C Serum if you’ve got dry skin, as it is formulated with hyaluronic acid to treat and prevent dryness. Its formula also includes 20 percent L-ascorbic acid — making it among the more potent serums on this list — which allows it “to penetrate deeply and provide antioxidant protection from UV damage while brightening areas of hyperpigmentation,” she says.
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