A good vitamin C serum can do wonders for your skin. Vitamin C is an antioxidant that can protect against UV damage. It’s a collagen booster that also diminishes the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. It can reduce the inflammation caused by acne, brighten dark spots caused by hyperpigmentation, and result in an overall brighter complexion. It truly is an all-rounder, but according to Dr. Tara Rao of Schweiger Dermatology Group, choosing the right vitamin C serum requires research — “not all vitamin C is created equal.” Disparity in quality between serums is in part due to vitamin C being an unstable ingredient, which means that not all serums are formulated to the ingredients’ needs.
So, to find the vitamin C products worth incorporating into your skin routine, we did some research. As well as asking experts about their essential criteria, we sleuthed skin-care studies to find out how best to stabilise vitamin C, and called in the opinions of reviewers who have tried each product, to find out how each serum feels. As each serum is formulated so differently, and everyone’s skin is different, we made sure to identify products suitable for a range of skin types — from the dry skin, to the acne-prone.
Before you read our list of the seven very best, one final note: If exposed to sunlight or an excess of air, vitamin C serums will oxidise, becoming unusable. Therefore it’s essential to store your serum somewhere dark and cool to ensure its longevity.
What we’re looking for:
Formulation: When we asked skin-care experts how to select the very best vitamin C serums, they told us to keep an eye out for ascorbic acid. Also known as L-ascorbic acid, this type of acid is the most active form of vitamin C. Serums can contain anywhere from a one percent to a twenty percent content of ascorbic acid, with higher percentages signifying a more potent serum. Ten percent is the minimum concentration to look for, however, anything above 20 percent reaches a point of diminishing returns (and can actually irritate the skin).
Packaging: Whilst storing vitamin C serum away from sunlight prevents oxidation, the serum’s packaging is paramount. Dr. Noelani Gonzalez, a dermatology specialist at Mount Sinai Health System, says keeping an eye out for airtight, opaque packaging will add to the longevity of your serum. Prevention of oxidation will also depend on how the serum is dispensed. For example, a pump with an airtight seal is far more effective storage than a pipette which allows in air.
Absorption: Dr. Kenneth Howe of the Wexler Dermatology Group says that the optimum time to apply vitamin C serum is first thing 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. However, some serums can feel greasy when applied, and leave a shiny residue on the surface of the skin. An inconvenience in itself, the problem becomes even worse in the morning if you have to head out, or apply makeup shortly after using your serum. We’ve especially looked for serums that absorb quickly, and those that feel smooth and velvety — rather than greasy — on the face.
Best overall vitamin C serum
20 percent L-ascorbic acid | Airtight pump | Fast-absorbing
“When I first used this, I even had strangers ask me what I was using,” says Rhea Cartwright, beauty journalist and founder of editorial platform @nahfemme. Cartwright explains that the serum is actually known as an “insider secret” dupe for the cult (five-times-more expensive) Skinceuticals serum.
Containing 20 percent L-ascorbic acid, the Timeless serum is remarkably potent. It also contains a supergroup of fellow active ingredients, which boost the efficacy of the serum. It contains vitamin E which — like vitamin C — is an antioxidant that can reduce UV damage, and protect against inflammation, and ferulic acid, another antioxidant which reduces signs of ageing. When all combined in a vitamin C serum, the ingredients promote a dramatically brighter complexion.
The Timeless serum is cruelty free, suitable for all skin types, and has a water-based texture, allowing it to permeate the skin easily. “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.” This new airtight storage is far superior at preventing the product from oxidising, and becoming unusable (crucially, the SkinCeuticals CE Ferulic serum doesn’t have this feature). Ultimately, the product is highly effective, stores well, and available at a great price, making it our best serum overall.
Best (more expensive) vitamin C serum
15 percent L-ascorbic acid | Pipette | Non-greasy
Four of the dermatologists that we spoke to, as well as a bunch of Strategist editors, hail SkinCeuticals as the gold-standard vitamin C serum. Howe says that the serum manages to deliver “the maximum amount of its active ingredients to the skin” yet retains a light, non-greasy feel. Strategist writer Tembe Denton-Hurst agrees. “It sits seamlessly underneath my other skin care and even layers well under makeup,” she says.
“It is expensive,” adds Denton-Hurst, “but worth the price due to its super-stable, patented formula.” The formula includes a 15 percent L-ascorbic acid content: at this level, the precisely formulated, water-soluble serum can effectively penetrate the skin. It also includes vitamin E, and ferulic acid, which reduce the visibility of wrinkles, and brighten the overall complexion. As some serums with a lower pH can cause redness or irritation, the high pH of this formulation is another splurge-worthy attraction. Dr. Julie Russak — founder of the Russak Dermatology Group, explains that the formula is so universally hailed as it can “deliver vitamin C through the top layer without disrupting the protective barrier of the skin.”
One downside: According to reviewers on LookFantastic, the serum’s packaging is not the best suited to prevent oxidation (particularly disappointing in light of the price tag). The bottle isn’t entirely opaque, and is accessed via a pipette, which isn’t airtight. This means that squeezing the cap on tight between uses, and storing it somewhere dark is important to avoid degradation.
If you have oily skin, Gonzalez recommends the often overlooked sister product of the Skinceuticals serum. It has a remarkably similar formula, but doesn’t contain pore-clogging vitamin E, “making Phloretin CF the better choice for oily skin types.”
Best cruelty-free vitamin C serum
15 percent L-ascorbic acid | Airtight bottle | Not suitable for oily skin
Another cruelty-free option comes from Drunk Elephant. With 15 percent L-Ascorbic acid, Ferulic acid, and one percent Vitamin E, it has a very similar formulation to the Skinceuticals serum, which means you reap all the same benefits at “half the cost” says Gonzalez. The serum also contains pumpkin-ferment extract and pomegranate enzyme, which Dr. Deanne Mraz Robinson (co-founder of Modern Dermatology) explains gently exfoliate away dead surface skin cells. Other ingredients include a hydrating sodium hyaluronate crosspolymer, and lipid restoring enzymes. Overall, it has a smoothing, calming effect on the skin.
As for packaging, the serum has optimum protection against oxidation in an opaque, airtight bottle. However, the Drunk Elephant serum has been known to absorb into the skin at a slower pace, and leave more of a tacky, sticky feeling on the face. Reviewers with oilier skin types particularly have found this to be a problem, and say it can make applying makeup over their serum tricky.
Best vitamin C serum from a Black-owned brand
20 percent L-ascorbic acid | Airtight pump | Matte
“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,” says Cartwright. The serum from Robinson’s brand, BeautyStat, has 20 percent L-ascorbic acid (one of the highest of this list) which Cartwright calls “the holy grail of vitamin C.” The formulation also includes “the most active compound of green tea, which is another powerhouse antioxidant,” explains Cartwright. The serum is well-protected against oxidation, packaged in an opaque bottle, which is accessed via an airtight pump. Reviewers say that the texture of the serum is grittier than more water-based serums, and have noted it leaves a notably matte finish on the skin.
Best vitamin C serum for acne-prone skin
15 percent L-ascorbic acid | Powder | Fast-absorbing
This vitamin C serum comes in a powder form, which according to Gonzalez is a more stable version of vitamin C, which is far less likely to degrade. The system, designed to be used over seven days, comes in the form of two 10 percent L-ascorbic acid-infused products; the first being a powder cleanser, the second a serum. To use the powder, it must first be combined with water, and then gently massaged into the skin. The second step applies as a normal serum, and is designed to be mixed with your daily moisturiser. As well as L-ascorbic acid, the products also contain salicylic acid, which is “great for acne-prone skin,” Gonzalez explains. Reviewers say that the serum works quickly to brighten their complexion, with many seeing a noticeable difference in as little as three days. As for feel, the serum absorbs as usual into the face with your existing moisturiser. There are two small complaints about the product, however. Firstly, some find that the product has an unpleasant, fake-tan like smell. Secondly, as the system needs to be repurchased ever seven days, it does generate quite a bit of plastic waste.
Best vitamin C serum for dry skin
20 percent L-ascorbic acid | Pipette | Fast-absorbing
Co-founder of Modern Dermatology Dr. Rhonda Klein recommends the Obagi vitamin C serum for those with dry skin. This is because it’s formulated with hyaluronic acid, a powerhouse humectant (a humectant is a deeply moisturising ingredient). It also contains a rather potent 20 percent L-ascorbic acid, which allows it “to penetrate deeply and provide antioxidant protection from UV damage while brightening areas of hyperpigmentation,” she says. Unfortunately, the bottle isn’t airtight, so keeping the lid screwed on tightly is essential to prevent degradation. Users say that the serum absorbs quickly, leaves no residue on the skin, and leaves dry patches notably smoother.
Best vitamin C serum for hyperpigmentation
15 percent L-ascorbic acid | Airtight pump | Non-greasy
Makeup artist Adeola Gboyega suggested Sunday Riley’s serum for those who want to treat their hyperpigmentation. “I have combination skin with an oily T-zone, but I don’t want to overly mattify my skin, so I love anything that gives my skin a glow,” explained Gboyega. “This serum is perfect. The texture is creamy yet lightweight and imparts a stunning radiance to my skin. I recommend this serum to all skin types and also to sensitive skins that don’t get on well with other vitamin C products, as this one has never irritated my skin. It’s a great well-rounded product that reduces pore size, tackles pigmentation and leaves the complexion radiant and glowing in a flash.” The serum comes in an opaque, airtight bottle, so though it’s expensive, it can be stored with no fear of degradation. A bonus — it comes as a mini too. In fact, several Space NK reviewers first discovered the product as a mini in a Space NK goodie bag, and were so hooked, they’ve gone on to incorporate it into their daily skin-care routine.
Some other vitamin C serums we’ve written about:
Rhea Cartwright, beauty journalist and founder of @nahfemme
Tembe Denton-Hurst, Strategist writer
Adeola Gboyega, makeup artist
Dr. Noelani Gonzalez, a dermatology specialist at Mount Sinai Health System
Dr. Kenneth Howe of the Wexler Dermatology Group
Dr. Rhonda Klein, Co-founder of Modern Dermatology
Dr. Tara Rao of Schweiger Dermatology Group
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