Illustrated By Jihyang Lim.


The ABCs Of Vitamin C In Beauty

What you should know about the multifunctioning ingredient

Vitamin C comes in handy on days when winter seems to be hanging around for too long and your body doesn’t know how to respond. It’s also a wunderkind of sorts in the beauty space. Its benefits cover a lot of ground, including the fact that, since it’s an antioxidant, it helps defend the skin against free radicals (like pollution), stimulate collagen and stave off rapid aging, and has brightening components which can help with hyper-pigmentation. It’s a beauty powerhouse, really, and most people in the industry will attest to that.

Cosmetic chemist Ni’Kita Wilson says vitamin C is at the top of her list of favorite ingredients (yes, for beauty fiends, there is an ingredient hierarchy). “It's one that's tried and true, it's been studied over and over again for at least a decade,” she tells us. “And the results all point to it being very effective, so it's one of those old standbys where you can have many other new ingredients, but as long as I see vitamin C in some form, then I feel much more comfortable accepting the claims of the product.”

If vitamin C is such a dream, then, why do we even bother with other ingredients, right? Well, there’s a catch, as there usually is when things seem too good to be true. As Wilson explains, it’s highly unstable. “Once it's exposed to water, then it degrades really quickly. Once it's exposed to oxygen, it degrades very quickly. Once it's exposed to light, it degrades very quickly.” Its finicky nature makes it all the more important to figure out what, exactly, you should be looking for when it comes to vitamin C-driven beauty products.

For one, the packaging is key, explains Dr. Jeannette Graf, a dermatologist in New York City. “If you look at the current packaging of vitamin C products, it's opaque, it comes in an airless pump, or it's a spray… that's what's going to make the difference in terms of stability,” she explains. Not so good forms of packaging? Open jars. “The more air that gets in, the more it oxidizes, the less vitamin C you're getting."

Next, comes what type of vitamin C you should be using. This is where things get confusing. There are a ton of different forms out there (all of which you can read about in more detail here for those who didn’t fail chemistry), but the holy grail for beauty products tends to be ascorbic acid. That’s not to say other versions don’t work; this iteration simply has the best data to back it up.

When it comes to concentration, Wilson says you shouldn’t be swayed by a product that claims to have 20 percent to another product’s 10 percent, because there tend to be other factors at play. “It depends on what else is in the formula… If it's combined with other things, then I wouldn't say, just because it had a lower amount, it wouldn't be as effective as something with a higher amount,” she explains. “It's all about the combination and how it’s formulated.” Delivery also shouldn’t make or break a product, but both Dr. Graf and Wilson note that the powder form of vitamin C products, which are being re-introduced to the market, are promising.

True Botanicals is one of the beauty brands on the powder boat (Clinique and new-to-the-states Korean brand Vitabrid C12 are some others). Its Vitamin C Booster version comes in a dark opaque bottle with a tiny hole toward the top. It works as such: You use two to three shakes of the booster and mix it with your serum of choice, and then apply it to the face. Founder, Hillary Peterson, explains the brand’s preference for powder over liquid, stating: 

We thought, What if we just separate out the vitamin C, and fill it with ferulic acid? Because that helps to enhance the efficacy of vitamin C based on clinical studies. So, we keep it with the ferulic acid, and we take it out of liquid form, and only introduce the vitamin C to liquid at the moment of use. That way, you're going to maintain the potency at a level that you're not able to do when it's in a liquid form.

It’s true, powder formulations are a good protective form and are more stable, Wilson explains. But that doesn’t mean the products that come in serum or moisturizer form aren’t effective. In those cases, the vitamin C will just take slightly longer to work.

So, this leads us to who should be using the ingredient. The simple answer? Everyone. But Dr. Graf explains that the group who should really be taking advantage of its multifunctioning qualities is smokers. “Smoking eats up vitamin C like crazy. If you're not going to stop smoking, double up how much you're putting on and put it on twice a day. And if you do it with sunscreen, it's even better.”

In fact, it’s a good habit for everyone to use Vitamin C in tandem with their daily morning SPF application (you are applying SPF daily every morning, right??) as it’s going to add an extra layer of protection. But, when you apply is ultimately up to you and your skin’s needs: “Using vitamin C in the daytime helps the antioxidants, it helps the sunblock, and it helps discoloration,” Dr. Graf explains. “If you use it at night, it's going to help stimulate collagen production.”

Moral of the story: Doesn’t matter when you use it, just use it.