Not all vitamin C serums are created equal. There are different forms of topical vitamin C and a lot of ambiguous information out there. So, what is the best vitamin C serum for your skin? I’ve invested a lot of time researching this topic and speaking to different product manufacturers. I will share what my research has uncovered and what products I’ve discovered as the best to incorporate a vitamin C serum into your skin care routine.
If you are using a vitamin C serum today and it does nothing for your skin, the formula may not be effective or stable. As a result, you aren’t reaping the benefits vitamin C has to offer. Many vitamin C products (Ok, let’s just be frank here – all the vitamin C products) promise to yield more radiant and even-toned skin. The problem is many formulations are flawed and consumers are unaware. You may not only find products are ineffective but due to challenges with stabilizing the active component of vitamin C, l-ascorbic acid, products could be harmful to your skin if a certain stage of oxidation sets in. It’s a frustrating thought that a product promising so much could be poorly formulated and irritate your skin or become something toxic to you. Plus, you’ve wasted money! However, with the right product and diligent care in how you handle it, using a vitamin C serum can be a serious game changer.
What does topical Vitamin C Serum do for your skin?
Vitamin C is naturally occurring in the skin of humans and there is clear information available from many sources that explains the role of this chemical in our bodies. Vitamin C is a potent antioxidant which helps prevent damage to your skin. There is also evidence that vitamin C plays a role in collagen production. Topical vitamin C is believed to help heal acne, prevent age spots, and decrease moisture loss. It also helps protect against UV radiation but it is not a sunscreen and shouldn’t be substituted for one.
Vitamin C regulates the synthesis of collagen and it does this by hydroxylating collagen which makes it more stable and improves the way it supports the epidermis. Ok, let’s simplify that one! Think of it as a substance that attaches itself to collagen to reduce damage and make it stronger. This allows the collagen to better support skin which means less wrinkles. Vitamin C is also known to even out the skin tone by reducing the production and oxidation of melanin. This is not all that vitamin C is known to do within our body but a good enough overview to know what to expect from using it and how powerful it is.
In general, vitamin C is believed to keep your skin looking younger for longer. In my experience, vitamin C has led to a more even skin tone and increased radiance. Results have been dramatic since I began using a top quality C serum and I will never go a day without it. You can read more about my experience when I started using vitamin C here.
Different forms of vitamin C in skin care
There are seven or eight different forms of vitamin C used in skin products. It’s important you know which type is in a product in order to evaluate the efficacy of the product. The active form of vitamin C is l-ascorbic acid. The important thing to note here is l-ascorbic acid is not a derivative of Vitamin C. It is the pure form and I’m just going to refer to it as ascorbic acid going forward. All the other forms of vitamin C used in skin care are derivatives of the pure form and there’s nothing wrong with that.
I have chosen a vitamin C serum with ascorbic acid because this is the substance that has been studied the most. Could a derivative prove to be better at some point in time? Sure, but there isn’t strong enough evidence today to convince me that this is the case. There are quite a few products on the market that I have using derivatives of vitamin C that I believe are beneficial to my skin. However, I don’t believe they perform better than serums with ascorbic acid. Many years of research have gone into the use of ascorbic acid in skin care. We can be 100% confident of the variables that result in the best absorption, stability, and efficacy. Any derivative of vitamin C must be converted on your skin to ascorbic acid to be absorbed. Also, not all vitamin C derivatives have been proven to yield the same results as ascorbic acid. So, which product is best and what sacrifices are made when choosing one over another? I don’t know there is a definitive answer to that question. Therefore, I stick with the ascorbic acid which is proven to deliver the maximum benefits.
Every company will tout their formula is the best and refrain from sharing weaknesses within their formulations. Claims are made about vitamin C derivatives that simply don’t have enough scientific evidence to back them up. What may lead to a less effective product varies depending on the form of vitamin C being used. Many variables come into play during the manufacturing process, how it is packaged, carrier agents, exposure to light, additional ingredients added, how it is stored, and how you consume it. All these things affect the performance of the product. Ascorbic acid is very difficult to keep stable. Products with the pure form of vitamin C will have ascorbic acid or l-ascorbic acid on the label.
What is scientifically proven to result in the best performance of a serum with ascorbic acid?
If you have been using a C serum and not seeing results, it likely because the product doesn’t have an effective delivery system (various additives used to ensure your skin can absorb it) and/or the pH level is too high. A formula must contain a certain amount of ascorbic acid to be effective. That is documented as 10% – 20%. Another factor that must be considered is the ph level of the formula. For ascorbic acid to be absorbed, the ph level must be less than 3.5 and in a water based solution (or a crystallized form that we rarely see). If the pH is higher than 3.5, your skin cannot absorb the Vitamin C.
Many serums on the shelves have a pH level that is too high rendering them ineffective. Manufacturers also add coloring to hide potential oxidation. Different forms of vitamin C have optimal pH ranges. With ascorbic acid to be effective, the ph range must be between 2.0 – 3.5. A product with a pH of 3.0 vs 3.4 makes a significant difference in how well it can perform. Once you exceed 3.5, your skin cannot absorb the ascorbic acid.
Scientists are actively working to create derivatives of ascorbic acid that are stable and confirmed to deliver all the benefits of the pure form. We aren’t going to get into the discussion of all the different derivatives here but rather focus on the most stable and effective serums using the pure form of vitamin C with no color or fragrance additives. What I’ve found is many companies will not share the pH level of their product and that’s a red flag. If they have managed to produce a vitamin C serum using ascorbic acid at a pH level low enough to be effective, they are going to share that information. When I’ve reached out to companies, I am often told the information is not available. Without that information, you don’t know what you are getting. That’s when I cross the product off my list.
Tips to ensure stability of your serum when you get it home
- Minimize the amount of time you allow your serum to be exposed to air. If it has a dropper, put it back in the jar as quickly as possible and keep the lid tight.
- Use the product within 6 months of opening it.
- Refrigeration is not necessary and those I have spoken to do not recommend it.
- Store the product in a cool, dark place. Do not leave it on a vanity allowing light exposure.
- As batches are produced, the color may vary from clear to pale amber. A pale amber serum doesn’t mean it has oxidized. However, check with the company if you are concerned about the color.
- Call the companies if you have questions about using your product in combination with others from different product lines. Some products have ingredients that are not compatible with ascorbic acid and you could be losing efficacy. Go to the source for information. These companies have customer service teams with product experts who can answer very specific questions.
The best vitamin C serums
#1 SkinCeuticals – C E Ferulic Serum The gold standard vitamin C serum with ascorbic acid
Ingredients: aqua / water / eau, ethoxydiglycol, ascorbic acid, glycerin, propylene glycol, laureth-23, phenoxyethanol, tocopherol (Vitamin E), triethanolamine, ferulic acid, panthenol, sodium hyaluronate
At this time, SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic (serum) is the best product on the market. It comes with a higher price of approximately $160 / fluid ounce but is well worth it. C E Ferulic is a vitamin C serum formulated under the Duke Antioxidant patent. The Duke Antioxidant patent describes effective delivery of vitamin C to skin and protects the formulation used in SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic. C E Ferulic features a combination of 15% pure vitamin C (L-ascorbic acid), 1% vitamin E (alpha tocopherol), and 0.5% ferulic acid. The remainder of the ingredients are primarily carrier agents that ensure the antioxidants can be absorbed by your skin.
The Duke Antioxidant patent was the brilliant work of Dr. Sheldon R. Pinnell, the founding scientist of SkinCeuticals. He was a distinguished scholar and expert of antioxidant use in skin care. A total of ten patents were obtained by Dr. Pinnell over the years that protect formulations in SkinCeuticals antioxidant products. SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic serum has pH between 2.5 – 3.0 and typically comes in on the lower end. Each batch produced can vary slightly but they can produce the product with the lowest pH. No other company can produce a product with a better delivery system and a pH lower than what SkinCeuticals can do. There is no question when it comes to antioxidants and skin care, SkinCeuticals is the gold standard. With their patents, they currently hold the master key. This is the best vitamin C serum available with many years of conclusive research to back up the claim.
#2 Cosmetic Skin Solutions – Vitamin C+E Serum The next best option if SkinCeuticals is out of your price range
Ingredients: Water/Aqua/Eau, L-Ascorbic Acid, Propylene Glycol, Ethoxydiglcol, Butylene Glycol, Laureth-23, Zinc Sulfate, Glycerol, Alpha Tocopherol (Vitamin E), Triethanolamine, Ferulic Acid, Phenoxyethanol, D-Panthenol, Hyaluronic Acid.
The Cosmetic Skin Care Solutions C & E with ferulic acid contains a combination of 15% ascorbic acid, 1% vitamin, and 0.5% ferulic acid. This is similar to SkinCeuticals with regards to active ingredients. The inactive ingredients in the formula are primarily carrier agents to ensure absorption and adjust pH values but you can see the formulation varies in that regard. The pH of all their topical vitamin C antioxidant serums is low ranging between 2.8 – 3.0. At approximately $40 / fluid ounce, this is an excellent option. The company has a great customer service team prepared to answer questions about all their products and how to best incorporate them into a healthy skin care regimen.
#3 Drunk Elephant – C-Firma Day Serum Another good option for a Vitamin C serum with ascorbic acid with some reservations
Ingredients: Water/Aqua/Eau, Ethoxydiglycol, Ascorbic Acid, Glycerin, Laureth-23, Lactobacillus/Pumpkin Ferment Extract, Sclerocarya Birrea Seed Oil, Ferulic Acid, Sodium Hyaluronate, Chondrus Crispus Extract, Camellia Sinensis Leaf Extract, Lactobacillus/Punica Granatum Fruit Ferment Extract, Glycyrrhiza Glabra (Licorice) Root Extract, Vitis Vinifera (Grape) Juice Extract, Phyllanthus Emblica Fruit Extract, Hydrolyzed Wheat Protein, Tocopherol, Caprylhydroxamic Acid, Acetyl Glucosamine, Hydrolyzed Quinoa, Glutamylamidoethyl Imidazole, Dipotassium Glycyrrhizate, Tetrahydrodiferuloylmethane, Tetrahydrodemethoxydiferuloylmethane, Tetrahydrobisdemethoxydiferuloylmethane, Sodium Hyaluronate Crosspolymer, Glycine, Sucrose, Maltodextrin, Propanediol, Caprylyl Glycol, Sodium Hydroxide, Xanthan gum, Hydroxyethyl Acrylate/Sodium Acryloyldimethyl Taurate Copolymer, Isohexadecane, Polysorbate 60
Drunk Elephant is a newer skin care line and they have produced a vitamin C serum with ascorbic acid. Their C-Firma Day Serum contains an ascorbic acid concentration of 15% and also contains ferulic and vitamin E in the same percentage as Cosmetic Skin Solutions and SkinCeuticals. The product retails at approximately $80 / fluid ounce.
Drunk Elephant has included additional antioxidants, nutrients, and other ingredients to benefit the skin and help eliminate dead skin surface cells. Their formula has a pH level of 3.3 – 3.5 which falls within the range of effectiveness for the delivery of ascorbic acid. My only concern with this formula and why I rank it third is because it is on the cusp of what is documented to ensure ascorbic acid can be absorbed. With a pH of 3.3 – 3.5, there is big difference in performance relative to SkinCeuticals and Cosmetic Skin Solutions. Also, while the addition of more antioxidants and nutrients in the formula, there is not enough evidence to determine if those ingredients may cause the ascorbic acid absorption to be negatively affected. Sometimes less is more. The years of research by Dr. Sheldon Pinnell didn’t test how these additional products may or may not affect the efficacy of the star ingredient.
While there are many good vitamin C serums on the market, products using vitamin C derivatives do not have the same research to back up their claims. In addition, the extensive research performed over the course of 30 years incorporated combinations of specific antioxidants. The best product available is SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic and due to their patented antioxidant formulations, they have what is scientifically proven to be the most effective antioxidant formulas on the market. With the information companies are willing to provide, I’ve shared what I believe are the next best options to consider if SkinCeuticals is not within your budget.
Over the course of he last year, it wasn’t until I began using C E Ferulic from SkinCeuticals that I noticed a major difference with my skin. With other products I used, I never saw a difference. It wasn’t until I used SkinCeuticals that everything changed.
I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic and if this information was helpful to you. Please leave me a comment below.