Is Topical Vitamin C Worth The Hype?

Most trendy skincare ingredients have their fifteen minutes of fame then fade out like the Bravo network reality star of the millisecond (yes, Patti Stenger may be gone, but the memory of her full-frontal bangs remains). Antioxidant vitamin C, on the other hand, has been used for centuries to maintain youthful skin and it’s pretty much everywhere you look these days, kind of like that darned Real Housewives franchise that’s never going away. And yes, it’s equally addictive.

That’s because vitamin C is one of the most essential and well-studied antioxidants currently available, proven to prevent accumulated damage and neutralize environmental assaults that can cause fine lines, wrinkles, discolorations and serious skin conditions. Vitamin C waves a proverbial fist at premature aging, cat-fighting harder than Brandi Glanville on an Andy Cohen-hosted reunion special to ward off rogue free radicals that constantly attack the skin. These free radicals include pollution, sun damage, cigarette smoke, even oxygen. Used topically and religiously, vitamin C also effectively helps fade acne scars and discoloration, produces collagen (which helps give skin its elasticity), reverses UV-related skin damage and boosts the overall effectiveness of your sunscreen. Perhaps most compelling of all, vitamin C prevents the consequences of long-term sun exposure, which can lead to life-threatening skin cancer.

We know what you’re thinking: that’s a lot for one ingredient to deliver, so there must be some kind of catch, right? Right. The tricky thing is not all vitamin C is created equal and some consumers have grown rightfully skeptical.

Dr. Sheldon Pinnell was first to establish and patent the first formulation parameters required for vitamin C absorption and efficacy in the skin. With the SkinCeuticals research team, he pioneered the advent of cosmeceuticals with the original topical vitamin C formula, consequently bringing to life some of our all-time favorite products, including C E Ferulic, Phloretin CF and Reservatrol B E. Pinnell’s parameters are now known as the three ‘Duke parameters,’ and they ensure the effective delivery of vitamin C in the skin:

1. Use pure l-ascorbic acid. Vitamin C derivatives don’t increase vitamin C levels in the skin.

2. Formulate it to an acidic pH. At a pH above 3.5, vitamin C doesn’t penetrate skin effectively.

3. Use a concentration between 10 and 20 percent. Anything outside this range does not provide beneficial levels of vitamin C.

We sat down with antioxidant authority SkinCeuticals, and the brand’s AVP of Global Education Nicole Simpson, to get the scoop on some other vital facts you need to know:

How will I know my vitamin C product is the real deal? 

There are many vitamin C products available on the market today, but clinical research published by SkinCeuticals founding scientist, Dr. Sheldon Pinnell, evaluated many forms of vitamin C, and has proven that only L-ascorbic acid, which is pure vitamin C, can penetrate skin and remain stable and bioavailable. SkinCeuticals only formulates with pure L-ascorbic acid.

“Also, pay extra attention to the packaging. All antioxidants, including vitamin C, are vulnerable to destabilizing when exposed to air and light, so unless it’s in a sealed, opaque and airtight container, don’t buy it!”

Can I take vitamin C orally and still get the same anti-aging effect as topical products? 

“While vitamin C is an important nutrient for overall health, little reaches the skin when orally ingested. Making things even more challenging, vitamin C is water-soluble. Consequently, a great deal of the vitamin C we ingest gets excreted rapidly. While oral supplementation with vitamin C is important for maintaining one’s overall health, it’s not that effective at increasing skin concentrations because its absorption is limited by active transport mechanisms in the gut. The most effective method for replenishing vitamin C in the skin is therefore to go straight to the source, and apply it directly. In fact, applying vitamin C to the skin is 20 times more effective than oral ingestion.”

What will happen if I rub juice from a lemon or orange directly onto my skin? 

SkinCeuticals has many years of expertise in formulating with vitamin C, and to get vitamin C into skin, it has to be pure l-ascorbic acid, within a specific concentration range (optimal is from 10-20 percent), and at an acidic pH. This is the reason using topical products are a better choice than rubbing the fruit directly on skin. With fruit, you won’t know if any vitamin C at all is coming into contact with skin, the concentration is unknown and other acids can be potentially irritating. It’s better to choose something highly targeted, clinically proven, safety tested and used by millions around the world.”

Does topical vitamin C increase sun sensitivity?

“No, in fact, it helps manage the effects of UV exposure in skin. When it comes to the sun, daily application of topical vitamin C is a non-negotiable.”

How have antioxidants changed since they were first used in cosmeceuticals? 

“Antioxidants used is cosmeceuticals were first put on the map by Dr. Pinnell, who dedicated his entire life to researching vitamin C, antioxidants, collagen and skin cancer. Once he defined the parameters for effective vitamin C formulations there was no looking back and SkinCeuticals vitamin C antioxidants were born. Since then, while almost every product on the market has an antioxidant ingredient inside, there’s still only a handful of proven antioxidants in skincare, including the ones we use, which are l-ascorbic acid, alpha tocopherol, resveratrol and ferulic acid. One of the most significant changes in cosmeceutical antioxidant formulations is actually the one we pioneered. We have clinically studied and proven that when you combine certain antioxidant ingredients in a formula, if they are the right ingredients, this synergistic combination will perform significantly stronger than each of the ingredients individually. For example, daily application of pure l-ascorbic acid and vitamin E will provide 4x skin’s natural environmental protection, but when l-ascorbic acid and vitamin E are combined with ferulic acid, it will provide 8x protection when exposed to the same conditions.”

Can I use vitamin C and other skin brighteners at the same time?

“This is best left to the physician’s discretion, as they are the ones closest to the user, however, as all SkinCeuticals products are clinical formulations with high potency ingredients, it’s not uncommon for patients who need additional skin correction to be using a SkinCeuticals vitamin C antioxidant, a SkinCeuticals pigment management product such as Advanced Pigment Corrector and even a topical prescription for skin brightening. As a brand, we encourage it. Since pure l-ascorbic acid is a critical component for long term skin health, we recommend applying first thing in the morning after cleansing, and allowing it to completely absorb into skin before applying other ingredients. Most users wait about three to five minutes between applying their SkinCeuticals antioxidants and other products.”

How should I best apply vitamin C products?

The best way is to apply it to dry skin in the morning, after cleansing. Once the serum is completely absorbed into your skin, you can follow with a moisturizer of choice (according to your skin type and skin needs), and a broad-spectrum sunscreen.  If you like to keep the morning steps minimal and easy, the bare minimum, non-negotiable best steps are applying vitamin C, followed by sunscreen.”

What products are the new standard in antioxidant technology? 

Formulating new standards in antioxidant technology is exceedingly difficult. First, you have to get the antioxidant ingredient into the formulation. Second, it has to remain stable in that formulation. Finally, it must be able to penetrate and be bioavailable in skin. Our most recent antioxidant launch, Resveratrol B E, is the best possible representative of the new standard in antioxidant technology. This is an antioxidant night concentrate to help repair and prevent accumulated damage and it’s the first time we see a proven antioxidant night formulation to help skin boost its own naturally occurring antioxidants, therefore maximizing the capacity for self-repair. It’s also the first time we see such a high concentration – 1 percent – of pure, stable resveratrol, the longevity molecule, in a cosmeceutical formulation.”

Written by: Stephanie Simons