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Vitamin C: Overrated, or the Secret to Brighter Skin?

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Vitamin C: Overrated, or the Secret to Brighter Skin?

This skin brightening ingredient gets a bad rap for causing irritation to sensitive skin types. But - there are many derivatives of Vitamin C that allow for significantly greater skin compatibility. If it's previously disagreed with your skin, now may well be the time to get back on board.

Gemma Watts

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Vitamin C gets a bit of a bad rap in the skincare community. 


Where potentially sensitising ingredients like retinol are lauded, with skincare devotees searching high and low for ways to make the ingredient work for their skin, those who find Vitamin C to be an irritant tend to discard it, shrugging their shoulders and looking for an alternative.


To each their own, however I love Vitamin C and will spruik it to anyone who will listen.


What I recently learned about Vitamin C is that it’s actually not Vitamin C as a whole that many people find irritating - it’s actually the specific form of Vitamin C. This was news to me, so I did a little digging.


As luck would have it, there are multiple different forms of Vitamin C, and the next generation of C-packed products have been formulated to suit even the most sensitive of skin types. If Vitamin C has previously disagreed with your skin, now may well be the time to get back on board.

What is Vitamin C and what does it do for the skin?


Vitamin C is an antioxidant. Antioxidants, including Vitamin C, help the skin renew and repair itself, making them essential for skin health. Antioxidants have the unique ability to help protect the skin’s surface from oxidative damage caused by “free radicals” and environmental stressors.


Free radical damage plays a major role in the skin’s visible ageing process, so Vitamin C is a powerful preventative ingredient when it comes to skin concerns like fine lines, wrinkles, dark spots and a loss of elasticity. 


Vitamin C is also essential in the body’s production (and maintenance) of collagen. As we age, our body’s natural collagen stores deplete, so the topical application of Vitamin C allows us to restimulate that process. 

One of the most popular benefits of Vitamin C (and the one most commonly touted in skincare marketing and packaging) is its ability to brighten the skin, making it a favourite ingredient amongst those who suffer from pigmentation or post-inflammatory erythema (like me!).


Vitamin C is often referred to as a “pigment blocker” or “tyrosinase inhibitor” for its ability to reduce the amount of melanin (melanin being what causes darkening of the skin) your body produces, hence its reputation as a skin brightening ingredient. 

Can sensitive skin types use Vitamin C?


Many people with an easily irritated skin type find that Vitamin C, unfortunately, flares up those irritations. That is because the vast majority of Vitamin C based topical skincare products use a form of pure Vitamin C called L-ascorbic acid which, by its very nature, is highly acidic.


It’s also a particularly difficult ingredient for formulators to stabilise - in order to make L-ascorbic acid water stable, it needs to be formulated at a low pH (low pH meaning highly acidic), which in turn makes it difficult for some more sensitive skins to tolerate. 


Fortunately, the potentially irritating side effects of Vitamin C really come down to its form. Where pure Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) can be difficult for formulators to stabilise and sensitive skin types to tolerate, there are many derivatives of Vitamin C that allow for significantly greater skin compatibility.

What are the different forms of Vitamin C?


Lauded as the “gold standard” of Vitamin C, THD ascorbate has become an increasingly popular form of the ingredient- particularly for those who find L-ascorbic acid difficult to tolerate. THD ascorbate is highly stable as well as being oil and fat soluble, with some research suggesting its fat-solubility makes it easier for the skin to absorb.


Where many other Vitamin C derivatives or forms aren’t anywhere near as potent as L-ascorbic acid (hence the popularity of L-ascorbic acid), THD ascorbate reportedly rivals its potency.


Ethyl ascorbic acid is another ascorbic acid derivative (pure vitamin C) becoming increasingly popular amongst cosmetic chemists as it is both water and oil soluble, meaning it has the ability to work on multiple levels of the skin.


It also requires a pH range higher than L-ascorbic acid for stability, meaning it isn’t as acidic, which allows for greater skin compatibility.

Choosing the right form of Vitamin C for your skin really does come down to your skin’s ability to tolerate the ingredient, which (unfortunately) does require a little bit of trial and error. Those with more sensitive skin may find THD ascorbate or ethyl ascorbic acid is a better fit for their routine.

Where does Vitamin C fit into your skincare routine?


You can find topical vitamin C in everything from cleansers to masks, however higher concentrations of the ingredient are most often found in serums and moisturisers.


Once you’ve found the perfect Vitamin C formula for your skin it’s actually surprisingly easy to work into your routine as there are so few rules.


Some people prefer to use vitamin C in the morning to protect their skin from free radical damage, where others prefer to use it in the evening to make the most of its ability to repair the skin and renew those collagen stores - if your chosen formula allows for it, you can even use it twice a day!


Can I use vitamin C and retinol at the same time?


A common vitamin C misconception is that it can’t be applied alongside a retinol.


This isn’t the case, and is a myth that comes back to skin tolerance - if you’re using the right product and derivative for your skin (and are applying sunscreen daily), there is no problem with applying vitamin C and retinol together.

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