Don’t Make This Mistake When You Buy Vitamin C Serums

Dr. Janet Zand

August 23, 2019

You’ve probably heard of the skincare superstar vitamin C by now. But you may not know exactly what to look for in a vitamin C product. Getting it in the right form and with the right partners can make a big difference in how well it performs. And if you choose the wrong packaging, you could end up with a product that’s broken down before it ever makes it to your face.

One of the main reasons vitamin C boosts health, whether you’re fighting a cold or fighting aging, is that it’s a powerful antioxidant. Oxidative stress contributes to fine lines and wrinkles by breaking down collagen and can create discoloration. By neutralizing the threat of free radicals, vitamin C can prevent and even reverse skin aging. If you don’t have wrinkles yet, vitamin C can help you avoid them in the future. Since we all encounter oxidative stress, just about everyone can benefit from adding vitamin C to their routine.

Even Superstars Benefit From Having Teammates

You’ll neutralize free radicals even more effectively if you have a variety of antioxidants attacking them at once. Green tea, vitamin E, and ferulic acid are great choices. Having a wide range of antioxidants offers broader protection to your skin.

In fact, combining these antioxidants can actually boost the efficacy of the vitamin C. Think of it like a salad. Sure, eating a bowl of spinach would be good for you. But you get a wider variety of nutrients and benefits if you toss in some other chopped veggies and make a salad. And sometimes, the vitamins or minerals in one food can unlock the benefits of another. You’ll absorb more iron from spinach, for example, if you combine it with – you guessed it – vitamin C.

Vitamin C can even help keep free radicals from forming in the skin in the first place. That’s because it provides protection from UV radiation. As you know, the sun is a major source of oxidative stress and aging. Vitamin C provides protection from both UVA and UBA rays. Vitamin C will even help you recover from a sunburn (though I hope that’s a rare experience). People report that it offers relief from the burning, itching, and stinging. Plus, it reduces redness – including redness from angry, burned skin. Vitamin C isn’t a substitute for sunscreen. But it can actually help sunscreen work more effectively.

Vitamin C is not a barrier, like zinc and various other sunscreens, for example. But vitamin C does slow the rate of damage to your skin. By applying vitamin C serum and then your sunscreen, you reduce the likelihood of a sunburn and you protect your skin from environmental damage.

Since UV rays and pollution are the two biggest contributors to skin damage, we certainly don’t want to spend time purposefully laying out in the sun. But becoming a recluse isn’t an option either. Your skin’s job is to block out pollution and other harmful particles from the environment, but all this effort will take a toll on the skin if you force it to work too hard. Vitamin C can help shoulder some of the workload.

Keeping the Skin Tight and Healthy

You’ll also be protecting and rebuilding your collagen. Many people don’t realize that the skin needs vitamin C in order to make collagen. And collagen keeps your skin firm and smooth. Collagen breakdown leads to saggy, dull skin. Your skin can use the vitamin C from your diet to build collagen (if you’re eating enough). But applying it topically gives it a direct infusion to use. Vitamin C will not only protect you from the oxidative stress that breaks collagen down, it will actually help you make more of it.

Advanced glycation end products (AGEs) also contribute to collagen breakdown. AGEs often form in the skin when we consume too much sugar. Vitamin C can help fight their effects if you apply it topically. Of course, switching from having a sugary treat as a pick-me-up to a piece of fruit rich in vitamin C can help as well.

Vitamin C can help improve the tone and color of your skin too. It can brighten under-eye circles and reduce the inflammation that promotes skin redness, dullness, and other discoloration. It can help fade brown spots. And because it supports the immune system, it can speed up the skin’s healing process. That means you’ll say good-bye to pimples, scars, and other blemishes more quickly. And if you suffer an injury, vitamin C’s healing effects will help you look your best again as quickly as possible and minimize future scarring.

Vitamin C Even Moisturizes the Skin

Once again, it’s typically not a substitute for other products. Generally, I recommend using a day moisturizer and night moisturizer on top of your vitamin C serum. If your skin is oily, you may want to forego a moisturizer if your vitamin C product contains an ingredient that will hold moisture, such as hyaluronic acid (such as Système 41). But it can help relieve dryness and flakiness, allowing your skin to lock in moisture for hours. You can look for vitamin C products that contain hydrating ingredients such as hyaluronic acid as well. Some products even allow you to add drops of vitamin C to your favorite moisturizer. And there is one situation in which I recommend vitamin C alone rather than in combination with a moisturizer: treating blackheads.

Contrary to popular assumption, these small black dots aren’t the result of dirt lodging in your pores. So scrubbing your face won’t help avoid or get rid of them. Nor will extracting the gunk keep them from returning, satisfying though it may be to do so.

To get rid of blackheads, you have to know what they are. Blackheads are actually the result of oil or sebum from our sebaceous glands clogging the pores. But, in contrast to a whitehead, clogged pores that become blackheads stay open. This exposes the skin cells and sebum to air, triggering the oxidation process that turns them black. Vitamin C helps stop the oxidation process in its tracks, preventing sebum or skin cells that have accumulated in the pores from darkening.

When you apply vitamin C serum, whether to blackhead-prone or any other type of skin, it’s best to do so after you wash your face but before you apply any other moisturizer. If you use a toner, serum goes after toner. Give it a few minutes to absorb before you apply another product. Use it sparingly around your eyes or not at all – depending on sensitivity — a little goes a long way here.

The Right Vitamin C Product

Look for a vitamin C product that’s concentrated to give you the most bang for your buck. That’s why I usually recommend a serum. It’s easier to concentrate vitamin C in serum form than in a lotion or cream. And look for a product that contains pure vitamin C in the form of l-ascorbic acid. It’s ok if the product also includes other forms, such as ascorbyl glucoside and tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate. Using different forms allows products to stagger the release of the protection. But you do want to make sure you’re mainly getting l-ascorbic acid.

Most products that contain pure vitamin C range in concentration from about 7% to 25%. If you have sensitive skin or have just had a peel, you might want something on the lower end. Otherwise, most people tolerate even the higher amounts quite well.

Finally, make sure your vitamin C is on your face before you start exposing this antioxidant to oxidative stress. Vitamin C will start breaking down when exposed to light. So make sure you look for a thoughtfully packaged product, such as the Système 41 Vitamin C Serum. Dark bottles are a good choice, and Système 41 uses a cutting edge glass called Miron that’s not only beautiful, but it protects the vitamin C from oxidation.

Of course, it’s still a good idea to store it in a cool, dark place. Your bathroom counter probably isn’t your best bet. A nearby closet might be a better choice – or under the cabinet – as long as you’ll still remember to include the product in your routine. If you notice that the serum is becoming discolored or turning brown, the vitamin C is breaking down.

Storing vitamin C away from your other products might feel like an inconvenience at first. But keep up with its high-maintenance requirements, and you might start feeling like a diva yourself once you see how great it helps your skin look.

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