L-ascorbic acid, sodium ascorbyl, retinyl ascorbate, ascorbyl palmitate… All of these are what the Queen of Skincare, vitamin C, checks into her hotels as. Vitamin C has long been known as the fighter of the common cold and as a general immune system booster, but it is only in more recent years that skincare products are being loaded up with it. In the world of skincare, it is perhaps the most powerful, naturally-sourced, anti-ageing ingredient out there.
Vitamin C is beneficial for skin health on two levels: when taken orally and when applied directly to the skin – there aren’t many ingredients that can claim that! In this article, I’m focusing on the topical aspect of vitamin C but I promise to come back and discuss the benefits of ingesting vitamin C for the skin in future.
Why apply vitamin C topically?
Well, why does it work when applied topically? When applied to the skin, it works with the skin’s natural defences. Vitamin C is an antioxidant, a beauty buzzword often thrown around but not sufficiently explained. Antioxidants fight the good fight against something called “free radicals”. Although their name makes them sound calm, cool and collected, they are anything but and they can speed up the skin’s ageing process by breaking down its collagen, leading to the formation of wrinkles and making the skin saggy.
Free radicals are inescapable as they are the result of many extrinsic factors, such as the sun and pollution. However, when we introduce vitamin C to the skin, seeing as it is a potent antioxidant, it helps to protect the skin from this type of damage by neutralising the free radicals.
So vitamin C can greatly reduce the visible signs of ageing in the skin, so long as it is used preventatively… right?! Well, vitamin C is an anti-ageing wonder as it not only works to fight against the causes of accelerated skin ageing but it can also help to reduce the appearance of the damage already done. Vitamin C is phenomenal at boosting the levels of collagen created within the skin, both in younger skin and mature skin – this has been clinically proven! Knowing this, it feels like a shame that vitamin C occurs naturally in fruit but not in hoomans… oranges ALREADY have orange peel skin….
Outside of dullness and sagging, another mark of mature skin is pigmentation. Pigmentation occurs for so many reasons throughout one’s life, and without treatment, it can accumulate, leaving the skin covered in marks. Pigmentation is caused by tyrosinase, which is an enzyme, not a type of dinosaur. Tyrosinase plays a role in the formation of melanin, AKA pigment. Vitamin C can inhibit tyrosinase from making melanin, thus stopping pigmentation in its tracks.
Vitamin C also has anti-inflammatory properties, meaning that it can bring down redness like no other. Because of this, I often recommend products containing vitamin C to those with rosacea. Some studies have even proven that topical usage of vitamin C can be beneficial to acne and can prevent post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, the tell tale red and brown marks left behind even when a spot big enough to have a name (Fraaank, for example) is long gone.
If I haven’t sold you on topical vitamin C already, it is photoprotective, functioning as a natural SPF. Bear in mind that it cannot replace an SPF, which you should be wearing every day without fail, but works as an extra, backup layer of protection.
What should I look for in vitamin C skincare products?
Does adding vitamin C to your skincare routine mean cracking open a capsule you’ve bought in the supermarket and rubbing it all over your face? Unfortunately not. In the vitamin C hierarchy, l-ascorbic acid comes out on top always, but it is only at its most effective within ten days of opening it so often it is beneficial to opt for high quantities of vitamin C rather than l-ascorbic acid. If there is a lot of it, it’ll be higher up on the list of ingredients rather than down the bottom.
What you are looking for in a vitamin C product, outside of the amount of vitamin C, is its potency. Dermalogica’s MAP-15 Regenerator (€97.00) is a concentrated product that contains a form of vitamin C called magnesium ascorbyl phosphate (MAP). This is one of the mack daddy’s of vitamin C as it is stable, which means that it will not cause a reaction on the skin like completely raw vitamin C can, and increases skin’s hydration levels as well as providing all of the fabulous qualities of vitamin C listed above. Dermalogica pair MAP with hyaluronic acid, which, as you know, instantly plumps up the skin and shoots hydration straight into it, as well as white tea, another potent antioxidant. All of these ingredients make the MAP-15 Regenerator a phenomenal anti-ageing concentrate to include in one’s routine.
Another incredibly potent vitamin C product would be Skinceuticals CE Ferulic Serum (€150.00). Now, this product contains 15% l-ascorbic acid, the absolute purest vitamin C out there, which justifies the notably heftier price tag. As I said earlier on, when it comes to l-ascorbic acid, it is most effective within ten days of opening it but when the original content is 15%, the drop in efficacy is minor compared to products that don’t include such a high amount of vitamin C in the first place. CE Ferulic also contains 1% alpha-tocopherol, otherwise known as pure vitamin E, which hurries along the cell regenerative process and improves the growth of new cells to keep the skin at its utmost level of health.
On the much more affordable side of the vitamin C product world is MooGoo’s Super Vitamin C Serum (€22.90). Yes, you read that correctly – €22.90. The form of vitamin C that it contains is ascorbyl tetraisopalmitate, an oil-soluble vitamin C ester. Why is it important that it is oil-soluble? It means that it can penetrate very deeply into the skin without causing irritation. This form of vitamin C can be used for a year and a half without the product oxidising (as long as it has been stored properly and kept sealed). This type of vitamin C makes up a quarter of the MooGoo serum… really… 25% of the product. The other 75% is made up of natural vitamin E and olive squalane. Squalane is a moisturising fat and anti-oxidant so it is another key to looking much younger than your years.
Let’s Talk Nerdie About Vitamin C Penetration
The absolute purest form of vitamin C that you will find, as I mentioned, is l-ascorbic acid. The reason that products containing l-ascorbic acid are often very expensive is because it must be thoroughly stabilised so that it can penetrate the skin. This is because l-ascorbic acid is hydrophilic, meaning it bonds better to water. However, the stratum corneum (the most outermost layer of the skin) is hydrophobic – it sounds like it means that the skin is afraid of water and that is nearly correct, as it means that the stratum corneum doesn’t allow water to pass through. So, l-ascorbic acid and the stratum corneum have different natures and skincare labs work relentlessly to make them work together, hence the costliness of some purer vitamin C products.
All forms of vitamin C lose their effectiveness when it is oxidised (AKA when air hits it), so keep all products containing vitamin C well-sealed after use.
Indian Dermatology Online, Vitamin C in dermatology, Pumori Saokar Telang, 2013 Apr – Jun, 4 (2), 143-146