Vitamin C is a powerhouse skin-care ingredient that can reduce inflammation, fight free-radical damage, brighten skin, diminish fine lines and wrinkles, and reduce the appearance of discoloration and dark spots. But while vitamin C can be quite effective at curing a plethora of skin-care woes, “one should keep in mind that not all vitamin C is created equal,” according to Dr. Tara Rao of Schweiger Dermatology Group.
In fact, the seven dermatologists we spoke to all agreed that, because vitamin C is an unstable ingredient, finding properly formulated serums is paramount to reaping all the benefits of the antioxidant. Our experts generally recommend looking for serums that contain L-ascorbic acid — the most active form of vitamin C — and to store whichever one you buy away from sunlight to prevent oxidization. Below, their favorite vitamin C serums for every skin type.
Best overall vitamin C serum
Four of our dermatologists recommend Skinceuticals CE Ferulic, which they (and our editors) hail as the gold-standard vitamin C serum, and is suitable for all skin types. “I think it’s the best out there,” declares Dr. Kenneth Howe of the Wexler Dermatology Group. She says it has a light, non-greasy feel, while still delivering “the maximum amount of its actives to the skin.” It is expensive, but worth the price due to its super-stable, patented formula, according to our experts. That’s because L-ascorbic acid (which comprises 15 percent of this serum) is water soluble, and in less precisely formulated serums, won’t effectively penetrate skin. “A product must be formulated carefully to enable sufficient delivery to the skin,” Howe explains. Part of this serum’s patented formula includes a pH level higher than those of its competitors, meaning it won’t cause the redness and sensitivity that serums with lower pH can. As Dr. Julie Russak, founder of the Russak Dermatology Group, puts it, this serum can “deliver vitamin C through the top layer without disrupting the protective barrier of the skin.”
Whatever vitamin C serum you choose, Howe suggests applying it in the morning. “That way a reservoir of active vitamin C is present in the skin during the daylight hours, when ultraviolet radiation is strongest,” she explains.
Best affordable vitamin C serum
For a more budget-friendly option, Russak recommends Maelove Glow Maker. Created by MIT scientists, the antioxidant serum “contains a straightforward formula which has been proven to protect, hydrate, and nourish the skin.” In addition to skin brightening L-ascorbic and ferulic acids, the serum also has a soothing botanical blend of aloe, grape, magnolia, and orange peel to give the skin an added dose of nourishment. The formula is also designed to serve as a makeup primer, so there’s no need to worry about your products pilling under your foundation in the morning.
Best cruelty-free vitamin C serum
Another effective, affordable serum is Drunk Elephant’s Day Serum. Because it contains a similar formula to the Skinceuticals CE Ferulic, you get all the skin brightening benefits at “half the cost,” according to Dr. Noelani Gonzalez, a dermatology specialist at Mount Sinai Health System. But unlike Skinceuticals, Drunk Elephant’s serum is also cruelty-free. Its formula contains L-ascorbic acid, as well as pumpkin ferment extract and pomegranate enzyme, which attack dead surface skin cells and help to exfoliate, explains Dr. Deanne Mraz Robinson, co-founder of Modern Dermatology of Connecticut and skin-care company PURE BioDerm. Plus, the serum’s packaging is both airtight and completely opaque — things Gonzalez says you should look for when choosing a serum, because packaging like this helps to keep the vitamin C from exposure to water, light, or oxygen (all of which degrade it).
Best vitamin C serum for acne-prone skin
If you’re worried about your vitamin C degrading, Gonzalez also suggests trying a powdered version of it, like the one in this two-product set from Clinique, because vitamin C is more stable as a powder, and less likely to be degraded by light or oxygen. This set comes with a 10 percent L-ascorbic acid–infused powder cleanser that you combine with water and the included serum to create a mixture that can then can be added to whatever daily moisturizer you use. The Clinique serum also contains the common acne-fighting ingredient salicylic acid, so it’s “great for acne-prone skin,” says Gonzalez.
Best vitamin C serum for sensitive skin
Dermatologist Dr. Elizabeth Tanzi loves the PCA Skin C&E Advanced Serum, formulated with 20 percent L-ascorbic acid, because the lightweight serum can “easily integrate into a skin-care regimen” and doesn’t “cause irritation,” making it a safe bet if you’ve got sensitive skin.
Best vitamin C serum for oily skin
If you’ve got oily skin, Russak recommends trying this often-overlooked sister product of our best-overall serum. Its formula is similar to that of CE Ferulic and contains L-ascorbic acid and ferulic acid, but does not contain pore-clogging vitamin E, “making Phloretin CF the better choice for oily skin types.” Phloretin CF is also an ideal choice for those with melasma, a common skin pigmentation disorder, because the light serum is especially effective at combating “increased pigment production, which usually occurs due to UV exposure,” according to Russak.
Best vitamin C serum for mature skin
For mature skin, Russak actually suggests opting for this vitamin C lotion instead of a serum. Because mature skin tends to be drier, this will give it some much-needed moisture — in addition to “delivering a superior amount of vitamin C to the skin” to fight wrinkles and fine lines, she explains. Unlike the other products on this list that contain L-ascorbic acid, this one contains THD ascorbic acid, a fat-soluble form of vitamin C.
Best vitamin C serum for dry skin
Dr. Rhonda Klein, the other half of Modern Dermatology of Connecticut and PURE BioDerm, suggests the Obagi Professional-C Serum if you’ve got dry skin, as it is formulated with with hyaluronic acid to treat and prevent dryness. Its formula also includes 20 percent L-ascorbic acid — making it among the more potent serums on this list — which allows it “to penetrate deeply and provide antioxidant protection from UV damage while brightening areas of hyperpigmentation,” she says.
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