Choosing Best Vitamin Skin Serum

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If you’ve ever wondered why you should invest in a vitamin C serum, take it from Manhattan Beach–based, board-certified dermatologist Ashley Magovern. “The benefits of the topical application of vitamin C on the skin are well-studied and quite strong. In my opinion, everyone should be applying vitamin C to the skin as part of a daily regimen,” she says. “A good topical regimen is highly underrated; it can make a remarkable difference in the skin over time. My patients are often astounded by the difference they see in their skin with just adding a vitamin C serum.”

If you’ve ever wondered why you should invest in a vitamin C serum, take it from Manhattan Beach–based, board-certified dermatologist Ashley Magovern. “The benefits of the topical application of vitamin C on the skin are well-studied and quite strong. In my opinion, everyone should be applying vitamin C to the skin as part of a daily regimen,” she says. “A good topical regimen is highly underrated; it can make a remarkable difference in the skin over time. My patients are often astounded by the difference they see in their skin with just adding a vitamin C serum.”

The Benefits of a Vitamin C Serum

Vitamin C is essential for many cellular and skin functions, according to Dr. Magovern, including collagen synthesis, maintaining skin strength and integrity, wound healing and free radical and UV protection. “Vitamin C is a potent antioxidant that is naturally and normally found in the skin in high concentrations,” she explains. “As an antioxidant, it oxidizes (neutralizes) free radicals in the skin. Free radicals, which are formed from things like the sun, pollution, stress and smoking, damage the DNA of the cell, which can lead to premature aging and skin cancer. Vitamin C also boosts collagen production and reverses cell damage, which helps keep the skin firmer and younger, and even helps fade and prevent brown spots and pigmentation.”

How to Choose the Best Vitamin C Serum

As essential as vitamin C is to your skin care diet, not all vitamin C serums are created equal. According to Dr. Magovern, there are four main factors you need to consider when looking for a vitamin C serum:

Form of Vitamin C. Vitamin C comes in different forms—L-ascorbic acid, tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate, ascorbyl palmitate and sodium ascorbyl phosphate, among others—but not all of them are equal in terms of stability and absorption rate. “As with all active ingredients in skin care and critical with vitamin C, it is essential that it is well formulated and has good bioavailability and penetration,” explains Dr. Magovern. “In other words, it is able to get to where it needs to go and do what it’s supposed to do. Most serums on the market contain vitamin C in the form of L-ascorbic acid, but some experts prefer the ester form, called tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate, which they believe can be more effective.”

Concentration. Concentration is basically the strength of the acid, explains Dr. Magovern. “A concentration of at least 10% L-ascorbic acid is recommended; however, you will find some products on the market that offer 15 or 20%. The concentration is important, but the best vitamin C serums combine other antioxidants and boosters like vitamin E and ferulic acid, which probably adds more value than just increasing the concentration alone.”

Formulation. While vitamin C alone has proven benefits, studies show that combining it with equally potent ingredients can heighten its efficacy. Dr. Magovern explains: “There is a great deal of evidence showing that combining vitamin C with vitamin E and ferulic acid makes for a much more potent antioxidant with added benefits. Vitamin E itself acts as an antioxidant and also enhances the function of vitamin C. It also helps to maintain the skin barrier. Ferulic acid enhances both vitamin C and vitamin E. Glutathione is another antioxidant that works synergistically with vitamin C and is one to keep your eye on. I think we will be hearing more and more about this one.”

Price. “A good formulation can be costly to make to ensure proper stability and bioavailability, two of the essential factors when creating a vitamin C product,” says Dr. Magovern. However, she also notes that the price of a product isn’t always an indication of quality. “Expensive doesn’t always mean better. Some of the most expensive products on the market may actually have an inferior formulation or may not have as much research to support the product. In the end, I would stick with good advice from dermatologists and other skin care experts when choosing products.”

How to Use a Vitamin C Serum for Best Results

There are different theories and ideas out there about how and when to use a vitamin C serum. Some experts believe that vitamin C should be applied at night in order to help skin repair itself while other sleep-restorative functions are taking place. Some believe that it should be applied during the day in order to help fight off free-radical damage as it accumulates through the day. For Dr. Magovern, it doesn’t matter much which time of day you apply it; what matters more is that you remember to use it.

As for how often? Dr. Magovern mentions that you may not need to use it every day. “The receptors for vitamin C get saturated and it may not need to be applied every day,” she says. “You may not get added benefit from daily application. I would recommend application at least every 48 to 72 hours.”

Something else of importance to note is how you store your bottles to ensure potency. “Keeping vitamin C bottles in a cool, dark place is best. You’ll notice that formulas containing L-ascorbic acid will (and should) come in a brown or amber bottle, which is important to maintain stability,” she explains. “If your serum starts to turn brown, it’s probably time to get a new one, and it should probably be replaced at least every six months. However, if you are using it properly and being compliant with your skin care regimen, your bottle shouldn’t last long.”

Precautions to Note

If you have sensitive skin and typically break out when trying a new product, you’d be happy to know that vitamin C is relatively safe for even the most sensitive skin, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t patch test your vitamin C just as you would any new product. “I am not aware of any harmful side effects to topical vitamin C, other than the occasional acne breakout or irritation that may come from a formulation that may not agree with your skin,” says Dr. Magovern. “If this happens, you could try another brand or formulation.”

Ready to boost your antioxidant intake? Here are 10 vitamin C serums that are actually worth every penny:

1. SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic

Aside from 15 percent pure L-ascorbic acid, this Dermstore bestseller also features vitamin E and ferulic acid, which makes this serum an antioxidant powerhouse, providing as much as 8x the skin’s natural protection! It has all the typical benefits of vitamin C—neutralizes free radicals, enhances collagen production and brightens complexion—plus, its super-concentrated formula makes it effective for up to 72 hours. That gives you more bang for your buck!

2. SkinMedica Vitamin C + E ComplexThis serum also combines the age-reversing, UV damage–fighting powers of two potent antioxidants: vitamins C and E. But what makes this serum special is its time-release delivery system, which releases the formula gradually so you get all-day protection from free radicals and premature aging.

3. Obagi Professional-C Serum 20%

Another shopper and dermatologist favorite! This serum offers the highest concentration of L-ascorbic acid and is said to deliver significantly better penetration into the epidermis and dermis than most vitamin C serums. And the fact that it’s from Obagi—a world-leader in professional skin care—makes it a no-brainer.

4. Sunday Riley C.E.O. Glow Vitamin C + Turmeric Face Oil

This brightening face oil features THD ascorbate, which is an extremely stable, oil-soluble form of vitamin C. But its beauty benefits don’t stop there. It also has golden turmeric (distilled fraction of turmeric oil), pomegranate seed oil, evening primrose oil and ginger root extract to even out your skin tone, replenish your skin’s moisture barrier and lend your complexion a healthy-looking glow.

5. Jan Marini C-ESTA Face Serum

This professional-strength anti-aging serum combines vitamin C with hyaluronic acid and other nourishing vitamins, which makes it soothing and compatible with a wide range of other skin care products like glycolic acid treatments and other topical medications.

6. Eminence Organic Skin Care Citrus & Kale Potent C+E Serum

Aside from vitamins C and E, this powerful serum features a delicious blend of organic superfoods—kale, broccoli sprout and spinach extracts—to nourish, repair and protect your skin. Think of it as a salad for your face!​

7. iS Clinical Pro-Heal Serum Advance Plus

If you’re struggling with acne, rosacea or just have sensitive or compromised skin, this vitamin C serum is designed for you. It offers iS Clinical’s highest levels of antioxidant protection against free radical damage, plus a blend of soothing botanicals such as olive leaf extract, zinc sulfate, kojic acid and vitamins E and A to calm inflamed or easily irritated skin.

8. Dermalogica BioLumin-C Serum

This highly-concentrated serum combines the power of vitamin C with other equally potent ingredients like peptides, hyaluronic acid and lactic acid to minimize the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles while hydrating and strengthening the skin. It’s also free of potential irritants like parabens and fragrances, making it safe to use on sensitive skin.

9. Paula’s Choice C15 Super Booster

Already have a favorite serum and don’t feel the need to add another to your routine? Not a problem. Boosters are designed to add active ingredients to and enhance the benefits of your favorite serum. What we love about this booster is that aside from vitamin C, it also has ferulic acid, peptides and vitamin E to up the level of protection your skin gets against free radical damage.

10. Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare C + Collagen Brighten & Firm Serum

This serum combines the power of vitamin C with a blend of amino acids and antioxidants to brighten skin tone, diminish visible signs of aging and protect skin from further environmental damage. It’s also infused with niacinamide to rebuild the skin’s protective barrier. Weightless and fast-absorbing, this formula diminshes the look of dark spots, unveiling a more even skin tone.

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