Vitamin C has always had an excellent reputation for strengthening the immune system. How many times have you been told to eat citrus fruits and drink lots of orange juice during cold season? It is one of the most commonly recommend supplements, and is found in many forms: liquids, capsules, chewable tablets, powders that turn into fizzy drinks, etc. It’s also important to get enough Vitamin C for healthy skin. This is why it is is one of the most commonly used and recommended ingredients in topical skincare products, for a wide variety of skin benefits.
Does Vitamin C really live up to all the hype?
Yes and no. When consumed internally from food sources (think citrus fruits berries, cruficerous greens, kiwi), or from high quality, bioavailable supplements, Vitamin C has numerous benefits for the entire body, including the skin.
However, there are some concerns with Vitamin C in skincare products.
Here are just a few of the skin and health benefits of internally consumed Vitamin C:
- It increases the white blood cell count. White blood cells, or leukocytes, are the body?s strongest armor against invaders.
- It inhibits the formation of an inflammatory chemical called arachidonic acid. This chemical has been linked to psoriasis, and also can accelerate the aging process of the skin.
- It is an antioxidant that combats and neutralizes free radicals in the body.
- It helps maintain metabolism by assisting in the conversion of fat to energy.
- Vitamin C is required for collagen production. Collagen is found in the entire body. It is responsible for keeping our muscles, bones, joints, and tissue intact and functioning properly. Collagen also comprises 70% of the dermis, which is the live layer of the skin. Collagen depletion is responsible for many of the visible signs of aging.
- It helps the brain create neurotransmitters that keep us thinking and communicating clearly.
- Got Scars? Vitamin C also helps support the wound healing process, and minimize the appearance of scarring.
Concerns with Vitamin C in skincare
Applying topical Vitamin C for healthy skin is considered a gold standard skincare practice. It is one of the most common topical skincare ingredients for its antioxidant, nourishing, and skin brightening properties, not all forms of Vitamin C are created equal. The important thing to know about topical Vitamin C is that it needs to be in the correct form to be able to penetrate into the deeper layers of the epidermis.
The most common form of Vitamin C comes in the form of ascorbic acid.
This form is very beneficial to the body when taken internally, as this is its naturally occurring form in foods. However, there are several reasons why it is not ideal for topical application.
- It is water soluble, and the skin’s natural barrier is largely composed of lipids (oils). Water soluble ingredients cannot penetrate through the barrier layer unless they are specially formulated with penetration enhancers (which can also cause undesirable ingredients to penetrate), which increases the cost.
- It is highly acidic, which can inflame and irritate the skin–especially when used daily, over time.
- It breaks down and oxidizes quickly, which means it not only loses its effectiveness very quickly, but it also becomes highly unstable on the skin, which causes inflammation and introduces free radicals.
Vitamin C Ester (ascorbyl palmitate), however, is more desirable for topical application than ascorbic acid.
According to the bestselling book The Wrinkle Cure*, by Nicholas Perricone, MD, Vitamin C Ester has been known to reduce irritation and inflammation, and treat conditions such as sunburn and psoriasis. It also stimulates growth of the cells that form collagen and elastin in the skin. This is crucial for any skincare regimen, because with regular use, it will help minimize the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, and give sagging skin a firmer, more toned look.
- It is oil soluble which means it can penetrate the skin’s barrier layer more efficiently.
- It is not acidic, which means it is non-irritant and actually has an anti-inflammatory effect
- It does not break down or oxidize quickly, so its benefits last much longer than L-ascorbic acid–it’s more of a sustained release ingredient.
The new kids on the topical Vitamin C block
Magnesium Ascorbyl Phosphate (MAP)
Magnesium ascorbyl phosphate (MAP) is one of the newer synthetic forms of Vitamin C used in topical skincare. It is preferred by many aestheticians and skincare formulators for many reasons, including:
- It has a low risk of oxidizing and breaking down in the water in your skin, unlike what happens with ascorbic acid.
It’s also found to be a more stable form of Vitamin C than others when exposed to heat, air and sun light.
- Its antioxidant properties were shown to improve acne, and reduce certain visible signs of aging such as fine lines, superficial wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, and uneven skin texture.
- It’s considered a stable precursor to Vitamin C (unlike Vitamin A, Vitamin C does not have any botanical precursors) better absorbed than most other forms of vitamin C because it is lipid soluble.
Tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate (THDA)
Tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate (THDA) is another new synthetic form of Vitamin C in topical skincare. It is technically a modified form of vitamin C that’s more stable and less irritating than typical formulations in cosmetic products.
It’s unique in that it can be composed of different fatty acid esters which allow the formulation to have a thinner consistency that retains its stability while making it more gentle on skin.
Tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate is considered an excellent indirect antioxidant because it can reduce metal-induced oxidative damage to lipids by preventing lipid peroxidation before reacting with them.
Its ability to penetrate into the deeper layers of the epidermis means there is little chance for irritation or photosensitization.
What if you don’t want synthetic forms of Vitamin C or its derivatives in your skincare?
The good news is that many flowers, herbs, fruits and vegetables are naturally rich in Vitamin C. While it might not be feasible to add actual pureed or juiced fruits and veggies to your skincare formulation, you certainly can incorporate them into your at-home DIY face masks and smoothie masks.
If you are a skincare formulator, you can make your own infusions, glycerites, or extracts from plants that are high in Vitamin C such as hibiscus, rose petals, rose hips, and berries. High quality hydrosols also naturally contain ascorbic acid, and make wonderfully aromatic and therapeutic skincare ingredients.
Though ascorbic acid is unstable and inflammatory on its own, in its synthetic form, or when isolated from the whole plant as a concentrated extract, when it’s accompanied by the other water soluble phytonutrients that come from the plant in the extract, it is a lot gentler on the skin. It is still water soluble, so penetration will be limited, but there are ways around this in formulation. That’s something you can learn about in my Create Your Skincare Pro online course, by the way.
I highly recommend integrating Vitamin C for healthy skin.
Eat lots of foods that naturally contain ascorbic acid, such as citrus, pineapples, kiwis, and strawberries. Drink rose hip and hibiscus tea. Take high quality supplements of both Vitamin C Ester and ascorbic acid.
Choose skincare products that contain high quality and stable forms of Vitamin C such as those mentioned above, NOT ascorbic acid (and no, it doesn’t matter if it’s chirally correct). Or, choose herbal skincare products made with natural botanical extracts of flowers, herbs, fruits, and vegetables that are high in naturally occurring Vitamin C. I really think you will see a difference in your skin and experience an improvement in how you feel.
What are your favorite ways to get your Vitamin C for healthy skin?
Please share in the comments below!
*Source: Perricone MD, Nicholas. The Wrinkle Cure. New York, NY: Warner Books, 2000. Affiliate disclaimer.