- Although vitamin C cannot cure acne, some of its properties can help to treat and prevent acne caused by inflammation and oxidative stress.
- Vitamin C, ingested or applied topically, can be used daily for any severity of acne.
- While prescribed acne treatments will provide the most effective relief, vitamin C can be a good alternative for those seeking a more natural treatment.
Vitamin C is one of the most important antioxidants found in the skin, along with vitamin E. While getting enough vitamin C in your diet is important for a healthy immune system, some people may not be consuming enough to gain its full effects, particularly those relating to skin health. A topical vitamin C can be beneficial as a supplementary source.
While the most well known causes of acne are excess sebum production and dead skin cells which can block pores, some studies have also found acne to occur as a result of oxidative stress.
Skin cells are constantly being affected by oxidant free radicals. Free radicals scavenge the body to seek out other electrons so they can become a pair, causing cell damage in the process. This is called oxidative stress, and it leads to inflammation of the skin that can cause or worsen acne.
Adding topical vitamin C, an antioxidant, to your skin can help combat and prevent acne by neutralizing these harmful oxidants.
How Can Vitamin C Treat Acne?
Vitamin C, whether in serums, creams or cleansers, can be applied topically to skin affected by acne. Vitamin C can positively affect acne outbreaks in several ways:
- Reduces inflammation by clearing skin of free radicals
- Reduces redness
- Prevents blackheads
- Helps improve skin tone through increased production of collagen
Vitamin C and Acne Severity
Vitamin C will offer varied benefits depending on the severity of the acne. A recent study developed an acne severity scale ranging from 0–5, described as follows:
|Clear||0||No lesions to barely noticeable ones; very few scattered comedones* and papules.†|
|Almost clear||1||Hardly visible from about 8 ft.; a few scattered comedones with a few small papules and very few pustules.‡|
|Mild||2||Easily recognizable; less than half of the affected area is affected. Many comedones, papules and pustules.|
|Moderate||3||More than half of the affected area is affected; numerous comedones, papules and pustules.|
|Severe||4||Entire area is affected. Covered with comedones, numerous papules and pustules, with a few nodules§ and cysts.|
|Very severe||5||Highly inflammatory acne affecting the entire area, with nodules|
- *Comedones consist mainly of blackheads and whiteheads
- †Papules are small, raised points of skin that are sometimes discolored
- ‡Pustules are small bumps on the skin that contain pus
- §Nodules are pimples that are larger and typically more painful than average
Those with highly inflammatory acne should see the most dramatic results when using topical vitamin C. Vitamin C’s anti-inflammatory properties will reduce the severity and redness of this type of acne.
Vitamin C is also effective in treating comedonal acne, specifically blackheads. By functioning as an antioxidant, vitamin C decreases the number of visible blackheads by reducing sebum oxidation (which causes the dark color of a blackhead).
The collagen-boosting properties of vitamin C helps repair damaged skin, increasing the speed at which acne lesions are repaired.
Types of Vitamin C
Topical vitamin C typically appears in its natural form as L-ascorbic acid (LAA), but there are other available forms.
One of the main differences between these forms of vitamin C is the pH value they require in order to stabilize. LAA is one of the most popular forms of vitamin C for skin health because it is effective in penetrating the skin; vitamin C only functions when it is inside the cells. However, LAA is also unstable, meaning it will begin to break down and lose efficacy in aqueous solutions.
This stability can be increased if the solution has a pH of less than 3.5, however, this is more acidic than human skin, which has a pH ranging from 4–7. The acidity, therefore, of these LAA formulations can be irritating for those with sensitive skin.
The derivatives of vitamin C that are available, including magnesium ascorbyl phosphate (MAP) and ascorbyl-6-palmitate, among others, are stable at a neutral pH of 7. This means they are less likely to irritate the skin, making them a good option for sensitive skin types.
Although there is little research available on these other forms of vitamin C, there are some studies. One study found that ascorbyl-6-palmitate was able to increase vitamin C content in skin cells; another found that MAP was able to provide similar benefits to LAA, such as reducing inflammation.
If LAA products are too harsh for your skin, you can consider using alternate types of vitamin C:
|Skin Type||Vitamin C Derivative|
|Sensitive||MAP or ascorbyl-6-palmitate|
|Oily, sensitive skin||Low-concentration LAA, MAP or ascorbyl-6-palmitate|
|Dry, sensitive skin||MAP or ascorbyl-6-palmitate|
How to Use Topical Vitamin C
Topical vitamin C is available in a variety of products and formulations. They are often found in water-based or oil-based serums, as well as in cleansers, moisturizing creams and sunscreens. You may use one or more products containing vitamin C in the same skin care routine, but be sure to note other potential active ingredients to avoid irritation.
For optimal absorption, apply your skin care products in order from thinnest to thickest consistency; serum first followed by moisturizer.
To apply a vitamin C serum, place a few drops on your fingers and gently pat on your face. Let the serum penetrate before continuing your skin care routine.
Vitamin C is safe for everyday use and may be used once or twice a day. You can even make your own homemade vitamin C serum from LAA.
What Is the Extent of Vitamin C’s Benefit for Acne?
Sodium ascorbyl phosphate (SAP), a precursor to vitamin C, has been shown to be effective in treating acne by acting both as an antioxidant and as an antimicrobial agent.
One study demonstrated the efficacy of 5% SAP cream used daily, with a majority of subjects showing significant improvement of their acne, with little to no side effects. In this study, 76.9% of patients ranked this cream’s efficacy as excellent or good, a higher ranking than a prescribed acne treatment of benzoyl peroxide. The results indicate that vitamin C is an effective acne treatment for a wide variety of patients.
Another study found sodium L-ascorbyl-2-phosphate (APS), a derivative of vitamin C, to be an effective acne treatment on its own, providing a statistically significant decrease of both inflammatory and noninflammatory acne lesions.
How Do I Know It’s Working?
When topical vitamin C is effective, you should see a reduction in both the incidence and severity of acne. This is because vitamin C can prevent acne as well as treat it.
Vitamin C does so in two ways. First, by preventing and reducing inflammation of the skin that leads to blocked pores and acne. Second, by acting as an antioxidant to reduce damage caused by free radicals that can lead to and worsen acne.
That said, vitamin C is not a replacement for medically-prescribed acne treatments. If you have moderate to severe acne, consult a dermatologist before beginning any skin care regimen.
Topical vitamin C can also help fade acne scars. It does so by increasing the production and quality of collagen in the skin, which is necessary for overall skin tone. It also works as a depigmenting agent to reduce dark spots and hyperpigmentation caused by scarring.
The most effective way that vitamin C can help minimize the look of acne scars, however, is during the process of scar formation. Application of vitamin C to the scar site will increase collagen formation and help ensure minimally visible scarring.
Vitamin C can be an effective treatment for improving and preventing acne. It can be effective in many forms, including LAA and SAP.
Vitamin C is generally safe to use, but those with sensitive skin should take into account the pH level of their vitamin C products, particularly if it includes vitamin C in the form of LAA.
Vitamin C’s most important acne fighting qualities are its efficacy as an antioxidant, its anti-inflammatory properties, and its ability to increase collagen production. These properties can help reduce the appearance and severity of acne and acne scars, but cannot heal them completely.
If you have moderate to severe acne, consult your dermatologist before beginning any skin care regime.
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