- Topical application of vitamin C reduces inflammation, lightens hyperpigmentation and repairs and protects acne-prone skin
- Serums are lightweight topical solutions with concentrated ingredients that are formulated to hydrate, protect and nourish skin
- Vitamin C serum is most effective when combined with other active agents such as vitamin E, ferulic acid or hyaluronic acid
Acne is the most common skin condition in the US, affecting 80% of the population at some point in life. It develops when excess sebum (oil), dead skin cells and Cutibacterium acnes become trapped within hair follicles to form unsightly lesions. Combination therapy using topical and oral medications are typically necessary to manage symptoms; vitamin C serum for acne is a potent skin care product that can also contribute to effectively treating acne.
Vitamin C serums are also known for their anti-aging effects. They can boost collagen production to strengthen thinning skin, brighten the complexion, soften the look of fine lines and wrinkles, protect skin from sunburn and lighten dark spots induced by UV rays.
How Do Vitamin C Serums Help Clear Up Acne?
Skin normally contains high concentrations of vitamin C. This vitamin plays a crucial role in skin health by stimulating collagen synthesis and providing antioxidant protection against UV-induced photodamage.
Vitamin C, or l-ascorbic acid, is the most abundant antioxidant in human skin. While the body is unable to synthesize this vitamin via oral supplementation, topical application is effective and has been demonstrated to produce several skin-enhancing benefits.
In people with inflammatory skin conditions such as acne, vitamin C status has been reported as compromised, with lower levels compared to unaffected individuals. This inflammation is associated with dryness, itching, irritation and pain; and a dysfunctional lipid barrier which is found in the stratum corneum, also known as the skin barrier.
A vitamin C serum is a concentrated, lightweight solution that is formulated to quickly absorb into skin. It has strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that work to target acne symptoms: it can reduce inflammation, accelerate wound healing, control sebum production and promote the synthesis of lipids in the skin barrier to strengthen and protect skin.
Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant; this molecule can effectively neutralize free radicals to protect skin from inflammation and damage.
Reactive oxygen species (ROS), a subset of free radicals, and reactive nitrogen species must exist in harmony otherwise free radicals overwhelm the body and lead to dysregulation and result in a condition known as oxidative stress. Data suggests that oxidative stress plays a key role in acne progress.
Vitamin C has been demonstrated to remove ROS. This vitamin’s antioxidant activity works to reduce inflammation, which in turn boosts the skin’s renewal response to help skin repair itself. This action reduces the redness and swelling that accompanies acne lesions and alleviates irritation and pain.
One study of a vitamin C derivative topical lotion produced significant improvements in subjects with acne due to its antioxidant effects.
Studies show that vitamin C levels are lower in individuals with skin inflammation and the lower the levels, the greater the severity.
This can be remedied with a vitamin C serum, as it is effectively absorbed through the top layers of skin to improve these levels and reduce acne symptoms. As an anti-inflammatory, it can work rapidly to reduce the redness and swelling that accompanies active outbreaks.
Vitamin C’s ability to act as an anti-inflammatory works to alleviate symptoms and prevent acne from forming. Reducing or preventing inflammation also has the effect of minimizing the risk of acne scars and hyperpigmented marks that are left behind once acne lesions heal.
As part of the wound-healing process, vitamin C contributes towards collagen synthesis, maturation and secretion.
Collagen and elastin are both proteins found in the skin; they increase suppleness and strength, plump up tissue and support skin health. While this is a sought after tool in an anti-aging strategy and for the reduction of acne scars, it does little to treat acne itself.
However, collagen provides many skin benefits to acne-prone skin by improving skin moisture, elasticity and hydration; and smoothing wrinkles and rough skin.
Once an inflamed acne lesion heals, it can leave behind a dark spot or mark that mars the skin. These marks are referred to as postinflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) and result from overproduction of melanin, the pigment responsible for skin’s color.
Vitamin C has been shown to inhibit melanin synthesis and is therefore classified as a depigmenting agent. In one study examining L-ascorbic acid and melasma (a skin condition that causes patches of discolored skin), a significant decrease in pigmentation was noted in patients along with an increase in their quality of life score.
A vitamin C serum can also protect the skin from the damaging effects of sun exposure, to prevent hyperpigmented spots called sunspots, liver spots and solar lentigines from developing.
What about acne scars?
Vitamin C can improve the appearance of mild-to-moderate acne scars by lightning hyperpigmented marks, and brightening and improving skin tone.
In one study combining microneedling with topical vitamin C, significant improvement was achieved in the treatment of post acne scars. Microneedling itself is an effective scar treatment, but combining it with a topical agent allows the agent to absorb deeper for enhanced results.
Lastly, vitamin C can help improve the appearance of atrophic (depressed) scars by repairing skin and promoting collagen production to build up tissue and minimize their appearance.
Can Vitamin C Serums Cause Acne?
No, vitamin C serums cannot cause acne, but they can aggravate sensitive skin and make acne symptoms worsen. L-ascorbic acid has a high acidity as well, which can be too harsh for some skin types. Some side effects include itching, redness and irritation.
Overapplying the serum or using a high concentration product can also exacerbate acne.
What to Look For in a Vitamin C Serum for Acne
It’s important to note that vitamin C is a weak, unstable acid and must be protected against light, air and heat. As well, it is poorly absorbed on its own as the lipids in the stratum corneum play a protective role by limiting its penetration.
Ensuring you use a serum with a pH of 3.5 or below will improve its stability and permeability.
In addition, the best vitamin C serum will include other active agents such as ferulic acid and vitamin E. These substances work synergistically to protect skin from oxidative stress and inflammation.
One study demonstrated that incorporating ferulic acid with vitamin C improved its stability and doubled photoprotection.
Hyaluronic acid is another smart choice as it can draw in and retain moisture to improve the skin barrier function which works to reduce redness and irritation.
When choosing a vitamin C for acne, also consider the following:
- Of all the active forms of vitamin C, L-ascorbic acid is the most potent and well studied
- Vitamin C serum can be found in concentrations of 8%–20%; consider your skin type when making a selection to avoid irritation
- For best results choose a product that indicates a pH of 2.5–3.5, as the stability and absorbency of vitamin C is dependent on this
DIY Vitamin C Serum
A homemade vitamin C serum is easy to make and is cost-effective; you can purchase the necessary ingredients in pharmacies and beauty stores or online. The following recipe will have a concentration of 15%.
- 1/2 cup distilled water
- 4 tsp L-ascorbic acid powder
- 4 tsp ferulic acid powder
- 1 tsp glycerin
- 1 tsp vitamin E oil
- Place the water in a blender
- Add all the ingredients
- Blend for just a few seconds
- Funnel into a bottle and shake well.
- Refrigerate for 2–3 hours
- Shake well before using
Store your serum in the fridge for up to 2 weeks; discard if it develops an odd color or odor.
How to Use a Vitamin C Serum
You can use vitamin C serum morning and night as part of a regular skin care routine. Apply it after cleansing and toning and before any other skin care products.
- Cleanse your face, ideally with a low pH cleanser to ensure maximum absorption of the serum
- Follow with a toner to clear any remaining residue; look for active ingredients such as salicylic acid or retinol which can help clear pores and prevent acne breakouts
- Pump a pea-sized amount of serum into the palms of your hands and pat and press the serum on your face; do not rub in
- Allow the serum to absorb into your skin before applying additional products; about 1 minute
- Follow with a quality moisturizer that is formulated for your skin type and condition
- In the morning, apply a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 before going outdoors; this will protect your skin from sun damage and worsening acne symptoms. For best results select a product that contains zinc oxide or niacinamide; both have anti-inflammatory properties to help alleviate redness and swelling resulting from acne lesions
When using a new product it’s advised to perform a patch test first, to ensure you are not allergic.
If you have sensitive skin, begin with a low concentration and use it just once a day to allow your skin to become accustomed to the product. If you see signs or irritation, discontinue use; you can also speak to your dermatologist for guidance.
The benefits of vitamin C products are many and have been proven through scientific studies. As such, they can play a key role in an effective skin care regimen.
Vitamin C is well established as an effective antioxidant and anti-inflammatory as it can target redness and swelling, and help repair and protect skin. When used in a serum, it is more potent as it absorbs quickly and effectively due to its lightweight concentrated solution.
This serum has strong anti-aging benefits: it can stimulate collagen production to strengthen and support the skin barrier, brighten the complexion, lighten hyperpigmented spots, control sebum production, soften the appearance of scars and protect against UV-induced damage.
All these benefits can help achieve healthier-looking skin and reduce acne severity.
When choosing your vitamin C serum, opt for one that has a pH of 2.5–3.5, and includes ferulic acid or vitamin C as this will provide you with the best results.
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