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Should You Use a Vitamin C Serum?

Kristin Hall, FNP

Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP

Written by Our Editorial Team

Last updated 5/12/2020

Finding the right skin care products is largely a matter of trial and error, both because everyone’s skin care needs can be different and because companies tend to make a lot of promises, promises you can’t always bank on. 

Serums and solutions containing vitamin C are just one group of such products — where slick marketing can make it difficult to know just how effective of a product you’re getting.

To get straight to the point: the science of skin care products is rarely as exciting as the promises. 

Most manufacturers won’t share the studies behind their products. The science just isn’t sexy. 

Rarely are the ingredients found in these products unequivocally proven to do anything. Generally, a handful of studies, designed flimsily and conducted on a small number of subjects (usually not in humans), are shown as proof. But it’s hardly that.

When it comes to vitamin C and your skin, there are some things we do know — many of them promising — but some we are only beginning to understand.

What’s certain: Your skin needs vitamin C to look it’s best, but it can generally get this from the foods you eat.

What’s uncertain: Whether adding vitamin C to your diet or to your skincare routine actually makes your skin healthier or look better. Let’s look at the details:  

What you need to know:

  • Vitamin C is essential to your health and because your body doesn’t produce it, you must obtain it through your diet or supplementation.

  • There is evidence vitamin C plays important roles in skin health — including in wound healing, hydration, and collagen production.

  • There is no hard proof that either vitamin C supplementation or topical application can improve skin condition or reduce the signs of aging in men with healthy levels of vitamin C.

  • Evidence suggests the dermatologic benefits seen from vitamin C supplements and applications are found in those who are vitamin C deficient.

  • You could be deficient — it’s estimated seven percent of the U.S. population is, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

What is Vitamin C

You may know vitamin C as the stuff in citrus fruits or a good go-to when you feel the onset of a cold, but vitamin C is found in many foods and is crucial in many of your body’s functions.

Your body requires vitamin C to form things like muscle, collagen, cartilage and blood vessels. You know, important stuff should you value movement, that skin bag you walk around in and, well, life. 

It’s a powerful antioxidant, which means it protects your body against damage by pollutants and the sun.

Your body does not make vitamin C, so you must get it through your diet or supplementation

It’s found in dark green and cruciferous vegetables like spinach, broccoli, cabbage and Brussels sprouts. You can also find it in high concentrations in citrus fruits, peppers, tomatoes, berries and potatoes.

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Vitamin C and Skin Health

As with most human tissues, the skin contains high levels of vitamin C. It arrives there through the bloodstream. When blood levels of vitamin C are low, as in the case of deficiency, skin levels are likely to be low as well.

Vitamin C is believed to perform several roles in your skin, including:

  • Acting as an antioxidant to limit the damage caused by the sun’s rays. However, this does not mean vitamin C acts as a sunscreen. Instead, it helps protect the skin against damage by free radicals triggered by UV rays.

  • Regulating synthesis of collagen, a protein that gives your skin strength and elasticity. Collagen production declines with age and skin damage.

  • Maintaining hydration. Some evidence suggests vitamin C protects against moisture loss, wrinkling and other signs of aging are directly related to loss of moisture in the skin.

Various factors can reduce your skin’s vitamin C content, including aging, sun damage and exposure to pollutants like smoking.

The Evidence

  • A 2017 analysis in the journal Nutrients looks at existing literature on vitamin C in skin health. In particular, the researchers compare research on dietary vitamin C versus topical vitamin C. They found that supplementing can increase the levels of vitamin C in the blood and positively affect vitamin C in the skin, but only to a certain extent. “Dietary supplementation is therefore only expected to be effective in elevating vitamin C in individuals who have below saturation plasma levels prior to intervention,” the researchers wrote. In other words, only those people who are vitamin C deficient will see positive effects on their skin by supplementing with the vitamin.

  • The same Nutrients paper looked at research regarding topical application of vitamin C and found a few observations worth noting. First, the researchers say, vitamin C can only be absorbed by the skin in the form of ascorbic acid (just one of the many types of vitamin C), according to existing studies. And that isn’t enough — the ascorbic acid formula must be stable enough to resist oxidation (damage from oxygen) and still overcome challenges of skin penetration. Further, the researchers wrote, “if plasma (blood) levels are saturated, then it appears that topical application does not increase vitamin C content.”

  • 2015 study published in the journal, Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology found applying topical vitamin C serum resulted in a thicker epidermis through collagen synthesis. Participants applied 1mL of a five percent vitamin C solution once per day. In the study group of 60 caucasian women, the most dramatic results were seen in those between the ages of 20 and 35, and after a full 60 days of treatment. Though the women in the study did abstain from using additional anti-aging products, they did apply a basic moisturizer daily.

  • 2002 study published in the journal Dermatological Surgery had subjects apply a vitamin C gel to one side of their face, and a placebo to the other. After 12 weeks, a statistically significant improvement was seen in wrinkling on the vitamin C side of the face. However, it’s also worth noting the double-blind study included only 10 subjects, which isn’t exactly an ideal sample size.

  • Significant research has indicated vitamin C supplementation and/or topical application can have positive effects on wound healing. Inflammation and collagen production at wound sites are affected by vitamin C, both orally and topically. However, as with other vitamin C research, just how dramatic these effects are may be related to a person’s vitamin C intake to begin with.

Are You Getting Enough?

There’s a chance you’re not getting enough vitamin C in your diet or you have other factors that make you predisposed to deficiency.

People with certain types of cancer or digestive problems may be more prone to deficiency. Also, those with severe burns or injuries, thyroid conditions or smokers may have lower vitamin C levels.

It’s recommended men get 90 milligrams of the vitamin each day through diet or supplementation. 

For men with poor diets, deficiency is not uncommon. The 2003-2004 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found seven percent of Americans are vitamin C deficient and even more lack sufficient levels of the vitamin.

Signs of vitamin C deficiency — known as scurvy in extreme cases — include:

  • Weakness

  • Irritability

  • Weight loss

  • Bleeding gums

  • Infections

  • Poor wound healing

  • Bruising

  • Joint pain

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The Bottomline on Vitamin C for Skin Care

Vitamin C plays many important roles in your skin’s health, including keeping it looking young.

Vitamin C serum may assist in locking in hydration and reducing wrinkles through increased collagen.

However — and this is a big one — there is little evidence that topical or supplemental vitamin C will have any positive dermatologic effects on the skin of someone who has adequate vitamin C.

Could you be deficient in vitamin C? It’s certainly not outside the realm of possibility. Many people are.

If you have reason to suspect you don’t have enough vitamin C, you could try supplementation and/or topical vitamin C to help bolster your skin’s health.

However, if you have signs of severe deficiency, you need to see a healthcare professional.

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment. Learn more about our editorial standards here.