Vitamin C: skincare’s new wonder ingredient

Game-changing research has unleashed the power of vitamin C in a wave of new skincare products. Beatrice Aidin reports. Main photograph by Luis Monteiro

Image: Luis Monteiro

With every skincare company researching and developing the latest “miracle” formula, it may come as a surprise to learn that an old-timer is cementing a formidable reputation in the beauty hall of fame. Now, it seems, nothing touches vitamin C in terms of plumping, lifting and protection. It increases collagen production, in turn intensifying volume to lift skin and minimise fine lines and wrinkles. It’s a champion brightener – tackling dark spots, pigmentation and dull skin. Vitamin C also reduces inflammation and serves as a potent antioxidant, protecting against environmental damage caused by free radicals. The good news doesn’t stop there: it may also help protect skin from precancerous changes from UV-light exposure due to its ability to neutralise free radicals.

“Vitamin C is the miracle ingredient,” says Dr Joel Rubin, senior vice president of DCL (Dermatologic Cosmetics Laboratory) skincare. “It’s a fibroblast proliferator that produces collagen in the dermis, which firms the skin, while also protecting existing collagen by acting as a strong antioxidant. It is the most flawless active ingredient I know.”

Mintel reported that 23 per cent of the vitamin C skincare products on the market were launched last year, a hike of 26 per cent since 2013. And according to Pretty Analytics, a trend insight company, 283,000 skincare videos posted on YouTube featured vitamin C, a 189 per cent increase between 2016 and 2017. Pinterest has also reported a rise of 3,380 per cent in saves for “vitamin C serum” in the last year.

Yet vitamin C as a beauty booster is not new. Practitioners in Ayurvedic medicine, according to Abida Halsentenberg, founder of Samaya Ayurveda Skincare, have known this for generations. “In India, my great-great-grandmother would have kilos of Indian gooseberry – amla – juiced as a beauty supplement, because it contains 20 times the vitamin C of an orange. I include organic amla in all Samaya skincare supplements.”

From left: Clinique Fresh Pressed 7 Day with Pure Vitamin C 10%, £25. Dr Dennis Gross C + Collagen Brighten & Firm Vitamin C Serum, £79. Carita Les Précis 10% Vitamin C, £49.50. Paula’s Choice Resist C15 Super Booster, £45. Eve Lom Radiance Face Oil, £60
From left: Clinique Fresh Pressed 7 Day with Pure Vitamin C 10%, £25. Dr Dennis Gross C + Collagen Brighten & Firm Vitamin C Serum, £79. Carita Les Précis 10% Vitamin C, £49.50. Paula’s Choice Resist C15 Super Booster, £45. Eve Lom Radiance Face Oil, £60

But historically, vitamin C has been hard to deliver as an active ingredient because it is rendered inactive when exposed to light and air. That changed early this century when the late Dr Sheldon Pinnell, SkinCeuticals’ leading scientist, developed a patent called A Stable Solution of L-Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C) and, in 2005, launched SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic (£135), a serum with 15 per cent L-ascorbic acid vitamin C. To this day, it is the brand’s bestseller. Vitamin C serums followed from cosmeceutical doctors Perricone, Sebagh and Murad.

But what has brought on this next generation of vitamin C-based skincare? “Vitamin C is an incredible anti-ageing ingredient,” says Dr Maryam Zamani of MZ Skin. “We now have many more studies and multiple trials to discover how vitamin C performs and at what concentration levels. There are many different vehicles for delivering the actives and formulations are much more stable than they were.”

In a highly competitive industry, how skincare companies achieve this remains a closely guarded secret. There are also various types of vitamin C formulations (including L-ascorbic acid, sodium ascorbyl phosphate, ascorbyl tetraisopalmitate and retinyl ascorbate) and the choice used is a hotly contested issue.

Lixirskin founder Dr Colette Haydon has created Vitamin C Paste (£32) with 10 per cent L-ascorbic acid. “The L is important because it is much purer and more effective. It’s an expensive L, three times more expensive than ascorbic acid, but it’s the real McCoy.” 

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Dr Des Fernandes, Environ skincare founder, disagrees, claiming, “Ascorbyl tetraisopalmitate is a fat‑soluble form of vitamin C, which is more stable than L-ascorbic acid and can be used in much higher concentrations. It penetrates the skin more easily than L-ascorbic acid and is anti-inflammatory.” 

The base of a vitamin C product is also a crucial component: Dr Rubin maintains it needs to be anhydrous (free of water) or otherwise its efficacy will be compromised. “Vitamin C has been known to ionise in water,” says Dr Rubin. “The pH changes immediately and the activity starts to degrade.” Other brands claim to have cracked the code and have formulations that contain water, such as Vichy’s LiftActiv Vitamin C Brightening Skin Corrector (£28). 

The percentage of vitamin C included in formulations is also up for debate. Dr Zamani explains her selection criteria when formulating her MZ Skin Brighten & Perfect 10% Vitamin C Corrective Serum (£245). “I chose ascorbic tetraisopalmitate at 10 per cent, which isn’t the strongest, but I was looking for a good efficacy combined with a luxurious experience.” Hitting the spot for NeoStrata’s Exuviance AF Vitamin C20 Serum Capsules (£59) is 20 per cent L-ascorbic acid. “We chose 20 per cent because it’s the maximum level that can be absorbed into skin,” says Marisa Dufort, director of product development and ingredient innovation at NeoStrata.

Dr Rubin, however, strongly disputes this claim, championing a 30 per cent concentration of L-ascorbic acid in his DCL C Scape High Potency Night Booster 30 (£108). “The fact that we were able to get this percentage into a product simply means it is more effective.” 

From left: Exuviance AF Vitamin C20 Serum Capsules, £59. Lixirskin Vitamin C Paste, £32. Dermatologic Cosmetic Laboratories (DCL) C Scape High Potency Night Booster 30, £108. Oilixia Australian Kakadu Plum Gummy Facial Cleanser, £24
From left: Exuviance AF Vitamin C20 Serum Capsules, £59. Lixirskin Vitamin C Paste, £32. Dermatologic Cosmetic Laboratories (DCL) C Scape High Potency Night Booster 30, £108. Oilixia Australian Kakadu Plum Gummy Facial Cleanser, £24

“Despite the differences of opinion among skincare experts, what’s important to remember is that any percentage of vitamin C will benefit the skin,” says Paula Begoun, creator of Paula’s Choice Resist C15 Super Booster (£45), which contains 15 per cent. “And just as different foods containing vitamin C are all good for you, one type of vitamin C isn’t better than others.” 

For the most part, active vitamin C is derived from fruits and vegetables synthesised in laboratories. The latest botanical sources include schisandra red berry extract found in Lancôme Rénergie Multi‑Glow (£64) and kakadu plum found in both Oilixia Australian Gummy Facial Cleanser (£24) and Jurlique Radiance Renewal 28 Day Programme (£60). “Kakadu plum is trending right now,” says Anna-Marie Solowij, CEO and co-founder of BeautyMart. “It has the highest recorded levels of natural vitamin C.”

As for when to apply, Dr Haydon says she developed Lixirskin Vitamin C Paste as a two-minute morning mask. “Vitamin C has a magical ability to reduce the ‘urban-grey’ appearance which comes from the skin’s dead cells of oxidised sebum and proteins.”

Others advocate after-dark application. “For years, consumers have been taught to use vitamin C during the day as it increases radiance to the skin,” says Dr Rubin. “But, in my opinion, it’s more effective at night because then the skin is able to load up on all its benefits without sacrificing any effectiveness from exposure to UV.” Designed as a night cream, his DCL C Scape High Potency claims to brighten, tighten and reduce the appearance of dark spots. 

From left: Lancôme Rénergie Multi-Glow Cream, £64. Sunday Riley CEO C + E antiOXIDANT Protect + Repair Moisturiser, £60
From left: Lancôme Rénergie Multi-Glow Cream, £64. Sunday Riley CEO C + E antiOXIDANT Protect + Repair Moisturiser, £60

Whatever time of day you prefer, there’s plenty of vitamin C-charged serums, oils and moisturisers to choose from. Space NK’s biggest skincare launch of last year was facialist Sunday Riley’s CEO C + E antiOXIDANT Protect + Repair Moisturiser (£60) and Rapid Flash Serum (£70), while Dr Dennis Gross’s C + Collagen skincare collection (from £39) featured within its top 10 skincare launches. Clinique is also enjoying impressive sales of the Fresh Pressed 7 Day System with Pure Vitamin C (£25), a week-long, two-step boot camp for dull and lined skin. The powder cleanser followed by a booster of 10 per cent vitamin C is so successful, according to Dr Tom Mammone, executive director of skin physiology and pharmacology, “we’re currently working on a 25 per cent version”.

Carita’s new Les Précis skincare boosters (£49.50) include a 10 per cent vitamin C serum that can be applied beneath or over make-up, while SkinDoc Formula’s Day Watch (£120), by plastic surgeon Dr Dirk Kremer, has 20 per cent vitamin C. Launched this March, Elemis’ Superfood skincare range sources the ingredient from broccoli and avocado for its gel Facial Wash (£25); and Eve Lom Radiance Face Oil (£60) is enriched with vitamin C.

Vitamin C is now making a move into other realms of the beauty business. British hair supremo Daniel Galvin has developed an in-salon Detox Miracle Solution Treatment (£17) that he says removes pollutants and product build-up with one hefty dose of vitamin C. “The natural pH of vitamin C allows it to enter the cuticle. It identifies anything that isn’t part of the hair’s natural make-up and gently removes it, while simultaneously closing the cuticle.” And Guerlain is leading the way in terms of synergising vitamin C into make-up. The brand infused the ingredient within its summer collection of six Terracotta bronzers (£37) and Terracotta Rêve d’Eté tinted bronzing gel (£34).

As for the future of beauty and skincare, vitamin C is not going away. “It’s the perfect ingredient,” says Dr Rubin. “Now, how often do you hear a cosmetic scientist say that?”

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