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Vitamin C Serums 101: Best Products, Benefits, Side Effects, and More

You reach for vitamin C when you feel a cold coming on, but did you know it can also deliver a smooth, glowing complexion? In recent years, vitamin C has become a holy-grail item for the skin-obsessed.

“Vitamin C is a hot topic, and it is buzzworthy, because it has so many preventive and maintenance benefits,” says Nazanin Saedi, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and a clinical associate professor at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia.

Here, we dive into everything you need to know about vitamin C serums, including why to use one, how to apply it, and what to watch out for.

What Is a Vitamin C Serum Exactly, and What’s in It?
A vitamin C serum is a skin-care product packed with vitamin C. It has the consistency of a liquid or gel, and is applied topically to the skin. You’ll find these serums wherever you normally purchase skin-care products — at department stores, beauty stores, and some drugstores, too. On the packaging, you’ll likely see words touting skin benefits like “firming,” “brightening,” and “collagen boosting.” People add vitamin C serum to their skin-care routines to tap into those benefits.

“The benefit of vitamin C is it’s an antioxidant, so it helps prevent the forming of free radicals, which go on to break down collagen and elastin,” Dr. Saedi says. The result, she says, is glowing, youthful skin.

What’s the Research Behind Vitamin C and Vitamin C Serums?
Nutritionally speaking, vitamin C is hugely important. It’s essential for growth and development, playing a role in forming and repairing body tissue, and it provides antioxidants that fight the free radicals that contribute to diseases like cancer, heart disease, and arthritis.right up arrow All fruits and vegetables contain some vitamin C, but you’ll source the most from produce like cantaloupes, oranges, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts.right up arrow
Vitamin C is naturally present in the skin, where it boosts collagen production and antioxidant levels. It may protect the skin against damage from UV light rays (especially when used alongside vitamin E).right up arrow Vitamin C also maintains the skin’s barrier, which keeps irritants out of your skin, and aids in water retention for proper skin hydration.right up arrow
Great, right? By now you may be thinking about how to increase vitamin C in your diet to reap these benefits. Unfortunately, simply eating more oranges and cantaloupe isn’t going to cut it. That’s because the epidermis, the outermost layer of the skin, doesn’t have blood vessels to send nutrients to the skin cells, research notes.

Vitamin C can, however, be applied topically — and that’s where vitamin C serums come in. “Vitamin C is best known for its ability to neutralize free radicals and improve aging skin,” says Joel Schlessinger, MD, a dermatologic surgeon in Omaha, Nebraska. “It can also improve collagen and elastin synthesis — which can improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles; help reduce inflammation, provide natural, mild exfoliation; and brighten skin.”

Research has shown the effectiveness of topical application. One study found that topical vitamin C increased collagen production among study participants in all age groups.right up arrow The study participants noticed the effects after 40 days of treatment, and found they were even more pronounced at the 60-day mark.
Topical vitamin C can also help with melasma and hyperpigmentation. According to past research, participants saw an average improvement of 73 percent in skin pigmentation after at least one month of applying vitamin C (along with a sunscreen and mandelic or malic acid) to the face.right up arrow