My deepest apologies, newsletter peeps, that the holidays and travel and my utter inability to look away from this shit show has caused a delay in my reading from the Gospel of St. Vitamin C. But I’m gonna TRY now to tell you about one of my favorite skin things and why, if you’re looking to go beyond the basics, then personally I think vitamin C is a great place to start.
As ever, I will just blurt everything I think might be useful. Please don’t hope for any, like, concise expression or elegant structure. It’s beyond me right now. (Also I just scrolled back up here to say: it turned out kinda long, sorry, feel free to skip to the good parts!)
Why You Want It
First let me say that the more melanin you have, the more dramatic your results are likely to be. That’s not to say that my fellow ghost-adjacent citizens will not benefit greatly (hello, I already said it’s one of my favorite things!) but more melanin usually means a greater tendency towards hyperpigmentation and uneven skin tone. And Vitamin C is really good at fixing those things.
So yeah, the number one thing it’s great for is taking care of patches of unwanted pigmentation. This includes:
PIH (which stands for post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation - which means pimples leaving dark spots for months after healing)
general sun damage (some call them age spots, because some are fuckin rude)
melasma (aka The Mask Of Pregnancy which is ALSO rude since it’s not caused by pregnancy but by tidal waves of hormones in general)
genetic dark spots, like around the eyes (because your genes dgaf about your aesthetic preferences, sorry.)
Topical Vitamin C just helps the extra pigment fade. In some cases it can totally disappear a dark spot forever, but in other cases it might just lighten the darkness by several shades.
WARNING: THIS MEANS THAT IT MIGHT MAKE YOUR FRECKLES DISAPPEAR. If you like your freckles (I love your freckles!) then please be aware of this potential. It won’t definitely happen - personally, I have a cluster of freckles I’ve been trying to make disappear for over a year now and it’s just not happening despite daily treatment with some hardcore Vitamin C product. And if it does make your freckles fade, it’s extremely likely those freckles will come back after you stopped applying the Vitamin C. So there’s no need for panic in the streets, just consider yourself an educated consumer, you’re welcome.
But aside from correction the whole Uneven Distribution Of Melanin thing, Vitamin C is responsible for the good kinda shine. Remember how I said that after using AHAs, my skin looked, like, polished? Well that was temporary - about 2-3 days after my biweekly AHA treatment, I’d get a couple of days of dazzling, blinding, Saul-falling-off-his-donkey beams of ethereal light shooting outta my face. I mean, obviously I exaggerate a bit, but honestly it was like my skin acquired natural highlighter. I’d schedule things around that little 2-day window of Holy Shit skin, cramming any event where I might be photographed or run into an ex or be glimpsed by my nemesis into those fleeting hours where my skin looked like it had been buffed by the world’s most exacting butler.
So okay, listen: after a few weeks of consistent Vitamin C usage, that polish was permanent. You hear a lot about “glass skin” and how it’s all about hydration - and that’s definitely a huge part of it but I think for most people, topical Vitamin C is one of the vital keys to achieving that look. At the very least, it will brighten the hell out of dull skin.
Right, so it has this gorgeous brightening effect but on top of all that, Vitamin C is just good for overall skin health. It actually makes your sunscreen work better (somehow science science blah blah look it up) and it stimulates the whole process of collagen formation, leading to firmer skin. It improves skin hydration and it’s an antioxidant so it does all the great stuff that antioxidants do - like defending against free radicals and pollution, repairing skin damage, calming inflammation, and I don’t even know, cobble your shoes while you sleep. IT’S GOOD SHIT, PEOPLE.
First, see above in re potential but reversible freckle reduction. Aside from that there are really only a couple of things to be wary of: sensitivity and instability.
Some people have skin that just will not tolerate Vitamin C. Or maybe it’ll tolerate the C, but not in effective formulations or at high enough levels for it to actually do anything super-helpful. Sadly it’s just like that sometimes, but I have to say it’s really not that extremely common from what I can tell? (And by “not tolerate” I mean it will either sting and cause redness, or it will just clog pores.) A lot of people will think they are too sensitive but usually they are just using the wrong product(s).
So the purest and “best” (for lack of a better term) form of C is ascorbic acid. (Or l-ascorbic acid, but you can leave off the L, it’s okay.) It’s more potent than any of its derivatives or other forms of C - it just goes straight to work on your skin, and has the most research behind it. Unfortunately, it’s unstable af and when exposed to light and air it basically does a less dramatic version of a vampire faced with dawn. One of the things done to both stabilize it AND enhance its effectiveness, is to put it with Vitamin E and/or ferulic acid (science!) This means that:
affordable ascorbic-acid products are often utter shite because it takes WORK to make it work
good ascorbic-acid products go bad fast, maybe before it even gets to you
people whose skin is not fond of Vitamin E or Ferulic Acid are sorta fucked if they want the best Vitamin C products.
Okay, there’s your caveats.
Choosing a Product
You have some decisions to make, and the first one is: ascorbic acid or not? Personally, I say yes. Go with the gold standard - unless your skin won’t tolerate it, or if you’re just burning to try some other form. But let’s talk a little about both.
Other (non-ascorbic) Forms
Full disclosure: I don’t really know much about them, except they are in some serums that are quite beloved and effective. They have horrible, impossible to remember names like “Sodium Ascorbyl Palmitate” and “Tetrahexyldecyl Ascorbate” and “3-O Ethyl Ascorbic Acid” - the “ascorb” is always in there somewhere but holy cannoli what a syllable soup. There are many of these forms, and I’m pretty sure you and I don’t need to know anything about them except that they are not the OG ascorbic acid.
If you choose one of these, it’s probably going to take longer to see results. It may not do jack shit for your hyperpigmentation, or it may do wonders. It will probably - if it’s not a crappy product - brighten your skin and give your glow a little oomph.
If your skin is like mine, however, it will do fuck all and you’ll want your money back. Because my skin just does not respond to anything less than ascorbic acid, it seems. So that’s the one I know best.
Okay, so because of that instability thing, any ascorbic-acid Vitamin C product that does not come in packaging that protects it from light and air is either (a) totally useless, or (b) will become totally useless any second. Like, if it’s in a clear jar, it might as well be in the garbage can. It goes bad, see, and we call that “oxidation” - the oxygen gets in and fucks shit up, usually in a visible, color-changing way. So if you’re gonna go with ascorbic, please choose opaque, airtight packaging. You can also keep it in the fridge to prolong its life. And obviously, don’t leave it open on your vanity for 30 minutes every morning while you make coffee or whatever.
Because there’s so much research behind it, we can talk in percentages! So here’s a little According To Me, Who Is Not An Expert But I’ve Read Stuff So Have Opinions, Guide To Ascorbic Acid Percentages:
1%-10% - Beneficial, not at all useless, but there is no wow factor
10% - Good for when you want noticeable brightening and some added firmness
15% - When you’re serious about getting rid of some pigmentation and unevenness, and ready for some glowwwwwwwww
20% - CUE ANGELIC CHORUS. Let the cherubim be the soundtrack to your attack on stubborn dark patches and the ravages of Time, that asshole
Over 20% I mean kinda overkill tbh but it won’t hurt and might even be the only strength of VitC that does the trick if you have melasma
You can get Vitamin C in lotions and toners and essences and masks and in your breakfast cereal, but if you want the full benefits, you’re probably gonna get the best from a dedicated serum. A moisturizer with Vitamin C is nice but it probably fits into that 1-10% category above.
Also, it is pointless in a soap or a wash-off mask. Seriously: totally useless. It has to be a leave-on product. And even if you want to do a sheet mask every night, those ones that say they have Vitamin C in them have so very little that they are like pissing in the wind.
Furthermore, never put lemon juice or any kind of citrus peel on your skin. NEVER. PLEASE.
If you can’t understand why, please go ahead and google phytophotodermatitis - but not if you’re squeamish, because fuckin yikes. Yes, citrus has loads of Vitamin C, but straight up citric acid is not safe for your skin. Here is a video from our favorite skincare-science nerd, Michelle, explaining why:
More than just about any other skincare ingredient I can think of except for SPF, it is necessary to use Vitamin C consistently. Once a day is enough, though if you want to do twice a day (because you’re waging a war against extreme hyperpigmentation or just want to use it all up before it oxidizes) that’s fine. But you really do have to use it every day.
And you won’t see results until you’ve done at least about a month of daily application - usually a bit longer than that. The general rule is to wait at least 6 weeks (preferably 12) before you decide it’s not working and you should try a different product. This is very frustrating, because that’s a long-ass process. But if you REALLY commit, then you’ll be rewarded eventually. I say this as someone who went through several substandard VitC products, was 110% certain that my skin just would never respond, then finally said “fuck it, I’ll just use this tube up by absolutely slathering it on every day until it’s gone” - and finally, 4 weeks later: hosanna in the highest.
(Sorry, I am really heavy with the Christian religious references in this one, I don’t know why. Probably because I’m writing a novel that is just wall-to-wall Jesus and sex [and backstabbing and politics and true love and whatnot, but mostly Jesus and sex] and the inner Catholic that was programmed into my naturally religion-averse soul is just taking this opportunity to get it all out, but ANYWAY.)
Oh my god FINALLY. One quick note: if you’re using this to help diminish darkness around the eyes (caused by hereditary pigmentation that was there even when you were 12 years old, okay, not the darkness caused by lack of sleep or the current US presidential administration or your imploding professional organization), please check to make sure there’s not a DO NOT USE IN EYE AREA warning on the product. As an ingredient, it’s perfectly safe to use around the eyes, but it’s not gonna be the only ingredient in the product, so just heed warnings! (I put my VitC serum in my eye area all the time without problems.)
But before we get to my recommendations, let me begin with…
Look, years ago SkinCeuticals came out with their Vitamin C serum and the world rejoiced - or at least that sliver of the world who can afford $166 for an ounce of the stuff. I’m not saying it’s a bad product, because it’s actually a pretty great product from what I can tell. I’m just saying it’s absurdly overpriced and please don’t fall for it. I have listed a dupe for it below.
Also overpriced but not necessarily a good product is the Drunk Elephant C-Firma. Sure it’s half the price of the Skinceuticals, but that’s still too much. Plenty of people love it, but plenty of other people (like myself) saw exactly no results. There is chatter amongst us skin-obsessed about how there’s (we think?) turmeric in it (great for brightening, btw!) so it’s *always* a yellow-orangey color - which would nicely mask any oxidation, which is maybe why it often doesn’t get results, ijs. Also full disclosure: I don’t like this company in general, so there’s that.
Not overpriced but the only one I ever tried and utterly LOATHED is the one from Wishtrend - the like 21.5% Vitamin C serum. It works and it’s affordable, but it’s sticky af and every time I used it, it felt like I’d spilled sugar water on my face, ugh it’s the worst.
HERE’S THE GOOD STUFF!
My first recommendation is the cheapest and most flexible, but not the easiest. I mean it’s EASY, but not as easy as just buying pre-made. Yes, that’s right, it’s…
DIY Vitamin C Serum at home: Like the video above, it comes from Michelle. I genuinely would not trust anyone else on the planet to give me a DIY skincare recipe so while I haven’t done this myself (because I am lazy and require a minimum of fuss), please believe me that I have no doubts it will be a terrific option for many of you! Michelle links to a powder you can use, and fyi The Ordinary sells some too. (Note that the Ordinary also sells finished Vitamin C products that I don’t recommend, as I’ve only heard bad things about them - so if you want mega-affordable, I advise going with the DIY.)
But now on to the pre-packaged goodness, with this reminder: IF I SAY IT WILL OXIDIZE, USE IT RIGHT AWAY. Don’t order it and then remember you have it 4 months later, okay. Don’t stock up. Don’t be stingy, either - it’s gonna go bad anyway. Put it on your neck and chest and hands, even, wherever you want, do as Prince urges and let’s go crazy, let’s get nuts.
And when I say “it’ll go bad” I mean you generally get about 3 months before you start seeing the color turn from clear to rusty yellow to, eventually, orange-brown.
Now on to recommendations, starting with my faves:
Timeless ($25.95 US)
It’s 20% ascorbic acid with Vitamin E and Ferulic, so it will oxidize. I’ve ordered it several times and the batch date is always within a couple of weeks of delivery (they stamp the date it was made on the box) so you get fresh product. It’s non-sticky, clear, soaks right in - plus it’s not expensive and they ship for free within the continental US.
Con: It has a pretty low pH, which is great for making the product more potent BUT has the potential to irritate very sensitive skin. (Most people are perfectly fine with it, though.)
Melano CC ($12-15 US)
Due to its genius packaging, it won’t oxidize even though it’s ascorbic acid! No idea the percentage, but it’s got to be at least 15%, imo, because it really does great work on dark spots. This is meant as a spot treatment for PIH and it’s great for that, but you can use it all over your whole face too (I use 8 drops to cover my mug.) The texture is like a dry oil - as in, oily, but doesn’t leave an oily residue. It’s crazy cheap, and the packaging is the absolute best for travel. (It is also available on Amazon)
Con: It has a (lovely, light) scent, so not great for the sensitive and/or fragrance-averse.
Maelove Glow Maker ($27.95 US)
This is basically a SkinCeuticals dupe, and lord love em for it because it’s 1/6th the price of Skinceuticals. (Note, however, that I really think the bottle should be darker - no light should get through, come on. But hey, just wrap it in tin foil or something and get on with your life.) It will oxidize, beware. I haven’t used this one personally yet, but know lots who have. It’s a great formula at a great price and you should go for it. Also if you feel like filling your basket, a corner of my skincare world has been going apeshit for their oil cleanser, which I really want to try.
Con: It constantly goes out of stock, ugh.
Paula’s Choice makes two strengths, and both are the usual Great Formula No Fragrance and both will oxidize - though they nicely come in a smaller amount so it’s easier to use it up before it goes bad. There’s the 15% booster ($49 USD) and the 25% booster ($55 USD). I haven’t used either, but I’ve heard most about the 15% - all positive! The 25% is pretty extreme - I think clinical studies show diminishing returns above 20%, iirc - but worth trying if you have really stubborn dark spots. As always, PC has frequent sales and a good return policy - but you can also buy them at Amazon and a few other approved online outlets.
Cons: The price.
L’Oreal 10% Vitamin C Serum ($29.99 USD) is supposed to be REALLY great, with a nice silky texture and packaging like the Melano CC that travels well and keeps out light and air. Note as well, drugstore friends, that there’s a CeraVe 10% serum ($21.99 USD) which probably is very similar to the L’Oreal - because L’Oreal bought CeraVe because capitalism, barf - but I’ve heard it has a lot of alcohol in it so I hesitate to recommend it unless I know you don’t have dry/sensitive skin issues.
Cons: Thirty dollars, L’Oreal? I mean yeah, you can find it cheaper at Walmart or whatever, but come the fuck on.
Mad Hippie ($27-34 USD) has a much beloved serum that can be found in Whole Foods, even, as well as Ulta and some online stores. It’s not ascorbic so I have no clue how powerful it is, but it seems to do the trick for a lot of people.
Cons: It’s got grapefruit peel extract pretty high on the ingredient list, which really alarms me in general but especially for skin that’s even just barely sensitive.
Cosrx Triple C Lighting Liquid ($27 USD) is another one I haven’t used but many people love it like whoa. It’s 20.5% ascorbic, so it will oxidize.
Cons: Can only be bought at SokoGlam and ships only from Korea.
Okay whew, it really did turn into quite the dissertation, didn’t it? Sorry.
One last thing: the non-fragranced Vitamin C serums smell weird (because of the ferulic, I think? or the combo of the C + ferulic, maybe) and don’t be alarmed by that. What does it smell like? Not like citrus, that’s for sure: It rather famously smells like hot dog water. Or if you’re British, you’ll say it smells like bacon (British bacon, I guess). The amusing thing to me about this culturally different interpretation of the smell is that we are all definitely smelling the same thing - and yet the Brits tend to think it smells delicious, while the Americans think it’s gross. Ah, humans! culture! pork!
OH YEAH, and take a “before” picture, so you can do a comparison, especially if you’re trying to fade a dark spot. This is one of those things that can be very gradual change, it might be hard to judge any progress without photographic evidence to refer to at Week 8, ya know? Find some good lighting and have a selfie session.
The end, over and out, I don’t know what to talk about next, maybe retinol? Or acne? I’m taking requests. Until then, shine on.