A topical daily vitamin C serum has been one of the greatest discoveries for slowing down visible skin aging and fading brown spots. However, vitamin C for retinol users and those who exfoliate regularly can be tricky since the skin may feel sensitive due to a fragile skin barrier. This is caused by regular use of retinol, retinoids, and exfoliating acids, so you must be very careful as to which type to use. The last thing you want is for any product to be working against you and causing problems.
Here are five things that every vitamin c serum must have if you want to get the biggest bang for your buck and without causing irritation for your sensitive skin. (If you’re not exfoliating regularly, this post still applies to you.)
Five things to look for in a vitamin c serum for sensitive skin.
1. It shouldn’t cause dryness, redness or irritation.
If you’re currently applying vitamin C daily and experiencing dryness (known as a damaged moisture barrier) and you’re thinking it’s solely due to your use of retinol, prescription retinoids or acids, you might be mistaken. When a serum contains pure ascorbic acid (considered an “unstable” form of vitamin C), it can be irritating since it is in fact, an acid with a low pH. It’s always best to avoid formulas where the bulk of the vitamin C comes from ascorbic acid or L-ascorbic acid. These are notorious for creating an acidic effect on the skin leading to increased sensitivity. Vitamin C for retinol users should provide soothing comfort to the skin—NOT redness, dryness or inflammation.
For anyone with sensitive skin, you’re much better off choosing a vitamin C serum with modern ingredients that are known for being stable and less acidic on the skin. Some examples of vitamin c that won’t irritate the skin and will still be effective include tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate, ascorbyl methylsilanol pectinate, ascorbyl palmitate and sodium ascorbyl phosphate. The non-acidic forms also do a better job at maintaining their stability and performance.
2. It should make your blackheads better—not worse.
Since ascorbic acid and l-ascorbic acid are known to oxidize quickly on the skin in the presence of light and air, this can cause unwanted side effects like more noticeable blackheads! Ugh! The reason why blackheads appear in the first place is due to enlarged pores with hardened oil stuck inside. The oil gets oxidized on the surface and will turn dark grey in color. (It’s not technically black in color.) If you’re using a daily vitamin C serum that oxidizes quickly, it can make the blackhead get even darker in color making them more noticeable. No one wants that? As an esthetician working with skin hands-on for the past 30 years, I can tell a big improvement in my client’s blackheads when they switch to a stable, non-oxidizing formula. Read my 3-step plan for reducing blackheads.
3. It shouldn’t change to a copper brown color over time.
When a vitamin C serum turns copper-y brown in color, it’s a sign that it’s using an unstable form of vitamin C (like ascorbic acid). This type allows for oxidation to occur rapidly causing the formula to lose its effectiveness. Once the product has started to turn a light brown or copper color, you are definitely NOT getting the full benefit to your face—and manufacturers of such formulas can’t disagree with this. These skincare companies will attempt to slow this process down by choosing amber colored bottles instead of clear ones but it cannot be prevented entirely, and they know this. Some companies even get a little sneaky by changing the formula from clear to a brown color by using a synthetic dye. The hope is that the drastic change in color will be less noticeable.
If you currently use a formula that discolors over time, it’s time to reconsider. You are not getting the biggest bang for your buck or your skin when the product has lost much of its effectiveness halfway through the bottle.
If you haven’t use a vitamin C serum before, simply look at the ingredient list. Ascorbic acid and L-ascorbic acid are notorious for their instability leading to a change in color. This type of vitamin C for retinol users should be avoided.
Why do companies still use these types if they don’t hold up well?
I believe that many companies have gotten into the “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” mentality. Yes, when it’s a freshly opened bottle, it will definitely get delivered into the skin to do its job, however, where they miss the mark is not taking into consideration how the skin habits of consumers have evolved over the years. Now more than ever before, people are using products with active ingredients like retinol, retinoids and exfoliating acids and because of it, their skin’s barrier is being compromised. As such, skin sensitivity is at an all-time high.
4. Do look for a variety of other active ingredients to further protect your skin.
Antioxidant-based products like a vitamin C serum are meant to be used during the daytime underneath sunscreen to protect your skin from harmful free radicals given off by the environment. The three types of free radicals are reactive oxygen species, reactive carbonyl species, and reactive nitrogen species. Collectively, these cause destruction by changing your skin cells change causing your skin to age faster. (Aging can be boiled down to two words: changed cells.) You’ll want to look for a formula that uses a variety of skin-protecting active ingredients. A good rule of thumb is to look at the key ingredients that are being promoted. Vitamin C for retinol users should offer additional benefits from active ingredients.
What about the first five ingredients listed on the label?
Ingredients are listed in descending order. They start with the highest percentage of ingredients being used and go down to the lowest. A common myth is that any active “key ingredient” not listed in the top five, means it’s giving minimal benefit. As a someone who has trained at UCLA in cosmetic chemistry, I can assure you, you have to be careful with this line of thinking. The truth is, some ingredients just don’t need a high percentage to perform. Many ingredients will efficiently do their job when used in a small percentage. Think of it like cooking. Sometimes you can just put a dash of something in and that’s all it takes to work.
5. It should be in opaque, airless packaging.
Air and light are the worst enemies for a vitamin C product. Packaging that easily allows for oxygen and light to get access to the formula is a big mistake—and cosmetic formulators know this.
Avoid vitamin C serums:
- where you can see the formula through the container
- that uses dropper bottles or a dip tube pump to get the product (air can easily enter)
For all serums, even ones without vitamin C, look for what is known as “airless” packaging and ones that you can’t see through. That’s the type of packaging that industry experts recommend.
Note: For this type of packaging, you can’t see when the product is getting low and in need of repurchasing. There’s an easy solution. Simply unscrew the pump and dip a cotton swab inside to measure how much product is left inside. Don’t worry about a little air getting in because once you close it up and go to pump it again, any air will pump right out. This is the magic of airless packaging!
Vitamin C for retinol users must be chosen carefully.
Choose a formula that offers long-lasting activity in the skin with maximum stability. A product that relies exclusively on ascorbic acid or l-ascorbic acid will not deliver the full benefits if the formula can’t hold up. In addition, it can cause unnecessary irritation to anyone with a weak skin barrier. Vitamin C for retinol users and anyone with sensitive skin can be used safely.
Your skin’s barrier may be damaged and here’s how to fix it.
Celebrity Esthetician & Skincare Expert
As an esthetician trained in cosmetic chemistry, Renée Rouleau has spent 30 years researching skin, educating her audience, and building an award-winning line of products. Trusted by celebrities, editors, bloggers, and skincare obsessives around the globe, her vast real-world knowledge and constant research are why Marie Claire calls her “the most passionate skin practitioner we know.”