Does Your Vitamin C Serum Turn Brown Over Time?

Updated 12/27/14. If you’re an avid user of advanced skin care products, then surely you’re using, or have used, a vitamin C serum under moisturizer to give much-needed antioxidants to protect your skin from environmental damage. What I know for sure is that all types of vitamin C serums are not equal, and when it comes to your skin, using the best formula can make all the difference in improving your skin’s health and appearance. 

Let me first talk about how vitamin C works and how it’s beneficial to your skin.

One of the main reasons why we age (and therefore the skin visibly ages) is because unstable electrons in molecules known as free radicals attack healthy cells due to UVA and UVB rays from the sun, pollution, stress, smoking, alcohol, fatty foods, and even aerobic repetitive exercise. The parts of the cells damaged are DNA, lipids and proteins that make up the cells. This slows down the production of collagen and elastin, which is essential in keeping the skin firm and preventing wrinkling. This happens beneath our skin very gradually, making wrinkles, brown spots, and sagging become apparent over time. Antioxidants such as stabilized vitamins C and E, when applied topically and taken internally, are extremely beneficial at slowing the process of aging by stopping the free radicals from oxidizing the molecules.

One such example of oxidation can be found in apples. When you take a bite of an apple and you leave it sitting on your kitchen counter for as little as 30 minutes, the inside of the apple will start to oxidize and turn brown. To prevent this from happening, you can sprinkle lemon juice on the apple so it can maintain its freshness and longevity. Lemon juice is high in vitamin C and is therefore considered an antioxidant since it slows down oxidation from occurring. So applying a vitamin C serum topically to the skin can essentially keep your skin from turning brown (preventing and fading brown spots), as well as keeping cells fresh and youthful.

In the picture above, I took two bottles of a popular brand of a vitamin C serum to demonstrate what happens when vitamin C (L-ascorbic acid, to be specific) oxidizes and can’t stay stable when inside the bottle.

The picture on the left is a drop from a fresh, new bottle. You can see it’s clear in color. The picture on the right shows a drop from a  three month old bottle and has oxidized and turned deep coppery brown in color. It’s safe to say that when the product has turned brown in color like this one did, it has oxidized strongly and lost about 60% of its effectiveness, if not more. So this expensive skin care product will not deliver the full benefits if the formula can’t hold up.

Unstable formulas that turn brown quickly can:
-be expensive since you’re not getting every last drop at its full potency
-stinging on application which can cause dryness, sensitivity and irritation due to the acid content and low pH
-cause blackheads (yes, actual blackheads) because of oxidation that occurs with the oil on the top of the pore opening.

Simply put, if you’re using a product that has gone from light to dark, you’re not getting your money’s worth and therefore, you’re not getting the best results in skin brightening and anti-aging protection. It only makes sense to avoid using the type of vitamin C that is so highly unstable and find a more effective formula, especially if you have sensitive skin. .

Stable forms of topical vitamin C include:
Magnesium Ascorbyl Phosphate (also a proven skin lightener to fade brown spots and discoloration from age, sun, breakouts, and hormones)
Tetrahexyldecyl Ascorbate
Ascorbyl Methylsilanol Pectinate
Ascorbyl Palmitate
Sodium Ascorbyl Phosphate

They are considered stable and won’t lose their effectiveness or irritate sensitive skin like other forms can.

Unstable forms of vitamin C include:
Ascorbic Acid
L-Ascorbic Acid

When used exclusively in skin care formulas as the main form of vitamin C (listed as a top five ingredient on the bottle), they will not only oxidize and oxidize quickly, they can be an irritant to sensitive skin types.

So when it comes to choosing a vitamin C formula, do so carefully. You want to get the best results for your skin and get your money’s worth!

I highly recommend using a >Vitamin C&E treatment. When used daily, your skin will look brighter, fresher, and brown discoloration from sun, hormones, aging, and blemishes will fade. Be sure to use a vitamin C serum in your routine. Your skin will look so much better because of it.

Speaking of antioxidants, foods such as vegetables and fruits (look for the darker pigmented ones) are high in antioxidants and are extremely important to consume daily. Make sure you’re getting your daily dose to keep your body healthy and acting young.

Read: The Ten Best Anti-Oxidant Foods

Read: Tips for Reducing Hormonal Cystic Acne

Which skin care products are best for you? See our nine skin types or take our Skin Type Quiz and get products recommended.

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Disclaimer: Content found on www.ReneeRouleau.com and Blog.ReneeRouleau.com, including text, images, audio, or other formats were created for informational purposes only. The Content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website or blog.

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  1. Hi Renee, I was recently looking into purchasing a vitamin c serum from a dermatologist in california that has her own spa and makes her own skincare. It is 15% L-asorbic acid (first ingredient) and says it comes in a transdermal delivery system with the air tight pump, and also has plant stem cells and other antioxidants. Its at a ph of 3.0. It sounds promising but im so leery of it oxidizing or something. Is 3.0 the right ph and do you think this would be good? Id really like to get ahold of some L-ascorbic acid bc I need some strong collagen building stuff for my face. Please let me know your thoughts.

    Posted By: claire  | 

    Reply
    • Wow, that pH is extremely low, even lower than most exfoliating acid serums so if your skin is sensitive, more than likely you’ll be getting dryness and irritation. Plus with is being so low, it’s definitely going to oxidize the minute it gets applied to your face. My Vitamin C&E Treatment is a pH of 6.8 so you can see how different a stable form is from an unstable form. Read this post to learn more about the different types of vitamin C.

      Posted By: Renée Rouleau  | 

      Reply
      • Thanks Renee! okay, so I purchased several of your products yesterday including cleanser, toner, vitamin c& e treatment, bio radiance serum, moisturizer and total eye repair cream. my next question is when do I apply the eye cream in my skincare lineup? I want to make sure everything is getting absorbed. The eyes is where I really need help. I have crows feet, fine lines and a few deep wrinkles. thanks again! 🙂

        Posted By: claire  | 

  2. I am new to using vitamin c and I recently purchased a serum from a spa that creates their own formula. I purchased a bottle and the serum is brown/Orange. I contacted the owner and creator of the serum and asked her about it since everything I’ve read says those colors indicate oxidation. She said her formula starts out brown and it all depends on how the vitamin c is derived and what it’s mixed with. Is this true?

    Posted By: Layne  | 

    Reply
    • It’s hard for me to comment on a product that I’m not familiar with but you might inquire as to why the product is brown/orange. Meaning, if oxidation is not occurring, then ask what ingredient makes it that color. To the best of my knowledge, all types of vitamin C start out as clear but maybe she uses some other ingredient mixed with it that is giving it that color. I’m trying to think off the top of my head as to what types of ingredients give that kind of color and the only ones that come to mind right now are chinese licorice (lichochalcone) and tea tree oil (more of a yellow-ish tone). Caramel is also an ingredient used as a coloring agent in skin care products which could give a orange/brown kind of color.

      Posted By: Renée Rouleau  | 

      Reply
      • Thank you! I’ll ask about that

        Posted By: Layne  | 

      • Let me know what you find out. I’m curious, too.

        Posted By: Renée Rouleau  | 

      • The ingredient list is rubbing off the the bottle but I could make out Aloe leaf extract, purified water, ascorbic acid, propyl PEG, lemon peel extract and Humulus.

        Posted By: Layne  | 

      • For starters, this label is not in compliance with the FDA. For example ingredient “humulus” has to be listed as its proper INCI name of “Humulus Lupulus (Hops) Extract” so this doesn’t give me a lot of confidence in the product. Some of the others are listed incorrectly as well. From what I can see, ascorbic acid is what is turning it brown as in its pure form, it will turn darker in color with time. You are much better off using a stable form of vitamin C like this one, and one that is following the rules put out by the FDA related to skincare labeling.

        Posted By: Renée Rouleau  | 

      • Thank You for your help. I just didn’t feel good about it in my gut which is why I was doing all the research. I will defiantly be using a different product. Just wish I hadn’t wasted my $… Oh well, live and learn right?!

        Posted By: Layne  | 

  3. Hi. I bought Oz naturals vitamin c serum about 3 months ago but didn’t open the sealing yet, the expiry date is July 2016 but I did open today and realized that the serum had turned thick and brownish. I’m not sure if my friend kept it where a room was heated or what could have caused it to become like that. I’ve just done a laser treatment on my face and I mixed the vitamin c serum with Vaseline. Is it still safe to use?

    Posted By: Jess  | 

    Reply
    • Do you know if it’s supposed to be thick and brown if you have never opened it before? But if you know for sure that it’s not supposed to be that way, then the product has drastically oxidized and altered and I wouldn’t recommend using it.

      Posted By: Renée Rouleau  | 

      Reply
  4. Is the product in the example the C E Ferulic from SkinCeuticals (packaging looks similar)? I recently purchased it and was told to expect darkening. Please advise if able to!

    Posted By: Rachel  | 

    Reply
  5. Which Vitamin C Serum product would you recommend?

    Posted By: Tina Aviles,  | 

    Reply
    • Hi Tina, I recommend Vitamin C&E Treatment to all my clients. You can see it here.

      Posted By: Renée Rouleau  | 

      Reply
  6. I bought powered L- absorbic to make my own cream. But I’ve noticed after application a couple of hours later, my pores turned black and my hands were orange.. Is that normal?as it has come in contact with the air?

    Posted By: Raechell  | 

    Reply
    • That’s a sign of a highly unstable formula. What happened is that the vitamin C penetrated into your pores and the formula oxidized over time and turned dark on your skin–and hands. It can’t benefit your skin if it’s oxidizing so rapidly. Read this post to show what a stable formula can do.

      Posted By: Renée Rouleau  | 

      Reply
  7. Hi, I have a tube of Vitamin C cream from a highly regarded French pharmacy brand. When it comes out of the tube, it looks pale yellow and fresh but the old cream that’s collected around the nozzle is brown. I guess that’s normal?

    Posted By: Anjali  | 

    Reply
    • Yes, that is normal. Oxidation has occurred due to the air getting to the product in that area.

      Posted By: Renée Rouleau  | 

      Reply
  8. I respectfully disagree with your view of vitamin c’s used in serums. through research done at Duke Univeristy, only L-ascorbic acid ( as long as it in the right percentage, PH, and pure form) is able to get into the skin to do the job we want it to do. this has been studied and published many many times. – as a consumer always look for credibility on ANY skin care product. what are the facts? is the science peer reviewed? has the science been published in reputable journals? – vitamin C is everywhere in skin care ranging from 20$ to 160$. you get what you pay for!

    Posted By: Brandi  | 

    Reply
    • Hi Brandi, Yes, L-ascorbic acid is certainly the most effective form that the skin can receive and all other forms have to be metabolized into L-ascorbic before they can be just as effective. It is true that IF the product is well formulated (pH, delivery) L-Ascorbic acid is certainly the quickest acting since it doesn’t have to be metabolized the way other forms have to be metabolized. But the fact that is indisputable is that L-ascorbic acid is the most unstable form, no argument there, especially when compared to oil-soluble, ester forms of Vitamin C. It is a fact that is it unstable that makes it problematic for the consumer, not the potency. The issue that I am highlighting in this post is that unfortunately, there are so many improperly formulated products with L-ascorbic acid than well formulated, stable formulas. So, an average consumer stands a better chance of purchasing an unusable L-ascorbic acid containing formula than a stable one. That’s why I was suggesting it is safer for the most part to opt for oil soluble forms of Vitamin C. My intent is not to blacklist a certain ingredient or dispute the science, just to minimize the risk an average consumer assumes when purchasing a vitamin C product. On the issue of the studies, there are tons of studies everywhere (Pub Med, for example) that showcase stability and effectiveness of many different forms of vitamin C.

      Posted By: Renée Rouleau  | 

      Reply

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