The 7 Best Vitamin C Serums of 2021

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First Look

Best Overall: SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic at Dermstore

"Works to prevent skin damage caused by free radicals, unstable molecules generated from sources including UVA/UVB rays, ozone pollution, and diesel engine exhaust."

Best Budget: TruSkin Vitamin C Serum at Amazon

"Designed to target various skin aging issues, such as brightness, firmness, fine lines, wrinkles, dark spots, and sun spots."

Best for Hyperpigmentation: CeraVe Vitamin C Serum with Hyaluronic Acid at walgreens.com

"Provides antioxidant protection and has three essential ceramides (1, 3, 6 II), moisturizing hyaluronic acid, and soothing vitamin B5."

Best for Sensitive Skin: Vichy LiftActiv Vitamin C at Amazon

"A budget-friendly, award-winning serum that is less likely to stir up a reaction than most other effective products."

Best for Acne: Mario Badescu Vitamin C Serum at Amazon

"While vitamin C can often be an irritant for acne prone skin, many users maintain that this product actually helped clear up breakouts, while also reducing acne scarring."

Best Splurge: Revision Skincare C+ Correcting Complex at Amazon

"The perfect weapon for free radical damage, hyperpigmentation, fine lines, wrinkles, and dark spots for all skin tones."

Best Clean Beauty: Drunk Elephant C-Firma Vitamin C at Amazon

"A lightweight but antioxidant- and nutrient-rich treatment."

Most of us are accustomed to taking vitamin C to boost immunity. However, the vitamin, also referred to as ascorbic acid, can seriously benefit your skin in topical form as well. Nazanin Saedi, M.D., Director of Jefferson Laser Surgery and Cosmetic Dermatology Center in Philadelphia explains that vitamin C is a key ingredient in many skin care products and is used for a variety of conditions, including acne scarring, fine lines, and uneven skin tone. A good Vitamin C serum can help improve skin complexion, minimize hyperpigmentation, minimize sun damage, and help improve skin texture.

So what should you look for when on the hunt for a vitamin C infused skin treatment? There are two important elements when it comes to an effective product, she says. “You need to look for the percentage of vitamin C and also the other ingredients added to the mix. Look for ascorbic acid (L-ascorbic acid) because it is a stable and effective form of topical vitamin C,” she urges. “Also, THD (tetrahexyldecyl) ascorbate is a very stable form that is oil-soluble.” Some formulations have vitamin E as well and that is another potent antioxidant.

Dr. Saedi adds that packaging is important. “Look for it in a dark bottle because vitamin C usually breaks down once it is exposed to light and those dark bottles help keep the stability,” she says.

Here are the best vitamin C serums on the market.

Best Overall: SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic

Skinceuticals C E Ferulic
Courtesy of Skin Ceuticals.

This antioxidant cocktail of 15% pure vitamin C (L-ascorbic acid), 1% vitamin E (alpha tocopherol), and 0.5% ferulic acid, will not only help with brightening complexion, but also protect skin against environmental damage caused by free radicals, unstable molecules generated from sources including UVA/UVB rays, ozone pollution, and diesel engine exhaust. It is also paraben-free and ideal for all skin types, including normal, dry, and sensitive. While the price tag may be a bit startling, keep in mind that a little bit goes a long way, and you only need to use a few drops a day.

Best Budget: TruSkin Vitamin C Serum

TruSkin Vitamin C Serum is plant-based and is a fraction of the price of most vitamin C serums, yet users maintain it is just as effective as even the most expensive options. In addition to vitamin C, it includes botanical hyaluronic acid and vitamin E and is designed to target skin aging issues, such as brightness, firmness, fine lines, wrinkles, dark spots, and sun spots.

What the Experts Say

“Quality of the product certainly matters, but price may not necessarily indicate quality. It may be helpful to choose a serum demonstrated by clinical research to be safe and effective.”—Murad Alam, M.D., vice-chair and professor of dermatology at Northwestern Medicine

Best for Hyperpigmentation: CeraVe Vitamin C Serum with Hyaluronic Acid

CeraVe

When it comes to drugstore skincare brands, CeraVe is the go-to for many dermatologists. Their vitamin C Serum is an effective yet affordable option for hyperpigmentation. It is formulated with 10% l-ascorbic acid, the purest form of vitamin C, to help provide antioxidant protection and three essential ceramides (1, 3, 6 II), moisturizing hyaluronic acid, and soothing vitamin B5.

Best for Sensitive Skin: Vichy LiftActiv Vitamin C

If you have sensitive skin, finding the right serums can involve a lot of trial and error, which is frustrating to say the least. Dr. Saedi suggests avoiding more potentially irritating vitamin C serums, and starting with Vichy LiftActiv Vitamin C, a budget-friendly, award-winning serum that is less likely to stir up a reaction than most other effective products.

While it boasts 15% pure vitamin C, “it offers a more hydrating form with less percentage of ascorbic acid,” she explains. “It also includes hyaluronic acid, which is hydrating.” The quick absorbing serum is also paraben, fragrance, and oil-free, and is made with 11 clean ingredients.

Best for Acne: Mario Badescu Vitamin C Serum

Mario Badescu is one of the best product lines for reliably effective yet moderately priced skincare. Their vitamin C Serum is formulated with vitamin C in addition to sodium hyaluronate and collagen, a concoction of ingredients that will target signs of aging while simultaneously promoting moisture and smoothing your skin. While vitamin C can often be an irritant for acne prone skin, many users maintain that this product actually helped clear up breakouts, while also reducing acne scarring. It is also paraben, gluten, sulfate, phthalates, synthetic fragrance, and mineral oil-free.

Best Splurge: Revision Skincare C+ Correcting Complex

A similarly high price point to SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic, Dr. Saedi explains that many of her clients gravitate toward Revision C+ Correcting Complex because it is fragrance free and is more of a lotion in consistency, making it “less irritating.” This antioxidant blend of 30% THD ascorbate and vitamin E is the perfect weapon for free radical damage, hyperpigmentation, fine lines and wrinkles, and dark spots for all skin tones. It is also paraben and sulfate free. 

Best Clean Beauty: Drunk Elephant C-Firma Vitamin C

Drunk Elephant has established itself as a beauty brand dedicated to using clean yet effective ingredients. Just ask the many beauty editors, influencers, and fans part of their cult-like following. Their C-Firma Day Serum is the perfect example of clean beauty at its finest.

This lightweight but antioxidant- and nutrient-rich treatment does not include ingredients the brand believes is the root of most skin issues—essential oils, drying alcohols, silicones, chemical sunscreens, fragrances/dyes, and sodium lauryl sulfate. Instead, their vitamin c serum offers 15% potent antioxidant complex—15% L-Ascorbic Acid and Ferulic Acid and 1% Vitamin E—a cocktail which helps fight environmental skin stressors, reduces fine lines and wrinkles, and helps replenish the skin—along with exfoliating pumpkin ferment extract and pomegranate enzymes.

Final Verdict

When it comes to vitamin C serums, SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic is a great pick. It works to treat everything from hyperpigmentation to fine lines and wrinkles. If you're looking on a budget, TruSkin Vitamin C Serum is an affordable way to get the benefits of a vitamin C serum at a fraction of the cost.

What to Look for in a Vitamin C Serum

Ingredients: The most important ingredient in a vitamin C serum is the vitamin C, but other ingredients incorporated in the product can further boost the benefits. “Vitamin C works best when combined with vitamin E and ferulic acid, which together improve the antioxidant effects and stability of this ingredient,” Dr. Alam says. 

Additionally, pay attention to the order of the ingredients on the product. The order indicates how prevalent that ingredient is in the serum. So you want the vitamin C, which most commonly comes in the form of L-ascorbic acid, within the top five ingredients on the label.

Type and Concentration of Vitamin C: Vitamin C comes in many forms, but the most common is L-ascorbic acid. “If this is the active ingredient, the serum should contain 10 to 20 percent L-ascorbic acid and have an acidic pH of 2 to 2.5 for optimal absorption and results,” Dr. Alam says.
If you have more sensitive skin and tend to react to skincare products, then it might be best to pick up a serum with a lower concentration of L-ascorbic acid, about 10 percent, or a “product that contains a derivative of vitamin C that is gentler than L-ascorbic acid, such as magnesium ascorbyl phosphate or ascorbyl-6-palmitate, which have a neutral pH of 7,” Dr. Alam says.

Usage: While vitamin C serums help with a variety of skin conditions, it's important to target a product that fits your specific skincare needs. For example, some serums may contain ingredients that irritate the skin, so if you have sensitive skin, consult your dermatologist to determine the best vitamin C serum for you.

Packaging: Vitamin C is a sensitive ingredient, so it’s important you’re paying attention to not only the type of bottle the serum comes in, but also where you’re storing it daily. “Vitamin C is sensitive to light, heat, and air, so it must be stored in a UV-protected and air-tight bottle in a cool, dark place,” Dr. Alam says. If the product comes in a lighter bottle, the vitamin C could likely be compromised by the light and not work as intended.

Potential Interactions: There are always concerns when trying a new product about how it might react with your skin and the other serums and moisturizers in your skincare routine. “Allergic reactions to skincare products are common and usually show redness and itching,” says Rebecca Baxt, M.D., a board certified dermatologist with Baxt Cosmedical in New Jersey. “In which case, stop the product immediately, use cool compresses, hydrocortisone cream or ointment, mild cleansers, and if it is not resolving, see a board certified dermatologist.” 
When testing a new serum, Dr. Alam recommends first applying the product to a small area of the skin. “If no side effects occur, then transition to using the product more broadly a few days per week before progressing to daily use. If any side effects are noted, use of the product should be stopped,” he says. 
If you experience a negative reaction, then consider selecting a vitamin C serum with a lower concentration or altering other products in your routine that could be causing the sensitivity. A dermatologist can be your best source for why your skin’s reacting and what steps you can take to prevent future reactions.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • When should I apply vitamin C serum?

    Apply the product after cleansing and before moisturizing. But dermatologists remain divided on if it should be applied in the morning or in the evening. “While it is clear that vitamin C provides ample benefits, it is not yet clear what is the best time of day for applying such a product,” Dr. Alam says. “Because vitamin C helps to prevent sun damage, some dermatologists recommend morning application. If used in the morning, it is important to follow this with sunscreen, as vitamin C is degraded by light.” This is because sunlight can breakdown the antioxidant, preventing it from giving you the full benefits.

    He adds that some dermatologists believe that applying the serum at night can help rejuvenate the barrier for the next day. Your dermatologist can help guide you on how to incorporate the product into your skincare routine if you need assistance.

  • Will my vitamin C serum interact with other skincare products?

    Like any skincare product, it's important to be wary of mixing ingredients that may cause a reaction. If you use any retinoids or retin-a products, then Dr. Baxt recommends using the vitamin C serum in the morning and the other products in the evening to prevent any reaction between the active ingredients. “This is an ideal anti-aging, anti-cancer program: retinol or retin-a at night, then vitamin C product underneath sunblock in the am,” Dr. Baxt says. 


    Products that incorporate benzoyl peroxide, Dr. Alam warns, could also react negatively with vitamin C. “Individuals should speak with their dermatologists about how to safely and effectively incorporate vitamin C in their skincare regimen,” he says.

Why Trust Verywell Health

As an internationally recognized health writer and product guru, Leah Groth understands that nobody wants to waste their time or money on products that fail to rear results. Over the years, she has interviewed the world's top health experts and reviewed hundreds of items, to help readers like you discover the most effective health gadgets, goops, and aids that will help you look and feel your very best.

Additional reporting to this story by Danielle Zoellner

As a seasoned health writer, Danielle Zoellner knows the importance of finding just the right product to fit your medical needs. Throughout her career, Danielle has interviewed a variety of experts in the medical and health fields while reviewing dozens of products. Her experience and knowledge in the field work together to help readers like yourself find the best products for your daily life.


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