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How does Vitamin C work, anyway?

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From a recent glut of “brightening” products to those all-too-grabbable facemasks, it seems like Vitamin C is popping up in all our favorite skincare lines.

While it might have undergone a recent marketing revival, this essential vitamin’s effect on skin health has been understood for centuries. 

But before you snap up all the Vitamin C-containing products, there are a few things you should know.

In this post, we’ll dig into Vitamin C, how it works, and which Vitamin C products are worth your purchase.

Okay, but what IS it?

Vitamin C is an essential vitamin, meaning our bodies can’t just make it, but need it to function optimally. We have to get Vitamin C from the foods we eat (think citrus) or, if that’s not possible, take a vitamin supplement.

Vitamin C is often listed on labels as L-ascorbic acid.

This vitamin plays a critical role in lots of our body’s processes, including the healthy functioning of our immune systems and skin. In fact, in terms of skin health, Vitamin C is really a key player.

And how does it actually work?

We’ve known for hundreds of years that a diet lacking in fresh fruits and vegetables, and therefore lacking in Vitamin C, is really bad for our skin. In extreme cases, it causes the disease scurvy, which is marked by a rash, bleeding gums, and other nasty symptoms.

Researchers now know that Vitamin C is critical for our skin health because it works on two fronts:

  1. It’s an antioxidant, fighting off damage from sunlight, smog, and stress. Those stressors can cause early aging in skin, and antioxidants like Vitamin C help reduce that damage. This function is part of the reason Vitamin C’s “brightening” properties are so popular. Vitamin C is especially effective when paired with Vitamin E, which is why you’ll often find them together on ingredient labels.
  2. It helps our skin produce collagen. This structural material is necessary for wound healing but also helps our skin look plump and dewy. Producing more of it is the focus of many an expensive in-office procedure. In order to make more collagen, we also need Vitamin C. It plays a key role in maintaining our existing collagen and helps us make more of the good stuff.

So which one should I try?

Given its role in collagen production (and how much we’re seeing it pop up in products!) you might assume that Vitamin C is a miracle ingredient. But before you snap up all the pumpkin face masks in the Whole Foods checkout line, allow us to deliver some bad news.

While researchers agree that topical Vitamin C benefits skin’s health, improves signs of aging, and generally has the potential to change our whole lives, they haven’t nailed down a surefire way to make it effective.

Vitamin C doesn’t seem to be absorbed into our skin well when it’s applied topically. That means you’re taking a bit of a gamble with a new product, especially compared to tried-and-true anti-aging treatments like retinol (see “How do retinol creams work, anyway?”)

The good news is, unlike trickier nutrients like Vitamin D (see “Vitamin D: Solving the Problem of Darkness at Noon”) it’s relatively easy to hit your recommended intake of Vitamin C by eating fresh fruits and vegetables. Red peppers, oranges, grapefruit, and kiwis are your best bet if you’re hoping to get more Vitamin C.

All that said...if you’re absolutely itching to add some Vitamin C to your topical routine, it probably won’t hurt. Data suggest it’s especially effective combined with Vitamin E.

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