Try These Vitamin C Derivatives If Ascorbic Acid Is Too Irritating For Your Skin

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Types of Vitamin C in Skincare

If the real thing comes with baggage, you turn to substitutes. That’s the logic behind vitamin C and the different types of vitamin C in skincare. This hot, superstar of an ingredient is among the top 3 when it comes to skincare. But some characteristics of it are frustrating. These properties make it difficult to formulate, hard to make it work for certain skin types, and almost impossible to keep it stable.

So basically vitamin C, though loved by everyone, is not for everyone. Vitamin C comes in cleansers, serums, moisturizers, and even eye creams. Though some of these products do contain pure vitamin C, some of them are simply formulated with derivatives. But if you haven’t noticed, there are so many of them!

And one can’t keep up with every single derivative coming up. Plus, is there any difference between different types of vitamin C derivates that’d make one superior to others? To clear the air, we’ll be diving into the different types of vitamin C used in skincare products to help you choose the right one for your skin type and concerns.

To learn more about vitamin C derivatives, find below the different types of vitamin C.

Ascorbic Acid

Ascorbic acid or L-ascorbic acid is the active form of vitamin C with the most research behind it. It’s the one that your skin recognizes. And it’s the one that gets to work on your skin immediately.

Ascorbic acid is an antioxidant that effectively neutralizes free radicals caused by UV exposure or other sources of oxidative stress. Ascorbic acid is also helpful in stimulating collagen production, and preventing and reducing hyperpigmentation in the skin. So far so good.

But there are some downsides to the pure form of vitamin C. First of all, ascorbic acid is water-soluble, so it’s not as penetrative (1). Second of all, it’s unstable and is oxidized by light and air, which makes it difficult to formulate into products and make those products stay effective longer.

And lastly, ascorbic acid requires a pH of 3.5 to be effective, which may be too irritating for some people as it stings and burns. To collect all the anti-aging, brightening, and antioxidant benefits, you need ascorbic acid to be in a low pH, in a concentration of at least 8%, and in UV-protective packaging. That’s difficult even if you have normal skin, let alone sensitive skin.

And you might feel like since the penetration is so low, you can use a high concentration of ascorbic acid to amplify the benefits. But that’s not really how it works. Ascorbic acid works great as long as it’s between 8% and 20%. And anything above that simply irritates, rendering the ingredient useless and worthless.

SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic

SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic - Types of Vitamin C

So even though ascorbic acid is the most potent and effective form of vitamin C, what good is that when you can’t use it? Well, just like retinoic acid, vitamin C has its own derivatives and esters. These derivatives need to convert to ascorbic acid to work in the skin, which brings us to our first derivative.

Ascorbyl Palmitate

Ascorbyl palmitate is a vitamin C derivative that’s relatively more stable than pure ascorbic acid. It’s a combination of ascorbic acid ester and palmitic acid, which is a fatty acid (2).

The result is an oil-soluble vitamin C derivative that protects the skin from free radicals, helps reduce hyperpigmentation and boost collagen production.

But ascorbyl palmitate is not the best vitamin C derivative. Because even though it’s more stable, it’s still prone to oxidation, which kind of defeats the purpose. For that reason, it’s usually paired with other derivatives or skin-brighteners.

Derma E Vitamin C Brightening Cleanser

Derma E Vitamin C Brightening Cleanser

Sodium Ascorbyl Phosphate

Another vitamin C derivative is sodium ascorbyl phosphate, which is made with sodium salt. This water-soluble vitamin C is very stable and non-irritating for the skin (3). It converts into ascorbic acid once absorbed.

It does have antioxidant, de-pigmenting effects on the skin. And it also helps with collagen synthesis and in achieving a brighter skin tone.

The downside is that it’s water-soluble and less penetrating. But again, this is how it works so gentle on the skin too. And because of that, you can safely use it consistently without any setbacks and stick with it long enough to collect the benefits.

Ole Henriksen Truth Serum

Ole Henriksen Truth Serum

Magnesium Ascorbyl Phosphate

This is one of the most stable forms of vitamin C. Just like sodium ascorbyl phosphate, it’s water-soluble, but it has additional hydrating effects on the skin (4). It functions as an antioxidant and a collagen stimulator for anti-aging benefits.

And as it doesn’t require a low pH to work, it’s practically non-irritating. This makes it suitable for all skin types, especially for people with sensitive skin. In addition, it’s been shown to help with inflammatory acne all thanks to its anti-inflammatory effects (5).

So if you’re dealing with inflammation, or inflammatory acne but can’t make ascorbic acid work for your skin, magnesium ascorbyl phosphate might be the best type of vitamin C for your skin.

Glossier Super Glow Vitamin C + Magnesium Serum

Glossier Super Glow Vitamin C + Magnesium Serum

Ascorbyl Glucoside

This derivative is the combination of ascorbic acid with a sugar molecule. It’s water-soluble, stable, and effective. Though not as potent as ascorbic acid, ascorbyl glucoside is effective in boosting collagen, providing antioxidant benefits, and promoting a brighter skin tone.

It’s resistant to discoloration and degradation. And the required pH to sustain its efficiency is neither too acidic nor too alkaline, making it just as gentle as the other derivatives.

The Ordinary Ascorbyl Glucoside Solution 12%

The Ordinary Ascorbyl Glucoside Solution 12%

Tetrahexyldecyl Ascorbate

This is one of the most popular forms of vitamin C. Unlike magnesium ascorbyl phosphate, this type of vitamin C is oil-soluble, making it penetrate better and reach the oily layers of the skin too.

Once absorbed, it converts to ascorbic acid and targets discolorations on the skin, and guards it against the damaging effects of free radicals.

This vitamin C derivative is stable, has a better shelf life, and is more tolerable for most skin types. So when you think about it, it seems to have it all to qualify as a good alternative to pure vitamin C.

It’s gentle, penetrates better, and is stable. However, it’s a relatively new member of the vitamin C family. And the data behind it is limited.

Sunday Riley C.E.O 15% Vitamin C Brightening Serum

Sunday Riley C.E.O. 15% Vitamin C Brightening Serum

So these are some of the most popular types of vitamin C derivatives used in skincare products. From what I learned, it seems like, concerning irritation, magnesium ascorbyl phosphate is the safest option and the best alternative to pure ascorbic acid. Plus, a study suggests that the phosphate forms of vitamin C are superior in terms of stability (6).

But know that there are even more types of vitamin C out there. And derivatives are not the only option formulators are looking into to make ascorbic acid more stable. There are several workarounds for using vitamin C in its purest form while keeping it stable.

For example, SkinCeuticals stabilized their formula with the help of ferulic acid and vitamin E. Because of the added antioxidants, vitamin C stays stable for longer.

Other brands are utilizing microencapsulation to protect the ingredient from oxidation and keep it stable until it’s ready to use. Some others are pairing it with helpers like zinc. So pure ascorbic acid is still in the cards.

As much as we, as consumers of beauty products, like to know what we’re buying, there’s only so much we can take. We want good skin, that’s it! Unless you’re a field expert, it’s next to impossible to know every single nitty-gritty of the ingredients you use in your products.

We all want to include vitamin C in our skincare products. And we want to know that it’ll work! But if these derivatives could tell you anything, it would be that a stable form of ascorbic acid is still a work in progress.

Always assume that your vitamin C serums and creams will go bad. And because of that, never hoard vitamin C. Use them up as soon as you buy them.

Read Next: The Best Drugstore Vitamin C Serums


  1. Al-Niaimi, F., & Chiang, N. (2017). Topical Vitamin C and the Skin: Mechanisms of Action and Clinical ApplicationsThe Journal of clinical and aesthetic dermatology10(7), 14–17.
  2. Khan, Hira & Akhtar, Naheed & Ali, Atif. (2018). Fortification of facial skin collagen efficacy by combined ascorbyl palmitate and sodium ascorbyl phosphate. Acta Poloniae Pharmaceutica – Drug Research. 75. 129-140.
  3. Klock, J., Ikeno, H., Ohmori, K., Nishikawa, T., Vollhardt, J. and Schehlmann, V. (2005), Sodium ascorbyl phosphate shows in vitro and in vivo efficacy in the prevention and treatment of acne vulgaris. International Journal of Cosmetic Science, 27: 171-176.
  4. Telang P. S. (2013). Vitamin C in dermatology. Indian dermatology online journal4(2), 143–146.
  5. Lee, W. J., Kim, S. L., Choe, Y. S., Jang, Y. H., Lee, S. J., & Kim, D. W. (2015). Magnesium Ascorbyl Phosphate Regulates the Expression of Inflammatory Biomarkers in Cultured Sebocytes. Annals of dermatology27(4), 376–382.
  6. Caritá, A. C., Fonseca-Santos, B., Shultz, J. D., Michniak-Kohn, B., Chorilli, M., & Leonardi, G. R. (2020). Vitamin C: One compound, several uses. Advances for delivery, efficiency and stability. Nanomedicine : nanotechnology, biology, and medicine24, 102117.
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