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Vitamin C is a hot, superstar of an ingredient and is among the most popular active ingredients used in skincare. But vitamin C is difficult to formulate, stabilize, and work for certain skin types. It can be irritating, especially if you have sensitive skin. So basically vitamin C, though loved by everyone, is not for everyone. That’s why we have different types of vitamin C in skincare.
These derivatives are more stable and gentler on the skin, which makes vitamin C more tolerable for the skin. But 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? I’ve got the answers.
Below are the different types of vitamin C used in skincare including their benefits and drawbacks so you can find the best one for your skin. But before diving into the different types of it, let’s brush up on vitamin C to better understand the need for its derivatives.
Benefits of Vitamin C in Skincare
Vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid or L-ascorbic acid, is a multi-tasking skincare ingredient that helps with several skin concerns (1). It’s an antioxidant. So it neutralizes the skin-damaging effects of free radicals caused by sun exposure.
It’s also a tyrosinase inhibitor. So it prevents the formation of dark spots on the skin and also helps fade existing hyperpigmentation on the skin. Moreover, it has anti-inflammatory benefits, which help reduce inflammation and redness on the skin.
And last but not least, it helps stimulate collagen production to help you achieve a more youthful and brighter complexion. Basically, it’s one of the most effective skincare ingredients, especially for anti-aging and hyperpigmentation.
That’s why it comes in several skincare products including cleansers, serums, moisturizers, toners, and even eye creams.
You might think to yourself, why would anyone want to go for a different form of vitamin C? It’s because vitamin C can be irritating to the skin, making it impossible to work for all skin types.
More on this in a bit but that’s why vitamin C derivatives and esters are gaining recognition.
Different Types of Vitamin C in Skincare
Below are the different types of vitamin C used in skincare. Also included is a product recommendation if you want to check out what’s out there.
1. 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.
Pure ascorbic acid is the most effective form of vitamin C and one of the most effective antioxidants used in skincare if you want to collect all those anti-aging, and brightening benefits.
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 (2).
Second of all, it’s unstable and oxidized by light and air, which makes it difficult to formulate into products and make those products stay effective longer.
Thirdly, ascorbic acid requires a pH of 3.5 to be effective, which may be too irritating for some people as it stings and burns.
And lastly, 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.
That’s difficult even if you have normal skin, let alone sensitive skin. So while pure vitamin C is the most effective form, it simply does not work for everyone.
If you’re looking for a pure vitamin C serum though, C E Ferulic is a patented formula. It contains 15% vitamin C and has other antioxidants to stabilize the ingredient. Plus, it comes in UV-protective packaging.
2. 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 (3).
The result is an oil-soluble vitamin C derivative that protects the skin from free radicals, helps reduce hyperpigmentation, and boosts 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 vitamin C derivatives or skin brighteners.
3. 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 (4). 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 gently 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.
Sodium ascorbyl phosphate is found in some of the gentlest vitamin C serums out there including Ole Henriksen’s Truth Serum. To complement the formula, the serum has other antioxidants like vitamin E and green tea too.
4. Magnesium Ascorbyl Phosphate
Magnesium ascorbyl phosphate 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 (5). 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 (6).
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.
If you’re looking for a magnesium ascorbyl phosphate product, Glossier’s Super Glow Serum is one of the most popular ones out there. It’s 5% and so gentle that it works for even the most sensitive skin.
5. 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.
As someone with rosacea, ascorbyl glucoside is a vitamin C derivative I can swear by. It’s that gentle. It’s also the vitamin C derivative that’s in Avene’s Antioxidant Defense Serum. A budget-friendly option you can try is The Ordinary’s Ascorbyl Glucoside Solution.
6. 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.
If you’re intrigued, Sunday Riley C.E.O. is an amazing tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate serum. It’s 15% and has a very moisturizing, lotion-like texture. It’s the recipe for glowing skin.
7. 3-O-Ethyl Ascorbic Acid
3-O-ethyl ascorbic acid is another highly popular form of vitamin C. This is the vitamin C derivative found in the newer vitamin C serums that tend to be more cosmetically pleasing.
It’s highly stable and soluble in both water and oil. This makes it suitable for most skin types. It has antioxidant, and anti-aging benefits and possesses all those fancy skin benefits associated with pure vitamin C (7).
Also, contrary to pure ascorbic acid, 3-o-ethyl ascorbic acid requires a pH level of 5.4 to be stable and effective (8). This is much more skin-friendly than pure ascorbic acid.
And this is probably why we have these new-generation vitamin C serums made with a high concentration.
If you’re looking for a 3-o-ethyl ascorbic acid serum, I can swear by Alpha-H Vitamin C Serum. It’s 10% vitamin C formulated into a very nice, non-sticky base. It’s also super hydrating for the skin but not greasy at all.
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 if you have sensitive skin. Plus, a study suggests that the phosphate forms of vitamin C are superior in terms of stability (9).
Personally, I have sensitive skin from rosacea. For me, derivatives deserve more attention than pure vitamin C. And from my experience, my skin is much happier with esters because I’m able to use my products daily without dealing with redness or irritation. If you’re like me, I’ve got an amazing round-up of the best vitamin C serums for rosacea that are all incredibly gentle.
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.
Some 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
- Pullar, J. M., Carr, A. C., & Vissers, M. (2017). The Roles of Vitamin C in Skin Health. Nutrients, 9(8), 866. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu9080866
- Al-Niaimi, F., & Chiang, N. (2017). Topical Vitamin C and the Skin: Mechanisms of Action and Clinical Applications. The Journal of clinical and aesthetic dermatology, 10(7), 14–17.
- 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.
- 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.
- Telang P. S. (2013). Vitamin C in dermatology. Indian dermatology online journal, 4(2), 143–146. https://doi.org/10.4103/2229-5178.110593
- 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 dermatology, 27(4), 376–382. https://doi.org/10.5021/ad.2015.27.4.376
- Chen, S. J., Hseu, Y. C., Gowrisankar, Y. V., Chung, Y. T., Zhang, Y. Z., Way, T. D., & Yang, H. L. (2021). The anti-melanogenic effects of 3-O-ethyl ascorbic acid via Nrf2-mediated α-MSH inhibition in UVA-irradiated keratinocytes and autophagy induction in melanocytes. Free radical biology & medicine, 173, 151–169. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.freeradbiomed.2021.07.030
- Liao, W. C., Huang, Y. T., Lu, L. P., & Huang, W. Y. (2018). Antioxidant Ability and Stability Studies of 3-O-Ethyl Ascorbic Acid, a Cosmetic Tyrosinase Inhibitor. Journal of cosmetic science, 69(4), 233–243.
- 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 medicine, 24, 102117. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nano.2019.102117