There’s no such thing as a miracle treatment when it comes to combating age, though vitamin C comes pretty close. Why? Because it’s a powerful antioxidant that protects your skin from elements like the sun (though it is not a replacement for sunscreen), pollution, and cigarette smoke. Vitamin C also discourages melanin production in the skin, which means it help] hyperpigmentation issues (think brown spots), evens out skin tone, and increases radiance. As if that wasn’t enough, research suggests that when vitamin C is applied to the skin, it significantly reverses aging-related structural changes by influencing collagen and elastin synthesis. A vitamin C serum is the best way to deliver this active ingredient into the deeper layers of your skin.
Best Overall: Formulyst Active Serum Vitamin B, C, E, Ferulic + Niacinamide
Best Serum Powered by Plants: Carrot & Stick The Defense Serum
Best Dermatologist Pick: SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic With 15% L-Ascorbic Acid
Best Budget: The Ordinary Serum Ascorbyl Tetraisopalmitate Solution 20% in Vitamin F
Best Budget: The Ordinary Vitamin C Suspension 30% in Silicone
Best for Hyperpigmentation: Hyper Clear Brightening Clearing Vitamin C Serum
Best for Anti-Aging: Obagi Professional-C Serum 20%
Best for Firming: Dr. Dennis Gross C + Collagen Brighten and Firm Vitamin C Serum
Best for Sensitive Skin: Drunk Elephant C-Firma Day Serum
Best for Sun Damage Skin: Urban Skin Rx Super C Brightening Serum
Best for Oily Skin: Glow Recipe Pineapple-C Brightening Serum
Best Ingredients in Skin Care: Strivectin Super C Retinol Serum
Best for Acne-Prone Skin: Juice Beauty Blemish Clearing Serum
Best Natural: TruSkin Naturals Vitamin C
Best for Rosacea: iS Clinical Pro-Heal Serum Advance +
Best for Exfoliating: Tatcha Violet-C Brightening Serum 20% Vitamin C + 10% AHAs
Best for Evening Out Skin Tone: Murad Vitamin C Glycolic Brightening Serum
Best as a Makeup Primer: Maelove The Glow Maker Anti-Oxidant Serum
Best for Hydrating: Peter Thomas Roth Potent-C Power Serum
Best Drugstore Buy: CeraVe Skin Renewing Vitamin C Serum
Best French Pharmacy Find: La Roche Posay 10% Vitamin C Serum
When to Start Using a Vitamin C Serums
It’s never too late to start using vitamin C because it has the power to suppress skin damage by increasing the protein synthesis of collagen. Not to mention, prevention is probably the best anti-aging arsenal there is. From younger individuals who are starting to see the first signs of aging in their 20s to more mature skin types with or without the visible effects of sun damage, everyone can benefit from using a vitamin C serum.
What to Look for in a Vitamin C Serum
- To get the best vitamin C serum benefits, the first thing to look for is how the vitamin C serum is packaged. While traditionally, dark glass bottles were the preferred material, companies have made a lot of packaging innovations to keep the C stable. When C is exposed to light, the product turns yellow — you don’t want this to happen because it may darken your skin instead of helping with any hyperpigmentation issues. Always store your vitamin C serum in a cool, dark place.
- Next, you’re going to want to choose the right vitamin C serum for your skin type. For example, If you have dry, mature skin, look for more moisturizing serums containing lipid-soluble forms of vitamin C, like ascorbyl palmitate and tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate. If you’re on the oilier side, a serum with L-ascorbic acid and sodium ascorbyl phosphate is better because these ingredients are water-soluble, which means they are lighter and better suited for an oily skin type.
- Lastly, keep an eye out for the concentration level of vitamin C in the serum to ensure its effectiveness. Most experts agree that a level between 10 and 20% is the sweet spot — 8% is too low, whereas going over 20% could cause irritation and isn’t any more effective.
Related: Best Face Serums
The 21 Best Vitamin C Serums for the Face
Navigating the overwhelming selection of vitamin C serums on the market can be overwhelming, but don’t worry; we’ve done all of the groundwork for you.
Best Overall: Carrot & Stick The Defense Serum ($60)
Best Serum Powered by Plants- Why settle for just one type of vitamin C? The Defense Serum from Carrot & Stick is packed with three vitamin C derivatives which work together to promote collagen and visibly brighten the skin. The daily dose of vitamin C also helps fight free radical damage and enhance cellular longevity. Apply morning and evening to clean skin and allow to dry.
Best Serum Powered by Plants: Formulyst Active Serum Vitamin B, C, E, Ferulic + Niacinamide ($80)
The best vitamin C serum is this potent formula from Formulyst. It contains the highest concentration of pure vitamins C (a potent 20%), B, and E, ferulic acid (an antioxidant that works to boost the effects of other antioxidants), and niacinamide — one of two primary forms of vitamin B3 that helps manage acne, rosacea, and pigmentation issues while softening wrinkles. With that said, this is a vitamin C serum everyone can get on board with.
Best Dermatologist Pick: SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic With 15% L-Ascorbic Acid ($166)
The best vitamin C serum recommended by a dermatologist (or shall we say dermatologists) has won copious awards, features patented ingredients, and continues to be a consumer favorite all over the world. Developed by SkinCeuticals, this product is their best seller. While the medicinal smell puts some off, it dissipates almost instantaneously and what that scent is telling you is that you’re applying pure vitamin C (15%), vitamin E (1%), and ferulic acid (.5%) that’s working hard to neutralize free radicals in just 4-5 drops each morning.
Best Budget: The Ordinary Serum Ascorbyl Tetraisopalmitate Solution 20% in Vitamin F ($17.80)
There are numerous articles on whether or not products from The Ordinary are “worth the hype,” but truth be told; this is one of the best affordable vitamin C serums for those who are tightening their purse strings yet are looking for results. It’s formulated with ascorbyl tetraisopalmitate (known to have skin brightening benefits) and a stable, oil-soluble derivative of Vitamin C that can be used in higher concentrations without irritation. Vitamin F has anti-inflammatory and hydrating benefits, making it perfect for those with sensitive skin or skin conditions such as eczema or psoriasis.
Related: Best Niacinamide Serums
Best Budget:The Ordinary Vitamin C Suspension 30% in Silicone
The Ordinary Vitamin C Suspension 30% in Silicone is the newest addition to The Ordinary Vitamin C line up. This serum combines pure L-ascorbic acid powder with silicones to give the serum a silky feel when applied to the skin. This is the perfect The Ordinary Vitamin C serum for people who are new to using vitamin C and want something that is easy and feels good to apply. L-ascorbic acid provides numerous benefits to the skin, such as protecting the skin from free radical damage, supporting collagen synthesis, and inhibiting the production of melanin. The result? A more even, brighter, firmer complexion.
Best for Hyperpigmentation: Hyper Clear Brightening Clearing Vitamin C Serum ($36)
While all vitamin C serums brighten the skin to a certain degree, this formula incorporates the addition of skin-lightening kojic acid, fruit enzymes, bearberry, and turmeric to brighten, smooth fine lines, diminish rough texture. It also dramatically clears acne scars and dark spots caused by hyperpigmentation. Expect to see results in as little as four weeks.
Best for Anti-Aging: Obagi Professional-C Serum 20% ($127)
Obagi has been going strong for 32-plus years and has only improved over time, which is why it’s on this best-of list (sidenote: if you haven’t tried their ELASTIderm Eye Cream), you’re missing out.) This no-nonsense vitamin C serum contains one of the highest concentrations of 20% L-ascorbic acid (vitamin C) you can find. While it helps to minimize the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, note that Obagi suggests this super serum is best suited for those who have normal to oily skin, not dry and mature.
Best for Firming: Dr. Dennis Gross C + Collagen Brighten and Firm Vitamin C Serum ($80)
While technically, vitamin C is vital for collagen synthesis, this serum takes it to another level with the addition of collagen amino acids. There’s also lactic and mandelic (a form of alpha hydroxy acid) acids to dissolve dead skin cells, and a proprietary Energy Complex (CoQ10, superoxide dismutase, carnitine and niacinamide) to boost radiance, improve firmness, and diminish the appearance of pigmentation spots over time.
Best for Sensitive Skin: Drunk Elephant C-Firma Day Serum ($80)
Here’s the fascinating thing about this serum: It has what Drunk Elephant calls a “reservoir effect,” which means the product stays active on the skin for up to 72 hours — even if you’ve washed your face or rubbed your skin. It’s desirable for sensitive skin because it has a pH of 3.3, and is void of essential oils, silicones, and fragrance. What it does contain is a powerful blend of l-ascorbic and ferulic acids to promote a brighter, firmer, and more even-looking complexion. The addition of sodium hyaluronate crosspolymer (a modified form of hyaluronic acid) provides a serious moisture boost while pumpkin ferment extract gently sweeps away dead skin cells.
Related: Best Anti Aging Face Serums
Best for Sun Damage Skin:Urban Skin Rx Super C Brightening Serum
The Urban Skin Rx Super C Brightening Serum is a brightening vitamin C serum that can be used by anyone who has concerns with dark marks, uneven skin tone, and blemishes. However, it is not suitable for women who are pregnant or nursing and those with sensitive skin. Brightening ingredients in this serum include 20% ascorbic acid (vitamin C), ferulic acid, and kojic acid, which work synergistically to improve the appearance of dark spots and sun damage. This serum also contains ingredients such as hyaluronic acid to improve skin hydration and peptides to reduce the appearance of fine lines while encouraging a fuller, brighter look.
Best for Oily Skin: Glow Recipe Pineapple-C Brightening Serum ($49)
Don’t be fooled by the cheeky packaging. While all skin types can benefit from this vitamin C serum, according to Glow Recipe, it’s great for those with oily skin. The formula is lightweight and contains natural alpha hydroxy acids and bromelain enzymes from pineapple to gently exfoliate the dead skin cells that stick to oily skin and cause breakouts and a dull complexion. Props for containing three potent forms of vitamin C (22% Pineapple Juice, pure Ascorbic acid, and stable 3-O-Ethyl Ascorbic acid) to combat acne scars, and hyperpigmentation. Skin soothing aloe and chamomile ensure that the skin gets that from within looking glow minus any irritation.
Best Ingredients in Skin Care: Strivectin Super C Retinol Serum
Strivectin Super C Retinol Serum combines two of the best ingredients in skin care — vitamin C and retinol — into one lightweight serum. The formula includes three different forms of vitamin C, as well as acerola cherry extract, a botanical extract that is naturally rich in vitamin C. When applied to the skin, vitamin C helps to combat free radicals, support collagen synthesis, and reduce the formation of dark spots by inhibiting melanin production.
In addition to vitamin C and retinol, this serum contains NIA-114, the brand’s proprietary form of niacin, to strengthen the skin barrier. Together, these key ingredients are said to restore radiance and clarity, smooth away fine lines and uneven texture, and visibly firm and improve elasticity.
Best for Acne-Prone Skin: Juice Beauty Blemish Clearing Serum ($30)
While you may not guess that this is a vitamin C serum based on the name, rest assured it’s formulated with skin brightening C, along with vitamins B5 and E to ward off free radical damage. However, those suffering with acne will appreciate the addition of salicylic acid and naturally derived willow bark to reduce breakouts and keep pores free from dirt, oil, and dead skin cells. Coenzyme Q10 and natural fruit acids create a smoother, even, and glowing complexion. This serum, along with the entire line of Juice Beauty products, is vegan, formulated with organic ingredients and free from any synthetic or potentially harmful additives.
Related: Best Hyaluronic Acid Serums
Best Natural: TruSkin Naturals Vitamin C
The vitamin C serum by TruSkin Naturals is said to provide several benefits to the skin, including fighting free radicals, brightening and evening skin tone, and reducing signs of aging. The formula includes antioxidant vitamins C and E, which work synergistically to combat free radicals, the unstable molecules that contribute to the formation of premature wrinkles and fine lines on the skin.
TruSkin Naturals Vitamin C also includes several botanical extracts to improve skin hydration, such as organic aloe vera leaf extract and botanical hyaluronic acid. The final key ingredient in this serum is MSM, or methylsulfonylmethane. MSM is a naturally occurring sulfur compound that has the ability to strengthen skin by boosting collagen production. The result is smoother, firmer skin.
Best for Rosacea: iS Clinical Pro-Heal Serum Advance + ($155)
It can be tricky for those with rosacea to find active products that don’t irritate their condition, but this one hits the mark — even though it’s a bit on the pricey side. Vitamin C works synergistically with vitamins E and A to calm, heal, and restore the skin — everything inflamed, acne-prone rosacea skin needs. Other star ingredients include anti-aging olive leaf extract and skin lightening kojic acid, which helps to repair pigmentation issues.
Best for Exfoliating: Tatcha Violet-C Brightening Serum 20% Vitamin C + 10% AHAs ($88)
The bottle may be beautiful, but it’s what’s inside that really counts. Suitable for all skin types, this lightweight serum combines 20% vitamin C, alpha hydroxy acid, lactic acid, and mild fruit acids to increase cell turnover and gently exfoliate the skin. The addition of Japanese beauty berry helps boost the effectiveness of vitamin C while helping to stabilize the formula, while angelica root, brightens and assists in the fading of pigmentation and scarring.
Best for Evening Out Skin Tone: Murad Vitamin C Glycolic Brightening Serum ($80)
This unique serum harnesses the power of gold-stabilized vitamin c and glycolic acid to provide optimal brightening results — 83% of users noticed a difference in four weeks. Vitamin C also helps with uneven skin tone and hyperpigmentation while the glycolic acid increases cell turnover rate, removes dead skin cells, and promotes a smooth and radiant complexion. There are no fragrance or artificial colors in this formula, so it’s suitable for all skin types.
Related: Best Retinol Serum
Best as a Makeup Primer: Maelove The Glow Maker Anti-Oxidant Serum ($27.95)
This popular serum contains a lot of the same buzz-worthy ingredients (think a high 15% concentration of C, vitamin E and ferulic acid) as some of the other cult serums, but for a fraction of the cost — and it really does give the skin a glowing appearance. While it’s suitable for all skin types, the addition of soothing natural extracts like grape, aloe, magnolia, and citrus make it perfect for those with sensitive skin. The hidden benefit of this serum is that it’s also an incredible makeup primer. You’ll be lucky if you can get your hands on a bottle because it is constantly sold out.
Best for Hydrating: Peter Thomas Roth Potent-C Power Serum ($98)
For starters, this power packed serum contains THD ascorbate, an ultra-stable scientific breakthrough ingredient 50 X more powerful than traditional Vitamin C, so it visibly reduces the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and dullness. The formula is intensified with the addition of 3% vitamin E and 2% ferulic acid, two incredibly effective antioxidants, and ultra-hydrating hyaluronic acid.
Best Drugstore Buy: CeraVe Skin Renewing Vitamin C Serum ($15.69)
This popular drugstore favorite features 10% pure L-ascorbic acid to visibly brighten the complexion and even out the skin tone. Three essential ceramides, hyaluronic acid and vitamin B 5 work together to soothe, improve texture, and restore the skin’s protective barrier, making it a suitable formula for all skin types.
Best French Pharmacy Find: La Roche Posay 10% Vitamin C Serum ($39.99)
This vitamin C serum by La Roche Posay is said to leave skin more radiant, softer, and hydrated. This serum contains 10% ascorbic acid, the active form of vitamin C, that provides several different benefits to the skin. Perhaps the most well-known benefit is its ability to protect the skin from free radicals due to its potent antioxidant activity. Ascorbic acid also supports collagen synthesis and helps to fade dark spots/brighten the skin tone.
Unfortunately, this serum contains a high concentration of denatured alcohol (it is the fifth highest concentration ingredient). Alcohol gives products a quick-drying finish, immediately degreases the skin, and imparts a weightless feel. However, these short term benefits can lead to long term problems. The major problem with using high concentrations of denatured alcohol is that this ingredient is well known to cause skin dryness, irritation, and even disruption of the skin barrier.
Related: Best Hydrating Serums
The Final Word
Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that protects your skin from elements like the sun (though it is not a replacement for sunscreen), pollution, and cigarette smoke. Vitamin C also discourages melanin production in the skin, which means it helps hyperpigmentation issues (think brown spots), evens out skin tone, increases radiance, and stimulates collagen production. When looking for a vitamin C serum, keep an eye out for strength (10-20% is a good benchmark), packaging to ensure stability, and the formula to ensure it’s suitable for your skin type. Everyone can benefit from the power of vitamin C and it’s never too early — or late — to incorporate a vitamin C serum into your skincare routine.
“Vitamin C in Dermatology,” US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, April-June 2013.
“The Roles of Vitamin C in Skin Health,” US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, August 2017.
“Effect of Vitamin C and its Derivatives On Collagen Synthesis and Cross-linking By Normal Human Fibroblasts,” National Library of Medicine.