21 of the Best Vitamin C Serums for a Glowing Complexion

SKIN CARE REVIEWS

12.28.21DISCLAIMER
Best bet. The Carrot & Stick skincare bundle worth up to $240 for $88. Details below

A serum is the backbone of any effective skincare routine. While there’s no such thing as a miracle product, vitamin C serums have garnered a reputation for addressing multiple skin concerns effectively. The best vitamin C serum — or vitamin C oil for the face — reduces discoloration, softens the signs of age, brightens, and so much more.  

A vitamin C serum for the face is also considered an antioxidant serum because it neutralizes harmful free radicals such as sun exposure and environmental pollutants that cause premature aging. The best vitamin C serum can penetrate deep into dermal and hypodermal levels of the skin to restore its health and vibrancy. 

Whether you’re on the market for the best affordable vitamin C serum or vitamin C oil, there’s a formula on the market for you. If you’re not sure where to start looking or have questions about vitamin c serum benefits, we’ve got you covered. Here at the Derm Review, we’ve reviewed hundreds of products with a scientific lens to ensure you’re creating a skincare regimen that’s safe and effective. Ahead, 20 of the best vitamin C serums to help you restore a more radiant-looking complexion.

Best Vitamin C Serum: The List

BEST OVERALL

Best Overall: Carrot & Stick The Defence Serum

Best bet. The Carrot & Stick skincare bundle worth up to $240 for $88. Select 3 products, including our favorite Carrot & Stick The Defense Serum. Use code DERM20 for 20% off.

FULL LIST

Formulyst Active Serum Vitamin B, C, E, Ferulic + Niacinamide

SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic With 15% L-Ascorbic Acid

Mad Hippie Vitamin C Serum

Obagi Professional-C Serum 20%

Dr. Dennis Gross C + Collagen Brighten and Firm Vitamin C Serum

Drunk Elephant C-Firma Day Serum

Urban Skin Rx Super C Brightening Serum

Glow Recipe Pineapple-C Brightening Serum

Strivectin Super C Retinol Serum

Juice Beauty Blemish Clearing Serum

iS Clinical Pro-Heal Serum Advance +

Tatcha Violet-C Brightening Serum 20% Vitamin C + 10% AHAs

Murad Vitamin C Glycolic Brightening Serum 

Maelove The Glow Maker Anti-Oxidant Serum

Peter Thomas Roth Potent-C Power Serum

The Science Behind Vitamin C Serums

Vitamin C works as 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 by inhibiting the enzyme responsible for skin pigment, melanin. As a result, vitamin C helps discoloration issues (think brown spots), evens out skin tone, brightens, and increases radiance.

Additionally, when it comes to vitamin C serum benefits, research suggests that when an antioxidant serum is applied to the skin, it significantly reverses aging-related structural changes by influencing collagen and elastin synthesis. One study revealed that daily use of a vitamin C oil or a vitamin C serum for the face — for at least three months — improved the appearance of fine and coarse wrinkles of the face and neck and overall skin texture radiance.

What to Look for in the Best Vitamin C Serum

A vitamin C serum for the face is a powerful arsenal against aging, sun-damaged skin — but only if you’re using a quality product. Here’s what to look for. 

 

Type of Vitamin C

Choosing the suitable vitamin C serum for your skin type is vital. For example, if you have dry, mature skin, look for more moisturizing vitamin c serums containing lipid-soluble forms of vitamin C. A couple of examples are 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’re lighter.

 

Concentration

Keep an eye out for the serum’s concentration level of vitamin C 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.

 

Packaging

Look at how vitamin C serums are 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.

 

Precautions When Using a Vitamin C Serum for the Face

A vitamin C serum for the face should never be mixed with (separate) products containing AHAs or BHAs such as glycolic, salicylic, and lactic acids because vitamin C is also an acid. Additionally, it’s unstable, so the pH balance will be thrown off by layering these ingredients together, canceling out C’s multiple benefits. Niacinamide may also lessen C’s effects.

Retinol is another ingredient that shouldn’t be used with Vitamin C because they’re both potent active ingredients. Like C, retinol helps build collagen — but it also encourages skin cell turnover, so using it with an acid like Vitamin C can cause more irritation.

You can get the best of both worlds by using retinol at night and a vitamin C serum and sunscreen during the day. Retinol tends to work better with moisturizing ingredients like hyaluronic acid and ceramides when your skin is in repair mode while you’re asleep.

Note you will see vitamin C serums for the face on this list with a combination of these ingredients, but they are specifically formulated to be safe and effective. The big takeaway is not to mix and match products with these ingredients in your daytime or nighttime routine.

 

The Importance of a Patch Test

Although irritation is unlikely, you should always conduct a patch test before trying a new vitamin C serum for the face to determine how your skin will react. 

  • Select a small area of skin — like your forearm — that you can easily conceal in the event of a reaction.
  • Apply a small amount of vitamin C serum and wait 24 hours.
  • If you don’t experience any side effects, you can go on applying complete applications to your face — follow the product’s instructions as they can vary from formula to formula. 
  • Of course, a reaction can happen at any time, so discontinue use if you develop any form of irritation.

Woman using serum

Best Vitamin C Serums

BEST OVERALL

BEST: Carrot & Stick The Defence Serum
Why settle for just one type of vitamin C? The best vitamin C serum is this potent formula from Carrot & Stick. It’s 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 in the morning and evening to clean skin.

FULL LIST

Formulyst Active Serum Vitamin B, C, E, Ferulic + Niacinamide
This effective vitamin C serum from Formulyst 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 almost everyone can benefit from.

SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic With 15% L-Ascorbic Acid
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 the brand’s best-seller. 

While the medicinal smell puts some off, it dissipates almost instantaneously. The scent is telling you that you’re applying pure vitamin C (15%), vitamin E (1%), and ferulic acid (.5%.) This trio works hard to neutralize free radicals in just 4-5 drops each morning.

Mad Hippie Vitamin C Serum
This award-winning vitamin C serum contains a stable C derivative called sodium ascorbyl phosphate. It works to help prevent signs of aging while simultaneously improving skin firmness and brightening the complexion. Additional powerhouse antioxidants include ferulic acid and vitamin E.

Obagi Professional-C Serum 20%
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. 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 with normal to oily skin, not dry and mature.

Dr. Dennis Gross C + Collagen Brighten and Firm Vitamin C Serum
While technically, vitamin C is vital for collagen synthesis, this serum takes it to another level with the addition of collagen amino acids. There are also lactic and mandelic (a form of alpha hydroxy acid) acids to dissolve dead skin cells. A proprietary Energy Complex (CoQ10, superoxide dismutase, carnitine, and niacinamide) boosts radiance, improves firmness, and diminishes the appearance of pigmentation spots over time.

Drunk Elephant C-Firma Day Serum
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.

It contains 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 severe moisture boost while pumpkin ferment extract gently sweeps away dead skin cells.

Urban Skin Rx Super C Brightening Serum
The Urban Skin Rx Super C Brightening Serum can be used by anyone who has concerns with dark marks, uneven skin tone, and blemishes. However, it is not suitable for pregnant or nursing women and 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.

Glow Recipe Pineapple-C Brightening Serum
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. It’s formulated with 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 glow from within minus any irritation.

This lightweight formula 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.

Strivectin Super C Retinol Serum
Strivectin Super C Retinol Serum combines two of the best ingredients in skincare — vitamin C and retinol — into one lightweight serum. The formula includes three different forms of vitamin C and acerola cherry extract, a botanical extract that is naturally rich in vitamin C. When applied to the skin, vitamin C helps combat free radicals, support collagen synthesis, and reduce the formation of dark spots by inhibiting melanin production.

Juice Beauty Blemish Clearing Serum
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. Those suffering from acne will appreciate the addition of salicylic acid and naturally derived willow bark to help reduce breakouts and keep pores free from dirt, oil, and dead skin cells.

Coenzyme Q10 and natural fruit acids create a smoother, even 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.

iS Clinical Pro-Heal Serum Advance +
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 repair pigmentation issues.

Tatcha Violet-C Brightening Serum 20% Vitamin C + 10% AHAs
The bottle may be beautiful, but it’s what’s inside that 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 beautyberry helps boost the effectiveness of vitamin C while helping to stabilize the formula. At the same time, angelica root brightens and assists in the fading of pigmentation and scarring.

Murad Vitamin C Glycolic Brightening Serum
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. This formula has no fragrances or artificial colors, so it’s suitable for all skin types.

Maelove The Glow Maker Anti-Oxidant Serum
Maelove vitamin C serum contains many 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. It honestly 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’s constantly sold out.

Peter Thomas Roth Potent-C Power Serum
This power-packed serum contains THD ascorbate, an ultra-stable scientific breakthrough ingredient 50 X more potent than traditional Vitamin C, so it visibly reduces the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and dullness. The formula is intensified with 3% vitamin E and 2% ferulic acid, two incredibly effective antioxidants and ultra-hydrating hyaluronic acid.

Vitamin C Serums: The Bottom Line

Overall, the best vitamin C serum is Carrot & Stick The Defense Serum.

While there’s no such thing as a miracle product, vitamin C serums have garnered a reputation for addressing multiple skin concerns effectively. The best vitamin C serum — or vitamin C oil for the face — reduces discoloration, softens the signs of age, brightens, and so much more.

Vitamin C works as 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 by inhibiting the enzyme responsible for skin pigment, melanin. As a result, vitamin C helps discoloration issues (think brown spots), evens out skin tone, brightens, and increases radiance.

Additionally, research suggests that when vitamin C is applied to the skin, it significantly reverses aging-related structural changes by influencing collagen and elastin synthesis. When shopping for the best vitamin C serum, look for the correct type of C for your skin type, as noted above.

As far as concentration goes, 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. Lastly, look at 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.

What’s the best vitamin C serum, in your opinion? Let us know in the comments below!

Here are some of the most frequently asked questions about vitamin C skincare.

 

FAQs

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. Everyone can benefit from using a vitamin C serum, 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.
Yes, you can use a vitamin C serum every morning and night after cleansing and toning and before moisturizing. The exception to this rule is if you’re using products with active ingredients such as retinol, niacinamide, or alpha- and beta-hydroxy acids. In this case, it would be best to use those formulas at night and your vitamin C serum during the day, along with sunscreen.

Absolutely. These ingredients can help create a more effective skincare routine when worn together. Each one has its own set of skincare benefits, some of which we mentioned, but they can form a more potent formula that offers increased results when combined.

Perricone, Dermalogica, and Kiehl’s are a few brands with hyaluronic acid products that we’ve reviewed.

If you’re applying a Vitamin C serum and hyaluronic acid separately, start with the Vitamin C first to help fortify the skin barrier and lock in the moisture with the hyaluronic acid afterward. Wait approximately two minutes after applying C to ensure it’s fully absorbed before proceeding with HA.

As with any skincare product promising noticeable results, patience (and consistent use) is a virtue. Expect to wait anywhere between 4-12 weeks to start seeing an improvement in your skin, which depends on the current state of your skin — the severity of pigmentation, tone, radiance, fine lines, wrinkles, etc.
Since vitamin C oxidizes quickly — or breaks down when exposed to oxygen — it has a relatively short shelf life. A conventional or “beauty product” fridge is a great place to store your vitamin C serum because the coolness can help delay the oxidation process longer than if it’s stored at room temperature.
When vitamin C oxidizes, it loses its potency and turns brown. It has the potential to stain your skin because C degrades into erythrulose, the same ingredient you’ll find in many self-tanning products.
A few signs that you’re overusing vitamin C include new or increased blackheads and skin breakouts. You only need about 2-4 drops of serum 1-2 times a day. Remember, even though little product is required, serums are more concentrated and penetrate the skin more effectively than moisturizers.
While vitamin C’s extremely acidic pH provides maximum formula stability, it offers limited skin compatibility. With that said, its exfoliating properties can weaken barrier function, which can cause sensitive skin types to peel, turn red, and other forms of irritation.
Vitamin C reduces the amount of melanin your pigment skin cells produce, promoting an all-over lightening effect while helping to even out the appearance of discoloration. However, stubborn dark spots or patches may respond better to an over-the-counter (OTC) or prescription skin lightening cream.
A Vitamin C contains anti-inflammatory properties, which help reduce the redness and swelling associated with acne. It also helps improve the appearance of acne wounds.

Sources:
“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. 

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