Cosmetic Surgery Tips

Why Does Vitamin C Make My Skin Peel

Skin care enthusiasts tout vitamin C skin treatments and serums as having a range of benefits, such as balancing skin tone, reducing hyperpigmentation, and reducing the signs of aging.

Many manufacturers package vitamin C products as serums, which are thinner in consistency than lotions or creams.

In this article, we’ll examine vitamin c serum side effects and how to treat vitamin c skin irritation.

Why Does Vitamin C Make My Skin Peel

What exactly does vitamin C do for your skin? Well, it has the potential to help with a lot of issues, especially when applied topically in serum form. “Vitamin C has a wide range of protective and anti-aging effects for the skin,” Annie Chiu, MD, a board-certified cosmetic and general dermatologist on faculty at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, tells SELF. “Serums typically offer the highest concentrations of active vitamin C and tend to have better skin penetration compared to other vitamin C products, like creams and cleansers.” Here are a few of the biggies when it comes to benefits:

Vitamin C can help reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.

That’s because the antioxidant can help your skin produce collagen—a protein that gives your complexion a firmer, bouncier feel, which in turn helps to improve the look of fine lines and wrinkles, Dr. Chiu explains.

Vitamin C can help brighten your skin.

With consistent use, your skin can become more even in tone—and downright glowy!— because vitamin C inhibits the over-production of melanin, the substance in your body that produces pigmentation in your hair, eyes, and skin. Some areas of the skin will create too much melanin which is what leads to hyperpigmentation. This often manifests as darkened skin discoloration, says Dr. Chiu.

Vitamin C can help protect your skin.

Yep, it may help prevent skin damage that can be caused by environmental aggressors, like UV rays, pollution, or smoke, among others. “Vitamin C is an antioxidant, which helps fight free radicals (unstable molecules in the body) that age the skin,” says Dr. Chiu. It has some possible healing effects too. “Vitamin C has anti-inflammatory properties and boosts wound healing by helping cells migrate to the area of the skin injury,” she says.

Is vitamin C good for acne-prone skin?

People with acne can potentially benefit from adding a vitamin C serum to their routines, but there are a few nuances to consider. A 2013 research review in the Indian Journal of Dermatology, Venereology, and Leprology suggests that topical vitamin C can improve acne lesions in up to 77% of patients.

As for acne scars, it’s good for that too, thanks to those collagen-boosting and skin-brightening powers that were mentioned earlier. (You’ll just want to avoid any vitamin C formulas that are heavy or pore-clogging like oils or rich creams that often further exacerbate acne.)

Refrain from getting too vitamin C happy if you have sensitive skin to deal with. Dr. Chiu warns that because vitamin C is a skin-care “active”—meaning it’s particularly potent—applying too much of it on your face can potentially lead to more breakouts or irritation. Keep it to a max of two applications a day when a formula that has no more than 10% vitamin C each time. If, after two weeks, your skin hasn’t adjusted to the addition of the vitamin C, or worse, your acne has escalated, lay off the product, says Dr. Lamb.

What should you look for on the label of a vitamin C product?

Different products may contain a wide variety of concentrations of vitamin C. In general, they range from below 5% all the way up to 30%, Dr. Hogan says.

Remember, people with dry and/or sensitive skin probably want to stick with lower concentrations, around 5% or less, since they are less likely to be irritating. Even if you don’t fall into the dry or sensitive skin category, it’s best to start at a lower concentration and work your way up to see what your skin can tolerate. Most people should avoid going past a 20% concentration because that can be irritating to even the most seasoned vitamin C user—and that concentration isn’t necessarily any more beneficial to the skin anyway, research shows.

You’ll also want to take a look at the label and make sure vitamin C is listed as one of the primary (first few) ingredients on the product packaging, says Dr. Chiu. While vitamin C comes in a number of forms, she recommends L-ascorbic acid as “the gold standard of active vitamin C” because it’s well studied and gets straight to work once it hits your skin, rather than your body having to convert it into something it recognizes.³ Other vitamin C derivatives you can look for on a label include sodium ascorbyl phosphate, ascorbyl palmitate, retinyl ascorbate, tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate, and magnesium ascorbyl phosphate. She also suggests looking for supportive active ingredients, like other antioxidants such as vitamin E and ferulic acid, which may help make vitamin C even more effective at protecting skin against damage caused by UV rays. Formulas with vitamin E, hyaluronic acid, and niacinamide will also have soothing benefits to combat any potential irritation.

What ingredients shouldn’t be mixed with vitamin C?

Though vitamin C is generally safe to use in most circumstances, there are a few ingredients you’ll want to avoid cocktailing it with. Because vitamin C is an acid, you shouldn’t combine it with other skin-care acids such as alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) like salicylic acid, and beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs) like lactic and glycolic acids. “Mixing with other acids at the same time can change the vitamin C’s pH and render it useless,” Dr. Chiu says. Plus, using multiple acids on your face all at once is a recipe for angry skin.

For similar reasons, you’ll also want to avoid using benzoyl peroxide—a well-known acne fighter—at the same time as vitamin C. “Benzoyl peroxide oxidizes the vitamin C and also makes it less effective,” says Dr. Chiu. Instead, use benzoyl peroxide at night and vitamin C in the morning, or use them on different days—they just shouldn’t be layered onto your skin at the same time.

Is it safe to use vitamin C with retinol?

In the past, it was thought that you should avoid using vitamin C products with retinoids—vitamin A derivatives that encourage skin cell turnover—at all costs. And that’s still sort of true. While they’re both powerful, science-backed skin-care ingredients, they work best in different skin environments, so using them at the same time may make both less effective. And because they both promote cell turnover, experts do still advise against using these two ingredients together, Dr. Hogan says.

But it’s generally okay to use them on the same day at different times. Experts typically recommend using vitamin C products in the morning and retinoids at night. This route often ends up working out best since retinol products can increase the skin’s sensitivity to UV rays, which is why it’s better to save them for p.m. use.

How do you use vitamin C serum in your skin-care routine?

The right moment to use vitamin C in your skin-care routine depends on what kind of product it is, Dr. Hogan explains. Serums are the most popular pick, but you can also get vitamin C in cleansers, moisturizers, masks, and even sunscreens, Dr. Hogan says. Of course, a product that stays on your skin for hours (i.e. a moisturizer rather than a cleanser) is going to work longer and harder, but the type of vitamin C used in the formulation matters too.

“The effectiveness will vary depending on which form of vitamin C is used, as well as the concentration and the other ingredients in the product,” Dr. Chiu says. As we mentioned, you’ll want to look for a research-backed form of vitamin C like L-ascorbic acid on the ingredient list, somewhere between 5% to 20% (depending on how sensitive your skin is), and bonus points if it’s paired with other antioxidants like vitamin E or ferulic acid.

However, if you want the most potent effects, you’ll want to reach for a serum, as the topical skin-care benefits of vitamin C have been studied most extensively in this type of formulation. Not sure how to add it to your routine? Here’s the best way to apply a vitamin C serum:

  • After cleansing your skin, gently press your vitamin C serum into your skin. A dime-size amount is plenty—more isn’t always better.
  • Once your vitamin C serum has dried down, apply moisturizer. This order is crucial because applying moisturizer before your serum could block your skin from absorbing all of its goodness.
  • If applying in the morning, follow with a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF 30 or higher.

Top 3 benefits of vitamin C serum

1. Sun protection

Woman on the beach applies sunscreen to face in addition to using vitamin c serum.
Vitamin C serum may help protect the skin from sun damage, but a person should continue to use sunscreen as well.

Vitamin C is an antioxidant. This means that it reduces the damage that free radicals may otherwise inflict on the body. Free radicals are particles that cause inflammation.

According to the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University, some of the antioxidant effects Vitamin C has on the skin include:

  • reducing premature cell death
  • reducing the release of cytokines, which are inflammatory compounds
  • reducing damage resulting from exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light

While a person should not replace sunscreen with topical vitamin C for skin protection, applying topical vitamin C as well may help protect against harmful effects from the sun.

2. Preventing premature aging

Vitamin C cannot reverse the appearance of wrinkles that develop naturally over time. However, vitamin C serums can help reduce premature aging by protecting the skin from the untimely skin wrinkles that sun exposure can cause.

Vitamin C also helps reduce premature wrinkling by stimulating the growth of collagen. Collagen is a protein that provides structure and elasticity to the skin.

A small scale studyTrusted Source found that applying a 5% vitamin C solution for 6 months helped increase skin thickness compared with a placebo solution. Thicker, collagen-rich skin is less likely to show wrinkling than thinner skin.

Although the study enrolled only 60 participants, it shows promise in supporting vitamin C as a collagen booster.

3. Creating an even skin tone

Some people apply topical vitamin C to treat hyperpigmentation. These are areas of skin that appear darker than the surrounding area. Sun exposure or hormonal changes linked with aging usually cause these darker areas.

Researchers theorize that vitamin C may help reduce melanin production, according to the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University.

Melanin is a pigment responsible for the darker appearance of hyperpigmented areas. By reducing its production, a person may help reduce the appearance of darker areas.

How do vitamin C serums work?

Manufacturers face some challenges when creating topical vitamin C applications because vitamin C can break down in the presence of factors such as air, heat, and light.

Some preparations contain ascorbic acid, which is the natural form of vitamin C. The skin absorbs ascorbic acid well, but it does not always work well when mixed with certain solutions. Ascorbyl palmitate has more stability when mixed with other solutions, but the skin absorbs it less effectively.

Skin care manufacturers package vitamin C into serums because it allows them to deliver higher vitamin C concentrations that the skin absorbs quickly.

Manufacturers traditionally formulate serums as water- or oil-based products that the skin can quickly absorb. Some manufacturers will encapsulate vitamin C so that it does not become exposed to the air until a person rubs it on their skin. This minimizes the time the vitamin C has to break down.

Most dermatologists recommend applying serums after cleansing the skin and before applying moisturizers. This allows the skin to most effectively absorb the serum.

Manufacturers may combine vitamin C with other known antioxidants to increase the serum’s effectiveness. Examples include vitamin E and ferulic acid. These ingredient combinations may work better together to help reduce and reverse signs of aging.

Vitamin C can be very acidic, and serums can cause skin irritation in some people, particularly in high concentrations. When using a vitamin C serum for the first time, apply a thin layer every other day and gradually increase to daily applications.

Also, combining vitamin C with retinol has the potential to irritate the skin further. If a person uses retinol in their skin care routine, they may wish to use vitamin C serum in the morning and any products that contain retinol at night. This method maximizes the sun-protective effect of vitamin C while minimizing retinol’s potential to increase sun sensitivity.

How To Treat Vitamin C Skin Irritation

All of your active skincare products should be stopped in order to allow the skin to heal if you show symptoms of irritation or an allergic response to a Vitamin C product. Use a mild cleanser and a basic moisturizer to prevent irritating your irritated skin as you wait for it to get better.

Vitamin C Serum Side Effects

As with any skin care product, some people may experience side effects when using vitamin C serum. Some of the most common side effects include:

  • itching
  • redness
  • skin irritation
  • tingling sensation upon application

While some people might experience a slight burning or tingling sensation when using the serum, it should not last long. If a person experiences continued burning or signs of an allergic reaction, such as swelling or hives, they should immediately wash their skin to remove the serum.


Vitamin C serums have the potential to improve skin’s appearance by preventing wrinkling and reducing the appearance of hyperpigmented areas.

Many drugstores stock vitamin C serum. Alternatively, people can choose from a range of products online.

A person must apply vitamin C serums consistently over several months before they see results because it takes time for the skin cells to replenish.

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