Acne: it’s not just a nightmare for teenagers. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, it’s the most common skin condition in the United States, with 50 million Americans suffering symptoms from pesky pustules to painful cysts.
While there is no one-size-fits-all cure, treatments abound. From special diets to birth control pills to topical ingredients both well-known (salicylic acid) and wacky (snail slime), acne sufferers are constantly on the lookout for the next magic skin-clearing potion.
But the latest skincare holy grail on the scene isn’t magic, and it’s far from new. We’re talking about vitamin C—specifically, vitamin C that’s applied directly to the surface of the skin, as opposed to consumed.
While studies on the link between topical vitamin C and acne are currently limited, the results of these studies have been promising, and the cosmetics industry hasn’t waited to act. In recent years, the market has exploded with vitamin C serums, moisturizers, and cleansers claiming to clear acne, brighten skin, and reduce dark spots—many of which have earned the seal of approval from dermatologists.
In this article, we’ll talk about why vitamin C is necessary for healthy skin, discuss the difference between dietary and topical vitamin C, and uncover ways it may reduce acne and acne scarring.
4 Ways Vitamin C Benefits Your Skin
Vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid, is a water-soluble vitamin that your body uses to form and heal skin, bones, and tissue. This essential micronutrient plays a critical role in skin repair, wound healing, and the production of collagen. Our bodies can’t create vitamin C independently, so we need to make sure we get enough of it through our diets or supplements.
There are two main ways that vitamin C positively affects skin health:
Neutralizes Free Radicals
Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant. This means that it protects against cell-damaging free radicals, which are produced both by our bodies, and by external factors like UV rays, smoking, and air pollution.
Protects, Heals, and Produces New Skin
Vitamin C naturally stimulates collagen synthesis, which helps your body build healthier, stronger, and more supple skin. Collagen is an abundant protein in the body that provides our skin with elasticity and structure, enables cell turnover, and aids in wound healing.
How Does Vitamin C Help Acne?
While more exhaustive studies are needed, topical vitamin C has been observed to have the following positive effects:
Reduces Inflammation, Redness, and Swelling
As a potent anti-inflammatory agent, vitamin C may reduce the redness and swelling that comes along with acne lesions. It can also help keep your skin from producing an excess of sebum – another word for oil.
When our pores get clogged with a mix of sebum, dead skin cells, and bacteria, they become a breeding ground for acne. One double-blind clinical trial showed “significant improvements” in acne lesions treated with a vitamin C lotion when compared to a control.
May Heal Acne Scars
Because of its role in increasing collagen production, topical vitamin C may be an effective treatment for acne scars. Our skin “turns over” every 40-56 days—meaning our body sheds dead skin cells and replaces them with new ones. By bumping up collagen production, vitamin C can help increase cell turnover, and in turn, fade scars.
Improves Hyperpigmentation, Dark Spots, and Overall Appearance
Topical vitamin C has been shown to have anti-pigmentary effects, because of its role in inhibiting the enzyme responsible for melanin production. This is why you’ll see many vitamin C skincare products geared toward reducing dark spots.
It won’t change or lighten your skin color, but it may counteract skin dullness, brightening its appearance and giving you that healthy glow. If you see a skincare product that uses the word “brightening,” chances are that it contains vitamin C.
How to Treat Acne with Topical Vitamin C
Vitamin C can be found in a variety of skincare products, including serums, moisturizers, cleansers, and masks. It is most popular in its serum form, which tends to be highly concentrated. A few drops of vitamin C serum can be applied to the skin after cleansing, and either before or after moisturizing.
When shopping for skincare products, you may see some of the following terms:
- L-ascorbic acid
- Magnesium ascorbyl phosphate (MAP)
But don’t be intimidated by the long names: these are just the three most common topical formulations of vitamin C. The jury’s still out on which combination of ingredients and what concentrations of vitamin C produces the best results for your particular type of acne and your skin type. Be sure to consult your dermatologist for guidance.
How to Promote Healthy Skin with Dietary Vitamin C
Despite topical vitamin C’s promising acne results, the effects may only be skin-deep. There’s currently no evidence to support that dietary vitamin C affects acne specifically. That said, boosting your vitamin C levels can contribute to healthy skin overall.
While vitamin C deficiency is uncommon in developed countries, it can occur in smokers or those experiencing drug and alcohol dependency. Here are two ways to ensure you’re getting enough:
Get Vitamin C from Food
One of the simplest ways to keep your vitamin C levels up is to make sure you’re eating the right foods. Good sources of vitamin C include:
- Citrus fruits: oranges, kiwi, lemon, grapefruit
- Bell peppers
- Cruciferous vegetables: broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower
- White potatoes
Take a Vitamin C Supplement
As always, when your diet is inadequate, supplements can be used to fill in the gaps. Vitamin C supplements are available in the form of pills, dissolvable tablets, patches, powders like Emergen-C, and even vitamin-infused toothpaste.
Healthy Skin Starts with Healthy Habits
Even though there’s no definitive link between dietary vitamin C and acne reduction, you can set the stage for healthy skin by ensuring you’re eating a balanced diet rich in fruits and veggies and cutting back on sugar and processed foods—which may cause inflammation.
If your lifestyle habits are skin-friendly and you’re still struggling with acne, try integrating topical vitamin C into your skincare routine. With few risks, potentially high rewards, and a star of approval from dermatologists, it’s safe to assume there’s a bright future for the treatment of acne with vitamin C.