Vitamin C Serums Vs. Creams: Which Is Best For Your Skin? – TODAY

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You now can get your vitamin C skin care in just about every format you can think of: serums, creams, oils, sunscreens, masks and more. But if you want the most effective type of vitamin C product, there’s a clear winner, experts tell

“If you’re putting in the effort to put on the vitamin C, you want to make sure you’re really getting the full benefit,” Dr. Shari Lipner, associate professor of clinical dermatology at the Weill Cornell Medical Center, tells

But vitamin C is a notoriously finicky ingredient to work with, making it much better suited to some types of skin-care products than others.

Vitamin C benefits in skin care

Vitamin C has a ton of benefits for your skin.


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Its most famous benefit “is the fact that a proven antioxidant that’s able to (combat) free radicals,” Victoria Fu, cosmetic chemist and co-founder of Chemist Confessions, tells “That’s why it’s considered the molecule for age-prevention,” she says, particularly when it comes to preventing and treating sun-related damage, like sun spots and wrinkles.

Vitamin C is actually “the most plentiful antioxidant in the skin,” Lipner adds. “In the skin, it plays a very important role in synthesizing collagen — it prevents breakdown of collagen,” she says. And vitamin C has proven benefits in managing certain pigmentation issues, including melasma, Lipner says.

The antioxidant also works well in a skin-care routine alongside retinol, another anti-aging heavy hitter, Lipner says.

So, if you’re going to put in the time, money and effort to start using vitamin C, you want to make sure you’re using the most effective form for your skin.

Should you use a vitamin C serum or cream?

The experts generally agree that your first choice should be a water-based vitamin C serum.

“Generally, serums are going to be lighter than creams and sunscreens, (which means) they’re going to penetrate the skin better,” Lipner says. Using a lighter serum rather than a thicker cream means that more of the active ingredient — vitamin C — is going to get absorbed.

But there are more technical reasons to consider serums first.

In a water-based serum, you can usually count on finding that familiar range of 10% to 15% of vitamin C, Gloria Lu, another cosmetic chemist and Chemist Confessions co-founder, tells

Because ascorbic acid, the gold standard form of vitamin C in, and its well-studied derivatives are much easier to mix into a water-based formula, “all the clinical testing is done with water-based serums,” Fu says. For instance, you might see vitamin C derivatives like magnesium ascorbyl phosphate or sodium ascrobyl phosphate on the label.

Serums with these ingredients also typically contain vitamin E and ferulic acid to help stabilize the ingredients, she adds, which makes this the ultimate trifecta to look for in vitamin C products.

“Whereas, in the cream, more often now we see the derivative forms of vitamin C,” Lu explains. “And it’s usually sprinkled (into the product) in arbitrary amounts that may not get you the true antioxidant benefit.”

If you really don’t like vitamin C serums…

When looking for a vitamin C product, you should try water-based serums first, the experts agree. But some people find vitamin C serums irritate their skin, often due to the low pH of those products, or they simply prefer a thicker texture.

If irritation is your issue, first try a serum with a lower concentration of vitamin C. While most products on the market are in the 10% to 20% range, the ingredient has actually been shown to be effective at as low as 5%, Fu says. So if your 15% serum is giving you problems, “look for a lower-dose ascorbic acid product,” she says.

While people with sensitive skin may gravitate to creams over serums to avoid irritation, “if you’re using a cream versus serum, you’re sacrificing benefit,” Lipner agrees. “So I would definitely recommend a serum for everyone, but people with more sensitive skin may want to stay closer to 8% to 10%,” she says.

Lipner also recommends using your favorite moisturizer right after your vitamin C serum has absorbed to help reduce some burning, stinging or irritation.

If, after all that, you’re still set on using an oil-based or creamy vitamin C product, look for specific oil-soluble formats of vitamin C, Lu says. One particularly popular oil-soluble form of vitamin C is tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate, also called THD, which you may find in creams and face oils. “But the data is kind of lacking compared to the other (oil-soluble derivatives),” Lu says.

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