It’s hard to overstate just how amazing vitamin C serums can be for the skin. You’re probably already familiar with how important this vitamin is for the immune system, but it also has remarkable beautifying effects when applied topically.
It’s especially well regarded as a solution to hyperpigmentation, so if you have sun spots, dark post-acne marks, or even diffused patches of darkness caused by pregnancy (officially this condition is called melasma), then it needs to be on your radar.
Beyond this targeted effect, it has other skin benefits: it is actively anti-ageing, helping to firm the skin by promoting collagen synthesis and it’s preventative, acting as an antioxidant to protect the skin from the ageing effects of the sun.
It also comes with some complications. In its most effective form as ascorbic acid, it is notoriously unstable and hard to formulate. Many of the serums out on the market don’t use it effectively so they are either very weak or they lose their effectiveness (ie. oxidize) very quickly.
That’s why we give the lowdown on exactly which vitamin C skincare products work, and what makes each one of them unique.
For background information, see our comparison table and buying advice.
Best vitamin C serums
- Best drugstore – THE ORDINARY Vitamin C Suspension 23% + HA Spheres 2%
- Best for face – Rohto Mentholatum Melano CC Vitamin C Essence
- Best for hyperpigmentation – Timeless 20% Vitamin C + E Ferulic Acid Serum
- Best for sensitive skin – Mad Hippie Vitamin C Serum
- Best for anti-ageing – TATCHA Violet-C Brightening Serum 20% Vitamin C + 10% AHA
Hours of Research
Best vitamin C serums comparison
|The Ordinary||Rohto Melano||Timeless||Mad Hippie||Tatcha|
|Best for||Drugstore||Face||Hyperpigmenation||Sensitive skin||Anti-aging|
|Quantity||30 ml||20 ml||30 ml||30 ml||30 ml|
|Other Ingredients||hyaluronic acid and squalane||vitamin E, dipotassium glycyrrhizinate||ferulic acid, vitamin E, hyaluronic acid||konjac root, ferulic acid, hyaluronic acid||alpha-hydroxy acid|
|Vit. C Format||ascorbic acid||ascorbic acid||ascorbic acid||sodium ascorbyl phosphate||bis-glyceryl ascorbate, ascorbyl tetraisopalmitate|
|Other features||Vegan, cruelty-free, made in Canada||all-natural, vegan, cruelty-free||all-natural, vegan, cruelty-free||All-natural, vegan, cruelty-free|
Best drugstore – THE ORDINARY Vitamin C Suspension 23% + HA Spheres 2%
- Quantity: 30 ml
- Texture: Gritty lotion
- Scent: Fragrance-free
- Other ingredients: hyaluronic acid and squalane
- Format: ascorbic acid
- Vegan, cruelty-free, made in Canada
- 23% ascorbic acid is very potent and effective
- Moisturizing formula with hyaluronic acid and squalane
- Extremely affordable
- Made in Canada
- Grainy, oily texture is not the most pleasant
- Can ball up when mixed with other skincare or makeup products
This unique product is a suspension, which means the ascorbic acid is suspended in a waterless cream which keeps it very stable and potent. Most formulas are water-based, which makes them hard to stabilize and ups their price significantly, so by keeping out the water the price can be low while the effectiveness remains high.
It’s a solid choice for brightening dark spots, fighting premature ageing, and just for boosting the overall luminosity and health of the skin. It’s a good choice for dry skin since it includes moisturizing squalane and hyaluronic acid.
This serum is quite potent, so it can tingle a little when first applied to the skin. It’s formulated without fragrances or fillers that increase the chances of contact dermatitis. It’s a fine choice for most skin types, and those with sensitive skin could dilute it in a lighter serum to reduce the chances of irritation.
This is the suspension’s downfall. While it is very easy to use, it’s not the most pleasant and it won’t work with all skincare routines. The vitamin C crystals in the suspension have a gritty texture, especially if you apply them to the skin straight from the tube. You can get around this pretty easily by rubbing your hands together to break it up before applying to your skin, and making sure your face is a little damp first will also help.
The second issue is that it doesn’t always play nicely with other products – especially sunscreens and makeup. It can mix with anything applied below or above it and ball up or “pill” so you might have to play around or change up your routine to get it to work for you.
Finally, those with oily skin may find the texture a little too greasy, although the formula is non-comedogenic so this is strictly a cosmetic issue.
If you’re on a tight budget, you can’t do better than this product. It might not be particularly elegant or convenient, but it gives real results at a fraction of the cost of the next most affordable option.
Best for face – Rohto Mentholatum Melano CC Vitamin C Essence
- Quantity: 20 ml
- Texture: Fluid and emollient
- Scent: Yuzu
- Other ingredients: vitamin E, dipotassium glycyrrhizinate
- Format: ascorbic acid and ascorbyl tetraisopalmitate
- Highly effective blend of two formats with vitamin E
- Unique and convenient packaging that prevents mess or waste
- Light, pleasant texture
- Offers good value for money
This Japanese serum has earned a cult-like following. We don’t know the exact percentage of ascorbic acid in it, but we know its enough to make a real difference when it comes to pigmentation, brightness, and age-related concerns. Its effects are boosted with antioxidant vitamin E, a soothing licorice-derived compound and a milder vitamin C derivative.
This is one of the more soothing options on our list since the formula is light on fillers and includes some soothing compounds. It does include a touch of yuzu essential oil, which is a citrus fragrance that can be irritating for some.
The texture is fluid but a little slippery, so it can look a little oily when first applied to the skin. However, it sinks it and mattifies fairly quickly, so it should be okay even for oily skin types.
The packaging is very innovative, with a dispenser that pushes out one drop at a time as you squeeze, which prevents product waste and mess while protecting the formula from the air.
Considering that this product comes all the way from Japan and that it’s wonderfully formulated to be pleasant and stable the price is actually quite astounding. It’s not a cheap skincare product, but it’s more affordable than would be expected.
Best for hyperpigmentation – Timeless 20% Vitamin C + E Ferulic Acid Serum
- Size: 1″
- Warranty: 4 years
- Cord length: 8 feet
- Heat up time: N/A
- Automatic shut-off: No
- Dual voltage: No
- Highly effective for reversing hyperpigmentation and photoaging
- Pump packaging is convenient and guarantees shelf-life
- Affordable compared to other water-based formulas with similar potency
- Strong formula can irritate sensitive skin
A serum that deals with hyperpigmentation has to be potent, and the 20% ascorbic acid in this formula definitely counts. It relies on the unique stabilizing effect that ferulic acid and vitamin E have on vitamin C, and in its newest iteration it is packaged with an airless pump that prevents oxidation. The result? One of the strongest serums for targeting hyperpigmentation while also delivering antioxidant and collagen-boosting benefits.
When compared to other options on this list, this serum has a slightly higher potential to irritate. To keep the ascorbic acid effective Timeless had to make this formula very acidic, so for those with very sensitive skin, there is a slightly higher chance of irritation.
Most people who use it don’t have issues so if your skin is generally hearty you don’t need to be worried, while if you have sensitive skin it is critical that you patch test it. It’s a good option for those who are specifically sensitive to scents since it is fragrance-free.
The pump packaging makes this serum more convenient than competitors that come in dropper bottles because there is no risk of spillage or breakage. It’s a water-based formula, so the texture is nice and light and it absorbs quickly. This makes it a good choice for those with oily skin, but it works for other skin types as well. Be careful when decanting it, or it might slide off of your hands to the floor before you get a chance to apply.
This formula is uniquely effective. For serious hyperpigmentation, a better option does not exist for less money. It might not be the cheapest serum on the list, but it offers a real bang for your buck.
Best for sensitive skin – Mad Hippie Vitamin C Serum
- Quantity: 30 ml
- Texture: Light and fluid
- Scent: Delicate and floral
- Other ingredients: konjac root, ferulic acid, hyaluronic acid
- Format: sodium ascorbyl phosphate
- Cruelty-free and vegan
- Extremely gentle and mild for sensitive skin
- Wonderful as a preventative anti-ageing serum
- Light but very hydrating and moisturizing
- Ingredients in it have been shown to help with acne
- Gentle vitamin C format takes longer to show results
Made with 10% sodium ascorbyl phosphate, this is a gentle and stable formulation that still offers some results. In this format, vitamin C takes longer to fade pigmentation, but it’s still an effective antioxidant with anti-ageing effects. Research shows that this form of vitamin C can also prevent and treat acne.
Finally, it includes hydrators like glycerin and hyaluronic acid, so it is a great moisturizing, wrinkle-preventing serum.
When compared to ascorbic acid formulations, this serum is significantly milder and less likely to irritate even the most reactive skin types. As a result, there are very few reports of it causing irritation, which cannot be said for the stronger options on our list.
Those specifically with fragrance-sensitivities should note that it contains grapefruit and chamomile essential oils, which don’t work for everyone.
Since this formula is made with a mild and water-soluble version of vitamin C, it’s very elegant, with a fluid texture that the skin absorbs easily. It leaves the skin beautifully hydrated and plump, without any greasiness so it’s a good fit for all skin types.
It comes in a bottle with a dropper, which is a fairly easy application method although a pump would be even more convenient.
This serum is not the most affordable, especially considering it’s made with a vitamin C derivative. That said, it’s an all-natural formula made by a small, eco-friendly company which explains the higher costs.
Best for anti-aging – TATCHA Violet-C Brightening Serum 20% Vitamin C + 10% AHA
- Quantity: 30 ml
- Texture: Light
- Scent: Natural citrus
- Other Ingredients: alpha-hydroxy acid
- Format: bis-glyceryl ascorbate, ascorbyl tetraisopalmitate
- All-natural, vegan, cruelty-free
- Protects the skin to prevent photoaging
- Chemical exfoliants renew the skin and eliminate dead skin cells
- Boosted by moisturizing and soothing ingredients
- Vitamin C derivatives are not fast skin brighteners
- A little expensive
This serum includes brightening 20% vitamin C derivatives with exfoliating alpha-hydroxy acid at a 10% concentration, so it protects the skin from premature ageing and gives a thorough resurfacing.
Because this serum is made with derivatives it won’t have the quickest skin brightening effect, but it’s still a highly effective antioxidant, and the AHAs will speed up skin cell renewal to reveal youthful skin and to smooth out skin texture and fine lines. With regular use, most users notice a visible improvement in skin texture.
It also includes a lot of hydrating agents and probiotics which mitigate any irritating effects from the exfoliants while also plumping up the skin so it looks immediately more glowy, and hydrated.
Chemical exfoliants are, by their nature, not particularly mild. If this is your first foray into active skincare, we’d recommend introducing it into your routine slowly, first only using it once or twice a week and slowly working your way up. However, within the category of chemical exfoliants, this serum is very gentle, with a balanced pH that prevents over-exfoliation and vitamin C derivatives known for being quite gentle.
If used carefully on skin that is already accustomed to actives, it shouldn’t cause any issues.
This serum is very light and fluid, though once it’s applied to the skin it leaves behind a bit of a residue so the skin feels simultaneously moisturized but also a little tacky. Overall, it’s easy to apply and spread, and it comes in a gorgeous and convenient pump package which we appreciate.
It feels, looks, and works like a luxury product, so it only follows that it’ll be priced like a luxury product. We do appreciate the convenience of a two-in-one anti-ageing serum and exfoliant, but if you’re on a budget you might prefer to buy one of the more affordable options on our list along with a separate chemical exfoliant.
|The Ordinary||Rohto Melano||Timeless||Mad Hippie||Tatcha|
What to consider when looking for a vitamin C serum
A good skincare product has to do what it says it’ll do. In this case, it means that it has to brighten and firm the skin while offering protection from external causes of facial ageing.
We prefer serums made with ascorbic acid, which is the most potent and well-researched version of vitamin C. It’s hard to find truly stable formulas with it, so we looked for products that got around those formulation challenges either through innovative chemistry or clever packaging.
Derivatives of vitamin C can still benefit the skin, especially as antioxidants, but they are not going to be as helpful when it comes to brightening the skin or reversing hyperpigmentation.
Additional ingredients that contribute to the wellbeing of the skin are not mandatory, but they can help give a product a higher rating.
Mildness refers to the chance that a product will irritate or over-exfoliate the skin. The milder and more gentle it is, the less likely it is to cause issues. In this case, the more effective a serum is, the higher the chances it won’t be particularly mild and vice versa.
If you have sensitive skin or are very new to stronger skincare products then it’s best to focus on mildness first even if it means having to wait longer for results.
Beyond the vitamin C format or percentage of a formula, mildness also depends on whether it contains fragrance ingredients or essential oils. Fragrance sensitivities are very common, so if a serum contains them the higher the chances it’ll irritate the skin.
When examining serums for elegance we usually want a product with a very light, silky, and smooth texture that sinks into the skin easily. This is usually easiest to achieve with water-based formulas, which are by far the nicest for all skin types.
Unfortunately, vitamin C oxidizes very quickly in these formulations, which takes away from its efficacy. This is why the most affordable options are not water-based, but as a result, they aren’t particularly pleasant or cosmetically elegant.
Finally, when judging value it’s important to be holistic. Sure, for some a budget product is the most important, but for others, it’s worth paying more if the product is more effective, pleasant or convenient to use. We also take other factors into account when judging value, like whether the product is made with all-natural ingredients.
What is vitamin C good for?
Vitamin C is an incredible skincare ingredient with multiple benefits that are well-backed by science.
The most unique benefit is its ability to fade hyperpigmentation, including sun spots, scars, and even hormonal melasma (also known as the “mask of pregnancy”). It works by disrupting the melanin formation process, which over time helps to give the skin a more clear and even-toned look.
It’s also a potent anti-ageing ingredient. It helps reverse signs of ageing like fine lines and loss of tone by helping to promote collagen production, which makes the skin more firm and youthful-looking.
It also has antioxidant and photoprotective properties, which means it can help keep the skin healthy by neutralizing the harmful oxidative damage caused by the sun and pollution. It works particularly well in the daytime, as long as it’s used in conjunction with a strong sunscreen.
Finally, it has some mild anti-inflammatory effects, so it can also help reduce redness associated with sensitive skin as well as acne.
Tips for using vitamin C serums
We have a few important tips about vitamin C that will help you get the most out of the serum you choose!
- Its inhibitory effect on melanin can make the skin even more sensitive to sun exposure, despite the fact that it has some photoprotective abilities. Before starting out with one of these serums, make sure sunscreen is already a fastidious part of your routine.
- It is an active ingredient that might irritate sensitive skin, especially if it’s overused. If you have sensitive skin, be careful to introduce it into your routine slowly and gradually. You can start out with a more gentle modification of it like sodium ascorbyl phosphate.
- It works really well in conjunction with almost all other active skincare ingredients, but the only exception is niacinamide. If both ingredients are applied one right after the other, they can make the skin flush and turn a little red. This effect isn’t dangerous, but it’s not pleasant, so you might want to use niacinamide only at night and vitamin C only in the morning or vice versa.
- Specifically, with stronger serums, the ascorbic acid works better when applied directly to skin cleansed with a low-pH cleanser. This is because ascorbic acid is “ph-dependent” which means that it works best when the skin is more acidic.
What to read next
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Over to you
Have you used a vitamin C serum before? What did you think? If you haven’t, what are you looking for the serum to do? Let us know in the comments!