Are Expensive Vitamin-C Serums Actually Worth It?

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Getty Images

This column first ran in Valerie Monroe’s newsletter, How Not to F*ck Up Your Face, which you can subscribe to on Substack.

A curious reader asked about the value of vitamin-C serums: Are they really necessary? Worth the money? A waste of time?

Q: So many people seem to swear by a vitamin-C serum as necessary for great skin. You can either pay a fortune for it, or you can get one for about $8 at the Ordinary. Is it a necessary part of a skin-care routine? If so, does price equal quality in any way?

A: I don’t use a vitamin-C serum and I don’t miss it. (I’ll explain why in a minute.) That’s why I’ve been suggesting to readers that it’s not really necessary and not worth spending a small fortune on. But dermatologist Hadley King, M.D., has other ideas.

“I do think topical antioxidants are important,” she says. “They help protect the skin from free-radical damage caused by UVA/UVB rays. And for most of us, sun damage is the single biggest extrinsic aging factor.” UV radiation leads to oxidative stress because of these free radicals, which creates cell damage. So neutralizing the free radicals with antioxidants like vitamin C strengthens the prevention of photodamage. Though sunscreen, either mineral or chemical, helps to protect skin from UV radiation, when combined with antioxidants like vitamin C, the protection has been shown to be greater, says King. Vitamin C also helps brighten the skin and fade dark spots that can result from UV radiation. There’s more!

It also protects from free-radical damage due to other sources like pollution and it’s a critical factor in collagen synthesis. And it’s needed for wound healing. A ringing endorsement if I ever heard one. But — and you may already know this — vitamin-C serums are tricky, because the most commonly used form, L-ascorbic acid, is an unstable ingredient. It oxidizes quickly when exposed to light and air. That’s why you want to look for more stable forms of vitamin C, like magnesium ascorbyl phosphate, sodium ascorbyl phosphate, and tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate (THD), the fatty-acid component that may allow for better penetration and may also be less irritating, says King.

How can stability be improved? Adding other antioxidants like vitamin E and ferulic acid, lowering the solution’s pH, and packaging the product in a way that protects it from light and air are all necessary to preserve effectiveness. This means, as King points out, that although price is not linearly correlated to quality, some thought (and expense) needs to have been used in formulation, ingredient selection, and packaging — which often translates to a higher price. Case in point: this very popular one and this wildly spendy one. (The inexpensive serum you asked about, dear reader? I can’t tell you how effective it might be — but at $8, it probably won’t damage your budget.)

I’m often a confused (and suspicious) label reader, so I’d probably choose a serum from my dermatologist’s office. I’d also check to be sure the formula contains an active form of vitamin C (like one mentioned above), has a strength of 10 to 20 percent, and has a pH lower than 3.5 — all of which suggest a more effective product. Now that you know why you might want to use a vitamin-C serum, I’m going to tell you why I don’t. I’ve used a prescription retinoid every night (currently Altreno) for more than 20 years, which I apply under a CeraVe nighttime moisturizer with niacinamide. I wear an SPF-30 sunscreen (or higher) every day. (This one is often doctor recommended.) I believe that’s enough protection for me. Jen Novakovich, a cosmetic chemist and the director of the website The Eco Well, isn’t convinced vitamin-C serums are worth the fanfare because of the stability issue and the expense, and because she believes niacinamide (found in many beauty products) is as effective and more stable.

Here’s my bottom line: You might invest in a vitamin-C serum if you’re the kind of person who’s most comfortable with a seat belt and a cross-body harness. If you’re a spring chicken (not a mature squab like me), a retinoid (either prescription or OTC) in the evening, along with a vitamin-C serum in the morning before moisturizer and sunscreen, might help prevent certain unflattering extrinsic signs of aging. But if I were 25 again (God forbid) and had to choose, I’d choose the retinoid over the serum, hands down. The point of using skin care is to keep your skin as healthy as possible, not to avoid all signs of aging. Investing in a product thinking it’ll help you grow old without fine lines and wrinkles is a fool’s game. But the better you protect your skin from the damaging effects of the sun, the healthier your skin will be as you age. The mirror — and your satisfaction with having taken good care of yourself — will reflect that. I’m pretty sure you’ll be happier for it too.

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Are Expensive Vitamin-C Serums Actually Worth It?