What Is Ferulic Acid? Everything You've Wanted to Know (And More)

Updated 08/08/19

 Kay-Paris Fernandes/ Contributor/ Getty Images

You might have heard of ferulic acid and have maybe even tried a certain cult-favorite product that contains it, but how much do you truly know about the skincare ingredient? There's a reason (actually, many different reasons) why Byrdie editors wax lyrical about ferulic acid, so we turned to the experts to find out just what makes it so beloved by the masses and if it actually lives up to the hype. Dermatologists Rachel Nazarian, MD, of Schweiger Dermatology Group and Melissa Kanchanapoomi Levin, MD, founder of Entière Dermatology in NYC break it down for us below.

Keep reading to find out everything you've ever wanted to know about ferulic acid and more.

Ferulic Acid

Type of ingredient: Antioxidant.

Main benefits: Decreases formation of fine lines and wrinkles, brown spots, and other signs of premature aging.

Who should use it: In general, anyone interested in an anti-aging skin regimen. Everyone can benefit from using an antioxidant to protect themselves from free-radical damage, but they can cause possible irritation, so not all antioxidants are the right concoction for each skin type. 

How often can you use it: It's safe to use every day. Apply it in the morning to clean, dry skin before your moisturizer and sunscreen.

Works well with: Other antioxidants, particularly vitamins C and E and resveratrol.

Don't use with: Exfoliating acids like glycolic, lactic, and salicylic acids because they can alter the pH, which then changes the effectiveness of the antioxidant.

What Is Ferulic Acid?

Ferulic acid, aka hydroxycinnamic acid, is a powerful antioxidant that neutralizes free-radical damage from pollution, ultraviolet light, or infrared radiation, all of which accelerate skin aging. It's found in the cell wall of plants like oats, brown rice, peanuts, and oranges, but Levin says you typically hear of it associated with apples. Naturally, ferulic acid is botanically derived, but it can be created in a lab for quality control, consistency, and consumer safety. It mostly comes in a liquid form and can be found in serums, but can also be in the form of cream when packaged in a pump.

Levin says ferulic acid, an antioxidant, doesn't repair the damage that's already been done, but it acts as a shield to protect against free-radical formation. As Nazarian explains it, "When something tries to damage your skin, it creates a certain molecule that in its active state will continue to damage and traumatize the skin around it. This will come in and basically shut it off. It neutralizes the molecules that are formed that if left alone will continue to damage tissue."

For optimal effectiveness, ferulic acid should come packaged in a dark or opaque bottle to protect it from light and should be stored in a cool area (i.e. not a steamy bathroom). Levin adds that ferulic acid serums have a tendency to turn from its original golden orange color to a muddy brown over time, which signals that the serum has oxidized and is thus not as effective. Though they're hard to find, she recommends shopping products that have vacuumed packaging (which dispense with a pump) when possible to prevent air from entering or escaping.

Benefits of Ferulic Acid for Skin

Ferulic acid works to stop all the damage that comes from extrinsic aging. It also does the following:

  • Reduces the formation of fine lines and wrinkles: Ferulic acid protects the skin from pollution and radiation, which can lead to wrinkles.
  • Reduces the potential for sagging skin: Free radicals can also cause a loss of firmness in the skin, and ferulic acid acts as a shield to protect the skin from that damage.
  • Reduces inflammation: Oxidative damage can cause inflammation in the skin, which blocks pores and can lead to breakouts. Antioxidants like ferulic acid have anti-inflammatory properties.
  • Reduces the formation of brown spots: Pollution and radiation cause an increase in pigmentary alteration—like sunspots—and ferulic acid works to shield the skin from that effect.
  • Decreases uneven skin tone by redness: Pollution and radiation cause an increase in blood vessel formation in the skin (which leads to redness) and ferulic acid works to shield the skin.
  • Minimize the dark spots from pimples: Nazarian says if you're using an antioxidant consistently, the anti-inflammatory properties can minimize the damage or aftereffects from a pimple, such as lingering dark spots.
  • Reduce pigmentation related to melasma: Melasma is a complex chronic pigmentary condition where your melanocytes are reactive to sunlight and infrared radiation (heat). Levin says the only thing we have currently to protect against infrared radiation are antioxidants (such as ferulic acid).
  • Boost the effects of vitamin C and vitamin E: When used in conjunction with other antioxidants, ferulic acid has the ability to potentiate them and make them more stable.

Side Effects of Ferulic Acid

Ferulic acid has no known side effects. However, Levin says sometimes antioxidant serums can be a little bit too activating for certain skin types. "Any antioxidant can cause possible irritation, so not all antioxidants are the right concoction for each skin type," says Levin, who has seen patients experience irritation and acne breakouts from using products that contain ferulic acid. But because ferulic acid is usually combined with other antioxidants and ingredients, it's difficult to determine the cause of a reaction.

In other words, it could be due to a particular product rather than ferulic acid specifically. "Oftentimes you’re not getting ferulic acid by itself," Levin says. "Serums combine preservatives or fragrance, a known irritant for certain people."

If you have sensitive skin, rosacea, eczema, or if someone who always tends to have irritation, Nazarian suggests applying a little bit of the product on the side of your face behind your ear, and to wait and see how your skin reacts after a day. If you're noticing any irritation or other reaction, that product isn't for you.

How to Use It

For best results, apply two to three drops of a ferulic acid serum or cream to clean, dry skin every morning and use your fingers to lightly spread the product evenly over your face. Follow with your moisturizer and sunscreen. Nazarian also recommends applying a few drops to the neck and chest to protect that area as well.

While ferulic acid can be used twice a day, Nazarian recommends sticking with a once-a-day routine in the morning. "Sometimes you’ll see them as twice-a-day dosing because they feel like some of these things will help the repair mechanisms that happen while we sleep at night, but I shy away from that," she says. "Most of our damage is typically in the morning, and there are other things that work better in the evening while you’re repairing."

If you use exfoliating acids, do so at night and not at the same time as your products that are meant to neutralize free-radical damage and are very delicate. "When you use certain acids like glycolic acid or salicylic acid, that can change the pH of your skin," Levin says. "So you don’t want to combine layers and layers of acids on your skin because they can alter the pH, which then changes the effectiveness of the antioxidant."

The Best Products With Ferulic Acid

SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic
SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic $166
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Touted as the gold standard of ferulic acid-based products by both Nazarian and Levin, this serum is one that's worth every cent. It's formulated with a blend of 15% vitamin C to brighten the skin, 1% vitamin E to neutralize free radicals, and 0.5% ferulic acid to increase the effectiveness of both. "There’s a study that showed that when you add ferulic acid to vitamins C and E, there’s eight-fold photoprotection that we see," Levin says. "That’s really because antioxidants, just like free radicals, are pretty unstable, which means they break down pretty quickly.

Ferulic acid is added to vitamin C, vitamin E concoction to stabilize the compound."

The Ordinary Resveratrol 3% + Ferulic Acid 3%
The Ordinary Resveratrol 3% + Ferulic Acid 3% $8
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Come for the price, stay for the incredible protection from this serum. Nazarian also recommends this antioxidant blend as a great affordable option. In addition to 3% ferulic acid, this offering contains 3% resveratrol, an antioxidant found in red grapes, to help protect the skin from outside aggressors. With 10K "loves" on Sephora, you have to believe it's good.

Paula's Choice C15 Super Booster
Paula's Choice C15 Super Booster $49
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One of our favorite vitamin C, E, and ferulic acid serums, this formulation by Paula's Choice also contains peptides to further improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. As the name implies, this serum is designed to be used along with other antioxidant serums from the line to "boost" its effects.

DermaDoctor Kakadu C 20% Vitamin C Serum with Ferulic Acid & Vitamin E
DermaDoctor Kakadu C 20% Vitamin C Serum with Ferulic Acid & Vitamin E $95
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Another solid alternative to C E Ferulic, we love this brightening serum for its 20% vitamin C content and the added benefits of Kakadu plum extract, ferulic acid, and vitamin E to amplify its effects.

Peter Thomas Roth Potent C
Peter Thomas Roth Potent-C Targeted Spot Brightener $58
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Typically, ferulic acid and vitamin C (L-ascorbic acid) serums are found in liquid form, but this treatment uses vitamin C in the form of THD ascorbate, a lipid that is said to be 50 times more potent. Instead of spreading this formula all over your face, use this Byrdie editor-approved brightener, which also contains vitamin E, to target dark spots.

La Roche-Posay Pigmentclar Eyes
La Roche-Posay Pigmentclar Eyes $43
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If the focus of your skincare concerns is your eye area, we recommend this light-reflecting eye cream, which color-corrects and brightens over time. Packed with antioxidants like niacinamide, PhE-Resorcinol (a synthetic antioxidant), and ferulic acid, this eye cream works to improve dark under-eye areas caused by pigmentation.

SkinCeuticals Phloretin CF
SkinCeuticals Phloretin CF $166
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Although C E Ferulic is said to be one of the best ferulic acid serums, Levin says no single antioxidant will work for every single skin type. If you have oily or combination skin, we recommend trying this version of a vitamin C, E, and ferulic acid serum, which is intended for oilier skin types instead. It also has the added benefit of 2% phloretin to improve uneven skin tone.

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