Vitamin C has become a recommended staple in an effective skincare routine—and for good reason. "The ingredient helps to brighten the skin, promote collagen production, and even fight free radicals," dermatologist Dr. Mona Gohara tells us. But although it presents itself as a miracle worker, it isn't always so great for those with sensitive skin. "While vitamin C is a great ingredient and it is generally pretty safe and well-tolerated, those with sensitive skin may experience some irritation using products that contain the antioxidant," says Gohara. If you're in that camp, vitamin C might cause irritation, redness, and other uncomfortable skin woes.
The good news is that there are products that feature many of the same benefits as vitamin C but offer a more gentle touch. We turned to Gohara and fellow skincare experts Dr. Loretta Ciraldo and Michelle Ranavat to find out more.
Meet the Expert
- Loretta Ciraldo, MD, FAAD, a Miami-based board-certified dermatologist. She is also the founder of Dr. Loretta skincare.
- Michelle Ranavat is the founder of Ranavat Botanics and taps into ancient ayurvedic traditions to inform her formulas.
- Mona Gohara, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist and associate clinical professor of dermatology at Yale University.
Below, check out the best vitamin C alternatives for sensitive skin.
If you're looking to replace vitamin C with something milder, niacinamide is an excellent alternative. "Both vitamin C and niacinamide decrease damage from environmental factors, they can improve fine lines and wrinkles, decrease hyperpigmentation, and increase collagen production. However, niacinamide is the gentler of the two and is less likely to cause irritation, especially to those with more sensitive skin," says Gohara.
In Peter Thomas Roth's Pro Strength Niacinamide Discoloration Treatment, the powerful ingredient helps reduce the look of discoloration and uneven skin tone. Gohara recommends SkinMedica Lytera 2.0 Pigment Correcting Serum ($160). "This serum is a great vitamin C alternative as it helps to prevent the appearance of skin discoloration while visibly balancing the appearance of skin tone."
Although niacinamide is less likely to clash with other skincare ingredients in your routine, you should still introduce it gradually into your regimen and begin with the lowest percentage (typically 10 percent) to build your skin tolerance.
One of the major benefits of incorporating vitamin C into your skincare regimen is sun protection—yet in today's world, it's not enough. "In this screen-oriented 21st century, we dermatologists are now starting to focus on keeping skin protected from artificial visible light (AVL) emitted by digital screens," says Ciraldo. Not only does Indian ginseng (aka ashwagandha, winter cherry, or withania somnifera extract) protect our skin from digital pollution but it also boosts cellular energy and vibrancy of skin and restores skin vitality, she adds.
"Saffron and turmeric are rich in carotenoids—a botanical compound that helps brighten the skin, reduce inflammation, and provides photo-protection," explains Ranavat. "I prefer using carotenoids to vitamin C because of all the added benefits with fewer potential side effects."
Another noteworthy benefit of carotenoids that Ranavat mentions is their stability. "Unlike vitamin C, which can quickly oxidize, carotenoids stay active and effective for much longer," she notes, meaning your favorite carotenoid-infused products—like Ranavat's Radiant Rani—also boasts a longer shelf life.
Viniferine—an ingredient exclusively extracted by skincare brand Caudalie from grapevine sap—is meant to lighten dark spots, acne scars, and hyperpigmentation. According to Caudalie, it does all of these things much more effectively than vitamin C. And while we adore the brand's Vinoperfect Radiance Serum, its Instant Brightening Moisturizer also boasts niacinamide, so you get double the bang for your buck.
Alpha arbutin is also a powerhouse when it comes to fading dark spots and correcting skin tone. Like vitamin C, it's an effective brightening agent, but because it has a sustained release, it's much gentler and doesn't present as high of a risk of irritation. In The Ordinary's iteration, the alpha arbutin is supported with a form of hyaluronic acid for enhanced delivery and efficacy.
Sarkar R, Arora P, Garg KV. Cosmeceuticals for Hyperpigmentation: What is Available? J Cutan Aesthet Surg. 2013 Jan;6(1):4-11. doi: 10.4103/0974-2077.110089.