Like hyaluronic acid or retinol, vitamin C is a skincare ingredient that lives up to its buzz. Applied topically, it brightens dull skin, stimulates collagen production, and wards off wrinkles. Plus, it’s a powerful antioxidant, meaning it fights free radicals and is a core ingredient in many antipollution skincare formulas.
Speaking of free radicals, it’s time to get scientific. Does anyone know what free radicals actually are? It’s a word that’s thrown around a lot in the beauty industry, and we all know they’re bad, but just what exactly do they do to our skin?
According to celebrity esthetician and skincare expert Renée Rouleau, free radicals are unstable electrons that attack our healthy cells, causing signs of aging. “It is widely believed by scientists around the world that one of the main reasons we age is because unstable electrons in molecules (called free radicals) attack healthy cells and change their composition, which causes them to no longer function the way normal, younger cells do,” she explains.
So in order to stave off aging, we need to stave off those villainous free radicals. That's where vitamin C comes in. Keep scrolling to see exactly how vitamin C works to prevent signs of aging.
First, let’s understand exactly how free radicals work to damage the skin: There are three types of free radicals, but Rouleau is mainly concerned with the reactive oxygen species (ROS). “We are exposed to ROS from the air we breathe (oxygen), cigarette smoke, UV sunlight, stress, and smog,” she says. The effects of ROS are no joke: They damage the dermis of the skin and alter DNA, the moisture barrier, skin texture, color, and cell functioning. Yikes.
To demonstrate the effects of ROS and oxidative stress to the naked eye—and to prove how vitamin C works to combat them—Rouleau devised a simple experiment involving an apple. She cut out a slice and coated one end with a thin layer of vitamin C serum. The other she left untouched. Then she waited three hours. This is what happened…
As you can plainly see, the side of the apple that was coated with the vitamin C serum didn't oxidize at all. "This shows how topical vitamin C can prevent oxidation and therefore slow down the visible appearance of aging," Rouleau says. She notes that lemon juice would have the same effects, as lemon (like most other fruits) contain high levels of antioxidants. However, putting lemon on your face is never a good idea. It might provide your skin with antioxidant benefits, but it will do so at the expense of insanely irritated, dry skin. Seriously, don't put pure lemon juice on your face.
Let's back up to a safe, derm-approved vitamin C serum. "If you’re not using one, it’s definitely time to step up your anti-aging game and give your skin some serious protection," says Rouleau. "Applying a vitamin C serum topically to the skin can essentially keep your skin from turning brown … as well as make your skin look brighter, fresher, with a youthful glow."
Rouleau recommends the vitamin C serum from her eponymous skincare line. The Vitamin C & E Treatment ($66) contains a safe and stable form of the ingredient, along with ultra-nourishing vitamin E to give you smooth, youthful, glowy skin.
It's time to start using vitamin C, so next, read about the nine best vitamin C serums on the market.