15 Best Vitamin C Serums for Anti-Aging and Hyperpigmentation
Vitamin C is right up there with retinol as an anti-aging powerhouse. As one of the strongest antioxidants in the skincare world, it brightens, firms, and smooths skin (and may even prevent and treat UV damage). In short, it's an ideal ingredient for those searching for an improved complexion or major glow-up (i.e., everyone). But don't just take it from us. We got the vitamin C breakdown from Melissa Kanchanapoomi Levin, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City, including what vitamin C is, and how to use it. (Stick around until the end to shop some of the best vitamin C serums on the market.)
What is vitamin C—and what does it do?
The better question is: What doesn't vitamin C do? "Vitamin C is one of the most studied, potent, and plentiful antioxidants in human skin," says Dr. Levin. "It continues to be one of the most recommended treatments for improving uneven skin tone, texture, acne scars, dullness, and fine lines." But wait, there's more! It also smooths wrinkles over time, thanks to its ability to boost collagen. No wonder every dermatologist is obsessed with it.
Here's the thing: sunlight, blue light, and just life in general creates oxidative stress, which plays a major role in aging, pigmentation, and inflammatory conditions like eczema and acne, as well as skin cancers. Antioxidants like vitamin C neutralize free radicals and aid in the skin's natural rejuvenation process.
The most common form of vitamin C you'll find in skincare is L-ascorbic acid. As the most well-known form of vitamin C in the skincare game, it's the most effective at penetrating the skin barrier and has great anti-aging benefits for most skin types. But there are also several vitamin C derivatives, such as tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate, ascorbyl palmitate, and sodium ascorbyl phosphate, among others. These derivatives are often combined with other ingredients to keep the vitamin C stable, triggering the release of pure vitamin C only when it comes into contact with the skin.
But isn't sunscreen enough?
Well, not exactly. Without a doubt, sunscreen is key in order to maintain protection from sun damage, but your skin needs a little more. "Unfortunately, not only are people not applying enough or as often as they should, broad-spectrum sunscreen does not provide enough protection against other environmental stressors that cause free radicals, which is why the combination of antioxidants like vitamin C and sunscreen is ideal," says Dr. Levin. "We now understand antioxidants are also important in order to neutralize free radicals from UV radiation, infrared radiation, and environmental stressors." In other words, the best way to correct, treat, and prevent pigmentation is with a combination of both SPF and vitamin C.
Can you use vitamin C with acids or retinol products?
While vitamin C alone has proven benefits, studies show that combining it with equally potent ingredients can heighten its efficacy. "You can absolutely use Vitamin C, sunscreen, and retinol together!" says Dr. Levin. "While retinol is focused on accelerating skin cell turnover and repairing signs of aging such as fine lines, vitamin C improves skin protection from sun damage. If you have very sensitive skin and/or using vitamin C with other active ingredients, there are actually different types of vitamin C such as tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate that are less irritating and more stable, which is ideal for combination use with retinol."
If you're new to vitamin C, here's a heads-up: While budget-friendly vitamin C serums certainly do exist, the majority of formulas skew on the expensive side. "The best vitamin C formulations contain multi-tasking combinations that offer other skin-benefiting ingredients, such as humectants, retinol, sunscreen, peptides, and vitamin B3," says Dr. Levin. That being said, they are totally worth the investment as a highly concentrated vitamin C serum will heal existing damage while warding off future inflammation.
Below, some of the best vitamin C serums for every skin type and concern.
Cult-favorite: SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic
There's a good reason why this cult-favorite is a top-rated product among beauty lovers. Vitamin E, an antioxidant critical for protecting against premature skin aging, is depleted as it fights damaging free radicals. When paired with vitamin C, it receives a boost that reignites its age-fighting power. Formulated with both vitamins, this lightweight (yet insanely powerful) face serum works to battle dryness, sun damage, and free radicals over time.
Best drugstore pick: L'Oréal Revitalift Derm Intensives Vitamin C Serum
This brilliant (and budget-friendly!) formula comes in an airtight tube and is made without water—which can act as a catalyst for vitamin C oxidation and degradation—so it's more stable. And at 30 bucks a pop, you know you’re getting the most anti-aging bang from your buck.
Best for dark spots: Biossance Squalane + Vitamin C Dark Spot Serum
Vitamin C works in tandem with white shiitake mushroom and licorice root extract, mitigating discoloration and helping prevent the appearance of future dark spots.
Best packaging: Clinique Fresh Pressed Daily Booster with Pure Vitamin C 10%
Get the benefits of vitamin C without really having to change your skincare routine by simply adding this booster to your daily moisturizer. Each vial contains a fresh, sealed dose of vitamin C powder and soothing emulsion that mix once you start using it—not a minute before. Use each one for no more than seven days to ensure you’re getting the most potent dose of vitamin C.
Best for sensitive skin: Barbara Sturm The Good Vitamin C Serum
Barbara Sturm lives up to her esteemed name in this gentle formulation, which contains a total concentration of 5 percent vitamin C to reduce the visible signs of uneven pigmentation and visibly improve skin tone.
Best for puffy skin: Youth To The People 15% Vitamin C + Clean Caffeine Energy Serum
This serum is vitamin C on caffeine—literally. Think of this ultimate morning ritual for your skin as antioxidants squared: Caffeine works to reduce puffiness and accelerate the benefits of vitamin C.
Best for oily skin: True Botanicals Vitamin C Booster
Because vitamin C tends to oxidize as soon as it’s put into a liquid, True Botanicals created this powder form. You don’t even need to find a new moisturizer (and worry about being overly oily)—simply mix two to three shakes of this powder into your current moisturizer before massaging into your skin. Bonus: It also contains ferulic acid, which works hand in hand with vitamin C as a powerful antioxidant.
Best with SPF: Supergoop Daily Dose Vitamin C + SPF Serum
You can’t skip sunscreen or vitamin C, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get both doses from one product. Hydration and antioxidant protection in a bottle, Daily Dose combines the benefits of sunscreen, vitamin C, and hyaluronic acid in a super lightweight serum. Reviewers rave about the finish: healthy, dewy, and absolutely glowing.
Best with retinol: StriVectin Super-C Retinol Serum
StriVectin’s latest serum power player could be the most luxurious-feeling vitamin C serum you will ever try. Unlike many vitamin C serums, this lightweight formula soaks into skin more like an oil, without leaving behind a tacky or sticky residue.
Best scent: Glow Recipe Pineapple-C Brightening Serum
Beyond the irresistibly cute packaging, this serum isn’t all just fun and games. The formula contains a powerful cocktail of pineapple juice, vitamin C, AHA, hyaluronic acid, and chamomile to strike the right balance between brightening your skin, treating dark spots, and soothing it. And yes, it smells just as good as it looks!
Best for dry skin: Paula’s Choice Vitamin C Super Booster
A worthy dupe to Skinceuticals, Paula’s Choice contains the same hero ingredients (vitamins C and E, plus ferulic acid). It’s also formulated at an ideal pH level of 3, and merged with hyaluronic acid to minimize dark spots, pigmentation, and dullness over time.
Best for brightening: Origins GinZing Into The Glow Brightening Serum
This multi-action serum helps you get a blindingly bright complexion in just one shot. Infused with vitamin C plus a 5 percent retexturizing complex (made of AHAs and BHAs), the formula helps you achieve your skin's smoothness and brightness goals.
Best for sensitive skin: Ole Henriksen Banana Bright Vitamin C Serum
If your skin is on the sensitive side, this mild vitamin C serum is your best bet. In addition to vitamin C, it uses PHAs (a gentle class of exfoliating acids) to give you smoothness without the redness.
Best for fine lines: Drunk Elephahnt C-Firma Vitamin C Day Serum
Another worthy pick containing vitamins C and E (see a pattern here?), this formula also contains pumpkin-ferment extract and pomegranate enzymes, which attack dead surface skin cells and help to smooth fine lines. And as with all Drunk Elephant products, it's free from artificial fragrances, parabens, sulfates...you get the gist.
Best for big pores: Sunday Riley C.E.O. 15% Vitamin C Brightening Serum
This Sunday Riley serum is formulated with a fancy strain of vitamin C (THD ascorbate), in addition to glycolic acid and saccharide isomerate extract, both of which help to exfoliate and reduce the appearance of pores.