Benefits of Topical Vitamin C

Vitamin C, also known as L-ascorbic acid, offers the skin a variety of benefits. It protects against free radical damage, prevents immunosuppression that can lead to skin cancer, and reverses premature ageing. It also helps to correct many common skin concerns, such as uneven skin tone, inflammation, loss of collagen and fine lines and wrinkles. To be efficacious, topical vitamin C products must be formulated correctly. Vitamin C is an excellent ingredient to add to any skincare routine.

One of the primary ways Vitamin C is able to prevent damage to the skin is by acting as an antioxidant. According to an article from the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology titled “Photodamage and topical antioxidants”, the skin experiences relentless free radical attacks. The article states that, “Our skin suffers from environmental free-radical stress of sunlight, pollution and smoking. Furthermore, these actually deplete the level of vitamin C in the skin.” The author goes on to add, “Even minimal UV exposure of 1.6 MED (1 med=Enough to cause pinkness) decreases the level of vitamin C to just 70% of the normal level, and exposure to 10 MED decreases the vitamin C to only 54%. Exposure to 10 p.p.m. of ozone in city pollution decreases the level of epidermal vitamin C by 55%.” This is important to note, because lower levels of vitamin C in the skin mean lower levels of protection. Vitamin C is able to protect the skin from free radicals because it has extra electrons in its outer ring. Free radicals are missing electrons and try to steal them from wherever they can, typically from skin cells, which causes damage to the cell itself. When Vitamin C is present, it can give away its extra electrons to the free radicals, offering protection to the skin cells.  

In addition to providing antioxidant protection, vitamin C is also able to protect against photodamage and even reverse the signs of ageing. Though vitamin C is not a sunscreen, it does protect against sun exposure as an antioxidant. It also decreases redness after getting a sunburn, as well as reducing damage to DNA. Moreover, it inhibits tyrosinase, which is an enzyme that causes pigmentation. By inhibiting tyrosinase, vitamin C is able to help even and brighten skin tone. Further evidence that vitamin C can benefit ageing skin is outlined in the same article in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, which indicates one of the primary ways that vitamin C is able to reverse skin ageing “is direct stimulation of collagen synthesis.” The article adds that, “Vitamin C is an essential cofactor for the two enzymes required in collagen synthesis, prolyl hydroxylase (which makes the collagen molecule stable) and lysyl hydroxylase (which cross-links the collagen to give structural strength).” Increased collagen production is imperative for skin that is losing volume and elasticity, which can lead to fine lines, wrinkles and sagging. Additionally, fibroblast production is increased by vitamin C.  Fibroblasts synthesize collagen production, so they are an important part of increasing collagen in the skin. Collagen is like scaffolding that holds the skin up and helps to keep it looking plump and youthful. 

Another benefit that Vitamin C offers is that it has an anti-inflammatory effect on the skin. It reduces redness caused by sun exposure, as well as skincare treatments, such as laser surgery. It is even able to help improve redness and inflammation caused by rosacea. 

Since vitamin C is hydrophilic, which means it is a water-loving molecule, it is able to help with the moisturization of the skin. Treatment with L-ascorbic acid leads to an increase in epidermal sphingolipids, which aids the moisture barrier of the skin. Therefore, vitamin C is able to improve the barrier function of the skin.

Dr. Telford has used high-potency topical vitamin C for the treatment of cancer and pre-malignancies. After five years of use in clinical practice, he found that topical vitamin C can lessen the number of pre-cancers approximately 85% of the time. However, Dr. Telford does not believe that vitamin C cures skin cancer. He and other scientists believe that roughly 35% of people who are exposed to the sun become immunosuppressed. This means that their skin’s immune system does not function correctly and cannot identify and kill malignant cells. 95% of patients who have more than two skin cancers are in this group. Topical vitamin C treatment applied twice a week prevents immunosuppression by supporting the body’s normal function. As a result, the skin is able to recognize and terminate pre-cancerous lesions before they become malignant. 

Though vitamin C can be found in many foods, to obtain the maximum benefit, it must be applied topically in the correct formulation. Once applied, it persists for up to four days until it is consumed by ultraviolet light or pollution. Some key factors necessary for an effective topical vitamin C product are as follows:

  • Must be applied in a pH of 3.6 or less
  • Must be ascorbic acid only (not including stabilizers, such as acetate or esters)
  • Ideal concentrations are 10% to 20%
  • Must be L-ascorbic acid (in nature, there are two forms of a molecule:  L or D. In terms of chemistry, molecules spin left or right. For vitamin C, our bodies are only able to use the L form.)

When formulated properly, topical vitamin C provides antioxidant protection, prevents immunosuppression that can lead to skin cancer, has anti-inflammatory effects on the skin, increases skin moisture levels, is able to even and brighten skin tone, increases fibroblast and collagen production and reduces fine lines and wrinkles. Vitamin C is a beneficial product for any skin type.

Articles cited:

Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, “Photodamage and topical antioxidants”, by K. E. Burke

October 27, 2014 by Cathy Mohr
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