Since it was discovered in 1912 there’s been a lot of research on the role of vitamin C in skin care. This post simplifies the research with short summaries of the findings and a table of contents that makes it easier to find the answers to specific questions.

For less science and more skin care see 67 Vitamin C Serums Compared.

General Background Information

Vitamin C in dermatology. Indian Dermatol Online J. 2013 Apr-Jun; 4(2)

Overview of the existing research on topical vitamin C up to 2013.

Changes in dermal papilla structures due to aging in the facial cheek region. Skin Res Technol. 2015 May;21(2):224-31.

90 Japanese women. Results were measured by electron/laser microscope and skin biopsies. Study found that there is a decrease in the dermal papillae structures of the skin with age.

In Vivo Studies

In vitro antioxidant activity and in vivo efficacy of topical formulations containing vitamin C and its derivatives studied by non-invasive methods.

“…the objective of this study was to determine the in vitro antioxidant activity of AA and its derivatives, MAP and ATIP, as well as their in vivo efficacy on human skin, when vehiculated in topical formulations.… in vivo studies, all formulations enhanced stratum corneum moisture content after a 4-week period daily applications when compared with baseline values; however, only the formulation containing AA caused alterations in TEWL values. The formulations containing MAP caused alterations in the viscoelastic-to-elastic ratio, which suggested its action in the deeper layers of the skin.”

In vitro antioxidant activity and in vivo efficacy of topical formulations containing vitamin C and its derivatives studied by non-invasive methods. Skin Res Technol 2008;14:376-380.

Comparison of clinical efficacies of sodium ascorbyl phosphate, retinol and their combination in acne treatment. Int J Cosmet Sci. 2009 Feb;31(1)

Double blind randomized trial to measure the effectiveness of 5% SAP and SAP in combination with retinol over 4 and 8 weeks for the treatment of acne. Significant reduction in inflammatory lesions found.

“The resulting data showed that SAP reduced the inflammatory lesion by 20.14% and 48.82% within 4 and 8 weeks respectively. Application of the formulation containing retinol slightly improved the treatment efficacy as the lesion reduced by 21.79% and 49.50% after 4 and 8 weeks respectively. The combination treatment significantly reduced the inflammatory lesion by 29.28% after 4 weeks and 63.10% after 8 weeks of application. The most effective treatment was by using the combination of 5% SAP and 0.2% retinol…”

Sodium L-ascorbyl-2-phosphate 5% lotion for the treatment of acne vulgaris: a randomized, double-blind, controlled trial. J Cosmet Dermatol 2010;9:22-27.

50 randomized subjects were treated with either 5% Sodium L-ascorbyl-2-phosphate (APS) lotion or placebo for 12 week trial to measure the effectiveness against acne. Significant improvement was seen in all measurement parameters.

In Vitro Studies

In vitro antioxidant activity and in vivo efficacy of topical formulations containing vitamin C and its derivatives studied by non-invasive methods. Skin Res Technol 2008;14:376-380.

“In vitro experiments demonstrated that in an aqueous system, AA had the best antioxidant potential, and MAP was more effective than ATIP, whereas in the lipid system ATIP was more effective than MAP.”

Vitamin C Form

Ascorbic Acid

Topical L-ascorbic acid: percutaneous absorption studies. Dermatol Surg 2001;27:137-142.

The formula is really important to effectiveness. L-ascorbic acid needs to be in a formulation with a pH of 3.5 or less to work. The maximum concentration for absorption was 20%.

Use of topical ascorbic acid and its effects on photodamaged skin topography. Arch Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 1999 Oct;125(10):1091-8.

Daily treatment with ascorbic acid over a 3 month period showed almost 60% improvement in signs of aging compared to placebo. Assessment was photographic and clinical using specific parameters on a standardized 9 point scale. Formulation was Cellex-C.

A topical antioxidant solution containing vitamins C and E stabilized by ferulic acid provides protection for human skin against damage caused by ultraviolet irradiation. J Am Acad Dermatol 2008;59:418-425.

“We sought to determine whether a stable topical formulation of 15% L-ascorbic acid, 1% alpha-tocopherol, and 0.5% ferulic acid (CEFer) could protect human skin in vivo from substantial amounts of solar-simulated UV radiation. ….provided substantial UV photoprotection for skin. It is particularly effective for reducing thymine dimer mutations known to be associated with skin cancer. Its mechanism of action is different from sunscreens and would be expected to supplement the sun protection provided by sunscreens.”

Double-blind, half-face study comparing topical vitamin C and vehicle for rejuvenation of photodamage. Dermatol Surg 2002;28:231-236.

Increased collagen, more hydration, and reduced signs of aging found by biopsy after 12 weeks using 10% ascorbic acid (water soluble) and 7% tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate (lipid soluble) in a water-free silicone gel on half of the face.

In vitro antioxidant activity and in vivo efficacy of topical formulations containing vitamin C and its derivatives studied by non-invasive methods.

“…the objective of this study was to determine the in vitro antioxidant activity of AA and its derivatives, MAP and ATIP, as well as their in vivo efficacy on human skin, when vehiculated in topical formulations.… in vivo studies, all formulations enhanced stratum corneum moisture content after a 4-week period daily applications when compared with baseline values; however, only the formulation containing AA caused alterations in TEWL values. The formulations containing MAP caused alterations in the viscoelastic-to-elastic ratio, which suggested its action in the deeper layers of the skin.”

Magnesium AScorbyl Phosphate (MAP)

In vitro antioxidant activity and in vivo efficacy of topical formulations containing vitamin C and its derivatives studied by non-invasive methods.

“…the objective of this study was to determine the in vitro antioxidant activity of AA and its derivatives, MAP and ATIP, as well as their in vivo efficacy on human skin, when vehiculated in topical formulations.… in vivo studies, all formulations enhanced stratum corneum moisture content after a 4-week period daily applications when compared with baseline values; however, only the formulation containing AA caused alterations in TEWL values. The formulations containing MAP caused alterations in the viscoelastic-to-elastic ratio, which suggested its action in the deeper layers of the skin.”

Vitamin C Ester (Tetra)

In vitro antioxidant activity and in vivo efficacy of topical formulations containing vitamin C and its derivatives studied by non-invasive methods.

“…the objective of this study was to determine the in vitro antioxidant activity of AA and its derivatives, MAP and ATIP, as well as their in vivo efficacy on human skin, when vehiculated in topical formulations.… in vivo studies, all formulations enhanced stratum corneum moisture content after a 4-week period daily applications when compared with baseline values; however, only the formulation containing AA caused alterations in TEWL values. The formulations containing MAP caused alterations in the viscoelastic-to-elastic ratio, which suggested its action in the deeper layers of the skin.”

Double-blind, half-face study comparing topical vitamin C and vehicle for rejuvenation of photodamage. Dermatol Surg 2002;28:231-236.

Increased collagen, more hydration, and reduced signs of aging found by biopsy after 12 weeks using 10% ascorbic acid (water soluble) and 7% tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate (lipid soluble) in a water-free silicone gel on half of the face.

Formulations

Concentration

Topical L-ascorbic acid: percutaneous absorption studies. Dermatol Surg 2001;27:137-142.

The maximum concentration for absorption of L-ascorbic acid was 20%.

pH

Topical L-ascorbic acid: percutaneous absorption studies. Dermatol Surg 2001;27:137-142

L-ascorbic acid needs to be in a formulation with a pH of 3.5 or less to work.

Specific Trials

Cellex-C

Use of topical ascorbic acid and its effects on photodamaged skin topography. Arch Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 1999 Oct;125(10):1091-8.

Daily treatment with Cellex-C over 3 month period showed almost 60% improvement in signs of aging compared to placebo. Assessment was photographic and clinical using specific parameters on a standardized 9 point scale.

Water free ascorbic acid and vitamin C ester in silicone base.

Double-blind, half-face study comparing topical vitamin C and vehicle for rejuvenation of photodamage. Dermatol Surg 2002;28:231-236.

Increased collagen, more hydration, and reduced signs of aging found by biopsy after 12 weeks using 10% ascorbic acid (water soluble) and 7% tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate (lipid soluble) in a water-free silicone gel on half of the face.

Skin Issues

Acne

Sodium ascorbyl phosphate shows in vitro and in vivo efficacy in the prevention and treatment of acne vulgarism. Int J Cosmet Sci. 2005 Jun;27(3)

“Further on in a human in vivo study with 20 subjects an SAP O/W formulation significantly prevents the UVA-induced sebum oxidation up to 40%. Finally, we performed an open in vivo study with 60 subjects with a 5% SAP lotion over 12 weeks. The efficacy ranked as excellent and good of SAP was 76.9%, which was superior compared with a widely prescribed acne treatment.”

Anti-Aging

Topical ascorbic acid on photoaged skin. Clinical, topographical and ultrastructural evaluation: double-blind study vs. placebo. Exp Dermatol 2003;12:237-244.

Significant decrease in deep furrows shown under electron microscope after 6 months using 5% vitamin C.

“Cutaneous biopsies were obtained at the end of the trial and investigated using immunohistochemistry and electron microscopy. Clinical examination by a dermatologist as well as self-assessment by the volunteers disclosed a significant improvement, in terms of the ‘global score’, on the vitamin C-treated side compared with the control. A highly significant increase in the density of skin microrelief and a decrease of the deep furrows were demonstrated. Ultrastructural evidence of the elastic tissue repair was also obtained and well corroborated the favorable results of the clinical and skin surface examinations. Topical application of 5% vitamin C cream was an effective and well-tolerated treatment. It led to a clinically apparent improvement of the photodamaged skin and induced modifications of skin relief and ultrastructure, suggesting a positive influence of topical vitamin C on parameters characteristic for sun-induced skin ageing.”

Double-blind, half-face study comparing topical vitamin C and vehicle for rejuvenation of photodamage. Dermatol Surg 2002;28:231-236.

Increased collagen, more hydration, and reduced signs of aging found by biopsy after 12 weeks using 10% ascorbic acid (water soluble) and 7% tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate (lipid soluble) in a water-free silicone gel on half of the face.

Topically applied vitamin C increases the density of dermal papillae in aged human skin. BMC Dermatol 2004;4:13.

“Topical vitamin C resulted in a significant increase of the density of dermal papillae from 4 weeks onward compared to its vehicle. Reproducibility was determined in repeated studies.”

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