Until about two years ago, whenever someone mentioned vitamin C, my mind automatically went to orange juice. Now, though, I am an adult who associates orange juice with hangovers and vitamin C with skincare. If you’re one of those people who just learned to moisturize like, two years ago, then I understand why you’d be skeptical of adding another ingredient to your skincare routine. After all, you’ve got cleansers, toners, serums, night cream—is vitamin C really necessary, or is it one of those things the beauty industry tries to push on us that we don’t really need? Well, like it or not, vitamin C falls into the “actually necessary” camp. But don’t just take my word for it—we spoke to board-certified dermatologist Dr. Shari Marchbein on why incorporating vitamin C into your skincare routine is actually important, and how you should be doing it.
Dr. Marchbein says that “Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that helps protect from and repair free radical damage, can reduce the appearance of brown spots, and even out skin tone.” **buys 87 vitamin C-based serums** If you share my dream of perfect skin, keep reading for a few more benefits of vitamin C and why you should incorporate it into your skincare routine.
Why Should We Incorporate Vitamin C Into Our Routine?
As I mentioned, vitamin C is as preventative as it is reparative, so working it into your skincare routine immediately is a good call. Like Hannah Ann upon arrival to the Fantasy Suite, I was hesitant to introduce a new ingredient to my sensitive skin, especially one that’s associated with anti-aging, because tbh I’m only 26. Starting anti-aging processes too early can actually be bad for your face because certain ingredients (think retinol, hydroxy acids, and peptides) are too aggressive on your still-young skin, and will actually backfire by speeding up the aging process. Yikes, who knew?
However, vitamin C protects against free radicals, which, without going into too much science, are damaging to your skin and are found in everything you’d assume would be bad for your skin: pollution such as smog, dust, and cigarette smoke, as well as our frenemy, the sun. Vitamin C works both as a shield against free radicals and also to lighten dark spots on the skin. Basically, vitamin C is your new best friend. To drive my point home, Dr. Marchbein adds, “Vitamin C also plays a critical role in the formation of collagen (which is one of the many reasons dermatologists recommend the daily application of vitamin C to the skin each morning).”
Can Anyone Use Vitamin C?
Simple answer? Yes. However, for people who want to see a result rather than just practice preventative caution, vitamin C is especially good for you because it visibly lightens dark spots. If you have acne scars/marks that haven’t completely faded, sun spots, etc., vitamin C will help even out the skin and take the dark out of those areas of your face and neck. Dr. Marchbein says, “For those with acne, use vitamin C to help lighten and prevent further darkening of post-inflammatory hyper-pigmentation.” Hyper-pigmentation is a fancy word for dark spots caused by an excess production of melanin, and can be caused by non-active acne, sun damage, or changing hormones during pregnancy. While hyper-pigmentation is usually harmless, vitamin C will help diffuse the darkness of those affected areas.
Are There Any Downsides To Using Vitamin C?
Like the worrywart that I am, I had to ask. Dr. Marchbein urgently stresses the importance of wearing SPF if you’re using vitamin C during the daytime. Obv, you should wear SPF anyway, but especially so if you’re trying to break down your dark spots. The sun naturally darkens your skin (duh), so asking your vitamin C to lighten a few spots while the sun goes to work is a little counterintuitive, right? She warns that while “Vitamin C serums do not inherently make you more sensitive to the sun,” it’s possible that some products “may be combined with other ingredients that might.” Regardless, she also advises, “since UV damage is the ultimate skin-ager, causes wrinkles, sunspots etc, wearing daily SPF 30+ is the most important step in any morning skincare routine.”
What Type Of Products Should You Be Using?
Personally, I use Image’s Vital C Hydrating Facial Cleanser because it leaves my skin feeling clean, but without the tight, stripped of all life feeling that other cleansers offer. After using it for nearly a year, I have definitely noticed a more radiant look and literally zero dark spots. However, if you want something a little more dramatic, Dr. Marchbein suggests using a serum because the active ingredients (namely, the vitamin C) will be more concentrated. “Remember that not all serums and ingredients are created equally,” she says. “A vitamin C serum from one brand may be vastly different from a vitamin C serum from another brand based on the strength, other ingredients it is formulated with, how it is packaged, and whether it is exposed to light which can oxidize it.” She tells us, “It’s important to pick products with active ingredients that have good science and research behind them.” Preach, doc. Generally, the products that oxidize aren’t worth your money because oxidized vitamin C is pretty ineffective.
She adds , “Skinceuticals Phloretin CF, Skinbetter Alto Defense serum, and Isdinceutics Flavo-C Ultraglican Antioxidant Ampoules are some of my favorite medical-grade antioxidant vitamin C serums.” But if you want something a little less intense, she recommends Ole Henriksen Truth serum, CeraVe Skin Renewing Vitamin C serum, La Roche-Posay Pure Vitamin C, Olay Tone Perfection Serum Vitamin B3 + Vitamin C, and Drunk Elephant C-Firma Day serum.
Flavo-C Ultraglican Antioxidant Ampoules
CeraVe Skin Renewing Vitamin C Serum
Olay Tone Perfection Serum Vitamin B3 + Vitamin C
Well, there you have it. Your soon-to-be-flawless mug can only benefit from using vitamin C products regularly. After chatting with Dr. Marchbein, I picked myself up two serums, the Drunk Elephant one she recommended and a cheaper option from Glossier (Super Glow). It hasn’t been long enough to decide which is better, but my skin hasn’t revolted against me (yet) for introducing two new products into my routine, so I’m counting this experiment as a success in my book. One thing to remember, though: everyone’s skin is different, so if a product has rave reviews, but sets your skin on fire when you use it, that doesn’t mean it’s a sh*t product; it just means that you need something a little less concentrated (like a cleanser!).
Drunk Elephant C-Firma Day serum
Glossier Super Glow vitamin C and magnesium serum
Images: Noah Buscher / Unsplash
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As you can probably tell from the title, this skin care diary entry will be less sexy than others we’ve published. Welcome to the world of sensitive skin. I graduated college a little over two years ago, and it’s been an absolute whirlwind watching my skin and metabolism compete over who can deteriorate faster. I’ve never suffered from serious acne (*knocks on every piece of wood in the tri-state area*), but my post-grad skin has offered up plenty of dullness, dryness, and increasingly visible pores. I also developed what I refer to as “my problem cheek,” and my dermatologist refers to as “rosacea.” Basically, one stubborn patch on my face is perpetually red with some bumps—not quite pimples but just not smooth.
Before I finally caved and saw a dermatologist about it, I was convinced I had chronically dry skin and was layering on fancy oil-based serums and thick moisturizers every night. I genuinely believed that the more I spent on a skin care product, the better it was for me. But here’s the honest, tragic truth about my (highly sensitive) skin. Just about anything I do to it beyond doctor-recommended cleanser, treatment, and moisturizer only makes it worse. As my dermatologist explained, the rosacea means that my skin barrier is damaged. So any products I’m applying don’t actually soak in. They just settle in the top layer, creating that fun bumpy texture I was describing.
Long story short, many of the fun, bougie skin care products I’d love to try are off-limits to me. All those “intensely moisturizing” products I used to swear by? They make my oil-prone areas worse, and ultimately clog my pores. Any physical exfoliants just activate my redness-prone rosacea patches. And forget about face makeup. Any time I go for a full face of foundation, or—God forbid—highlighter, which I seem to be allergic to in every brand, I accept that my skin’s overall appearance will take a hit for the next three days. So, I’ve worked very hard to assemble a routine that keeps my sensitive AF skin smooth, even, and pimple-free. If your skin is more dramatic about a change in routine than you are when asked to attend a 9am meeting, read on. Here are the products I’ve found really work.
My sensitive skin every time I try to introduce a new product:
Face Wash: I wash my face morning and night with CeraVe Hydrating Cleanser. My dermatologist recommended it, and it makes my face feel crazy soft. I’ll double cleanse on days when I bothered to put on make-up, or if I skipped my routine the night before. And while I’m sure that a Clarisonic or the equivalent would make it even more effective, I frankly just do not have the time or patience to use one. Plus, I kind of hate reusable skin care accessories because I’m a germophobe and convinced they’re growing bacteria. This is a problem I imagine could be alleviated by like, cleaning it, but once again I am lazy/perpetually short on time.
Toner: I follow (most) cleanses with Belif Witch Hazel Herbal Extract toner. In the words of my dermatologist, it’s “not really doing anything,” but she graciously invited me to finish the bottle I’d just purchased. Despite her (rude) commentary, I like the idea of an additional cleansing step while living in the cesspool of dirt known as New York City. Also, it smells refreshing and makes me feel fancy. As I mentioned before, most products that fit that description give me some kind of weird reaction, so I really appreciate the ones that don’t.
Prescription: Once my doc determined that problem cheek = rosacea, I was given a prescription for an azelaic acid called Finacea Foam. It treats the redness and bumps caused by rosacea, and I use it twice a day after cleansing and before moisturizing. While it hasn’t 100% cleared up the problem, I’ve gone from having bumps spread across both cheeks to one small patch (damn you, problem cheek!). The overall texture has also greatly improved, and what was once a weird blotchy redness now shows up as more of a flush after hot showers/working out. Highly recommend.
Spot Treatment: This is not dermatologist-approved behavior, but if I see a pimple coming on I’ll dab some spot treatment with salicylic acid on the area before locking it all in with moisturizer. It’s a little annoying because I have to wait for an additional layer to dry, but fully worth it if you can stop a burgeoning zit in its tracks. If I go a little too nuts and start using it daily I end up getting dry and triggering some redness, but in moderation I find this kind of product to work wonders. My two faves are Clean & Clear Advantage Acne Spot Treatment and Neutrogena Rapid Clear Acne Eliminating Spot Gel.
Sunscreen: I use EltaMD UV Clear Broad-Spectrum SPF 46 every morning, at my dear dermatologist’s behest. Apparently rosacea can be triggered by sun exposure, so I guess this plays a role in calming it down. Honestly, I struggle to get excited about any product from which I don’t see immediate effects, but I know it’s good for me and I feel lightly smug for using it for that reason. Also, it sinks in quickly enough and replaces my moisturizer in the morning.
Moisturizer: I use CeraVe PM Facial Moisturizing Lotion every night and some mornings, depending on how dry my skin is feeling. I love it because it’s lightweight, has the same silky feel as their cleanser, and doesn’t sit on top of my skin like all those fancy jar moisturizers I was buying for years did. Does it make me feel rich and chic? No, but it also doesn’t cost me $50 every six weeks, and my skin is way softer. I’ll take it.
Serum: Eminence Facial Recovery Oil. My dermatologist all but begged me to throw this out (in her words, “I don’t think more oil is what you need right now”). But I’ll still dab a little on my forehead every now and then because I can’t help myself. Nose, chin, and cheeks are off-limits for this riskier product, but I’ll mix a little in with my moisturizer and apply to my forehead a few times a week. It smells amazing and my sister swears it’s improved her fine lines.
Morning: Cleanser, toner, Finacea, sunscreen. I have a week-old pimple on my cheek, and last night I put on a bunch of spot treatment and extra Tretinoin on the area, plus Neosporin since I keep picking it open. (Don’t @ me, it works.) The pimple is finally fading from view, but I see two to three more bumps lurking below the surface. Problem Cheek, will you ever set me free??? I’ve tried changing pillowcases, changing what side I sleep on, never holding my phone to that side of my face… nothing works. I take a few pictures in hopes of taking you on a visual journey, but I’m on week 7 of a 10-week shoot and the bags under my eyes/general lifeless demeanor are a little much to take.
Evening: Cleanser, Finacea, moisturizer. No spot cream or toner because I just worked 14 hours. Moisturizer I applied lying down maybe three seconds before passing out. I manage to apply more Neosporin to my cheek spot, though, because at this point I’ve been wrangling it for nearly 10 days and it’s all I can think about. To anyone reading this: do not pick your face until it bleeds, no matter how fun and genuinely helpful it seems in the moment! I fall asleep praying it will heal overnight.
My poor, picked-at skin:
Thursday morning I don’t have to be at work until 9am. This would be better news if it didn’t mean I’ll be there until 11pm. However, the extra time in the morning means I can cleanse, tone, apply Finacea, and put on sunscreen all in the comfort of my home. I’m sad to admit I sometimes apply sunscreen on the subway, which I am aware makes me gross. I have a thing about layering products too quickly. I worry I’m just diluting one product with another if I don’t give them time to dry. If I’m totally wrong on this, PLEASE call me out in the comments. I would love to stop putting on sunscreen with hands that just touched subway poles.
I’m not home until 11:40pm, as expected. As I dutifully cleanse, tone, Finacea, and moisturize, I realize something miraculous. Cheek pimple is, if not totally invisible, highly faded. Neosporin saves the day again. I stare at my nearly clear cheek and think about how I definitely would have skipped washing my face tonight if I weren’t writing this diary. This makes me think I should start journaling my food, too. Then I eat four bite-size candy bars I stole from work and fall asleep.
Today is an exciting skincare day for you all! I’m working from home until 6:30, so I don’t get out of bed until 11. I don’t do anything to my face because I want to work out first, a dream it takes me two hours and 15 minutes of yoga to give up on. I wash my face in the shower, then put on Kiehl’s Rare Earth Deep Pore Cleansing Masque. It’s my go-to for all generalist, make-my-skin-look better needs. It’s great for calming down redness and inflammation, improves overall tone, and just makes your skin look clear.
After, my skin is looking the best it has all week. The cheek pimple is totally gone, and those bumps I was complaining about on Wednesday seem to have died down too. I add toner, Finacea, and sunscreen. After sunscreen, I add my new favorite no-makeup makeup product: Smashbox Photo Finish Foundation Primer. This is the closest thing to foundation I can wear without triggering a breakout, and despite being sheer, I swear to God it visibly blurs away my flaws. Friday night, I cleanse/Finacea/maybe moisturize? I spent my evening getting high and watching Vanderpump Rules, so I honestly don’t remember. I do remember eating a Twix bar at 1am and thinking the single greatest thing I could do for my health is cut down on sugar, so take that as you will.
Me: I should cut down on sugar!
Also me every time I go out:
Saturday morning, I cleanse and tone, and get dressed in a rush waiting for toner to dry. Then I add Finacea and try to find my insurance card for a doctor’s appointment for 10 minutes. Two hours later, I remember to moisturize—hope it still counts for something. No sunscreen today, oops. Saturday night I make a genuine attempt to go out. But I still end up asleep on the couch before midnight. At least I manage to wash my face before crashing. I tell myself I’ll put on Finacea and moisturizer in bed. I don’t.
Sunday morning I’ve slept for an annoyingly long time. I cleanse, tone, Finacea, and moisturize—no sunscreen. My skin’s feeling dry since I fell asleep without moisturizing the night before, and I don’t really plan on spending time outside anyway. I go to the movies, where I realize the junk food and half-hearted skin care Saturday has resulted in two new bumps rearing their heads on Problem Cheek. I tell myself I’ll do a mask and spot treatments that night. Instead, I drink two margaritas at 5pm, and barely manage to cleanse/tone/Finacea/moisturize. I suck.
I wake up at 4:30am, regretting Sunday’s margaritas with every bone in my body. I seriously consider quitting my job for five minutes, then get out of bed and cleanse, tone, Finacea, sunscreen. Monday night, I get home “early” (7pm), and treat myself to some salicylic acid spot treatment following my cleanse/Finacea/moisturizer routine. No toner because I’m already tired at the prospect of the spot treatment, but the bumps I saw at the movie theater Sunday don’t seem to be going anywhere on their own.
Tuesday morning I cleanse, tone, Finacea, and liberally apply sunscreen to try and make up for the fact that I don’t have time to apply moisturizer (and wait for it to dry). At work, I read a different skin care diary in which someone who clearly has more money and better skin than me also swears by salicylic acid for clearing breakouts. Even though the salicylic acid product is the only one in her routine I can remotely afford, I allow myself a brief moment of smugness. I also remind myself that fancy $100 skincare items have never done anything but made me break out.
Tuesday night, I cleanse/tone/Finacea, and add more spot gel (Clean & Clear) to those bumps on my cheek. I can’t be sure if they’re actually pimples or just rosacea bumps, but I feel hopeless if I can’t even pretend I’m treating it. I tell myself I’ll moisturize in bed, and as I’m sure you can guess, I do not. At 3am, I wake up, realize my mistake and moisturize. It’s terrible.
All in all, the moral of my not-so-exciting skin care routine is that I’ve (reluctantly) stopped chasing Instagram-perfect skin. And both my wallet and face are a lot happier for it. I don’t use drugstore products because I’m low-maintenance and don’t GAF. I use them because the alternative is spending $78 on a moisturizer that sits on top of my broken skin barrier and makes me break out. So if you have sensitive skin like me, remember that the #1 investment you can make is a dermatologist, and when you’re rich, biannual microneedling and injections. Can’t wait.
Images: Giphy (4)