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When it comes to over-the-counter topicals, there’s often a limit to just how much of a difference you can see from products without a prescription. But vitamin C is one ingredient actually worth the hype: As New York dermatologist Diane Madfes, MD, explains, the powerful antioxidant has tons of significant complexion-enhancing benefits.
Meet the Expert
Diane Madfes, MD, is a New York City dermatologist and assistant professor of Dermatology at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine.
"It works to stimulate collagen, lighten dark spots, and protect against sun damage," Dr. Madfes tells Byrdie. "It's also great for fine lines, melasma, and rosacea." The all-star antioxidant goes above and beyond to give you a glowier, healthier-looking complexion by batting away free radicals and keeping their DNA-damaging impact off your skin.
So, what's the best way to deliver this do-it-all ingredient to your skin? A concentrated serum. We compiled expert recommendations, insights from our testers, and a few favorites from our own medicine cabinets to bring you the best formulas for every skin type and concern.
Meet the Expert
Ahead, the best vitamin C serums out there today.
Best Overall: Drunk Elephant C-Firma Fresh Vitamin C Day Serum
Long shelf life due to home activation
With an impressive 4.8 out of 5 overall score from our home tester, Drunk Elephant's C-Firma pulls out all the stops. It contains a potent antioxidant blend of vitamin C, ferulic acid, and vitamin E to address discoloration and other signs of photoaging; ferulic acid and vitamin E boost vitamin C’s efficacy and stability, so your $78 goes far.
And that's not all: The formula also calls on pumpkin and pomegranate enzymes to gently exfoliate and smooth dull, uneven texture. The clear gel is super easy to spread and has a nice cooling sensation which feels great on sensitive, inflamed skin. We also like that C-Firma has a 2.5 pH and doesn't need to be refrigerated.
Benefits: Radiance-boosting, firming, retexturizing, smoothing, exfoliating | Skin Type: All | Dosage: A few drops daily | Size: 1 ounces | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
What Our Editors Say
"I've been using this vitamin C serum every morning for years now. The naturally amber-colored formula gives my skin a lovely, lit-from-within glow immediately upon application, and over time, my skin has become more luminous and healthy-looking (even when I'm not wearing it). I'm prone to the occasional breakout, but I don't have any lingering acne scars, and I give 100% of the credit to C-Firma." — Holly Rhue, Senior Editor
Best Budget: THE ORDINARY Vitamin C 23% + HA Spheres 2%
May sting slightly
Prone to pilling
On a budget? You really can't go wrong with The Ordinary. The brand's beloved vitamin C serum-lotion hybrid contains a hefty dose of radiance-boosting L-ascorbic acid (a pure form of the antioxidant), plus squalane and hyaluronic acid spheres to hydrate, plump, and smooth.
Benefits: Radiance-boosting, hydrating, smoothing | Skin Type: Dry, oily, mature, combination | Dosage: Small amount nightly | Size: 1 ounces | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: No
Best Drugstore: CeraVe Skin Renewing Vitamin C Serum
Fragrance- and phthalate-free
Can oxidize and leave orange streaks
CeraVe does few wrongs, and the brand created a great asset with this squeezy tube of vitamin C serum. In addition to 10 percent L-ascorbic acid, this affordable formula replenishes the skin barrier with hyaluronic acid, glycerin, and ceramides and soothes stressed skin with vitamin B5.
Benefits: Radiance-boosting, hydrating, replenishing | Skin Type: All | Dosage: Thin layer daily | Size: 1 ounces | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Best Splurge: Skinceuticals C E Ferulic
According to Dr. Madfes (and dermatologists everywhere), SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic is worth the splurge if you can swing the extremely steep price. Clocking a 4.8 out of 5 overall score from our home tester, this award-winning serum combines vitamin C with other antioxidants to deliver a noticeable improvement in the texture, evenness, and elasticity of your skin.
Benefits: Hydrating, smoothing, radiance-boosting | Skin Type: Dry, balanced, sensitive, mature | Dosage: A few drops daily | Size: 1 ounces | Cruelty-Free: No | Byrdie Clean: No
What Our Editors Say
"If I had to pick one skincare product to rave about, this is the one. The combination of ferulic acid and vitamin C and E works to protect against environmental damage caused by free radicals, improves signs of aging and photodamage, reduces the appearance of lines and wrinkles, and brightens my complexion each time I use it. It's a thin, watery serum, and it doesn't smell great—but it works better than any vitamin C product I've ever used. Over the years, I've noticed an immediate (glowy, even skin the day after) and long-term (healthier, happier, smoother skin) result." — Hallie Gould, Editorial Director
Best Luxury: ISDIN Isdinceutics Flavo-C Serum
A little goes a long way
Dr. Madfes also stands behind Flavo-C. In addition to radiance-boosting and firming vitamin C, this top-shelf serum calls on ginkgo biloba to reduce redness and safeguard your skin against free radicals. Lactic acid, meanwhile, gently resurfaces skin to reduce wrinkles.
Benefits: Environmental protection, firming, radiance-boosting, hydrating, soothing | Skin Type: All | Dosage: 5 drops daily | Size: 1 ounces | Cruelty-Free: No | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Best K-Beauty: Goodal Green Tangerine Vita C Dark Spot Serum+
Container doesn't prevent oxidation
If you're dealing with dark spots or discoloration, this Korean serum is your new best friend. The gel-like formula is chock full of radiance-boosting, tone-evening, hydrating ingredients, including tangerine-derived vitamin C, niacinamide, and Centella Asiatica (cica). Jojoba oil, allantoin, vitamin E, hyaluronic acid, and turmeric root combine to impart plush, glowing, and bouncy skin.
Benefits: Radiance-boosting, clearing, tone-evening, pH-balancing | Skin Type: All | Dosage: Small amount once or twice daily | Size: 1 ounces | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Best Complexion-Enhancing: Sephora Collection Ultra Glow Serum: Glow + Strengthen Vitamin C Serum
Container doesn't prevent oxidation
If it's a glowy complexion you're after, Sephora's C+E Super Serum has your name on it. Thanks to antioxidants and algae-derived peptides, you can count on tighter skin and a dewy, healthy glow. Meanwhile, panthenol, vitamin E, and sunflower seed oil give it a silky texture that’s bliss for dry skin.
Benefits: Radiance-boosting, refining, hydrating, tightening | Skin Type: Balanced, dry, combination, oily, mature, sensitive | Dosage: A few drops daily | Size: 1 ounce or 1.7 ounces | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: No
Best Firming: InnBeauty Project Green Machine Vitamin C + Green Superfoods Jelly Serum
A little goes a long way
Can cause breakouts on sensitive skin
Looking to firm up your face? This watermelon-labeled bottle is your best bet. It contains plant-derived collagen and stem cells to address the loss of elasticity while tightening and plumping up the skin, and the “Green Machine” moniker isn’t just lip service. A long list of plant-derived oils and extracts creates an antioxidant frenzy.
Benefits: Firming, tightening, smoothing, radiance-boosting | Skin Type: Balanced, dry, combination, oily | Dosage: 1 pump daily | Size: 1 ounce | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Best With SPF: Supergoop! Daily Dose Vitamin C + SPF 40 Serum
No physical SPF
Vitamin C skincare products help correct the effects of photoaging, but Supergoop's SPF 40 formula helps prevent them from appearing in the first place. The hybrid formula boosts dull complexions and evens out discoloration with vitamin C and niacinamide while safeguarding your skin from the sun's damaging rays with three chemical UV filters.
Benefits: UV protection, radiance-boosting, tone-evening, hydrating | Skin Type: All | Dosage: Generous amount 15 minutes before sun exposure | Size: 1 ounce | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Best for Hyperpigmentation: BeautyStat Universal C Skin Refiner
BeautyStat's skin-refining formula contains 20 percent pure vitamin C (the highest concentration available over the counter) to address dullness, fade dark spots, and correct discoloration. What's more, it balances the potency with calming ingredients like squalane and green tea.
Benefits: Radiance-boosting, retexturizing, hydrating, pH-balancing, tone-evening | Skin Type: All | Dosage: A few drops twice daily | Size: 1 ounces | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Best for Fine Lines: Kiehl's Powerful-Strength Line-Reducing Concentrate
Prone to pilling
Winning a 4.5 out of 5 overall score from our at-home tester, this serum lives up to its claims as a line-reducing concentrate. In addition to pure vitamin C, it contains vitamin Cg (aka ascorbyl glucoside) and hyaluronic acid to visibly reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.
Benefits: Plumping, smoothing, radiance-boosting, hydrating | Skin Type: Mature, balanced, dry, combination, oily | Dosage: A few drops daily | Size: 1.7 ounces or 3.4 ounces | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: No
Best for Uneven Skin Tone: Maelove The Glow Maker
This serum lives up to its name. Aside from providing a dewy, glowy effect, it blends various antioxidants to even out your skin tone and boosts your complexion—and with many of the same ingredients as Drunk Elephant and Skinceuticals serums, the $30 price is a welcome surprise.
Benefits: Hydrating, radiance-boosting, tone-evening, calming | Skin Type: All | Dosage: A few drops once or twice daily | Size: 1 ounce | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: No
Best for Dullness: Vasanti Brighten Up! Glow Boosting Serum
Contains synthetic fragrance
Vasanti's Glow Boosting Serum tackles dullness with antioxidant superstars vitamin C, bearberry-derived arbutin, and Abyssinian kale oil. Not only that, but it soothes stressed skin and calms inflammation with aloe vera and vitamin E.
Benefits: Radiance-boosting, firming, hydrating, reparative, tone-evening, soothing | Skin Type: Balanced, dry, combination, oily | Dosage: 1 to 2 drops up to twice daily | Size: 1 ounce | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Best Dry Skin: Ursa Major Brighten Up Vitamin C Serum
Petrochemical-, paraben-, and phthalate-free
Parched skin? Go with Ursa Major’s blend of vitamin C, rosehip oil, aloe, and edelweiss-derived antioxidants. This featherweight formula promises instant hydration, relief from inflammation, and a radiant complexion; shoppers report seeing stark results within days.
Benefits: Hydrating, radiance-boosting, soothing | Skin Type: All | Dosage: 1 pump daily | Size: 1 ounce | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Best for Sensitive Skin: Matrescence Rose Glow Brightening Essence
Petrochemical-, paraben-, and phthalate-free
Matrescence makes the best option for sensitive skin. In addition to illuminating vitamin C, it contains a blend of skin soothers and anti-inflammatory ingredients like chamomile, lavender oil, and aloe.
Benefits: Radiance-boosting, exfoliating, hydrating, refining | Skin Type: Sensitive, dry, inflamed, combination, acne-prone | Dosage: A few drops daily | Size: 4 ounces | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Best for Mature Skin: TruSkin Naturals Vitamin C Serum
Slight tightening feeling after application
This best-selling serum is formulated specifically for mature complexions. It blends vitamins C and E with hyaluronic acid and jojoba oil to combat dullness, address discoloration, and restore firmness. With those in its backpack and a $30 tag that’s frequently discounted, it’s no wonder TruSkin’s serum holds onto the title of Amazon’s best-selling face serum.
Benefits: Hydrating, firming, plumping, smoothing | Skin Type: All | Dosage: A few drops daily | Size: 1 ounce | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Best Natural: InstaNatural Vitamin C Serum
InstaNatural's wallet-friendly Vitamin C Serum flaunts an all-natural formula that holds its own against synthetic blends. Standout ingredients include hyaluronic acid, sea buckthorn oil, ferulic acid, and plant stem cells; radiance-boosting licorice root extract, argan oil, and cica make it a well-rounded skin hero.
Benefits: Hydrating, radiance-boosting, reparative, rejuvenating | Skin Type: All | Dosage: Dime-sized amount twice daily | Size: 1 ounce | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Best Clean: Mad Hippie Vitamin C Serum
Petrochemical-, paraben-, fragrance-, and phthalate-free
If you prefer clean formulas, we highly recommend Mad Hippie. Boasting a 4.5 out of 5 score from our home tester, this vitamin C serum leans on ingredients like ferulic and hyaluronic acid, konjac root powder, vitamin E, and chamomile extract to boost radiance and tighten without irritation.
Benefits: Tightening, radiance-boosting, smoothing | Skin Type: All | Dosage: A few drops twice daily | Size: 1 ounce | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Our number one pick is Drunk Elephant C-Firma, a potent vitamin C serum that enhances your complexion and tackles the most common signs of aging. For something a bit more budget-friendly, we recommend The Ordinary Vitamin C Suspension, which contains 23 percent pure L-ascorbic acid. And if you're open to spending a bit more, you can't go wrong with the SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic, a dermatologist-approved serum that's worth its weight in gold.
What to Look for in a Vitamin C Serum
An Opaque Bottle
Vitamin C is inherently unstable and quickly broken down when exposed to light and/or oxygen. For that reason, Cheung suggests looking for products that come housed in opaque bottles (bonus points if they have an air-tight pump dispenser). Similarly, always make sure to store your vitamin C serum in a cool, dark place.
To get the most bang for your buck, Cheung suggests looking for this type of vitamin C, the most potent and active version. That being said, it is the priciest and comes with the highest likelihood of irritation. Other less intense versions include sodium ascorbyl phosphate and magnesium ascorbyl phosphate.
Vitamin C works synergistically, meaning it plays very nicely with other antioxidants, such as vitamin E and ferulic acid, says Cheung.
What does vitamin C serum do?
According to dermatologist Jennifer Herrmann, MD, vitamin C has three main functions. The first is protecting against environmental stressors and free radicals, an antioxidant benefit that slows signs of aging and reduces damage overall. Vitamin C also promotes collagen production, giving our skin more support and structure. Finally, vitamin C is a radiance-boosting agent, so a serum that features it can work to even skin tone and fade hyperpigmentation.
When should you apply vitamin C serums?
Many people have strong preferences on when to apply vitamin C serums, debating whether it’s better to use the ingredient to protect skin during the day or replenish it at night. Herrmann says you can choose which time of day to apply but notes that consistency is key.
How should you apply vitamin C serums?
Herrmann recommends applying your serum after cleansing. Additionally, avoid using it at the same time as certain other active ingredients such as benzoyl peroxide. For example, if you use a benzoyl peroxide product at night, it’s best to apply your vitamin C serum in the morning.
How often should you apply vitamin C serums?
According to Herrmann, you should apply vitamin C serum either daily or every other day, depending on your routine and the result you want. If you already alternate several other actives, you might apply it every other day; if you’re looking to dramatically fade hyperpigmentation, you may want to use it daily.
Why Trust Byrdie
Theresa Holland is a seasoned commerce writer specializing in cosmetics. She interviewed a board-certified dermatologist for this story, compiling their serum recommendations and expertise into formulations, then reviewed insights from several at-home tests by Byrdie writers. Of the above products, she has personally tried Drunk Elephant, The Ordinary, CeraVe, Sephora Collection, InstaNatural, Vasanti, and Kiehl's. Theresa covers skincare, haircare, makeup, and wellness products at Byrdie.
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