Can Vitamin C Cause Acne Breakouts? The Answer Will Surprise You…

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Vitamin C is one of the most popular skincare ingredients out there, but there’s a rumor going around that this powerful antioxidant can actually cause acne breakouts. Is this just another skin care myth or is there really some truth behind this claim? That’s what we’re about to find out!

The Skin Benefits of Topical Vitamin C

Before we get started, let’s quickly explore exactly why vitamin C is such a beloved skincare ingredient. It mainly comes down to the fact that this vitamin is a major multi-tasker that can do all of the following:

  • It boosts collagen synthesis in the skin [1]. Increased collagen production means firmer and smoother skin, with a reduction in fine lines, wrinkles, and premature aging
  • It reduces excess melanin production [2], allowing dark spots to fade away
  • Its anti-inflammatory properties calm redness and irritation
  • It helps to prevent sun damage
  • It’s a powerful antioxidant that can fight cell-destroying free radicals. In fact, vitamin C is the most abundant antioxidant in the skin
Woman applying vitamin c serum on face

As you can see, vitamin C offers up a number of skin benefits, so why do some people find that their acne symptoms worsen after they add a vitamin C serum to their skincare routine?

In order to understand this, we need to take a closer look at the role that antioxidants play when it comes to our skin.

A Closer Look at Antioxidants and Skin Health

The beauty world loves antioxidants, and it’s easy to see why. Each and every day, your skin experiences oxidative stress caused by free radicals, also known as reactive oxygen species (ROS).

These free radicals are unstable molecules that form in the skin due to a number of different factors – everything from UV rays to pollution to certain cosmetic ingredients can lead to free radical formation.

Once in your skin, these free radicals cause some serious damage. They attack healthy skin cells, destroying everything from collagen and elastin to cell DNA.

As a result, the more free radicals you have in your skin, the more likely you are to experience wrinkles, dark spots, skin cancer, and other forms of skin damage.

The only way to neutralize these reactive oxygen species is with the use of antioxidants. With this in mind, you’d be forgiven for thinking that when it comes to the health of your skin, the more antioxidants the better!

However, new research shows that things may not actually be quite so simple…

Free Radicals Have Their Benefits Too

A serum dropper bottle

While too many free radicals in the skin can lead to a variety of skin problems, too few can have a similar effect.

Turns out, free radicals actually have antimicrobial properties [3].

A regulated amount is needed to protect the body, and therefore the skin, from bacteria, fungi, and other harmful pathogens.

A lack of ROS, which is brought about by the over-use of concentrated antioxidants, disrupts the skin’s natural microbiome.

The effects of this are similar to using highly alkaline cleansers or harsh scrubs that interfere with skin pH – inflammation and bacterial infections.

So, Can Vitamin C Cause Acne Breakouts?

When you consider the fact that a concentrated vitamin C product can leave your skin more susceptible to bacteria and inflammation, it’s easy to see why vitamin C serums are being blamed for making acne worse.

Acne vulgaris is caused by both bacteria and inflammation, and if using a vitamin C serum leads to this, then yes, it’s definitely possible for the ingredient to trigger breakouts. However, it isn’t the cause – it has simply weakened your skin’s microbiome, allowing acne-causing bacteria to invade.

It’s also worth noting that vitamin C can lead to skin purging. This happens with any ingredient that stimulates cell turnover – it simply brings all of those low-lying pimples to the surface of the skin, which increases breakouts.

However, all of this doesn’t mean that those with oily skin should avoid vitamin C altogether. When used correctly, the ingredient can actually help to reduce breakouts and prevent/fade acne scars.

How Can Vitamin C Help to Treat Acne?

Although it can’t be considered an acne treatment on its own, vitamin C can help acne-prone skin in a few different ways:

  • Vitamin C’s anti-inflammatory properties can help to reduce the redness and inflammation associated with acne vulgaris
  • Its antioxidant properties can help to reduce the oxidative stress that triggers skin inflammation and increases your chances of breaking out
  • The way in which vitamin C increases collagen production can speed up wound healing. This makes acne scars and discoloration much less likely, even if you’re dealing with hormonal acne
  • The brightening effects of vitamin C help to lighten existing acne marks

As you can see, this is a skin care ingredient that can be useful for those with acne. It all comes down to picking the right vitamin C serum and using it in an effective way.

Makeup model holding lemon slice

Choosing a Vitamin C Serum for Acne-Prone Skin

There are a few different forms of vitamin C, and each one will affect your skin in its own way. Most people flock to pure l-ascorbic acid after hearing that this is the most powerful form.

However, it also comes with side effects and instability. It oxidizes very quickly, meaning that it could then turn into a damaging free radical itself.

Instead, turn to sodium ascorbyl phosphate – a much safer form of topical ascorbic acid. Once absorbed by the skin, sodium ascorbyl phosphate is converted into l-ascorbic acid, where it can then help to treat acne.

A 1% concentration of sodium ascorbyl phosphate can reduce the levels of p.acnes bacteria on the surface of your skin, while 5% sodium ascorbyl phosphate prevents inflammation.

Whichever form you go for, don’t use a concentration of more than 20%, as this is where the acne-causing problems can start. If you also have dry skin, then always start with a low concentration.

Try to look for vitamin C serums that combine the ingredient with other antioxidants, such as vitamin E and ferulic acid. Ferulic acid helps to stabilize both vitamins C and E.

Hydrating ingredients are important too – sebum production increases in dehydrated skin. The best vitamin C serums will contain humectants, such as hyaluronic acid, to help with this. Keep an eye out for salicylic acid too – it will prevent blocked pores and regulate your sebaceous glands.

How to Use a Vitamin C Serum

So long as the vitamin C serum you’re using isn’t too concentrated, you can add it to your skincare routine twice a day, once in the morning and once at night.

Start your skincare routine as normal – by cleansing and toning your face.

Then, apply your vitamin C serum before using any other products. Give it a minute or two to soak into your skin before continuing on with the rest of your skin care routine, whether this may be additional serums or a moisturizer.

Young woman putting on facial serum for skincare

FAQs

Are vitamin C serums bad for acne-prone skin?

Vitamin C serums are only bad for acne-prone skin if you use a serum that contains an unstable and overly-concentrated form of vitamin C.

Does vitamin C serum make your skin purge?

Yes, vitamin C can make your skin purge, but this shouldn’t last for more than 4-6 weeks.

Can vitamin C cause skin problems?

If you’re using a stable and safe form of vitamin C in a low concentration, then no, it won’t cause skin problems, unless you have very sensitive skin.

Conclusion

When it comes down to it, although vitamin C doesn’t directly cause acne, too much of it can leave your skin susceptible to inflammation and bacterial infections, and this is exactly what acne is.

However, don’t avoid the ingredient either – it can help to reduce the severity and frequency of your breakouts, while also fading and preventing scarring.

It all comes down to using the right vitamin C products – spend some time making an educated decision on which one to use, and this ingredient will allow your skin to thrive.

References

[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5605218/#B3
[2] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19298775/
[3] https://journals.asm.org/doi/10.1128/mBio.00141-11

About The Author

Avatar for Brenda Lawrence
Brenda Lawrence

I’ve been a writer nearly all my life and a professional one for almost ten years. My reviews are meticulously researched and fact-checked to allow you to find the brand or product that will meet your needs.

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