We are definitely in a time of hype and innovation in skincare. And while I consider myself one of those people who is way too excited to see what new innovations are being rolled out by major brands and indie companies alike, my own personal skincare choices and routines are actually pretty basic. So I’ve been so happy to see all of the skincare professionals, like aestheticians and dermatologists, popping up all over social media to share their expertise. Their advice and presence have definitely reinforced my general philosophy that there is plenty to explore and learn, even with ingredients that have been around and researched for a long time.
Don’t get me wrong—I love to see the innovation and progress too. But I think that some of the players in the skincare game that aren’t as “new and shiny” have a bit more complexity than one might assume, and they deserve the appropriate credit and attention.
Vitamin C is a perfect example of one of these longstanding ingredients that people may feel they already know about, but the variety of vitamin C products and derivatives that are available to us is continuing to evolve.
Vitamin C is a longstanding ingredient that people may feel they already know about, but the variety of vitamin C derivatives that are available is continuing to evolve.
The Power of Vitamin C
L-ascorbic acid, or LAA for short, is the classic OG “gold standard” vitamin C in the skincare world. LAA is the form that has been most researched in dermatology, and it’s easy to see why it’s nearly impossible to get into skincare and not hear about a vitamin C product because it seems like it does virtually everything you could ask for:
- Helps prevent UVA and UVB damage (though it is not considered a replacement for sunscreen)
- Reduces excess pigmentation
- Promotes collagen synthesis
- Acts as an antioxidant
- Brings down inflammation
The Downside of Vitamin C
Unfortunately, as powerful as LAA can be, it’s just as finicky to work with. It is incredibly unstable when combined with water, which is what the large majority of skincare products are based in. And while formulators have tried to get around this by adding other ingredients like ferulic acid or vitamin E to make it more effective and stable, it still has a much shorter shelf life than most other ingredients. If you’ve ever seen a vitamin C product turn color from clear or white to a yellow or even a dark orange, you’re literally watching the ingredient break down and lose its efficacy.
In an attempt to get around this problem, people who are much smarter than I am have been hard at work in their labs to formulate various derivatives of LAA to provide the same benefits with fewer drawbacks for both the people making products and those of us who use them. We haven’t found the one perfect derivative to rule them all yet, but I wanted to touch on some of the more common ones to provide some info on what we have access to at this point in time.
Just as a general note, all of these derivatives need to go through a conversion on your skin. Don’t worry, it’s nothing that you need to actively take part in—your skin will do that on its own. The aforementioned LAA is the form of vitamin C your skin can actually make use of, so it will transform these derivatives into LAA when you apply any of them. This conversion process does make them less potent as they can’t be converted 100 percent into LAA, but the lack of potency isn’t always a negative, and there are some special benefits depending on what you’re looking for in your vitamin C.
The Vitamin C Derivatives
This particular form of vitamin C is known to be one of the gentler derivatives and is also particularly specialized in combating environmental stressors on the skin. If antioxidant potency is at the top of your list, ascorbyl palmitate may be worth trying out to help keep your skin in top shape.
In my experience, this particular derivative is vying for the top spot in terms of how gentle it is. That also does mean it doesn’t pack a huge punch on its own in terms of brightening or collagen stimulation, but if you’re someone with sensitive skin, gentler is almost certainly better. If you’ve wanted to get into vitamin C in the past, but you’ve been weary of how it may react on your skin or previous products you’ve tried felt too active on your skin (i.e., tingling, stinging, irritation, etc.), then ascorbyl glucoside could be what you’ve been looking for.
Sodium Ascorbyl Phosphate
This is actually the first derivative of vitamin C that I personally tried out in my teenage years, and although I didn’t know it at the time, sodium ascorbyl phosphate not only has great antioxidant capabilities but also has been shown to have potential for combating breakouts. If you’re someone who is prone to acne, I would suggest taking a look into this derivative to see if it could address what’s causing your breakouts.
It’s not uncommon to see this derivative listed as THDA on ingredient labels, and it’s definitely picked up some traction in the last few years due to not only how stable it is but also the fact that it’s soluble in lipids/fat. LAA itself and the large majority of its derivatives are only able to be dissolved into water (vitamin C usually comes as a powder so you generally have to dissolve it into a formula), but THDA being oil soluble opens up a ton of possibilities in terms of what types of formulations it can be used in and other ingredients it can be paired with. If you’re looking to fill a specific gap in your routine and need a specific type of product, like a moisturizer, there’s a good chance you can find one with THDA in it to provide that vitamin C boost.
Ethylated Ascorbic Acid
This is the new kid on the block, and while it has the least research supporting it due to it being around for a relatively short time, it’s showing a lot of promise. Sometimes listed as 3-0 ethyl ascorbic acid, the two big things to take into account are the promising level stability this derivative is showing in studies compared to its counterparts, and the fact that a higher percentage of it appears to convert to LAA than other widely used derivatives. Again, it’s pretty new, so more research is needed, and what there currently is should be taken with a grain of salt, but a more stable and more potent vitamin C derivative is something that I think a lot of people would be happy to use.
This is by no means a comprehensive list of every type of vitamin C derivative out there (we would be here all day), but I hope that I was able to offer some guidance to those of you who are curious about vitamin C or hunting for a few product to try out but weren’t sure what the difference or benefits of these derivatives are.