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Does Vitamin C Make Your Skin Sensitive to the Sun? Here's What Experts Have to Say

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Despite what you may have heard, people with dark skin need to wear sunscreen, and shaving your hair won’t make it grow back thicker. In Myth Busters, we debunk common beauty misconceptions and set the record straight.

It can be hard to memorize the correct order in which to apply all our skincare products. From cleansers and serums to moisturizers and more, we take our regimens seriously. With that in mind, when we buy a product we want to make sure we know how to use it so it works at its best. Some skincare products make it easy by telling us right on the packaging that they are best used at night, while others are specifically formulated for daytime. In most cases, these daytime products contain SPF or work well with SPF to protect your skin from the sun’s damaging UV rays.

But one product that has been giving skincare lovers pause is vitamin C serum. Is it best to use it during the day? At night? Both? Most importantly, does vitamin C make your skin more sensitive to the sun? There's a lot of confusion about this, so we tapped two top skincare experts to set the record straight. Here’s what you need to know about vitamin C serum and sun sensitivity.

What is vitamin C and how is it used in skin care?

Gretchen Frieling, M.D., a Boston-based triple board-certified dermatopathologist, tells us that vitamin C, or ascorbic acid, is an essential nutrient acting as an antioxidant in the body. It protects healthy cells from free radical damage caused by things like pollution. According to her, when it comes to the skin, “our bodies also need vitamin C to produce collagen, a necessary protein for wound healing. These benefits translate to the skin and give more isolated results when applied topically.” This is why vitamin C is an ingredient that is commonly found in serums, eye creams, and moisturizers.

What are the benefits of vitamin C in skin care?

If you’re looking for a skincare ingredient that fights dullness while also giving you a youthful-looking glow, vitamin C should be your go-to since it can help fade dark spots and hyperpigmentation as well as diminish fine lines through its role in collagen production.

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Dr. Frieling stresses the importance of vitamin C’s powerful antioxidant properties and tells us that “one of its main benefits is its ability to fight free radical damage by neutralizing oxidative stress from UV-induced skin damage.” According to her, this free radical stress can also accelerate signs of aging, like fine lines and wrinkles, so it's great to use a product that protects against this early.

Additionally, Dr. Frieling tells us that vitamin C has been shown to reduce melanin production and even out the skin tone, so those who struggle with hyperpigmentation—in the form of age spots, dark spots, acne scars, and melasma—can benefit from a quality vitamin C serum.

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Does vitamin C make skin sensitive to the sun?

For all of its benefits, one major misconception about vitamin C is that you shouldn’t wear it if you’re about to go into the sun. Ron Robinson, a cosmetic chemist for BeautyStat, debunks this myth by telling us that “[vitamin C] does not make the wearer more sensitive to the sun. Quite the contrary. Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant which helps protect the skin from UV damage.” There are studies to back up Robinson's conclusion as well.

One 2019 study conducted by The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology found vitamin C to be a valuable and safe anti-pigmenting compound (meaning it protects against hyperpigmentation due to sun exposure or other environmental factors) and useful in preventing signs of photoaging (aka skin changes induced by chronic UVA and UVB exposure).

Robinson explains that the misconception about vitamin C may have come about for many reasons, including the fact that vitamin C in its purest form—known as L-ascorbic acid—is very unstable. He tells us that this means that the ingredient is very sensitive to light and air and can oxidize and break down easily when exposed to the elements. However, most vitamin C skincare products combine additional antioxidants with L-ascorbic acid to stabilize it, giving it a longer shelf life and even better results when applied topically to the skin. Additionally, it should be noted that vitamin C is not alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA). This is a type of skincare ingredient that does make you more sensitive to the sun—but vitamin C is categorized as ascorbic acid.

Bottom line: “Vitamin C is generally safe to use on all skin types and will not make your skin more vulnerable to sunburn,” says Dr. Fieling. “It actually does the opposite and protects the skin from sun damage,” she says. So go ahead: Apply it both morning and at night. Just make sure to follow it up with SPF during the daytime to get the most out of its protection.

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