vitamin c safe for sensitive skin

I know what you’re thinking, “Vitamin C for sensitive skin?! Isn’t that like milk for lactose-intolerance? Trouble?” It can be. Vitamin C has a (well-deserved!) rep for being stingy, irritating and harsh. Ouch! If you’ve got sensitive skin, you may have gotten your hands on a bottle of Skinceuticals CE Ferulic or Timeless CE Ferulic Serum expecting to get the best skin of your life… only to end up with a bad case of irritation. And now you’re thinking you’d be better off without Vitamin C in your skincare routine.

Big mistake. Vitamin C is more sensitive-skin friendly than you give it credit for. You just have to choose the right type. Yes, there’s more than one type of Vitamin C. In fact, there are dozens. And only one causes problems for sensitive skin. So doesn’t it makes more sense to avoid that one than throw the baby out of with the baby water and skip Vitamin C altogether? Me thinks so. Here’s how you can use Vitamin C for sensitive skin safely?

What Is Vitamin C?

Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant. “The ingredient helps to brighten the skin, promote collagen production, and even fight free radicals,” says dermatologist Dr. Mona Gohara. The result? Younger-looking, brighter skin. The pure form of Vitamin C – and the one most used in skincare products) is L-Ascorbic Acid. But, in the past few years, scientists have developed many derivatives. Here are some of the other forms of Vitamin C you’re most likely to find in skincare products:

  • Sodium Ascorbyl Phosphate
  • Magnesium Ascorbyl Phosphate
  • Sodium Ascorbate
  • Calcium Ascorbate
  • Ascorbyl Palmitate
  • Ethyl Ascorbic Acid
  • Ascorbyl Glucoside
  • Tetrahexyldecyl Ascorbate

Basically, if it has “Ascorb” somewhere in the name, it’s a form of Vitamin C.

Vitamin C Benefits For Sensitive Skin?

Vitamin C is an antiaging superstar everyone should include in their skincare routine. Studies show that vitamin C has several superpowers:

  • Antioxidant: It destroys free radicals before they give you wrinkles and dark spots
  • Brightening: It fades away dark spots and give the complexion a lovely glow
  • Firming: It boosts the production of collagen, the protein that keeps your skin firm

Vitamin C works wonders on its own, but it’s even more powerful when used with its BFFs vitamin E and ferulic acid. Together, they BOOST photoprotection and make your sunscreen work better.

Do you really want to miss out on all this goodness?!

Related: 5 Antiaging Superstars You Should Add To Your Skincare Routine

dr dennis gross c collagen brighten and firm vitamin c serum

Side Effects Of Using Vitamin C For Sensitive Skin?

“While vitamin C is a great ingredient and it is generally pretty safe and well-tolerated, those with sensitive skin may experience some irritation using products that contain the antioxidant,” says Gohara.

But, here’s the catch. When someone says vitamin C is irritating, they’re usually referring to L-Ascorbic Acid, the pure form of vitamin C. L-Ascorbic Acid packs such a powerful punch, it can make your skin tingle and sting – especially in high doses (15% and up). It doesn’t help it works only at a low pH (around 3.5)… yep, that can bother your sensitive skin by disrupting its protective barrier.

This is good and bad news. Bad news because 15% L-Ascorbic Acid or higher is the most effective form + dose of Vitamin C to get its anti-aging and brightening effects faster. And you can’t use it. *sighs* Good news because you can still use Vitamin C. If you have sensitive skin, you have two options:

  1. Go with a lower dose of L-Ascorbic Acid
  2. Use a vitamin C derivative (there are many)

Let’s see which option is right for you:

Related: Vitamin C In Skincare: Pros & Cons

vichy liftactive vitamin c skin brightening corrector

Option #1: Use A Lower Dose Of L-Ascorbic Acid For Sensitive Skin

Let me guess: you’re about to say there’s no point using a low concentration of L-Ascorbic Acid. Everyone knows that less than 15% doesn’t work, right? This may shock you but… that’s a myth.

I guess it started because studies are usually done with high doses of L-Ascorbic Acid. Take the one that proves the benefits of CEF (vitamin C + vitamin E + ferulic acid), for example. Researchers used 15% L-Ascorbic Acid for that.

But that doesn’t mean that lower concentrations are useless. Sure, 1% L-Ascorbic Acid won’t do much for you. But studies show that already at 3%, L-Ascorbic Acid helps improve the signs of photodamage and premature aging (you know, wrinkles, dark spots and all that malarkey).

If your skin’s sensitive, you can go up to 10% without experiencing any irritation. Granted, you’ll see results more slowly than someone who’s using 20% but you’ll still see results. And that’s what matters.


In the morning, in between cleansing and moisturiser. If you use a hyaluronic acid serum, apply your Vitamin C serum first. Vitamin C boosts sun protection, so it’s best to apply it in the morning. 10% is low enough that even most people with sensitive skin can safely use it every day. But if even that irritates your skin, cut back to two or three times a week.


  • Obagi Professional-C Serum 10 Percent ($77.00): A very basic formula, it contains 10% L-Ascorbic Acid to brighten the complexion and fight wrinkles. Unfortunately, it contains fragrance. But if that doesn’t bother you, it’s a good option to consider. Available at Beauty Encounter and Dermstore.
  • Skinceuticals Serum 10 AOX+ ($70.00): A 10% Ascorbic Acid serum enriched with ferulic acid for further antioxidant properties and hyaluronic acid to provide a little extra hydration. Available at Blue MercuryDermstore and Skinstore.
  • The Ordinary Ascorbic Acid 8% + Alpha Arbutin 2% (£12.20): A powerful dark spots treatment, this serum contains a low dose of brightening Vitamin C plus Alpha Arbutin, an active that inhibits the production of melanin, helping skin go back to its natural colour. Available at Beauty BayBootsCult BeautySephoraSpaceNKThe Ordinary, and Ulta



Option #2: Use A Vitamin C Derivative For Sensitive Skin

L-Ascorbic Acid is still the best form of Vitamin C for anti-aging and brightening. If I had sensitive skin, I’d try a 10% L-Ascorbic Acid serum first. But they’re expensive and you may not feel like spending $70 for a Vitamin C serum when you can find serums with Vitamin C derivatives that cost half of that or even less.

Plus, few people have the patience to put up with L-Ascorbic Acid. It’s irritating, unstable and goes bad quickly (FYI, if your vitamin C serum has turned brown, toss it – it doesn’t work anymore). That’s why scientists have been hard at work to create derivatives of L-Ascorbic Acid that do the same thing minus the side effects. The catch? They’re a little less effective than L-Ascorbic Acid but you still get enough benefits to make the trade-off worth it.

The real question is, which derivative to choose? There are a gazillion out there. I prefer vitamin C derivatives that are well-studied (so many aren’t!) and work at a skin-friendly pH. Here are my picks:

  • Magnesium Ascorbyl Phosphate: One of the most studied form of vitamin C, it has a neutral pH. In plain English, it means it’ll give you the benefits of Vitamin C without the redness and irritation.
  • Sodium Ascorbyl Phosphate: Another gentle derivative with a skin-friendly pH. It’s my fave form of Vitamin C for oily and acne-prone skin. It’s the only form of Vitamin C scientifically proven to reduce acne. It works by reducing the amount of P.Acnes on your skin, while 5% prevents lipid oxidation by 40%. Lipid oxidation is one of the main factors that contribute to acne, so fixing that helps heal acne faster.
  • Tetrahexyldecyl Ascorbate: Your skin has a lipid barrier so most form of Vitamin C stay on your skin or need a particular delivery system to penetrate deep enough to work. This derivative is oil-soluble, so it penetrates deeper than all other derivatives (and even L-Ascorbic Acid itself). It’s also stable at a <5 pH, so it doesn’t irritate skin.


It doesn’t matter which form of Vitamin C you use, I always recommend you apply it in the morning to boost your sun protection. Like all anti-aging serums, it goes as close to clean skin as possible. Use it before your hyaluronic acid serum, moisturiser, or sunscreen. Derivatives are very gentle, so you can use them every day. You may be able to use them in the evening as well for a double dose, especially if you want to fade away your dark spots faster.


  • Mad Hippie Vitamin C Serum ($33.99): The only Vitamin C I recommend to my clients with oily and acne-prone skin, it uses Sodium Ascorbyl Phosphate + vitamin E + ferulic acid to prevent wrinkles, reduce pimples, and brightens your skin tone. and Available at iHerb and Ulta.
  • Paula’s Choice Resist Super Antioxidant Serum ($43.00): Like all Paula’s Choice products, this serum is loaded with antioxidants, including two types of Vitamin C (Tetrahexyldecyl Ascorbate + Magnesium Ascorbyl Phosphate) and the two friends that supercharge its anti-aging properties, vitamin E and ferulic acid. If you have sensitive skin, this is one of the best Vitamin C serums on the market for your skin type. Available at Dermstore and Paula’s Choice.
  • Peter Thomas Roth Potent C Power Serum ($105.00): I know this is expensive. But it’s worth it. The serum uses 20% Tetrahexyldecyl Ascorbate + 3% vitamin E + 2% ferulic acid to help you slow down aging and prevent wrinkles. It has one of the highest concentrations of these actives you’ll find in skincare products. Available at Blue MercuryNordstrom, and Ulta

Related: Types Of Vitamin C In Skincare


The Bottom Line

Vitamin C for sensitive skin? You can definitely use it. Just make sure you use a gentle, skin-friendly form that gives you all the antiaging benefits without the irritating side effects. I’d start with a derivative. If you have oily skin or suffer from acne, Sodium Ascorbyl Phosphate is your best option. Everyone else, go with Tetrahexyldecyl Ascorbate as it penetrates skin deeper than any other form of Vitamin C. Translation: it works better. Then, slowly build your way up to 10% L-Ascorbic Acid. It’s still the most effective (and studied) forms of Vitamin C.