Why Vitamin C May Harm Your Sensitive Skin—And What To Use Instead

January 20, 2022

A few weeks ago, I went to my local beauty boutique and picked up a jar of M-61 Vitablast C 20% Cream. I seemed to remember getting a sample of it a long time ago and liking it. I had also been using the same night cream for a few years and wanted to switch it up. (I once saw Elle Macpherson explain in a video that that’s the secret to getting the most out of skincare—because your skin gets used to the same product, much like your muscles need to be challenged with different exercises.) I also wanted to brighten my skin and boost its radiance, which I thought would benefit from a powerful vitamin C cream.

The morning after using the cream for the first time, I woke up with a little redness on my right cheek. I thought that it was just winter dryness, and kept using the cream for another 24 hours. (Face palm.) Long story short, by the next day it was clear to even dum-dum me that I was on the receiving end of a vicious allergic attack. Before long, my entire face was red and bumpy, and so swollen that it changed the shape of my face. It was definitely the worst allergic reaction I’ve ever had, and I have had a lot. I learned a thing or two about protecting your skin when it’s in such a state.

  1. Don’t use any products. When your skin is sensitized, its skin barrier function is seriously compromised. Putting products on it would be like putting products on a wound. If your skin feels inflamed and dry, you can put aloe vera on it to help cool. But avoid all cleanser, serum, lotion—even stuff you normally like. (I was surprised by how quickly my skin got used to not having any products on it. I didn’t experience excessive dryness, even though it’s winter.)
  2. Use dermatologist-recommended gentle moisturizer like CeraVe. A friend who had experienced similar skin issues told me CeraVe was helpful in rebuilding her skin barrier. Dermatologist-developed CeraVe contains ceramide, which is one of the major components of your skin barrier. It is available at drugstores and more affordable than the fancy brands, but significantly for PD, the brand does not test on animals. It does contain petrolatum—aka Vaseline—which surprisingly is also recommended by my surgical physician’s assistant friend for safely healing wounds.
  3. Stay away from fragrances and essential oils. Did you know that fragrance is the number one irritating ingredient in skincare products? I didn’t either! Look for fragrance-free formulas as much as possible.
  4. Do a patch test on the inside of your arm before putting anything on your face. I know, I know. It feels unnecessary sometimes—but I won’t ever put new products on my face again without a patch test.

Now, on to vitamin C. Although we’re used to thinking of vitamin C as “more is better” nutrient, it can be extremely powerful and irritating on sensitive skin when used topically. At 20% concentration, I was pretty much exposing myself to a highly acidic cream without any warning. If you have sensitive skin and want to try vitamin C, try at 10–15% and see whether you want to step it up further. Vitamin C, like retinol (vitamin A), is not to be added to your skincare routine casually.

Yet another option is to try niacinamide (vitamin B3) instead. Like vitamin C, niacinamide is an antioxidant and repairs skin damage from free radicals. It is anti-inflammatory and reduces redness and irritation from acne, psoriasis, and eczema. Like vitamin C, it spurs the skin’s collagen production and helps reduce signs of aging such as fine lines, wrinkles, and hyperpigmentation. While vitamin C has a more powerful brightening effect, niacinamide is hydrating and helps rebuild the skin barrier. In my experience using niacinamide, I noticed immediate plumping and hydrating effect especially around my smile lines.

Caudalie Vinoperfect Instant Brightening Moisturizer with Niacinamide, $59

The star ingredient in this cream is a grape extract that is 62 times more effective than vitamin C in brightening. Caudalie is cruelty-free and also is the largest beauty contributor to 1% for the Planet, focusing on reforestation.

Have you tried vitamin C? How did it work for you?

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Photo: respective brands; Fleur Kaan via Unsplash

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