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A Guide to Vitamin C and Its Many Derivatives

It’s one of the essential building blocks for healthy skin and one of the most complex ingredient dynasties out there, coming in many complicated shapes and sizes, and showing up in hundreds of different skin care products. Yes, Vitamin C is amazing but it isn’t the easiest ingredient to get to grips with. To make things clearer, read on for our guide to Vitamin C and how to decipher its many derivatives in order to find the best one for you.

Where it all started…

There aren’t many skin care ingredients that came about due to a malnutrition epidemic, but this is where the origins of Vitamin C can be traced back to. Centuries ago, sailors who spent many months at sea started to suffer from a condition that later become known as scurvy; which resulted in bleeding gums, slow wound healing and haemorrhaging beneath the surface, caused by a diet lacking in fresh fruit and vegetables. Later investigation pinpointed to the fact that the men on board these ships weren’t getting the vital vitamins the body needs to stay healthy.

This triggered many scientists to explore nutrition and vitamin supplementation over the coming years and it wasn’t until the 1930s when Ascorbic Acid, also known as Vitamin C, was finally discovered and connected to scurvy prevention. This new compound was proven to help the body to efficiently use carbohydrates, fats, and protein, while helping to maintain the internal connective tissues we all take for granted. With further advancements, scientists eventually realised that Vitamin C also had a positive impact on the quality of the skin: helping to increase collagen synthesis, providing mild exfoliation benefits and suppressing melanin production.

As the body can’t produce its own Vitamin C, the only way to get it is through a healthy diet and topical skin care, so scientists set about trying to create more stable and effective derivatives that would work for all skin types.

The key players

There are lots of different Vitamin C derivatives currently available and to list them all would be a mammoth task, however, there are a few key names everyone should know due to their popularity and ability to change the skin for the better. Apart from pure Vitamin C, all other derivatives have to be converted into Ascorbic Acid by the cells in order for the skin to utilise them for collagen production. It’s also worth remembering that any skin care product that contains Vitamin C or one of these derivatives will always list the chemical name of the ingredient, never simply Vitamin C, in the ingredients list.

Here are the ones you need to know about…

L-Ascorbic Acid

The original and purest form of Vitamin C, this ingredient doesn’t need to be converted into a useful substance by the skin and, because it is water-soluble, it can pass through the epidermal layer with ease and is already in a bio-available form to trigger collagen synthesis. L-Ascorbic Acid is also amazing at protecting the skin against external aggressors but it does have its downsides. Due to its pure form, it can irritate skin that isn’t used to such a potent ingredient and, to keep it active, it must be packaged in an opaque bottle as it can be degraded by sunlight.

Ascorbyl Palmitate

One of the most common Vitamin C derivatives, Ascorbyl Palmitate is a highly stable, lipid-soluble ingredient that is less problematic than pure L-Ascorbic Acid. However, it isn’t as potent and can’t penetrate the surface of the skin easily, so it tends to be included more often in moisturising creams and lotions as an added antioxidant extra, to provide protection against free radicals and sun damage.

Tetrahexyldecyl Ascorbate

Another common Vitamin C derivative, which is often found in Medik8 products, this compound is also lipid-soluble, highly stable and generally non-irritating for the skin. This ingredient also works well when combined with Vitamin E to form a super-antioxidant formula, and can help with everything from uneven pigmentation to sluggish collagen production. Unlike pure L-Ascorbic Acid, which can be irritating for the skin in high concentrations, Tetrahexyldecyl Ascorbate can be used in concentrations of up to 10% without inflaming the skin, with most cosmeceutical brands using a concentration of around 5-7% in their products.

Magnesium Ascorbyl Palmitate

This ingredient is slowly becoming more and more popular in the skin care world thanks to its ability to boost collagen production as effectively as pure Vitamin C, even in low concentrations, making it an ideal antioxidant for new users or those with very sensitive skin. It does, however, need to be packaged in an air-tight, opaque bottle to prevent it from breaking down and becoming ineffective.

To get the best out of any Vitamin C-based product, apply it in the morning alongside a sunscreen to provide the skin with the best level of protection and rejuvenation. Much like Retinol, a stronger concentration of Vitamin C doesn’t always equal better results. Start off with a low concentration to see how the skin reacts before gradually increasing the percentage to a level your skin can tolerate.

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