Vitamin C is perhaps one of the most popular, yet controversial ingredients used in skincare.
Regardless of whether we’re talking about vitamin C serums or other products, there’s a lot that the substance can offer. At the same time, the substance doesn’t agree well with some folks.
In this article, I’ll take you on a factual journey and offer some insights on vitamin C. Most importantly, I’ll give you ideas on what to use instead of vitamin C serum if your skin can’t seem to handle the pure form well.
In a nutshell, we will cover:
- What are the benefits of vitamin C for the skin – this will show us what to look for in an alternative;
- What are the reasons why some people can’t use vitamin C in their skin routines;
- The best alternatives to vitamin C serums in terms of benefits.
What does vitamin C do for the skin?
Before we dig deeper into the vit C alternatives, perhaps it’s worth going over what this ingredient can do for the skin in the first place. What makes it so special and why is it such a popular part of skincare?
Well, going back to basics, Vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid, exists in the skincare world in several forms:
Pure L-ascorbic acid – the purest form with the most proven results in many studies. It’s the most biologically active version of vitamin C but also the most irritating form of all. People with sensitive skin often report that this pure version of vitamin C is too strong for them, so they might do better to try any of the other alternatives to vitamin C.
Ascorbic acid derivatives – Sodium Ascorbyl Phosphate (SAP), Magnesium Ascorbyl Phosphate, Ascorbyl Glucoside, Tetrahexyldecyl Ascorbate, Ethylated L-ascorbic Acid are the most popular derivatives of pure vitamin C.
I’ll go into detail about vitamin C derivatives later on in this article. The important thing to know is that these versions of vitamin C tend to be tolerated well better than the purest form of vitamin C.
Now, before you get confused with the terminology, let’s focus on the benefits that vitamin C offers for the skin.
Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant, which offers superior skin protection against oxidative stress and free radicals like blue light and other UV light, pollution, oxidative stress, and others.
All of these factors can damage the skin, cause skin stress, and significantly reduce the production of collagen. As a result, the skin loses its firmness and elasticity and becomes prone to pigmentation and wrinkle formation.
As an antioxidant, l-ascorbic acid “mops up” all the baddies that tend to damage our skin with time, thus preventing a lot of what otherwise could happen to our skin.
Ascorbic acid also offers skin-brightening capabilities and is a perfect choice for people fighting hyperpigmentation.
It decreases the rate of pigment production in the skin and boosts cellular turnover, which contributes to getting rid of any excess pigment faster. Consequently, you can see a clear difference in the skin – it will appear brighter and more radiant looking.
Increases collagen and elastin formation
Another important benefit of vitamin C for the skin is the fact that it dramatically increases collagen and elastin production in the skin.
These two components are the building blocks of the skin and are essential for maintaining young, healthy, and plump skin. They’re fundamental for preventing age-related signs like skin sagging and loss of firmness.
Why can’t some people use vitamin C serums?
So having in mind all of these great effects on the skin, why would anyone be on the lookout for a replacement for vitamin C?
In a nutshell, it all comes down to skin sensitivity.
Vitamin C (especially the pure L-ascorbic acid form) is highly acidic. This means that it can cause irritation, redness, and discomfort for some skin types, particularly sensitive skin. But let’s dive into the reasons why some people can’t use vit. C in more detail.
- Some people just have too sensitive skin to handle the acidic ingredient – this could be a result of the level of concentration of the vitamin C in a particular product or the fact that your skin is too sensitive and doesn’t react well to highly acidic substances.
- Some skins simply don’t react well to vitamin C – it could be that your skin simply doesn’t like vitamin C and that’s the end of it. This shouldn’t worry you because I’m about to share several alternatives to vitamin C in the following sections – not only derivatives but alternative ingredients altogether.
- Some users have trouble layering vitamin C products underneath sunscreen and makeup – I’ve come across multiple stories where people experience skin darkening as a result of inappropriate layering when using vitamin C together with sunscreen and makeup. Since vitamin C is difficult to formulate with due to its instability, many products aren’t as elegant as they could be.
What to use instead of vitamin C serum?
As mentioned above, there are plenty of vitamin C serum alternatives to try if the original substance is not your favorite.
You can try several different vitamin C derivatives, and different acids like azelaic and tranexamic acid, retinoids, and more.
Let’s take all of this information step by step.
Vitamin C derivatives
As I noted above, vitamin C has a fair share of derivatives. They’re fundamentally different from the original ingredient, despite being in the same family of vitamin C.
The derivatives of vitamin C are often gentler and less irritating than the pure form of ascorbic acid.
Before completely writing vitamin C off, I strongly recommend trying out different versions of the ingredient to see if something agrees with your skin. After all, vitamin C derivatives provide similar skin benefits as pure vitamin C but come with lower risks as they transform into the skin.
The reason why vitamin C derivatives are much more gentle to the skin and are not likely to cause redness and irritation is that, unlike the pure form, they don’t require a low pH to provide results.
I also want to add that when using vitamin C derivatives it’s vital to understand that they will work slower than the pure l-ascorbic acid form – this is all due to the transformation that these ingredients must complete.
This means that you need to consciously start a long-term journey with them as opposed to expecting quicker results like you would with pure vitamin C.
Here are the vitamin C derivatives that you want to know about.
Sodium Ascorbyl Phosphate (SAP)
This water-soluble form of vitamin C is perfect for people with acne-prone skin. It has an antimicrobial function and can deal with acne-causing bacteria called P. acnes.
SAP has great photoprotective qualities, so it’s a great antioxidant in that sense. Studies have also shown it to boost collagen production and fade dark spots.
It’s more stable and gentler on the skin than pure l-ascorbic acid and works in formulations with a pH up to 7.
Magnesium Ascorbyl Phosphate (MAP)
This water-soluble precursor of vitamin C helps to minimize signs of aging by brightening and balancing uneven skin tone. It’s a potent antioxidant, and again, more stable than l-ascorbic acid.
Because of that, it’s best suited for anti-aging support as it’s also a great humectant.
Since it’s oil-loving, penetration in the skin is enhanced. MAP is also stable in pH up to 7, which makes it ideal for people who avoid highly acidic formulations.
This alternative to vitamin C is one of the gold standards of l-ascorbic acid derivatives. It stands out with stability and skin penetration amongst everything else.
It’s effective in most vitamin C benefits – it’s great for anti-aging, helps to fight dark spots, especially sun spots, and evens out the skin the same as the original vitamin C does.
It’s slightly more tricky to formulate with unlike the other derivatives and is stable in pH between 5 and 8 but its enhanced penetration and capability to boost collagen production make up for it.
Tetrahexyldecyl Ascorbate (THD)
An oil-soluble, stable form of vitamin C that penetrates the dermis and epidermis and successfully transforms into ascorbic acid in the skin.
It has a proven track record of fighting signs of aging and hyperpigmentation while helping with collagen production.
It’s most effective in formulations with a pH of 6 and anything below that. It’s yet to be studied for efficacy but preliminary data suggest that it’s very promising.
Ethylated L-Ascorbic Acid
Also known as 3-o-ethyl-l-ascorbic acid is a water-soluble and oil-soluble, stable vitamin C derivative.
This form of vitamin C has all the benefits of pure ascorbic acid but converts to the final compound more slowly, thus preventing irritation. It functions best in more acidic formulations with a pH of 4-5.5 and shows the same great skincare results, just more slowly.
If you’ve tried vitamin C derivatives and you’ve discovered that your skin is still showing signs of sensitivity and irritation, here are some of the other alternatives to ascorbic acid you can try.
I’ve split up the list into vitamin c alternatives for skin brightening, antioxidant support, and for collagen production.
Vitamin C alternatives for brightening the skin
The vitamin c alternatives for skin brightening that I’d like to introduce you to are azelaic acid, tranexamic acid, niacinamide, alpha-arbutin, and rice extracts.
One ingredient, however, is superior in terms of lightening hyperpigmentation – hydroquinone. But, since it’s a prescription-only alternative to vitamin C, we will not be discussing it here. It’s best to discuss the benefits and potential dangers of hydroquinone with your derm.
For those of you unfamiliar with azelaic acid, it’s a natural acid derived from barley, wheat, rye, and other grains. It offers superb anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial capabilities and is often used for tackling acne and skin conditions like rosacea.
For acne, It works by removing the acne-causing bacteria from the pores, preventing potential breakouts.
In addition, it has exfoliating properties, reduces redness, and can be used as a treatment for hyperpigmentation. It’s very effective against post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) and sun spots.
Azelaic acid is also a lightener, meaning that it works similarly to vitamin C in brightening the overall skin complexion. It interferes with melanin production and therefore prevents dark spots.
Azelaic acid for hyperpigmentation is most effective in the range of 10%-20% with the former being available over the counter, and the latter – with prescription.
My most loved azelaic acid-based products include The Ordinary Azelaic Acid Suspension 10% because of how cheap it is, Naturium’s Azelaic Topical Acid 10% because of the elegant formulation (combines azelaic acid with niacinamide and a bit. C ester) and affordable price, and the Drunk Elephant Bouncy Brightfacial 10% Azelaic Acid and 1% Salicylic Acid because it’s one of the best all-in-one treatments for my sensitive, acne-prone skin.
Another substitute for vitamin C that I’d like to draw your attention to is tranexamic acid. It’s another powerful brightening agent that works in a very similar way to ascorbic acid.
Tranexamic acid is a synthetic drug extracted from lysine – an amino acid that’s usually used for the treatment of menstrual-related heavy bleeding.
You may be wondering how such an ingredient could be useful for skin brightening.
Well, the truth is that tranexamic acid also contains a high skin depigmenting potential and successfully prevents hyperpigmentation. It’s able to do so by inhibiting melanocytes, which reduces the production of melanin and blocks pigment from reaching keratinocytes from melanocytes in the epidermis.
Not only is this acid similar to vitamin C in brightening the skin, but it’s also even more powerful if you’re looking for a potent hyperpigmentation agent. Tranexamic acid is an amazing ingredient for people with melasma.
I’ve personally tried it to confirm that if you want to stay away from pigmentation and dark spots but have discovered that vitamin C is not your best pick – then you’ve got a great solution in the form of tranexamic acid.
Tranexamic acid is effective for hyperpigmentation in the range of 2-5% of strength and my favorite products formulated with this concentration include Naturium Tranexamic Topical Acid 5% and Younger Tranexamic Topical Acid 5% because it’s also formulated with kojic acid, niacinamide, licorice root, arbutin – all famous for their pigmentation fighting abilities.
From this list, my personal top choice for a vitamin C alternative is niacinamide just because of how versatile and well-tolerated it is.
If you’ve been asking yourself questions like “Can I use niacinamide instead of vitamin C?” – the short answer is yes.
As a powerful skin-brightening alternative, niacinamide inhibits melanosome transfer from melanocytes to keratinocytes.
You may have come across niacinamide as vitamin B3 or nicotinic acid. These names all represent the same thing – a vitamin that is soluble in water but doesn’t dissolve in oil (explaining the reason why you’ll only find it in water-based skincare products like serums and moisturizers).
In addition to evening out the skin tone and offering brightening properties, it has a plethora of other positive effects on the skin:
- Promotes collagen production in the skin and boosts elastin production and skin proteins.
- Controls the production of sebum and manages excess oils in the skin.
- Fight off redness and irritation.
- Helps to reduce the appearance of pores and smoothes out skin.
- Helps to eliminate blemishes and prevent acne spots.
It’s a powerful agent that can give you the perfect skin tone you’re looking for, protect the skin barrier, and smooth out the skin texture. In other words, it offers all that vitamin C does and more. Niacinamide has also been proven by studies to be effective as a melasma treatment.
But as opposed to vitamin C, which is highly acidic, niacinamide has a neutral pH and is non-acidic – it won’t irritate your skin. It’s very stable, unlike l-ascorbic acid.
Although all of this sounds too good to be true, watch out for the concentration level of niacinamide in your skincare products. I’ve seen a lot of products with a 10% niacinamide concentration, which is fairly high and could cause side effects for sensitive skin. I’d suggest going for a product with 3%-5% niacinamide – those are equally effective as the 10% but much safer.
And do you need vitamin C if you use niacinamide? I wouldn’t say it’s a matter of need, but the combo is certainly superior to using them on their own (provided that your skin can tolerate vitamin C).
Niacinamide is everywhere these days, you won’t find it too difficult to see it in skincare of all shapes, forms, and sizes. However, my favorite products with this ingredient include the NeoGen Real Ferment Micro Essence as it combines niacinamide with a bunch of soothing and skin-loving ingredients in a form that is super easy to use and layer with other skincare products, and Cos De BAHA Arbutin 5% and Niacinamide 5% Serum due to its effectiveness against pigmentation.
Above, I’ve hinted at this naturally derived ingredient. Alpha-arbutin is extracted from the bearberry plant, but can also be found in other berries like blueberries and cranberries. It’s also present in pears and wheat.
It’s a melanin-blocking agent that prevents its production. Alpha-arbutin is therefore used for skin lightening and brightening and is effective in a concentration of 2%. It’s important to note that alpha-arbutin is a precursor to hydroquinone and should not be used in higher concentrations.
When experimenting with the ingredient, it can even offer more benefits when compared to vitamin C. It truly gets rid of hyperpigmentation without any risks of side effects for the skin. The substance corrects the skin tone and fades dark spots without any irritation whatsoever. It does it quickly too!
Next up on the list of vitamin C replacements in terms of skin-brightening abilities are rice extracts. Solutions like rice water have been used as part of ancient practices by East Asian women for a range of skin-related purposes.
Today, rice extracts are still an attractive substitute for vitamin C as it effectively brightens the skin.
If you do some digging into Japanese and Korean skincare, you’ll quickly notice that rice extracts are a staple. They simply make your face look like a rice cake (in a good way), smooth out the texture, offer deep hydration, and provide anti-aging benefits.
For example, rice water supports the skin’s elasticity production and provides young-looking skin. Most importantly, it’s a powerful brightening ingredient thanks to its skin-brightening enzymes. Additionally, rice water supports and protects the skin barrier and relieves sunburn.
Rice extracts have truly been one of my go-to replacements for vitamin C over the years and I’d definitely recommend testing the field to see how your skin will react to them. For me, one product stands out and it’s the I’m From Rice Toner as it combines the power of rice extract with niacinamide benefits.
Vitamin C alternatives for antioxidant support
Now, we’re ready to move on to vitamin C alternatives for antioxidant support. Here, you’ll find the ingredients that I recommend for protection against free radicals – one of vitamin C’s superpowers.
If you’ve never heard of resveratrol, it’s basically an antioxidant contained in grapes. In fact, it’s part of the reason why red wine is wrongfully associated with so many health benefits.
But when it comes to skincare, resveratrol is known to offer superb protection against ultraviolet radiation and oxidative stress. It dramatically reduces the speed at which photoaging occurs and minimizes the expression of AP-1(activator protein) and NF-kB (nuclear) factors.
Basically, it’s an excellent shield against the sun.
It stands out with skin-soothing, anti-inflammatory, and redness-reducing properties. A lot of products designed for rosacea or eczema treatments contain the ingredient. It certainly deserves a spot on my list of vitamin C alternatives as it won’t irritate the skin, yet offers excellent protection.
I like the Dime TBT Serum that combines resveratrol with a bunch of other antioxidant and skin-brightening ingredients – it’s a true powerhouse of a product that replaces several individual serums.
There are cheaper resveratrol-based serums too, I know that The Ordinary has one, though it’s not that pleasant to use because it stays greasy on the skin. Nevertheless, it’s still effective.
If you’re looking for a replacement for vitamin C that will give you that guaranteed antioxidant support, ferulic acid is another ingredient to add to your arsenal.
This compound is part of the hydroxycinnamic acid group and is found in fruits, grains, grasses, and veggies.
It’s a powerful antioxidant and photoprotectant that shields the skin from environmental stressors and therefore prevents harm and rapid aging. The acid also reduces inflammation and brightens the skin tone.
However, you may be surprised to learn that ferulic acid is also used in a lot of skincare products to enhance the effects of other antioxidants. It’s even known to boost the vitamin C effects and the two are commonly used together in formulations. One such product that combines the power of ferulic acid with vitamin C is the best-seller in the category – Timeless Vitamin C + E + Ferulic Acid Serum.
However, since we’re here for gentler alternatives to vitamin C, I would suggest you opt for The Ordinary Resveratrol 3% + Ferulic Acid 3% Serum as it’s much more gentle on your skin. It’s also on the cheaper side.
Vitamin C alternatives for collagen production
Finally, the third core benefit of ascorbic acid is the fact that it boosts collagen production in the skin.
But if you’re looking for this effect, yet don’t want to risk exposing your sensitive skin to irritation, copper peptides, and retinoids are the answer.
Before I tell you more about copper peptides, I just want to add that they’re one of my favorite ingredients of all time.
In simple terms, they’re retexturizers that offer both the benefits of antioxidants and work to enhance collagen production.
They’re known to improve the skin’s firmness, and smoothness, and provide anti-aging properties by minimizing fine lines and wrinkles. One of their superpowers is specifically the promotion of collagen and elastin production in the skin.
They also enhance glycosaminoglycan and offer advanced antioxidant support.
Not only do they promote collagen, copper peptides actually eliminate the collagen and elastin that are no longer working for our skin.
It’s important to not overuse copper peptides. Going over the border with these compounds can lead to rashes and irritation. In addition, it’s not a good idea to mix them with ascorbic acid, so serums with peptides should definitely go in a separate routine. I’d advise trying them as an alternative to vit C, but never as an addition to it.
Here again, The Ordinary brings great value for money with their Buffet + Copper Peptides 1% Serum. Another option is the NIOD Copper Amino Isolate Serum (CAIS) which is very popular among skincare lovers.
There’s also the Copper Peptide Serum by Complete Skin Solutions enriched with collagen and ceramides which offers a great user experience to people with sensitive skin. And of course, one of my favorites – DearKlairs Midnight Blue Youth Activating Drop – a Korean best-seller with a ton of happy, regular users, me being one of them. This one has two powerful peptides at the very top of its ingredient list. It layers well, hydrates the skin, and makes it all bouncy and soft.
Finally, let’s talk about retinoids. They’re another one of my favorites when it comes to vit C replacements for collagen production. In fact, they should be in your skincare routine regardless if you’re using vitamin C or not.
Put simply, retinoids (vitamin A) come in many different forms (most of you have probably heard of retinol, which is a retinoid). They’re popular for their studied and proven ability to increase collagen in the skin and therefore slow down aging and aging-related skin changes.
But that’s not all they do. Retinoids also protect the existing collagen from degradation. You can see how retinoids and peptides would be a great combo.
Retinoids are also beneficial for improving skin color as they encourage the creation of new blood vessels and speed up cell turnover. They help fade all kinds of pigmentation and smooth out rough patches of skin.
You can find some retinoids with a prescription but there are also others (like adapalene) that are available over the counter. Retinol is also an accessible retinoid form that you can find in stores.
For sensitive skin, I like The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid 2% Emulsion which is super gentle and with no side effects, perfect for beginners. Another budget-friendly option is the Pacifica Clean Shot Granactive Retinoid 5% which is also very well tolerated by folks.
However, my personal favorite in the category of retinoids for sensitive skin is the Naturium Retinaldehyde Cream Serum 0.05% with encapsulated retinaldehyde.
The encapsulation means that the ingredient will release gradually into your skin, thus increasing the benefits that the skin gets while minimizing any chances of irritation. The retinaldehyde here is also at a low enough concentration suitable for any beginner and even people who have already used retinoid products. All in all, the product is cosmetically elegant, non-irritating, and effective at a great price point for what you get.
I’ve now reached the end of my list of vitamin C alternatives.
As you can see, there’s plenty to try so there’s no need to stress if you’ve noticed that vit C doesn’t work well for you.
If you’ve had any experience with some of these replacements or you’ve come across others that are not part of this list, feel free to use the comment section below and share your thoughts.
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