Acne vulgaris, also known simply as acne, is a common skin condition that may cause pimples and oily skin. In North America, up to 50% of adolescents and 15–30% of adults experience symptoms (1).

Many people use topical creams, medications, foods, and supplements to help relieve acne. In fact, vitamin C is frequently added to many skin care products that purport to treat it.

Still, you may wonder whether vitamin C is effective for this purpose.

This article explains whether the topical application of vitamin C treats acne.

Vitamin C and skin care

Officially known as ascorbic acid, vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin that’s crucial for various aspects of health, including your skin. Your body doesn’t produce it, so you must obtain it through your diet (2).

This vitamin is also a potent antioxidant that helps neutralize free radicals, which are unstable compounds that can damage your body’s cells over time when levels become too high in the body (3, 4).

Your skin is affected by free radicals due to its exposure to both your internal and external environments. Among other factors, diet, stress, smoking, ultraviolet (UV) rays, and pollution all affect skin health (3, 4, 5).

Your skin’s epidermis — the top layer of skin that’s visible to the human eye — contains high levels of vitamin C. This nutrient plays a key role in protecting, healing, and producing new skin (6).

As acne is a highly inflammatory condition that can be exacerbated by environmental stressors, vitamin C may play a role in treating it.

summary

Vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin that acts as a potent antioxidant to protect your skin and other cells from free radical damage.

How does vitamin C affect acne?

Acne is an inflammatory skin condition caused by blocked pores. It leads to redness, swelling, and sometimes pustules, which are inflamed bumps that contain pus (7). 

In addition to breakouts, acne leaves many people with post-inflammatory scars and skin damage. However, research indicates that vitamin C may treat several of these conditions.

Keep in mind that while a high intake of foods rich in vitamin C may help other aspects of skin health, no research ties dietary vitamin C to reduced acne levels. Nonetheless, limited research suggests that the topical application of vitamin C may be helpful.

May reduce acne-related inflammation

Age, genetics, and hormones are risk factors for acne. Moreover, certain strains of the common skin bacterium Cutibacterium acnes (C. acnes) may trigger this condition (7, 8).

Given that vitamin C is anti-inflammatory, it may help reduce redness and swelling related to acne when used topically. Thus, it may improve the appearance of acne lesions (9).

In a 12-week study in 50 people, 61% of participants who used a lotion containing 5% sodium ascorbyl phosphate (SAP) — experienced significant improvements in acne lesions, compared with a control group (10).

In a smaller, 8-week study in 30 people, those who used 5% SAP had a 48.8% reduction in acne lesions. What’s more, those who used a combination of SAP and 2% retinol — a vitamin A derivative — had a 63.1% reduction (9).

Though these results are promising, larger high-quality studies are needed.

May improve the appearance of acne scars

After an acne breakout, your skin requires time to heal. Without proper healing, acne scars may develop. 

Acne scars are usually related to severe, cystic acne, but they can result from mild cases as well. Moreover, prolonged acne, genetics, and physical manipulation like picking or squeezing can increase the likelihood of scarring (11).

The three main types of acne scars are atrophic, hypertrophic, and keloidal. 

Atrophic scars cause a loss of skin tissue and collagen and appear as small indentions in the skin. Both hypertrophic and keloidal scars result from collagen overproduction and appear as thick, raised scar tissue (11).

Vitamin C treats acne scars by increasing the synthesis of collagen, a protein responsible for your skin’s structure and vital for rebuilding healthy skin. As a result, this vitamin may accelerate the healing of acne wounds (6, 12, 13).

A 4-week study in 30 people noted moderate improvements in acne scars after using microneedling — which involves rolling small needles over the skin to promote healing and increase collagen production — alongside a 15% vitamin C topical cream once per week (14).

Yet, it’s unknown if microneedling, vitamin C, or a combination of both was responsible for these results (14).

Moreover, vitamin C and microneedling are unsuitable for hypertrophic and keloidal scars, as these types result from collagen overproduction (15).

While no research links dietary vitamin C to reduced acne scarring, it increases your body’s natural collagen production and is still beneficial for overall skin health (16, 17).

May reduce hyperpigmentation

Hyperpigmentation is the formation of darkened spots on your skin as a result of acne, UV rays, or other injuries — though it should be noted that this condition is harmless.

Applying vitamin C to your skin may reduce hyperpigmentation by interfering with an enzyme called tyrosinase, which is responsible for the production of melanin, a natural skin pigment (12, 13, 18). 

Moreover, vitamin C acts as a brightening agent and can reduce the appearance of darkened spots without changing the natural color of your skin (12, 13, 18).

Some human studies that combine topical vitamin C with iontophoresis — an electrical gradient applied to the skin — found significant reductions in hyperpigmentation (19, 20).

Though this method is promising, iontophoresis increases vitamin C absorption into your skin, meaning that topical application of vitamin C alone may not yield the same results (21).

Furthermore, most related studies use vitamin C in combination with other anti-hyperpigmentation ingredients like alpha-hydroxy acids, making it hard to determine the specific effects of the vitamin. Overall, more research is needed (21).

summary

Topical vitamin C may help reduce acne scars, as well as acne-related inflammation and hyperpigmentation. Still, most research suggests that combining it with other treatments yields the best results.

Sources and formulations

Though numerous foods and supplements contain vitamin C, keep in mind that skin care products formulated with this vitamin are more likely to aid acne-related conditions.

No current studies tie dietary vitamin C to reduced acne or scarring.

Food and supplements

Many fruits and vegetables are rich in vitamin C, such as bell peppers, strawberries, tomatoes, broccoli, leafy greens, and citrus fruits (22).

Moreover, vitamin C supplements are widely available. 

As such, most people in developed countries meet their vitamin C needs through diet and supplementation (22). 

As vitamin C is water-soluble, your body discards any excess through your urine. Before taking a supplement, you may want to consult a healthcare professional (22).

Skin care products

Vitamin C is used in many skin care products, such as serums, moisturizers, and creams.

Though L-ascorbic acid is the most potent form of this vitamin, it’s also the least stable and goes rancid very quickly in skin care products. Topical vitamin C serum boosters are popular, too, but they also have a short shelf life (23, 24).

Therefore, more stable vitamin C derivatives are commonly utilized for topical products. However, few human studies examine how these derivatives affect acne. Plus, it’s not known whether these ingredients provide results similar to those of L-ascorbic acid (23, 24).

Keep in mind that many vitamin C serums are made with other antioxidants like vitamin E to increase stability and provide additional benefits (13).

For best results, follow the manufacturer’s instructions and discard any expired or discolored products.

If you’re currently using any topical or oral acne medications, consult your dermatologist or healthcare professional before adding any vitamin C skin care products to your routine.

summary

Although vitamin C is widely available in foods and supplements, scientific evidence only supports the use of topical products for reducing acne symptoms.

The bottom line

Acne is one of the world’s most common skin disorders.

Vitamin C, a powerful antioxidant, is known for fighting free radical damage to skin cells and may help treat acne.

Topical vitamin C products may improve hyperpigmentation and reduce acne-induced inflammation, but further research is necessary.

While no research associates dietary vitamin C with reduced acne, it’s still important to get enough in your diet to support collagen synthesis, wound healing, and overall health

If you’re interested in using vitamin C for acne, talk to a dermatologist or healthcare professional before adding it to your skin care routine.