Can I make my own vitamin C serum?
That’s one of the questions I get asked more often. It’s easy to see why. Vitamin C is one of the workhorses of skincare. It does everything, from boosting collagen production to reducing hyperpigmentation and even enhancing sun protection. If you’re not using it, you’re missing out big time.
But vitamin C serums can be pretty pricey. Why splurge when you can just dissolve your crushed oral supplements in water? Or add some L-ascorbic acid, easily available online and in most health stores, to your moisturizer?
Because you are not a cosmetic chemist with your own lab. Vitamin C is one of the trickiest ingredients to formulate with. You can’t just add it to your cream, or make your own serum or toner, and expect it to work effectively and safely. Let’s see what happens when you try:
1. Wrong Carrier = No Antioxidant Properties
A lot of DIY recipes tell you to dissolve either vitamin c tablets or L-ascorbic acid powder in water. That’s useless. Watching those vitamin C crystals dissolve can be a very satisfying feeling, giving you the illusion it’s working. But, once you apply the resulting lotion to your skin, vitamin C will recrystallize. Crystallized vitamin C can’t penetrate skin. And if it can’t do that, it won’t work as an antioxidant.
You could fix this by using a carrier that enhances penetration. Alcohol is commonly used, but that can be drying. Propylene glycol or glycerin are much better choices. But they too have their limitations.
This solution (l-ascorbic acid + glycerin or propylene glycol) would be water-soluble. That means it won’t be able to penetrate the lipid-based barrier of your skin very well. It may still provide some antioxidants benefits for your skin, but it doesn’t even come close to what a vitamin C serum properly formulated by a cosmetic chemist who knows his stuff can do.
2. Wrong Ph = Irritated Skin
If you think getting the carrier right is tricky, wait till you hear this. Because L-ascorbic acid is acidic, it penetrates skin better at an acidic ph. Than means a ph lower than 3.5. L-ascorbic acid, when mixed with water at a 5% concentration, has a ph between 2.2 and 2.5. So, that means it’ll work well, right?
Not exactly. The skin’s natural ph is around 5.5 or 6.5. Using a product with a ph too low can irritate it and dry it out. That’s why most commercially available vitamins C serum are formulated at a ph between 2.8 and 3.4.
That’s low enough for vitamin C to work, but not so low to cause irritations (unless your skin is super sensitive). A homemade vitamin C serum, instead, is more likely to have a ph that’s too low and that can cause irritations.
3. Wrong Storage System = Quick Spoilage
If you’re a regular here, you’ve heard me say this ad nauseam. L-ascorbic acid is highly unstable. It oxidises, and loses a bit of its effectiveness, every time it is exposed to light, heat, and air. You’ll notice when your vitamin C serum has gone bad. It turns a brownish or yellowish colour.
To work properly, L-ascorbic acid needs to be stabilized. There are a couple of ways to do this. You can add antioxidants that have been shown to have a stabilizing effect, such as ferulic acid, to the formula. Or you can microencapsulate it (cover the vitamin in a protective coating). Of course, both of these solutions can’t easily be done at home (unless you have your own super accessorized lab).
Of course, packaging is important even for commercially available products. If you find a vitamin C cream or serum packaged in a jar or see-through bottle, leave it on the shelf. Vitamin C will lose its antioxidant properties before you have a chance to finish it.
4. Fewer Ingredients = Fewer Benefits
Most DIY vitamin C serums are pretty simple. They contain L-abscorbic acid, water, some glycerin, and little or nothing else. But, as powerful as vitamin C is when properly formulated, there is only so little it can do on its own.
Antioxidants work better together than alone. In particular, vitamin C is most effective when paired with vitamin E and ferulic acid. A 2005 study has found that adding ferulic acid to “a topical solution of 15%l-ascorbic acid and 1%alpha-tocopherol improved chemical stability of the vitamins (C+E) and doubled photoprotection.” By leaving them out, you won’t do your skin any favours.
What If I’m Doing Everything Right?
Sorry, but I doubt that’s possible. You may think that, because your homemade serum doesn’t irritate your skin, is properly packaged and stored, and maybe even uses a more stable form of vitamin C, it’s working well. But how can you tell for sure?
That’s the problem. You can’t. It’s very difficult for professionals to assess how well antioxidants work. For amateurs, it is impossible. Antioxidants don’t work straight away. They help premature ageing, so it can often takes years before you can see the results. Do you really want to use something for that long only to realise, 10 years later, that it’s not working well at all?
What Vitamin C Serums Should You Buy?
My favourite vitamin C serums also contain vitamin E and ferulic acid. It’s such a powerful combination, you’ll be doing your skin a disservice if you don’t use it. Here’s where you can find it:
Skinceuticals CE Ferulic ($162.00): the first product on the market to contain this powerful anti-ageing trio, Skinceuticals CE Ferulic remains a wonderful, if pricey, serum that moisturizes skin while fighting the premature signs of ageing.
Mad Hippie Vitamin C Serum ($33.00): this serum contains vitamin c in the form of Sodium Ascorbyl Phosphate, which is more stable. It is also infused with hydrating hyaluronic acid and soothing chamomile.
Paula’s Choice Resist 15 Super Booster ($48.00): this is another wonderful option that fights wrinkles and, thanks to the inclusion of sodium hyaluronate, keeps skin well hydrated.
Timeless 20% Vitamin C + E Ferulic Acid Serum ($24.95): one of the most affordable dupes of Skinceuticals CE Ferulic, it contains a higher concentration of L-ascorbic acid. That makes it a bit more effective, but also, for those with sensitive skin, more likely to cause irritations.
The Bottom Line
There are many beauty products that can easily be made at home. A vitamin C serum (or toner, or cream) is not one of them. You’d need to get the carrier, ph, and formula right and store it properly, which is very tricky to do even for professionals that spend their whole life doing this kind of work. Leave it to them, and buy a properly formulated vitamin C serum. Your skin will thank you.
What’s Your Favourite Vitamin C Serum? Have you ever tried to make your own?