Effectiveness of Topical Vitamin C in Skin Lightening: Studies

Effectiveness of Topical Vitamin C in Skin Lightening: Studies

Vitamin C is one of the popular ingredients used in the formulation of topical skincare products aimed at whitening or lightening the skin, especially in treating hyperpigmentation due to photodamage caused by exposure to ultraviolet radiation or in reducing dark spots caused by blemishes, scarring, and skin inflammation.

Topical vitamin C is often available as ascorbic acid but may also come in one of its esters such as ascorbyl-6-palmitate or its precursors such as magnesium ascorbyl phosphate.

It is the main active ingredient in serums, specifically in the case of vitamin C serums, or as one of the actives used in multi-tasking products such as face wash, face creams and moisturizers, toners and essence, sunscreens, and sleeping masks. Multi-lightening products use this active alongside other skin-lightening ingredients such as niacinamide.

How Topical Vitamin C Lightens the Skin: Studies on Effectiveness

Effectiveness of Topically Applied Vitamin C

Note that vitamin C has been revered as a potent antioxidant that has been used in dermatology to address different skin problems and concerns. However, the separate works of L. Talakoub et al. and S. S. Traikovich explained that its bioavailability in the skin is insufficient when it is administered orally through diet or food supplementation.

The gut can only absorb a limited amount of this vitamin despite high oral dosage due to an active transport mechanism. S. Matsuda et al. explained further that topical vitamin C is preferred in dermatology because it can be readily be absorbed by the skin.

A direct topical application allows it to enter into the outer layers. However, its efficient absorption depends on the pH of the vitamin C and the entire formulation of the skincare production. The ideal pH level should be below 4.0.

Skin Lightening Mechanisms and Effectiveness

The benefits and effectiveness of topical vitamin C in skin lightening have been explained by numerous studies. This ingredient has been observed to reduce the level and activity of the tyrosine enzyme—an enzyme responsible for the production of melanin.

Furthermore, research showed that this ingredient can lighten the skin or reduce hyperpigmentation and dark spots caused by post-acne breakouts, exposure to UVA and UVB radiation, and scars from minor or superficial wounds and skin traumas.

It specifically lightens the skin without changing or bleaching its natural color. But the effectiveness varies depending on its concentration and formulation. Remember that the pH level of a particular skincare product also determines its absorption.

Researchers P. Rattanawiwatpong et al. recruited 50 female volunteers aged between 30 and 65 years old. They were given a serum formulated with 20 percent ascorbic acid. They applied the serum on one side of their face for 2 months.

Findings revealed significant improvements in the appearance of the skin, especially in skin tone and skin color, as well as overall vibrancy or radiance. The side of the skin applied with topical vitamin C also had noticeable improvements in smoothens sans scaliness.

Another study by S. S. Traikovich involved 19 female participants with mild to moderate photodamaged. His research design was a three-month, randomized, double-blind, and vehicle-controlled study aimed at evaluating the skin-lightening effects of vitamin C.

Results showed that active-treatment participants had a 73.7 percent improvement in skin color and tone on the north-south facial axis and 68.4 percent improvement on the north-south facial axis parameter compared with vehicle control participants.

Vitamin C and Other Skin-Lightening Ingredients

As mentioned, this vitamin has been used as the main active in skincare products marketed as a skin-lightening solution. However, take note that it also has anti-aging benefits because of its antioxidant activity and effects on synthesizing collagen production.

Multi-tasking and well-rounded skincare products include this ingredient in their formulation to take advantage of its skin-lightening and anti-aging benefits. It has also been used in sunscreens to minimize photodamage due to exposure to ultraviolet radiation.

Vitamin C has also been used together with other skin-lightening active ingredients to provide better outcomes. Some formulations include vitamin C, vitamin E, and/or vitamin B3 or niacinamide, as well as papain enzyme, kojic acid, AHAs and BHAs,

However, there are other popular skincare actives that are not compatible with this ingredient. Consider retinoids or other vitamin A derivatives as an example. Applying them together may result in over-exfoliation and sensitivity to the sun.


  • Matsuda, S., Shibayama, H., Hisama, M., Ohtsuki, M., and Iwaki, M. 2008. “Inhibitory Effects of a Novel Ascorbic Derivative, Disodium Isostearyl 2-O-L-Ascorbyl Phosphate on Melanogenesis.” Chemical and Pharmaceutical Bulletin. 56(3): 292-297. DOI: 1248/cpb.56.292
  • Rattanawiwatpong, P., Wanitphakdeedecha, R., Bumrungpert, A., and Maiprasert, M. 2020. “Anti‐Aging and Brightening Effects of a Topical Treatment Containing Vitamin C, Vitamin E, and Raspberry Leaf Cell Culture Extract: A Split‐Face, Randomized Controlled Trial.” Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology. 19(3): 671-676. DOI: 1111/jocd.13305
  • Talakoub L., Neuhaus I. M., and Yu, S. S. 2009 “Cosmeceuticals.” In eds. Alam, M., Gladstone, H. B., and Tung, R. C., Cosmetic Dermatology. Saunders Elsevier
  • Traikovich, S. S. 1999. “Use of Topical Ascorbic Acid and Its Effects on Photodamaged Skin Topography.” Archives of Otolaryngology–Head & Neck Surgery. 125(10). DOI: 1001/archotol.125.10.1091
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