Vitamin C is rarely missing from skincare enthusiasts’ vanity countertops, as it can do a bunch of things at once, from neutralizing free radicals that lead to premature aging, to evening tone, to boosting collagen and improving overall skin health. But as good as it is, vitamin C can be drying or irritating for some, particularly when in its active form, L-ascorbic acid, and especially to those whose skin is easily reactive. This is where vitamin C alternatives come to help: they have similar benefits while acting gentler on the skin.
So, if you fall into the vitamin C-gives-me-redness category, this post is for you. Here you will find the best alternatives to vitamin C that work gently to brighten, firm, and protect the skin.
Niacinamide (vitamin B3) is the mild alternative to vitamin C since it carries most of its perks and is not as acidic, meaning it’s easily tolerated by sensitive skin folks. Like vitamin C, niacinamide is an antioxidant that keeps the skin guarded against free radical damage, offsetting premature wrinkles and dark spots. Both are also potent collagen-boosters that increase skin firmness and elasticity and deliver brightening effects; niacinamide does it by inhibiting the transfer of pigment to the skin’s surface, while vitamin C decreases melanin formation by inhibiting the pigment-producing enzyme (tyrosinase). We recommend these niacinamide serums as an alternative to your vitamin C serum.
The so-called “King of Carotenoids” is a great vitamin C alternative that starts from its antioxidant properties to inducing collagen and fixing an uneven skin tone. Astaxanthin is a red pigment (carotenoid) with antioxidant activity that scavenges free radicals from UV, pollution, and smoke, warding off oxidative stress. Its collagen-boosting and -protecting abilities make it a closer alternative to vitamin C, being touted for firming, enhancing elasticity, and reducing the look of wrinkles. As it has increased anti-inflammatory benefits, astaxanthin can be applied by those with redness, reactive or breakout-prone skins.
If you’re looking for that vitamin C alternative that delicately brightens and speeds up wound healing, keep alpha-arbutin serums on your radar. Even if it fades dark spots by inhibiting the tyrosinase enzyme — same as vitamin C — alpha-arbutin acts gentler. Alpha-arbutin is effective in encouraging wound healing by lowering free radical formation and regulating specific growth factors in the skin, which are essential for the skin’s autophagic (cellular degradation) process.
Three main benefits make kojic acid a suitable vitamin C alternative that you can always turn to: antioxidant, brightening, and anti-inflammatory. Kojic acid is often used as a skin whitening agent due to its tyrosinase inhibitory activity, just that it works more delicately.
Glucosamine is another vitamin C alternative that performs amazingly at increasing skin elasticity and brightening while being super gentle to the skin, even sensitive ones. Glucosamine enhances the production of hyaluronic acid and collagen in the skin and prevents protein degradation, translating into less visible wrinkles and a smoother and firmer complexion. Moreover, glucosamine is a tyrosinase inhibitor, meaning it lightens dark patches and evens tone.
Licorice extract is the new vitamin C, they say. Besides being a potent antioxidant thanks to its rich content of flavonoids, licorice extract suppresses melanin production and prevents UVB-induced pigmentation due to glabridin content, and has anti-inflammatory effects. The UVB-protecting role of licorice extract leads to significantly increased skin elasticity and firmness.
If you haven’t given tranexamic acid a try already, you should. It’s a synthetic derivative of lysine amino acid that, just like vitamin C, brightens and reduces dark spots by suppressing pigment formation in the skin. And there’s plenty of research to prove it. During a 2014 study, a topical solution with 3% tranexamic acid was as effective as hydroquinone, which is one of the most potent brightening agents. Tranexamic acid is also a great anti-inflammatory and hinders the degradation of proteins such as collagen. Plus, it’s highly tolerated and gentle enough for sensitive skin — though it would be best to perform a patch test before.
Read more: 11 Best Tranexamic Acid Serums to Banish Dark Spots
I’m sure you’re familiar with the benefits of resveratrol for skin. It’s one of the most researched antioxidants and tyrosinase-inhibitors, so in case you can’t tolerate vitamin C, it makes total sense to use resveratrol. As a matter of fact, compared to hydroquinone, vitamin C, and arbutin, resveratrol is much superior in reducing pigment production. Also, it can significantly diminish discoloration and improve skin tone when used in concentrations above 1%, which is easily tolerated by most skin types.
Other forms of vitamin C
Vitamin C comes in many forms in skincare products, some of which are gentler and more stable. Sodium ascorbyl phosphate, magnesium ascorbyl phosphate, sodium ascorbate, and ascorbyl palmitate are all perfect alternatives for those who can’t tolerate pure vitamin C, aka L-ascorbic acid, since they are less irritating. You can also try a formula with time-release vitamin C, which is basically a system that carries and slowly release vitamin C in the skin to reduce the chances of irritation.
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