4 Best Vitamin C Cleansers That Are Antioxidant-Rich

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4 Best Vitamin C Cleansers That Are Antioxidant-Rich
In a hurry? Here are our top picks:

BEST FOR SENSITIVE & ACNE-PRONE SKIN

ZELEN Life Cleanser

BEST FOR SUN DAMAGED, DEHYDRATED SKIN

IMAGE Vital C Hydrating Facial Cleanser

If you are interested in skin health at all, then you have likely come across vitamin C products.

It may surprise you to know that the skin actually holds very high levels of vitamin C within itself naturally. This is a well-established medical fact–vitamin C in the skin supports a wide variety of bodily functions, including antioxidant protection and collagen synthesis.[1]

We take in vitamin C via our diet, but of course, many skincare applications come as a topical solution you rub into your skin, not a pill you swallow.

Vitamin C cleansers are emerging as a popular inclusion in one’s skincare routine.

In this article, we look at how vitamin C can help your skin, how well it actually works, and the best vitamin C cleansers that stand out from the crowd.

Firstly, we will highlight some important things to be aware of when considering a vitamin C cleanser.

Quick summary

bb2-table__imageZELEN Life Cleanser
  • Organic formula packed with a combination of vitamins including A, C, D, E, and K
  • Clears pores, balances oil and helps against acne breakouts
  • Boosts hydration while antioxidants protect the skin and fight free radicals, anti-aging benefits
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bb2-table__imageMurad Environmental Shield Essential-C Cleanser
  • Rich in antioxidants that alleviate oxidative stress on the skin
  • Contains vitamins A, C, and E
  • Cleanses the skin without over-drying it
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bb2-table__imageIMAGE Skincare Vital C Hydrating Facial Cleanser
  • Strong in vitamins C and A, anti-aging properties
  • Promotes cellular turnover
  • Contains antioxidants that nourish the skin
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bb2-table__imagebelif Creamy Cleansing Foam
  • Assists in fighting acne breakouts
  • Unique botanical blend that's packed with vitamin C
  • Cleanses and conditions the skin
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Before you buy: 4 Things to consider when purchasing a vitamin C cleanser

1. The vitamin C problem

The top layer of our skin is by definition an extremity. The further away an organ is from the rest of our organs, the more difficult it is to keep it supplied with enough blood, nutrients, and oxygen.

The top layer of skin is especially hard to access, given the low level of blood vessels and the lipids in between cells blocking the movement of liquid and nutrients.

The natural solution to fixing the vitamin C delivery issue is topical application. By rubbing vitamin C directly onto the skin we can skip over blood supply and other issues.[4]

As you might have guessed, our body’s ability to transport this much-needed vitamin C to the right parts of our skin decreases with age.

Vitamin C concentration goes down over time, whether due to:

  • Age,
  • UV radiation,
  • Pollution or
  • Free radicals

To give you an idea of how great the effect is, skin that is on the surface has 2-5x less vitamin C than deeper levels of the skin. This difference is caused mainly by the difficulty in distributing the vitamin as well as it is used to combat chronic exposure to the outside world.

Interestingly, other anti-oxidants present in the skin follow a similar loss in concentration as you go closer to the surface.[5]

2. The truth about vitamin C supplements

Most tissues in the body are dependent on the level of vitamin C in the blood. Simply put, the more vitamin C in your blood, the more can be taken up by the cells and organs that need it.

You would think therefore that to flood your skin with vitamin C you simply have to drink gallons of fruit juice.

Unfortunately, the research simply doesn’t show that to be true.[6]

Very little is actually known about how vitamin C accumulates in the skin. There have been a number of studies looking at taking vitamin C supplements which have given conflicting results. Some showed no extra uptake in the skin after supplementation, others that did show some increase looked at cheek cells rather than the skin.

The current scientific consensus on taking vitamin C supplements for your skin is “Dietary supplementation is only expected to be effective in elevating skin vitamin C in individuals who have below-saturation plasma levels prior to intervention.”[7]

Or in other words – your skin will only benefit from vitamin C supplementation if you already have a medical level deficiency causing scurvy-like skin problems.

3. Using topical vitamin C

When applied to the skin, however, vitamin C can be delivered directly to the epidermal layer.

The important thing to note is that the quality of the cream or serum really matters here. The amount of vitamin and therefore benefit you receive relies on how well the formulation is designed to get past the skin barrier.

Vitamin C in its ‘raw’ form is water-soluble and charged. In simple terms, this means that it is naturally repelled by the skin’s epidermal barrier layer.[8]

There are a wide variety of different vitamin C compounds and derivatives – all designed to change into vitamin C (i.e. ascorbic acid) once they are inside the skin. There are too many to discuss in detail here but in general, they stabilize the vitamin as well as promoting its delivery into the skin.

There is however a limit to using even topical vitamin C. If you have saturated blood (i.e. it can’t hold any more vitamin C) then applying a topical solution won’t ‘supercharge’ your vitamin C levels.

Using topical vitamin C is important because healthy blood levels don’t necessarily translate into an even distribution across all areas of your skin. Parts with poor blood flow for example would be chronically deprived of sufficient nutrients.

What does this mean for the average person?

The best argument for staying on top of your skin’s vitamin C is that while true deficiency and scurvy are rare, being slightly below optimal still causes widespread skin function decline.

This includes:

  • Poor collagen production
  • Poor and slow wound healing
  • Thickend stratum corneum skin layer
  • Bleeding under the skin
  • Fragile skin

At sub-optimal levels, these drastic changes happen at the microscopic level. Hard to see on their own but over time they come together to prematurely age and damage the skin.

4. The many benefits of vitamin C

On the other side of the scale, what are the benefits of ensuring your skin has enough vitamin C?

First and foremost, vitamin C is a potent antioxidant, giving you protection from environmental factors like the sun and pollution. Of note is that this protection seems to be amplified when used in conjunction with vitamin E.[8]

Secondly, we know from extensive research that vitamin C encourages collagen formation, allowing the skin to retain its form and function.

Studies have also shown that the vitamin inhibits melanogenesis. In simpler terms, it reduces the effects of hyperpigmentation, such as that seen in conditions like melasma or age spots.[9]

There are yet further studies showing links to maintaining skin health, regulating gene expression, and involvement in DNA repair. As it has multiple effects on the skin, there are several potential therapeutic applications that are showing promising research.

These include:

  • Dry skin
  • Wrinkle formation and reversal
  • Wound healing (of conditions like acne)
  • Managing inflammatory conditions
  • Sunburn
  • Skin sagging
  • Rough skin texture
  • Loss of skin tone and color

The 4 best vitamin C cleansers

1. ZELEN Life Cleanser

ZELEN Life Cleanser

Best features:

  • Organic plant-based source of vitamin C
  • Suitable for all skin types
  • Multiple antioxidant sources
  • Gentle action suitable for easily irritated skin

The best vitamin C cleanser for:

Anyone looking for a spectrum of strong antioxidants for their skin. Particularly those with sensitive or acne-prone skin.

Overview:

If you are looking for a vitamin C cleanser then you understand the importance of using a good antioxidant in your routine.

The ZELEN Life Cleanser contains vitamin E from Jojoba and A, C, D, E, and K all from Sunflower – a pretty impressive lineup from just two ingredients.

To further facilitate the strong antioxidant action is Aloe Vera which, not only balances out the skin’s pH but also helps to encourage cell development and regeneration.

Despite many vitamin C cleansers being a bit acidic and drying to the skin, this cleanser manages to actually boost hydration while ensuring the skin remains oil-free and pores are unclogged.

For those interested in antioxidant products you likely are interested in the anti-aging properties of the ZELEN Life Cleanser. Both Aloe and Jojoba calm and soothe the skin, vital for keeping inflammatory free radicals to a minimum. Jojoba also balances skin hormones whilst keeping fine lines at a minimum.

The good:

  • An excellent combination of vitamins and antioxidants in an organic, botanical mix
  • Keeps the skin fresh and healthy
  • Works to combat signs of aging within and without
  • Jojoba balanced sebum production, helping to control acne breakouts
  • Chemical-free, cruelty-free, and vegan-friendly

Things to think about:

  • No ‘free’ vitamin C

Bottom line:

The ZELEN Life Cleanser is an essential part of your skincare routine: bringing together antibacterial, antifungal, non-comedogenic, and moisturizing properties all in one bottle. Containing natural sources of vitamin C and other nutrients, it is a cleanser that can be used frequently on all skin types from dry to oily. With organic Jojoba, Aloe, and more, this cleanser washes away impurities and clears clogged pores to leave you with fresh and pH-balanced skin.

2. Murad Environmental Shield Essential-C Cleanser

Murad Environmental Shield Essential-C Cleanser

Best features:

  • Contains vitamins A, C, and E
  • Added Allantoin
  • Fresh citrus scent

The best vitamin C cleanser for:

Dry skin that is prone to sensitivity.

Overview:

The Murad Environmental Shield Essential-C Cleanser has a good reputation for helping those with dry skin restore their skin’s vitality and antioxidant protection. Some find the price more on the expensive side, but those who find it works for their skin rely on it to cleanse and purify without being overly drying.

The lotion lathers on the skin and can remove stubborn impurities without removing the natural level of oils needed to retain hydration. One of the strong points of this cleanser is the combination of vitamin A, C, and E, giving you a great antioxidant boost every time you exfoliate.

While this cleanser is formulated for both sensitive and oily skin, those with very sensitive skin may want to be careful as fragrance/parfum is included as one of the ingredients.

The good:

  • Balance of exfoliation and hydration works well for oily skin
  • Antioxidant-rich
  • Reputable brand

Things to think about:

  • Strong citrus scent not for everyone

Bottom line:

Murad’s vitamin-enriched foaming gel cleansers clear away dirt and grime without overly drying the skin. vitamin A helps to condition the skin and preps it for the protective action of vitamin C. For stressed and dry skin this cleanser also includes allantoin and panthenol to both soften and moisturize.

3. IMAGE Skincare Vital C Hydrating Facial Cleanser

IMAGE Skincare Vital C Hydrating Facial Cleanser

Best features:

  • Retinyl palmitate for skin rejuvenation
  • Creamy application
  • Water-soluble vitamin C

The best vitamin C cleanser for:

Those recovering from sun-damaged or severely irritated skin.

Overview:

The IMAGE Skincare Vital C Hydrating Facial Cleanser emulsifies impurities and oil on the skin whilst nourishing it with antioxidants and vitamins.

This cleanser has been ‘physician formulated’ for dehydrated, sun-damaged, or post-operative skin.

Not only does it soothe and reduce irritation within the skin but also brightens and revitalizes, improving both texture and tone.

IMAGE markets this product to those with irritating or itchy skin conditions, allowing those with oily skin to benefit from these calming properties. For the best results, they recommend massaging affected areas for 1 minute total.

The good:

  • Strong source of vitamin C for antioxidant protection
  • Vitamin A to promote cell turnover
  • Brightens skin

Things to think about:

  • Some users find it’s emollient (oil removing) action weak, but these reports are minimal

Bottom line:

The IMAGE cleanser is a fresh-scented solution for those who are recovering from more extensive skin irritation or damage, such as when recovering from a particularly bad outbreak or after sunburn. For this reason, if you need a more powerful cleanser (if you are trying to get rid of makeup for example) you may need to look elsewhere. This may be a good cleanser in its own right but if you have overly oily skin or other similar conditions try out one of the other products on our recommended list.

4. belif Creamy Cleansing Foam

belif Creamy Cleansing Foam

Best features:

  • Skin softening botanical ‘sweet flag’
  • Combats acne outbreaks
  • Conditioning and cleansing

The best vitamin C cleanser for:

Those who want the best bang for their buck – users report how little of this they need to use each day.

Overview:

belif has risen in popularity with the rise of Korean cosmetics hitting the west. This cleanser is almost gel-like with a lightweight texture designed to soften the skin as well as hydrate to freshen your complexion.

They have used a unique blend of apothecary herbs that are packed with vitamin C to give your skin the antioxidants it needs.

The botanical ‘sweet flag’ has the dual purpose of both cleansing and softening the skin. By using botanical ingredients belif have created a natural yet effective cleanser.

The good:

  • Unique botanical mix
  • Only a small amount of product needed for results

Things to think about:

  • Some complain of it being too strong for sensitive skin
  • Can pull away too much moisture
  • Import from Korea

Bottom line:

Ideal for normal to dry skin, the belif Creamy Cleansing Foam lathers to immediately remove impurities whilst still keeping your skin’s natural moisture barrier intact. Korean products are picking up in popularity, and with the number of good reviews and results this product leaves in its wake, it can even start to compete with the other great cleansers on this list.


How we chose these products

Vitamin C cleansers are probably one of the most popular (and important) skincare products right now, just after SPF and moisturizer. This is for good reason, antioxidants are on the frontline of defense for your skin.

We looked at only vitamin C cleansers that focused on naturally cleansing, hydrating, and delivering the much-needed antioxidants. Then we looked at a range of cleansing solutions and picked only the solutions which worked well even with very dry, sensitive, or oily skin.

Vitamin C and your skin

vitamin c and your skin

Now let’s take a look at what we know works and what other potential benefits are implied by the latest research.

Our skin may be the biggest and most external organ of our body, but it does much more than simply create a barrier between ourselves and the outside world.

Skin is really multi-functional and provides a platform to balance out hydration levels, detect external threats like physical or chemical injury as well as shielding us from infection. This constant day-to-day work means our skin gets worn down over time.[2]

To help protect itself, the outermost layer of skin is actually made up of dead skin cells stuck together with lipids (a form of fat molecule). Named the stratum corneum, it is responsible for creating a water-proof barrier around us.

But what has this got to do with vitamin C?

Well, this water-proof barrier of skin that protects us from the outside world is heavily dependent on good nutrition, nutrients, and vitamins to function properly.

Both good skin health and appearance and linked to vitamin levels, with vitamin deficiencies resulting in significant skin issues and physical conditions.

This was first discovered in the 1700s when around half of all sailors on long trips would unexplainably die. Without access to vitamin C (mainly from citrus fruit), sailors would often become afflicted by weakness, fatigue, muscle pains, and bleeding gums.[3]

Fortunately today scurvy is a rare disease. Scurvy is however a disease of extremes, characterized dermatologically by weak skin, poor wound and blemish healing as well as poor hair growth.

We still talk about vitamin C deficiency today, not because of scurvy, but because of the negative effects on the skin that even small deficiencies can have.

Frequently asked questions

frequently asked questions 2-min

Should I include a vitamin C serum?

The short answer is yes, the longer answer is yes, but be careful with shocking your skin. Many serums do have good, proven benefits for skin but they are usually fairly strong solutions. That is why serums are used sparingly, so the best practice would be to introduce them into your routine one by one.

A good basic point to remember is that vitamin C is also called Ascorbic acid. Adding ascorbic acid to your skin with other exfoliating acids or retinol is likely to cause a reaction, especially if all the products are fairly new to your routine.

Start slow and work your way up.

Is vitamin C good for age spots?

Yes, vitamin C is actually beneficial when used to combat any type of hyperpigmentation. The vitamin inhibits an enzyme in the skin which slows the rate of melanin production, or pigment in our skin.

Does vitamin C help acne scars?

This amazing nutrient also has a core role in wound healing. It helps with collagen synthesis in new wounds as well as growing new skin cells which helps speed up the repair and inflammation from acne.

Do I still need an SPF when using products that contain vitamin C?

Yes, you definitely do! If you only ever did one thing for your skin then it would have to be applying SPF. While vitamin C does give some protection against the results of UV radiation damage, it is not effective as true sunscreen which protects directly against the full range of UVA and B rays.

How often should I use a vitamin C cleanser?

If your cleanser is gentle then you likely can use it twice a day. If your cleanser can’t be used more than once a day then reserve using it until the morning. This ensures that you get maximum protection from UV damage as you are exposed to the sun throughout the day.

Can I still take vitamin C supplements?

If you are concerned about your dietary intake of vitamin C then it should be first supplemented with a proper diet that includes citrus fruits. If for whatever reason this is not possible the supplements are required.

As vitamin C topical cleansers do not affect serum (blood) levels then there is no risk of ‘overdosing’ or taking too much vitamin C. Topical vitamin C also cannot be used to counteract bodywide deficiency.

How to store vitamin C?

When vitamin C is stored as L-Ascorbic acid (rather than being a component of a natural ingredient) it is relatively unstable. This is in part due to its strong antioxidant power that mops up free radicals.

Both light and air run the risk of oxidizing your vitamin C. If this happens then it can’t mop up free radicals in your skin and the product is useless.

How do I know if my vitamin C is oxidized?

If your vitamin C comes as ascorbic acid then you want the cleanser to be a clear or light white or golden color. If your bottle turns from this to a more cloudy or dark color then likely the contents have oxidized.

Conclusion

Vitamin C cleansers are more and more becoming part of mainstream skin care.

While there are many ways to look after your skin in the short and long term, vitamin C along with a good SPF should help fend off the worst of both intrinsic and environmental damage.

You may not ‘see’ results after days or weeks, but over months and years, your skin will recover faster, heal quickly, and remain young, firm, and healthy for a long time to come.

Does vitamin C already factor into your regimen?

Let us know below and tell us which products work best for you.

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References

  1. Al-Niaimi, Firas, and Nicole Yi Zhen Chiang. “Topical Vitamin C and the Skin: Mechanisms of Action and Clinical Applications.” The Journal of clinical and aesthetic dermatology vol. 10,7 (2017): 14-17.
  2. Telang, Pumori Saokar. “Vitamin C in dermatology.” Indian dermatology online journal vol. 4,2 (2013): 143-6. doi:10.4103/2229-5178.110593
  3. Farris PK. Cosmetical vitamins: vitamin C. In: Draelos ZD, Dover JS, Alam M, editors. Cosmoceuticals. Procedures in Cosmetic Dermatology. 2nd ed. New York: Saunders Elsevier; 2009. pp. 51–56.
  4. Pinnell SR, Yang H, Omar M, et al. Topical L-ascorbic acid: percutaneous absorption studies. Dermatol Surg. 2001;27(2):137–142.
  5. Lupo MP. Antioxidants and vitamins in cosmetics. Clin Dermatol. 2001;19:467–473.
  6. Godic A, Poljšak B, Adamic M, Dahmane R. The role of antioxidants in skin cancer prevention and treatment. Oxid Med Cell Longev. 2014;2014:860479.
  7. Pullar, Juliet M et al. “The Roles of Vitamin C in Skin Health.” Nutrients vol. 9,8 866. 12 Aug. 2017, doi:10.3390/nu9080866
  8. Proksch E., Brandner J.M., Jensen J.M. The skin: An indispensable barrier. Exp. Dermatol. 2008;17:1063–1072. doi: 10.1111/j.1600-0625.2008.00786.x.
  9. Boelsma E., Van de Vijver L.P., Goldbohm R.A., Klopping-Ketelaars I.A., Hendriks H.F., Roza L. Human skin condition and its associations with nutrient concentrations in serum and diet. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 2003;77:348–355

About The Author

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Board-Certified Doctor and Educator

Bachelor of Medicine Bachelor of Surgery MBBS (Cardiff University)

London, United Kingdom

Dr. McKeown is a UK based NHS clinician with over 10 years experience in both hospital medicine and surgery. After an initial career in maxillofacial surgery his focus now lies in elderly care and rehabilitation medicine. A board member for Wadham College of Science, Dr. McKeown is passionate about widening access to both education and healthcare around the world and as a result, outside of his clinical work he spends much of his time either teaching or providing medical consultancy to healthcare startups. Commercially, his interests lie in helping research and promote novel, evidence-based medicines originating from natural sources and processes.

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