Can Vitamin C Serums Cause Breakouts? Here's What We Know

Topical vitamin C is considered one of the best ingredients for skin health due to its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and collagen-boosting properties. This nutrient protects the skin from ultraviolet (UV) radiation, reduces DNA damage, and slows down aging, according to the Linus Pauling Institute. Moreover, it can diminish the appearance of wrinkles in as little as 12 weeks.

Vitamin C acts as an antioxidant and, therefore, protects your tissues against oxidative stress. When applied topically, it boosts collagen levels in the skin, facilitating wound healing. Some studies also suggest that vitamin C serums and creams can lock in moisture and prevent dry skin. Plus, they may help reduce inflammatory acne and lighten your skin.

Unfortunately, these products can also trigger allergic reactions, irritation, or redness. For example, people with sensitive skin may experience itching and tingling after applying topical vitamin C. And if that wasn't bad enough, TikTok is flooded with comments from users who say that vitamin C causes breakouts.

The surprising link between topical vitamin C and breakouts

Erin Jahns, a beauty editor at Who What Wear, stopped using vitamin C serums and biotin after realizing they made her skin break out. Cosmetic nurse Vanessa Lee told her that some people are sensitive to vitamin C and can get breakouts because of it. Others will only react to certain forms of vitamin C, such as ascorbyl-palmitate. The risk of side effects appears to be dose-dependent, so highly concentrated serums are more likely to trigger adverse events.

In some cases, it's not the vitamin C but the solution holding it that causes breakouts, explains Lee. Using vitamin C serums along with retinoids or alpha hydroxy acids can further irritate the skin. "Plus, vitamin C is often combined with other antioxidants, including vitamin E. Even though the combination of C and E has been shown to have greater skin benefits than either vitamin alone, vitamin E is oil, so the combination can cause breakouts for people who have acne-prone skin," said dermatologist Jennifer Herrmann.

Another explanation comes from biologist Wendy Ouriel, who says that topical vitamin C affects the body's ability to fight bacteria. Vitamin C serums are high in antioxidants, a class of compounds that scavenge free radicals. These chemicals support skin health but can have detrimental effects when used in large doses. They not only destroy the free radicals produced by your body to deter bacteria but also create pro-inflammatory free radicals, leading to acne, redness, and irritation. 

Vitamin C serums may also cause skin purging

Some skincare products, including vitamin C serums, may cause a temporary reaction known as skin purging. The difference between breaking out and purging is that the latter has nothing to do with excess sebum, acne, hormones, or stress. Instead, it's your skin's way of adjusting to a new cosmetic ingredient, which may result in breakouts, flaking, tenderness, and irritation. These side effects should subside within four to six weeks and don't require treatment.

Acne breakouts are more severe and last longer than skin purging. Plus, they don't usually cause dry, flaky skin. "Remember, purging is a good sign that your skincare is effective and doing the right thing. So, be patient, and, within a month, you'll start to be acne-free," said dermatologist Rita Linkner in an interview with Byrdie.

Topical vitamin C can lead to acne breakouts, skin purging, or both, depending on how you react to it. In either case, consider using a less concentrated serum or one with a different form of vitamin C. Alternatively, switch to vitamin C serums for sensitive skin or try a different product with similar benefits. For example, hyaluronic acid can boost skin elasticity, speed up wound healing, and reduce wrinkles — with little or no side effects.