These Brightening Vitamin C Alternatives Are Safe For Sensitive Skin

Dermatologists say ingredients like niacinamide and azelaic acid can still brighten, protect and even skin tone — without irritation.
The Ordinary's niacinamide plus zinc serum, SkinCeuticals' Discoloration Defense serum and a 10% azelaic acid serum by Paula's Choice.

Topical vitamin C is a staple skin care ingredient for many beauty enthusiasts. In fact, board-certified New York City-based dermatologist Dr. Bradley Glodny said that, after sunscreen and retinol, vitamin C is the next most helpful anti-premature-aging ingredient to add to your skin care routine.

“Benefits include improvements in skin tone, lightening of dark spots, reduction of fine lines and wrinkles as well as protecting our skin from external toxins and irritants [that cause premature skin aging],” Glodny said of this powerful antioxidant that is clinically proven to enhance collagen production when applied topically.

But Dr. Brendan Camp, a board-certified dermatologist based in New York City, said that it’s also not uncommon for some people using vitamin C products to experience redness, irritation, flaking and dryness. He explained that vitamin C, in its most potent and biologically active form of L-ascorbic acid, is mostly to blame for irritation because a low pH is necessary for a formulation to maintain product stability.

“Other forms of vitamin C, while potentially weaker, may be better tolerated,” Camp said.

Thankfully Glodny said that there are also other active ingredients that can provide similar benefits to vitamin C with less risk of irritation, including antioxidants with considerable strength that can mimic vitamin C’s ability to protect the skin from the environment and other acids that can brighten the skin.

If you’ve been noticing that your vitamin C use has been doing more harm than good, or you simply don’t want to risk irritating skin that’s already prone to sensitivity, explore the following ingredient and product suggestions from Camp, Glodny and other dermatologists.

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An affordable and popular niacinamide serum
Dermatologist Dr. Brendan Camp touted the popular workhorse ingredient niacinamide as a generally well-tolerated alternative to vitamin C. "It's a form of vitamin B3," Camp explained."It has many skin health benefits, including its ability to reduce redness and inflammation, brighten skin and improve texture."

The Ordinary's niacinamide serum is one of the internet's most well-known formulations and a product that I have used and loved for several years. It's affordable and utilizes a high-strength niacinamide concentration to effectively brighten skin tone and reduce the appearance of blemishes. Plus, 1% zinc helps to support a balanced complexion by regulating excess sebum activity.
A 10% azelaic acid booster
"Azelaic acid is a very helpful ingredient to help combat hyperpigmentation of various sources including sun damage and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation from acne," said dermatologist Dr. Bradley Glodny.

This booster treatment by Paula's Choice contains a potent concentration of azelaic acid to help visibly even skin tone as Glodny described, as well as salicylic acid, a classic ingredient loved for its ability to decongest pores and help eliminate rough skin texture. The creamy formula also contains licorice root extract which brightens the skin while simultaneously reducing redness and soothing irritation.
A brightening arbutin serum
According to Camp, arbutin, an ingredient derived from the bearberry plant, is considered an effective skin brightener. "It works by inhibiting the formation of melanin or pigment," he explained.

The Inkey List, an affordable skin care line that specializes in single-ingredient-focused products with no-fuss branding, formulated this concentrated 2% alpha arbutin serum to help reduce the appearance of hyperpigmentation and dark spots. It can also help maintain skin hydration thanks to a 0.5% concentration of naturally derived squalane.
An anti-discoloration serum
This clinically formulated anti-discoloration serum by SkinCeuticals utilizes many of the vitamin C alternatives mentioned by both Camp and Glodny, such as niacinamide and kojic acid.

"Kojic acid is another ingredient that has brightening properties," Camp said. "It is derived from mushrooms and also modifies the way pigment is made in skin cells by inhibiting tyrosinase, an enzyme involved in melanin production."

This serum also contains 3% tranexamic acid, an ingredient geared toward minimizing the appearance of those stubborn brown patches associated with hyperpigmentation, along with a synthetically-derived acid called HEPES which helps to exfoliate skin. The inclusion of hydrating glycerin and anti-inflammatory allantoin can keep skin feeling soothed rather than irritated.
A multi-tasking and potent antioxidant serum
New York City-based board-certified dermatologist Dr. Marisa Garshick suggested this powerful antioxidant serum that uses vitamin C in a non-L-ascorbic acid form for a decreased chance of irritation.

"This multitasking formulation contains vitamin C, niacinamide and kakadu plum, a potent antioxidant, as well as hyaluronic acid and squalane, which together improve overall tone and texture, brightening the skin and improving fine lines while simultaneously hydrating the skin and supporting the skin barrier, making it a great option for those with sensitive skin," Garshick said.
A collagen-boosting and hydrating serum
Vanessa Coppola, a board-certified nurse practitioner and founder of a New Jersey-based medical spa, said the benefits of sodium ascorbyl phosphate, or SAP, which is another, less irritating form of topical vitamin C, include "very good stability."

This hydrating serum by Ole Henriksen uses a complex of stable vitamin C SAP derivatives along with topical collagen to help fight and protect against nearly every sign of premature skin aging, including loss of elasticity and damage caused by environmental stressors. It's enriched with conditioning aloe juice and glycerin to deliver all-day hydration.
A ferulic acid treatment essence
Glodny explained that ferulic acid is an ingredient that often accompanies many topical vitamin C preparations. He describes it as "an antioxidant with considerable strength and the ability to mimic vitamin C’s ability to protect the skin from your environment and toxins."

This natural facial essence contains a rich blend of barrier-supporting squalane along with ferulic and lactic acids that have been brewed together for 120 hours in order to create a potent defense against premature-aging free radicals while refining skin tone and texture.
An antioxidant-rich blue light setting mist
Our Pick: This lightweight setting spray from clean beauty brand Ilia claims to defend skin against the harmful effects of environmental pollution and the blue light from all your electronic devices using vitamin C-esque antioxidants including marine actives and tara extract. Spritz this refreshing and ultra fine facial mist whenever you need a boost of hydration or to set your makeup or throughout days of heavy electronics use.

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