Vitamin C is not a sunscreen, but it’s as essential in preventing sun damage as anything containing the letters SPF. What makes it so important? First, it’s helpful to understand a bit more about what UV does to skin.
What’s a free radical?
You’ve no doubt heard of free radicals, which are oxygen atoms with an unpaired electron. Ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun creates oxidative stress in the skin. (Read: It cleaves apart millions of happy, stable electron pairs encircling the oxygen atoms in our bodies and makes them crazy.) In their quest for stabilizing electrons, free radicals chip away at cells, such as collagen, that are working like scaffolding to hold the skin up. One way to keep free radicals from gaining a foothold is to prevent them from forming on skin in the first place. This is where SPF comes in. But very few things in life are 100 percent. Even the most generous coat of broad-spectrum SPF 50 mineral sunscreen can’t keep every single UVA or UVB ray from making contact with your complexion (although Dr. Dennis Gross All-Physical Dark Spot Sun Defense Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 50 is an excellent start). This is where vitamin C enters the picture.
Why is vitamin C so effective?
A powerful antioxidant, vitamin C works like a backup line of defense to neutralize any free radicals that slip through your sunblock. All antioxidants are molecules with the ability to give an electron to a wanting free radical without becoming unstable themselves by doing so, but vitamin C has long been proven to be the best of the best when doing this job.
A seminal study published in the peer-reviewed journal Acta Dermato-Venereologica found that combining vitamin C with a UVA sunscreen produced a result greater than the sum of its parts. Namely, the additive protective effect of the two ingredients combined lessened phototoxic damage to a larger extent than would have been expected from just mixing one with the other. (Note: Just because vitamin C helps reduce UV damage, it does not replace sunscreen. Nothing replaces sunscreen.)
Making it even more appealing, not only does vitamin C possess comprehensive, free radical-quashing abilities, but it also increases the body’s collagen synthesis. So if a free radical does manage to squeeze its way past your layers of defense and attack your collagen cells, vitamin C will assist your body in making replacements.
How can you harness vitamin C for UV protection?
All skincare ingredients are typically at their most potent concentration when used in serum form. Vitamin C is no different. To get the maximum photo-protective benefit from vitamin C, apply a layer of vitamin C serum (like Dr. Dennis Gross Vitamin C Lactic 15% Vitamin C Firm & Bright Serum) under your broad spectrum, mineral-based sunscreen. (It’s fine to smooth on a layer of moisturizer in between, especially if your skin requires additional hydration. If that’s the case, don’t miss the opportunity to include some vitamin C in this step as well. Dr. Dennis Gross makes two vitamin C-laden moisturizers, Vitamin C Lactic Oil-Free Radiant Moisturizer and Vitamin C Lactic Dewy Deep Cream, depending on your skin needs.) After you apply your SPF, remember that you need at least a nickel-size amount to do a comprehensive job on your face and neck, wait about 15 to 30 minutes before going outside to give the ingredients enough time to bind with your skin. And then you’ll be ready to face the day fully protected.
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