Best Vitamin C serums to clarify, brighten and protect your skin

Find the best Vitamin C serums to enjoy antioxidant benefits at every budget

images of three of w&h best vitamin c serums picks on an orange background
(Image credit: Future)

Using one of the best Vitamin C serums for your skin is easily as important as using a great moisturizer or cleanser. But despite being formulated around an active ingredient we've all heard of, these powerhouse products can fly under the radar a bit for non skincare obsessives. 

Sure it may not get the airtime of the best eye cream, but ignore Vitamin C at your peril. When formulated carefully and used properly, Vit C serums are ultra-effective skin protectors, tone and texture boosters that any expert would recommend including in your skincare routine. Better still, even the most potent form of Vit C, ascorbic acid, is accepted by almost all skin types and is unlikely to cause irritation. This sets it apart from other feted actives such as retinol, which is notoriously reactive, even in the best retinol creams

Ready to discover what the best Vitamin C serums can do for you and your skin? These brilliant buys for every budget and skincare tips will help you achieve a healthy, bright complexion and your best skin days ever. 

How do the best Vitamin C serums work?

The best Vitamin C serums work by tackling a number of skin concerns for multifaceted benefits, but their primary purpose is to provide antioxidant protection for the skin. 

"Antioxidants are the x-factor in skincare," explains Dr. MJ Rowland-Warmann, founder and lead clinician at Smileworks. "Skin is damaged by free radicals, which are substances that are released by the cells in response to stresses such as sunlight, pollution and smoking. Antioxidants including vitamins can help reduce skin breakdown. I recommend Vitamin C serums in the morning as it also increases the efficacy of sunscreen."

This protection helps prevent environmental dulling of the skin and can inhibit melanin formation to prevent and superficially fade pigmentation. That's why many of the best Vitamin C serums market themselves as brightness boosting or tone improving products.

Aside from clarifying tone, Vitamin C can also help boost the skin's internal support structure. "Applying Vitamin C to your skin can help encourage new collagen to grow, as well as maintaining the collagen you already have," explains Lloyds Pharmacy's, Anshu Kaura. "By supporting this production of collagen, it helps to keep your skin plump and firm, helping prevent premature aging of the skin.”

How we tested these Vitamin C serums

Finding the best Vitamin C serums isn't as simple as smoothing one on for a few days and and expecting brighter skin. This is a product that requires consistent daily use for gradual cumulative effects. 

This means that every Vit C product in this guide was extensively tested over long periods of time and some are trusted favorites that we have been using for years. Then, as well as physically testing the products it was crucial to investigate the formulations and packaging carefully. This is because Vitamin C is famously unstable ingredient. It is incredibly sensitive to light and air and must be kept protected from both as far as possible in order to remain active and effective. 

This is why you won't see any Vitamin C serums in this list in jar packaging. The active ingredient simply would not survive the exposure to light and oxygen long enough to be effective, therefore you would really be wasting your money. Numbers matter here too. In order for Vit C to do its, job you really want to see it included in percentages of around 10% and upwards, in the form of ascorbic acid or L'ascorbic acid. 

Unscrupulous beauty brands are notorious for including buzzy ingredients in huge letters on the packaging then tiny percentages in the ingredients. That's why it pays to do your homework and find the best Vitamin C serums that are formulated with efficacy in mind, not ticking a trend box. Luckily for you we've already done that part! These are the antioxidant-, tone- and collagen-boosting Vit C products we truly recommend for every skin type and budget. 

The best Vitamin C serums, as chosen by our experts

Allies of Skin 20% Vitamin C Brighten + Firm Serum

(Image credit: Allies of Skin)

1. Allies of Skin 20% Vitamin C Brighten + Firm Serum

Best overall Vitamin C serum

RRP: $120/£85
Vitamin C: 20%
Key ingredients: Gluthathione, orange extract
Reasons to buy
+Ultra-stable formula+High Vit C concentration+Antioxidant combination
Reasons to avoid

If you haven't heard of Allies of Skin before, this Vitamin C serum would be a perfect product to get to know the brand with. Why? Because unless you are on a tight budget there's very little not to adore about it. 

It contains 20% ascorbic acid, the highest Vit C percentage of any product in this list and combines it with several other antioxidants for extra skin-protecting powers. It also has a waterless base, which means that precious vitamin C won't be prematurely destabilized by the oxygen in H2O, while the airless pump bottle boosts this protection further. 

Vitamin C serums, particularly waterless formulas, can have a gritty texture but somehow this is unusually silky and even smells lovely thanks to the inclusion of orange extract. It may be a little thicker than some other on this list, but it sinks in easily, plays well with moisturizers and works as hard as possible for a topical product. This more than lives up to its brightening and firming promise—top marks.

SkinCeuticals CE Ferulic

(Image credit: SkinCeuticals)

2. SkinCeuticals CE Ferulic

Best luxury Vitamin C serum

RRP: $205/£145
Vitamin C: 15%
Key ingredients: Ferulic acid, Vitamin E
Reasons to buy
+Industry-leading product+Combined antioxidants
Reasons to avoid

CE Ferulic is never far from the top of any list of the best Vitamin C serums, and with good reason. SkinCeuticals are pioneers of antioxidant skincare and this is their hero product. In fact, the only thing keeping it off the top of this list is the price, which will be prohibitive to some. 

Budgets aside if you can afford to buy this, you should. It combines 15% gold standard stable Vitamin C with Vitamin E and ferulic acid, another antioxidant that's known to boost the power and stability of Vit C when combined. You'll spot this trio of ingredients together a few times in this list, but just know that these guys did it first. 

Texture-wise this is loose and watery, so should be pressed into the skin rather than massaged. It doesn't smell great but it's not horrible either, not unlike a very weak instant coffee to my nose, some find it more on the herbal side. Either way, Vitamin C serum is one of those products that you don't want to feel or smell particularly spa-like. If it does, some effectiveness will likely have been sacrificed to get there. 

INKEY List 15% Vitamin C and EGF Serum

(Image credit: Inkey List )

3. INKEY List 15% Vitamin C and EGF Serum

Best budget Vitamin C serum

RRP: $21/£14.99
Vitamin C: 15%
Key ingredients: Epidermal growth factors
Reasons to buy
+Excellent value +Effective ingredients
Reasons to avoid
-Slightly tacky feel

The INKEY List are known for knocking out active skincare at 'how did they manage that?' prices, and this certainly delivers the punchy ingredient to cost ratio we expect from the brand. 

The formula is built around a solid 15% ascorbic acid, plus epidermal growth factors (EGF) a signal peptide that, in broad brush strokes, binds to tired old cells and revs them up into behaving like energetic young ones.  We also get phytic acid to gently refine and unclog pore congestion. 

All this for the cost of your average movie ticket, you say, what's the catch? Well the texture is a little bit sticky when first applied, you need to wait a good 5-10 minutes to apply other products so it won't pill. Plus, the packaging is basic-looking, if that's important to you. Fripperies aside, this is effective and highly impressive skincare. 

Drunk Elephant C-Firma Day Serum

(Image credit: Drunk Elephant)

4. Drunk Elephant C-Firma Day Serum

Best 'clean' Vitamin C serum

RRP: $95/£67
Vitamin C: 15%
Key ingredients: Ferulic acid, Vitamin E
Reasons to buy
+Clever airproof packaging +'Nasty-free' formula+Includes botanical extracts
Reasons to avoid
-Pricy-Texture not for everyone

There is something so satisfying about Drunk Elephant C-Firma's packaging. Twist the chunky tangerine lid and out pops a spout ready to dispense the perfect amount of glossy orange-hued serum into your palm. Aside from looking and feeling great, this airless mechanism also ensures the stability of your actives are kept in tip-top nick for maximum effectiveness. 

You'll recognize the holy trinity of antioxidant ingredients—Vits C, E and Ferulic Acid—plus, this packs in some other good stuff like a pumpkin ferment and pomegranate enzymes that gently exfoliate and refine skin texture. As per Drunk Elephant's philosophy, it also leaves out a good few things you might be glad to know aren't in there like parabens, sulfates, oil, fragrance and alcohol. 

For an oil-free formula, there is something strangely rich about the texture, which might put off oily or combination skinned types.  But it sinks in fast and leaves behind just the tiniest touch of sheen. Like most good Vit Cs, it smells a tiny bit funky but is not strong enough to be off-putting, and sits happily under any cream you want to top it off with. 

Vichy LiftActiv Vitamin C Skin Brightening Corrector

(Image credit: Vichy)

5. Vichy LiftActiv Vitamin C Skin Brightening Corrector

Best intensive Vitamin C treatment

RRP: $40/£28
Vitamin C : 15%
Key ingredients: Hyaluronic acid
Reasons to buy
+Powerful brightening+Affordable
Reasons to avoid
-A course, rather than everyday product

Scanning the specs, your first thought might be, "What a bargain!" Then looking at the dinky 10ml bottle you'd realize why. There's a reason this little dropper of Vitamin C serum is so small, it's designed to be used as an intensive 10-day course to kick start your skin into its brightening and collagen-boosting journey. 

The benefits? It's a great way for ascorbic acid newbies to get a taste of a powerful treatment without committing upwards of $100 right off the bat. As Vit C starts to degrade the minute light and air hit it, this also means that it doesn't have time to oxygenate much and remains highly active right down to the last drop. It's also a great size for a week away or chucking into a gym bag or similar on-the-go skincare kits.

The problem is, thanks to 15% pure vitamin C plus hydrating hyaluronic acid and quenching mineral water, you are very likely to love how this feels and how it affects your skin and want to keep using it. At which point you might wish the handy little bottle also came in a chunkier size to keep you going longer than 10 days. But hey, if your only issue with a product is loving it too much, that's not a bad place to be. 

SkinCeuticals Silymarin CF

(Image credit: SkinCeuticals)

6. SkinCeuticals Silymarin CF

Best Vitamin C serum for oily skin

RRP: $205/£145
Vitamin C: 15%
Key ingredients: Silymarin, ferulic acid
Reasons to buy
+Excellent formulation+Pore-clearing plus brightening+Pleasant texture
Reasons to avoid

Another SkinCeuticals product, and another pricy one at that. Hey, we told you this brand were industry leaders for antioxidants and this new-ish Vitamin C serum covers an important corner of the market that's not often addressed: Vit C for oily skin. 

Many breakout-prone or combination types complain Vitamin C serums have a pore-clogging or heavy texture on the skin, but not Silymarin CF. It combines all your top antioxidants with salicylic acid, the most powerful skincare acid for clearing pores. Plus we get silymarin, another antioxidant derived from milk thistle that regulates oil production and the tinted dropper keeps everything inside fresh and active. 

The texture is thin and watery, which feel refreshing on oilier skin. Press it in first thing after cleansing and it'll disappear without leaving any sheen or residue behind. Expect less congestion within a week or so, then longer-term improvements as that Vitamin C gets to work. As ever with SkinCeuticals this is a formula you can trust at an elevated but justifiable cost.

Elizabeth Arden Vitamin C Ceramide Capsules Radiance Renewal Serum

(Image credit: Elizabeth Arden)

7. Elizabeth Arden Vitamin C Ceramide Capsules Radiance Renewal Serum

Best Vitamin C serum for dry skin

RRP: $64/£45
Vitamin C: Unknown
Key ingredients: Ceramides, clary sage
Reasons to buy
+Portable and stable+Nourishing properties 
Reasons to avoid
-Oil base won't suit all

Ampoules are everywhere now, but Elizabeth Arden pioneered individual, active skincare with the original ceramide capsules, and this Vitamin C version proves they still lead where others follow. 

First things first: the ampoules are biodegradable, which should assuage any environmental concern. The second thing to say is, naturally, individual dosing could not be more suited to Vitamin C as an ingredient, as every drop is kept safely away from light and air until it's going onto your face in fully active form. The capsules also contain ceramides, Arden's signature ingredient, that nourish and rebuild the barrier function for soft, plump, protected skin. 

A dry oil base gives the texture plenty of slip, and ensures you can get a decent massage on as you apply. Plus, it leaves a light juicy sheen on the skin that's very flattering. Oilier types may wish to avoid, but for drier or mature skin there's not much you can say against these pocket rockets. 

Paula's Choice C15 Super Booster

(Image credit: Paula's Choice)

8. Paula's Choice C15 Super Booster

Best Vitamin C serum for mixing

RRP: $65/£46
Vitamin C: 15%
Key ingredients: Vitamin E, ferulic acid
Reasons to buy
+Can be mixed into creams+Good value +Stable formulation
Reasons to avoid
-Texture not for all 

Paula's Choice is something of an insider's favorite amongst beauty editors. Founded by the inimitable Paula Begoun, a.k.a. The Cosmetic Cop, this brand specializes in no-nonsense ingredient-led skincare that never oversells itself, and this Vitamin C serum fits into the cannon very nicely. 

It contains 15% ascorbic acid plus its best friend ferulic acid, and unusually lists its pH as a selling point (an acidic 3.5, which gently stimulates the skin, in case you were wondering) As well as applying it directly onto clean skin, as with the other products, you can also drop this into your moisturizer or hydrating serum. This makes it a great choice for those of us who like to keep steps in our skincare routine to a minimum. 

Murad Vita-C Glycolic Brightening Serum

(Image credit: Murad Vita C)

9. Murad Vita-C Glycolic Brightening Serum

Best exfoliating Vitamin C serum

RRP: $102/£72
Vitamin C: Unknown
Key ingredients: Glyolic acid, gold
Reasons to buy
+Powerful ingredients+Smooths and brightens
Reasons to avoid
-Not for tight budgets

One of the only products to make this list without giving away that all-important Vit C percentage. But seeing as Murad is such a respectable name and this product has so much going for it we can give it a pass, just this once. 

So what is going on then? Mainly a super-potent combination of exfoliating glycolic acid and brightening Vitamin C, stabilised by none other than gold. This dead cell-sloughing plus antioxidant protection really packs a punch for improving skin clarity and fading pigmentation, as demonstrated by some very persuasive before and after photos from their clinical trials. 

On testing, the texture was thicker the other products, more of a gel than the thin fluid you might expect from a Vitamin C serum. This does make it easier and in many ways more pleasant to massage in. The glycolic doesn't prickle but it's definitely 'there' while botanical antioxidant kakadu plum extract and floral extracts are likely responsible for a pleasant, subtle fragrance. As glycolic gets to work pretty quickly and Vit C is more of a long game, these two make a perfect pairing-those instant effects offer all the motivation you need to achieve the long term goals. 

woman&home thanks Dr. MJ Rowland-Warmann of Smileworks for her time and expertise.

Fiona McKim

As woman&home's Senior Beauty Editor, Fiona Mckim has tried more products than she’s had hot dinners and nothing makes her happier than raving about a brilliant beauty find on or her instagram grid (@fionamckim if you like hair dye experiments and cute shih-tzus)

Fiona joined woman&home as Assistant Beauty Editor in 2013, working under legend Jo GB, who taught her everything she needed to know about the industry (clue: learn about ingredients and employ extreme cynicism). 

In a previous life, Fiona studied journalism back home in bonnie Scotland and honed her skills as a magazine features writer, with a brief and terrifying stint on the showbiz gossip pages of a tabloid newspaper in between. She's a skincare fanatic who can’t resist adding an extra step to her routine if it’s all the rage in Japan, loves fragrance, has fun with makeup and never turns down the chance to test a new hair tool. Basically, she loves it all.

When not slathering herself in self tan or squinting at a tiny ingredients list on a moisturiser, you’ll probably find Fiona enjoying something to do with food - cooking it, eating it, cajoling her friends into trekking across London to try a hyped pop-up in a dirty car park.