All right, I can already hear the groans from my readers, “Is he going to yammer on about vitamin C again?” And with about 50 articles I have written on the subject since the 1970s, I assumed that I had about covered all there was to know about this remarkable vitamin and its legendary anti-aging powers.

However, when I read in a local newspaper that American chat show queen Oprah Winfrey may be attributing her new, firmer looking skin to vitamin C therapy with no follow up description of how this might have occurred, I realized that many therapists, nay, even doctors out there do not really understand the mechanisms of the vitamin beyond its anti-oxidant properties.

Furthermore, I was a recent guest speaker at the impressive Dusseldorf German Congress and touched upon the subject from the lectern – only to be confronted by a Teutonic wave of keen interest. And lastly, there has been some new support from the university research sector plus some very impressive clinical studies from our own people in treating hyperpigmentation with vitamin C.

But let’s review some basic facts, no matter how redundant, followed by recent discoveries.

OLD NEWS: Vitamin C is an antioxidant – thus shielding the skin from free-radical aging (along with vitamins E, D and A).

NEW NEWS: Combined with oliometric proanthacyanidines (whew!) such as grape pip extract and reduced forms of dihydrolipoic acid, the free radical shield of ‘C’ is so powerful as to be considered prosthetic against photo ageing and carcinogenesis by many research dermatologists.

OLD NEWS: Vitamin C promotes collagen proliferation in the skin – thus firming the skin progressively.

NEW NEWS : Vitamin C indeed does ‘kick-start’ the amino acid chain in the fibroblast cells to manufacture new collagen fibres, and the skin can regain improved tensor and firmness. But further studies have shown recently that citric acid (not to be confused with ascorbic acid, but also contains ‘C’) improves glycosaminoglycans (GAGs) in the skin tissues by increasing the skins’ thickness. Studies conducted by Dr. Leyden of Pittsburgh University and others have shown that citric acid increased GAGs. Both hyaluronic acid and chondroitin sulphate were increased in the dermis or test-treated skin as well.

My opinion has been that this action increases dermal hydration and thus skin thickness. I was directed into this line of thinking a few years ago by Florence Barrett, a well-known educator and cosmetic ingredients consultant in Auckland, New Zealand. With renewed support from new collagen fibres holding up old, frayed sagging fibres and increased dermal thickness due to dermal hydration it is small wonder the surgeon’s knife is gathering cobwebs lately, and frantic scrambles for new lasers are predominant in the plastic surgery field.

Many physicians have become interested in professional vitamin C therapy however, because the best procedures are not just a ‘slap it on, take it off’ beauty therapy procedure.

Pigmentation Treatments

Years ago, in the southern states of the United States, black mothers and grandmothers would rub fresh lemon juice over the skins of their daughters in an effort to whiten the skin (this was before African-Americans overcame the prejudice that whiter was better). The girls’ skin indeed brightened in tone, but not beyond their natural pigmentation. There was no real ‘bleaching’ effect, which suggests to me that vitamin C, at least in part, is a prohibitor of excess melanin in addition to adjusting the pH of black skins that have suffered from the too alkaline and ashy effects of soaps made in those days from lye.

I have always used a lot of vitamin C in crèmes and serums to help brighten ethnic and hyper pigmented skin – but recent, more aggressive treatments have come to light and have been reported to me in detail.

Susan Williams of Hoylake Clinic, England has tendered several case histories where she employed the use of powerful vitamin C serums on several clients with great success. Well-known African educator and research therapist Tracy Nathan of Johannesburg has reported nearly miraculous removal of melasmas using vitamin C serum along with natural (not AHA) exfolliants and galvanic current, a modality that is re-emerging as a valuable tool in aesthetic therapy.

Elizabeth Stenvik of Norway, affectionately known as ‘Hexa’ by her clients (meaning witch in Norwegian, but in this case a good witch) has reported several impressive pigmentation triumphs utilizing vitamin C in what is known as the biggest clinic in Northern Europe. She has worked with Dr. Frank Abyholm, a medical professor and plastic surgeon in Oslo with this medium and reports many successes.


The most confusing thing to therapists who are confronted with this growing phenomenon is what type of vitamin C to use and in what form? A flood of products from the United States and elsewhere are hitting the market with a fury.

A recent television expose named several major companies (all of whom claim to be the original pioneers of vitamin C in a very short time) as having accepted money to push vitamin C products like crazy. The payee was a group representing some citrus fruit growers in the United States.

But the real pioneer is Grays Anatomy British Edition, where the necessity for vitamin C to be present in collagen formation was clearly outlined over 70 years ago. In the 1960s a few of us were lucky enough to be mentored by some brilliant medical chemists and the Grays reference was brought to our attention. In those days we did not think to make a big marketing campaign out of what was a natural requirement of the skin in order to slow down aging.

It was the delivery system of vitamin C that occupied most of our time – and there were many trials and errors until we found a way to deliver ‘C’ transepidermally with a transdermal systemic action to the lower stratum. Thus were born transdermal crèmes, etc. And yet the few us working with this still did not single out this vitamin as a big selling tool (idealistic fools that we were). It was save the world’s skin and share knowledge in those days. But now, in a different, competitive time we ancients can at least share the knowledge and experience against something as elemental as vitamin C becoming too commercially weakened and misunderstood (although the best of us have gone on to that big laboratory in the sky – such as Dr. Franklin Homer, Linus Pauling and Dr. C. Johnson of the United States).

A transdermal crème is the best delivery system for vitamin C because it stays in the skin for many hours during the day. However serums containing vitamin C are better for specific areas such as under the eyes and work best in pigmentation treatments owing to their thin viscosity, water being the wetting agent that delivers the vitamin into the skin. However serums must be sealed in with lipid bearing products after application or the entire formulation will evaporate quickly.

The Most Effective ‘C’

There is, and will continue to be, a lot of controversy about the best ‘C’s’ and the most stable. It is true that L-Ascorbic acid in its simplest form will denature very quickly, not only when taken orally but in products. Yet plain ascorbic acid is probably the most powerful energy and anti-oxidant for the skin. Fortunately the weaker, but more stable ascorbic acids such as ascorbyl magnesium phosphate and ascorbyl palmitate can be combined with plain ascorbic acid thus lengthening its life span and capacity. In addition we have learned to surround these ‘C’s’ with a calcium ion, rather like a protective fence, -which further insures their life span.

But make no mistake about it – despite claims of superior stabilization all vitamin C products will lose strength over a period of at least six months (if kept in cool places away from direct sunlight.) This does not mean that a year-old vitamin C crème is no good after a year (if formulated properly). It will still work but will not be as strong as on the first day of manufacturing.

Besides, all it takes is about three percent strength to affect the skin and its attending cells anyway. And speaking of percents; walk, no run, away from C products claiming 50-100 percent vitamin C content. Tests have shown that five percent is about all we can pack into a serum before it turns dark brown in colour or crystallizes. On the other side of the coin if you buy a serum that does not change colour at all over the months, it probably has so little vitamin C in it in the first place as to be nearly useless.

Unfortunately the stabilized ‘C’s’ are frightfully expensive in their raw material form – almost as if the suppliers know the popularity may wax and wane as a good many things in beauty therapy do, and are trying to make as much money while the sun shines as possible. But however much those of us who innovate treatments complain about prices, vitamin C is an integral part of the fight against aging and is here to stay.

Should Clients also take Vitamin C Orally?

Yes. At least 1000IU in the morning with breakfast and 1000 at night with dinner (I take 4000 a day plus grape pip extracts). But even orally taken, only about 10 percent of the vitamin C reaches the skin. The rest has to be taken topically.

Written By Danné Montague-King